PTSD Survivors Speak: In Tribute of Memorial Day, Veteran Kevin Taylor

My journey with PTSD began on July 3rd, 1988 in the Persian Gulf. I was an Operations Specialist on board the USS Vincennes when we engaged 7 Iranian gunboats that had reportedly attacked an oil tanker attempting to pass through the Straits of Hormuz. We fired our 5”guns. This skirmish lasted about 45 minutes prior to me picking up an unidentified aircraft taking off from Bandar Abas, a joint military/commercial airport near the Straits and about 65 miles from our ship and heading directly toward us. I made six attempts to contact the aircraft and get the pilot to identify and state their intentions but got no response. Captain Rogers (whom I would still gladly sail with anywhere in the world) waited until the unidentified, assumed enemy, aircraft was just outside anti-ship missile range and ordered the launch of two SM2 Block 2 surface to air standard missiles.

The target was destroyed. 20 Minutes later we learned that flight 655 from Bandar Abas to Dubai was late. 290 passengers and crew killed. I am now 44 years old with a devoted and understanding wife, two step kids I love as my own, and a daughter I have reconnected with in the last three years. She is 16. During the last 23 years I have struggled with the four major issues that affect most combat trauma vets:

  • Substance Abuse
  • Incarceration
  • Homelessness
  • Suicide

I have been to prison twice, had over 25 stays at mental institutions, rehabs, and halfway houses. I have tried to take my own life twice which led to two ICU stays and one coma. I have spent years trying to understand why I am the way I am. I have had several psychiatric diagnoses, during my stays at the various mental health and drug treatment facilities, such as bipolar, clinically depressed, borderline personality disorder, ADHD, schizoaffective disorder, etc. I have been prescribed numerous medications to deal with my symptoms of racing thoughts, hyper-vigilance, sleeplessness and nightmares, emotional disconnection, mood swings, and deep depression.

My denial was so well constructed I did not realize until about 4 years ago the affect that the incident on that July 3rd had had on me. No one was talking about PTSD back then and after all the psychiatrists that came onboard after the incident interviewed me for 5 minutes and said I was fine. I have pursued various religious ideologies hoping for relief or the ever illusive peace. I started out Baptist, embraced Buddhism in prison, and now hang with the Unitarian Universalist. My spiritual practice is based on meditation and mindfulness and my hope each day is to be fully present and compassionate.

I would like to share with you a little of what I have learned over the years about survivors guilt. I am the founder of a small nonprofit for Veterans with combat trauma called HOPE4PTSDVETS.ORG. So I have the opportunity to speak with combat veterans about their experiences. The other evening a couple of the guys came to the house and we sat around and talked about a bunch of stuff. One guy was a 24 year old Ranger in Afghanistan and has been home for about 2 years. The other, a 30 year old Army Infantry Vet who served in Iraq, has been home for about 5 years. Both have PTSD and a TBI although the Iraq Vets brain injury is considerably more challenging than the Afghan Vets. The Iraq Vet turned to me and asked me a powerful question, “How do you get PTSD onboard a ship?” He continued, “You were never in any danger, you didn’t lose a brother, you didn’t get blown up. It’s hard for me to respect your PTSD if you have not been where I have been and seen what my Army brother here and I have seen.”

We talked about it for a while and I explained to him that I see somewhat of a spectrum within PTSD. Some combat Veterans suffer more from the actual mental trauma of being involved in an explosion, fire fights, always alert, death, etc. Typically with combat trauma there is also the chance that the combat soldier has watched a friend die, accidentally killed a civilian, or any numerous war scenarios that contribute to the survivor’s guilt aspect of PTSD.

I also told him that, “I completely understand your feelings and our trauma events differed greatly but I still sit here with the same symptoms you have.” I still walk the perimeter of my house (on occasion now), I have to deal with intense anxiety, anger, and mood swings. I still have to work on the emotional detachment from those who care about me most. But, do you know what I have discovered that has created most of the self-destructive behaviors I have demonstrated over the years? The survivor’s guilt!

In a nutshell, I came to understand that because I had played a major role in the death of so many innocent people that I did not deserve happiness, I did not deserve success, I did deserve to live. I hated me.

Through my meditation and mindfulness practice I have discovered that this core belief about my”self” had had the biggest impact on my life.

When you peel back all the layers of the onion like the addiction layer, the anger layer, the guilt layer, etc. you find the source of it all… PAIN!! Excruciating, unrelenting, unforgiving PAIN!! My pain, because of my particular trauma event oozes guilt and self-loathing. When I look back over the years at all the screw ups, jobs lost, relationships destroyed I find that I reached a point where success in these areas was within my grasp. I would then systematically sabotage it all because I did not believe on a eep level that I deserve success or happiness. I began to believe that my existence was nothing more than a life sentence of pain and guilt that would eventually kill me.

It was a few years ago during my studies of various mindfulness and meditation teachers I came across this quote from Stephen Levine,

“You watch your mind to see who you are not. I watch my mind to gain a sense of its content, which has always been my pain. As I watch it, I get a sense of its   impermanence. Thoughts come and go as part of a process. I see how content dissolves into process and begin to see the patterns in the process. Realizing it isn’t MY suffering, MY pain, it becomes THE pain. I’ve gone from the tiny, the small, and the individual to the universal. I feel  OUR pain. When we do, we go from fear to compassion. Fear is MY pain, compassion is THE pain.” 

I then realized that this pain is NOT my pain, it’s just pain and if I am going to live with it I must first find compassion for it and then peace in it. Pain is unavoidable but suffering from that pain is optional.

The guilt aspect has proven more difficult to overcome. The solution still exists within compassion but the process takes time. How do you change your core beliefs about yourself? What is a belief anyway?

Dictionary.com defines belief like this: Confidence in the truth or existence of something not immediately susceptible to rigorous proof.

That is where practicing being fully present in each moment makes the difference. Until we understand, at the soul level, that the only true reality exists purely in the present moment we will continue to let the past kick our ass and the future fill us with fear and anxiety. The brain is incapable of being present in the moment because it wants to  label everything after filtering it through its perception and experience. Even though it takes milliseconds for it to do so, it is still not reality but history.

This is not an intellectual understanding although that understanding is the first step in experiencing the Truth of awareness. For me that understanding came during a meditation experience. The awareness it created is not something I can really put in words. That is the funny thing about real Spiritual Truth, there are never words to explain or describe it. The minute we do so we missed the truth. My best attempt to describe it to you would go something like this…

It was like I was between galaxies but in that void I found a deep and profound connection to everything and yet nothing. My identity and all its labels fell away and the universe became me and I became the universe. But that does not do it justice because there was no “I” or “me” just everything and nothing simultaneously. In that place there was a peace and compassion that passes all my understanding, but shortly followed by shear terror when my ego, my “self” realized that it was really an illusion
and had nothing to do with true reality.

The ego serves it purpose and has it uses but, like a thirteen year old boy, it also must be supervised with awareness, understanding, and compassion. It only cares about self and its primary emotion is fear.

I would like to encourage you to begin a meditation practice being mindful of your thoughts and the subsequent emotions. Watch them go to and fro in your mind. Don’t try to control them or stop them, just acknowledge them and let them go. See how temporary they are. Greet them with compassion and let them go in peace. The best way I can describe my mind before and after a meditation practice is like this…

My mind is like a raging river tossing me here and there; caught completely in the current, I have no control over where the river takes me. Meditation gave me the opportunity to step out onto the bank and observe the river and appreciate its power and beauty.

If you would like more information about this recovery process or have any questions or comments please feel free to contact me through our website:

www.quantumselfrecovery.org

www.hope4ptsdvets.org

Sincerely,

Kevin Taylor

Executive Director

HOPE4PTSDVETS.ORG
832.231.6690
kevin@hope4ptsdvets.org

About Kevin Taylor: Kevin joined the Navy in 1986 and served aboard the USS Vincennes throughout his enlistment.  Kevin suffered his combat trauma on July 3, 1988, when his ship shot down an Iranian passenger airliner.  It has been 23 years since that fateful morning in the Persian Gulf.  Kevin has survived the typical PTSD Veteran scenario of homelessness, incarceration, substance abuse, and suicide attempts.  As a result of his experience, in 2008, Kevin created a meditation, mindfulness, and compassion based program designed to deal with his condition and the symptoms associated with it called QuantumSelfRecovery.org  HOPE4PTSDVETS.org was founded by Kevin in 2011, as a nonprofit organization to provide PTSD Veterans with hope and a path toward recovery from combat based trauma.    

 
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