While working in the mortuary services during Operation Enduring Freedom, Sarah Brooks saw things that were so traumatic for her that they became disabling. If she allowed herself to think about them, she felt overcome with horror, guilt, shame and inadequacy.
These feelings were so intolerable that to cope with them she began to shut off all her feelings, and soon she had simply lost the ability to feel. This meant that having a loving, close and trusting relationship with anyone – including herself – had become impossible. Her life felt hollow and meaningless.
Fortunately, she reached out for help and discovered an exciting new treatment in the process – Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT).
Brooks’ life changed for the better when she went to the Trauma Services Program, at the Washington D.C. VA Medical Center. Her therapist, Dr. David E. Cueva, head of the program, encouraged her to go through CPT. It’s one of the highly-effective evidence-based treatments for PTSD that VA supports.
In Brooks’ case, the therapy would last 12 weeks. It started by helping her understand that the treatment would work by changing the way she thought and looked at past events. By doing this, she could directly affect how she felt and acted about them.
From there the treatment progressed to Brooks thinking about her trauma and how it was affecting her life. She was encouraged to challenge her thoughts and to decide how she wanted to think and feel about her trauma.
With Dr. Cueva’s help, she started revisiting the traumas she had been blocking. Over time, she came to realize that she had been extracting the most negative snippets from those events, and those moments were only part of the larger reality. However, when she looked at the whole story, the events took on a new and more positive perspective.
Although Brooks was making positive strides toward recovery, she was still showing many of the same debilitating symptoms that prompted her to see Dr. Cueva. But the doctor stuck with the protocol, and then, in one of those times physicians live for, a breakthrough occurred in the twelfth session. He watched with joy as things began to fall into place for Brooks.
Her PTSD wasn’t eliminated, but it became so diminished that a smiling Brooks told him, “For years and years I was just existing and not living, but now I’m alive again!”
VA’s new evidence-based tools, including CPT, can help give people back their lives. Cueva hopes that any vet who is experiencing PTSD will get help. All they have to do is come in.
Mitzi Perdue, wife of the late Frank Perdue, is a former Scripps Howard syndicated columnist who currently advocates for returning vets.