Today, thanks to her treatment at a VA hospital, she is working, happy and determined to be “a voice of hope.”
Michelle was in the Army from 1980 to 1984 and was raped by her drill instructor – the night before she graduated from Advanced Individual Training. Frightened, distraught and confused, she did not report the rape. She went on to a career as a data communications specialist.
Years later, while working at a VA hospital, she was approached, remarkably, by a Veteran receiving treatment for PTSD, who said, “I’ve been watching you. You’ve got what I’ve got.” What he had seen was Michelle breaking into tears and panic attacks when visitors or situations got out of hand.
That, and another severe “meltdown,” convinced her to seek treatment. Under the guidance of Dr. Kathleen Chard of the VA, Michelle accepted the fact that her rape – in this case Military Sexual Trauma – was the cause of her life-long struggle with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Once she started receiving treatment, known as Cognitive Processing Therapy, Michelle realized that it was time to “come face to face with my demon.” She was able to finally accept the fact that the sexual abuse she experienced was not her fault.
Dr. Chard, Director of the PTSD and Anxiety Disorders Division at the Cincinnati VA Medical Center’s Ft. Thomas, KY, location, explains: "Cognitive Processing Therapy is an evidenced-based treatment, designed specifically to treat PTSD and related symptoms such as depression and anger.
“The treatment is typically 12 sessions long and the Veteran works with the therapist to examine the impact of the trauma, especially related to the Veteran's beliefs about safety, trust, power/control, esteem and intimacy. Through practice assignments, the Veteran is able to form a more realistic and balanced view of self, others, and the world, and to realize that they do not have to be controlled by the trauma any longer."
Every VA facility has a designated MST Coordinator who serves as a contact person for MST-related issues. This person can help veterans find and access VA services and programs. Every VA facility also has providers knowledgeable about treatment for the after-effects of MST.
Today, Michelle is a program support assistant in the Ambulatory Care Center of the Columbus, Ohio, VA Medical Center. She admits the PTSD is still there but she knows now how to deal with it. “Dr. Chard taught me how to control my anxiety. You do that with ‘self talk.’ First, you recognize that you are having an anxiety attack. Then you ask, why? And ask yourself if you are over-reacting.”
She describes the feeling as everything in black and white. “There is no gray in PTSD.”
One of Michelle’s best buddies today is Flower, a very smart, very pretty, black lab mix service dog. While service dogs are not issued by the VA for mental health therapy, Michelle admits, “The emotional support she gives me is a very important part of my life right now.”
Flower has been with Michelle for ten months and her relationship with Michelle is extraordinary. “Flower knows when I am having an anxiety attack. In the middle of a Christmas shopping crowd last December at the Mall, I started to tense up and she nudged me out of the crowd and led me to an empty corner of the shopping center.
“She is also trained to watch my back. Whenever, I am standing at a counter, she gets behind me and watches for anyone who may be approaching.”
Flower, trained by the Heel to Heal non-profit group, also enters Michelle’s home first, checks to see no one else is in the house and then uses her nose to turn on the lights.
As part of her personal campaign to help other Veterans cope with PTSD, Michelle speaks to groups about her experience so they will know they are not alone. She spoke to 300 senior commanders from the Ohio National Guard and Air Guard this past February which earned her an Eagle Award from the Guard.
After returning from her seven-week PTSD in-patient program with Dr. Chard, she wrote and delivered her own “Wings of Freedom” presentation to 400 staff members at the VA Ambulatory Care Center in Columbus.
Not an easy experience: “This was the hardest briefing I have ever given in my life. Standing up in front of all your co-workers and letting them know that you were raped in service, you suffer with PTSD, and had to attend an inpatient program, is not easy.
“With more strength than I ever imagined I possessed, I gave my presentation. If I had not attended Dr. Chards’ program and received the help that I needed, I wouldn’t have been able to give the presentation and help the staff understand what it’s like to live with PTSD.”
As a significant sign of her ability to get on with her life, Michelle graduated in May 2009 from Indiana Institute of Technology with a degree in Business Management. She hopes to start her own business and, not surprisingly, write a book about living with a service dog.
The mother of two and grandmother of three, Michelle, who likes to draw and cook lasagna (when ‘Bones’ isn’t on the tube), knows she is still on the road to recovery, “But I don’t want to sit around talking about how bad PTSD is. I want to be a voice of hope. I want to let other Veterans know they should get help as soon as possible. I want to tell them: believe in yourself.”