PTSD and its Victims: More Than Just the Military

Looking at Kelley Gunter, a person might make presumptions. Her smile is infectious, she is slim, pretty, and has legs that go on for miles. Unbeknownst to many, Kelley once weighed 391 pounds (177 kilograms) and has lost 243 pounds (110 kilograms) after weight loss surgery. The weight gain was an aftereffect of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

From the ages of six to 14, Kelley was raped by both of her older brothers, a neighbour, and another family relative. These assaults happened more than once a day, and cemented the severe PTSD that would plague Kelley for her whole life.

“I had a major addiction to food, as it was the only thing I could find comfort in during my childhood,” Kelley from Dayton, Ohio acknowledged. “I couldn’t overeat anymore because of my surgery, so I developed other equally destructive behaviours. Over the next 15 years, I had a shopping addiction, a pain medication addiction, and eventually, a gambling addiction that caused me to lose my home and a company I had founded. I also had criminal charges pressed against me.”

From the ages of six to 51, PTSD dictated her life. Every fear and anxiety would became all-consuming. For most of her life, she would wake screaming and crying, reliving wicked and unspeakable acts in nightmares. If a policeman pulled her over, her heart would race, terrified he may try to rape her.  Footsteps down the hallway were a source of constant dread in her childhood, and as such, hearing footsteps in the hallway today still triggers the same abject terror.

“Many times, I would eventually sit in the dark, because if the lights were on, I feared someone would see the lights, break in and rape me. I would clutch a hammer to my chest, sitting on my couch until daylight occurred.  Every single sound that I heard only elevated my panic and the impending doom of what was to come,” Kelley said.

As with most sufferers, Kelley is constantly afflicted by triggers and flashbacks, which to anyone else may appear to be innocuous occurrences. These triggers cannot be helped, controlled, or prevented. It becomes part of the body’s automatic response – just like the instinct of flinching if an object came hurtling towards you.

“Ordinary circumstances filled me with fear and I lived in a constant state of anxiety,” Kelley disclosed. “I had flashbacks every single day.  I could be sitting in a meeting and suddenly, something someone said would trigger a flashback and I would instantly be transported back to a rape and all of the details.  I would sit silently, frozen by the horror of what was racing through my mind, until someone would ask if I was okay.”

“Sounds and smells could instantly trigger flashbacks and have me reeling in despair.  Sometimes out of nowhere, I would just experience the knot in my stomach that I always had as a little girl, when I knew the abuse was coming. “

The 54-year-old author and motivational speaker has written a memoir, titled You Have Such a Pretty Face. She said that even though the abuse eventually ended, the fear and the panic that PTSD imprints on the soul stays long after.  Kelley wanted others to know that they, too, can heal.

The rate of suicide amongst PTSD sufferers is 13 times higher than those without PTSD, making it one of the most “at risk” groups.

MRI scans show major changes in PTSD sufferers’ brain’s amygdala, which is responsible for the “fight or flight” response to threats, new emotions, and threat-related memories. There is often significant damage to the prefrontal cortex, which regulates attention, awareness, decision-making, and emotions.

Dr. Brock Chisholm is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist in the UK and is the founder of Trauma Treatment International, an organisation that helps victims of extreme forms of trauma. He says:

“PTSD is a disorder of the memory following any traumatic event where someone’s life was placed at risk or if there were other serious implications such as rape. People will re-experience the memory in the present and not in the past (as is normal with other autobiographical memories). This means that they will see it, and feel the same sensations in their body and mind as though the event is happening all over again in the now.

“PTSD sufferers will take active steps to avoid being triggered, so they might avoid sounds, smells, places, and any events that could provoke a PTSD response. The urge in their brain is to instinctively hide away from any reminders that may cause them to relive the trauma as if it was happening again in the present…

Unfortunately, there is often not enough support for those who suffer from PTSD

A small child stares back at a camera under an umbrella of thick lashes and a mop of dark hair. An uncertain smile plays on his lips. But this little boy from the northern suburbs of Melbourne, Australia has dark secrets – some so disturbing that he would later change his name to Ilario Vitalis as part of his Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) recovery. While PTSD can be resultant of one traumatic event, C-PTSD is caused by various traumatic events that happen over a period of time. Ilario had experienced sexual abuse from the age of 2-years-old, which continued into his early teens.

“Consider this: I am 52, and there has not been a day that I have not recalled my sexual abuse,”

Vitalis explained. “My C-PTSD set me up for failure time and time again, and it’s only in the past 2 years after more than 20 years of therapy and personal growth, that I am beginning to know what ‘touching life’ truly feels like.”

Ilario confessed that he has often battled with whether or not to give up on life. He likened his triggers to a feeling of “catapulting into a spiral of chaos, and falling down a narrow hole towards the centre of the Earth through a tunnel lined with barbed and razor edge wires.”

One such event that plunged him into what he refers to as “the nothingness” was his younger sister mentioning the name of one of his abusers. He also described how some of his trigger responses sabotaged many of his relationships, when his partners’ sexual needs and requirements would immediately activate his flight instinct.

“Indeed, as an outcome of my sexual trauma, the one and super tsunami I haven’t managed to navigate through is intimacy,” he admitted. “Having said that, I am in the process of returning to further address this in a therapy setting to align with a healthier perspective of intimacy.”

Utter the word “PTSD” to the average person, and he or she will instinctively associate it with soldiers.PTSD sufferers who have not served in the military are frequently interrogated about the validity of their condition because of this.

The social media global phenomenon, titled the “22 push-up challenge”, attempts to raise awareness for the 22 veterans who commit suicide every day in the United States as a result of PTSD. The US Department of Veteran Affairs estimates that 11–20% of soldiers who served in Iraq or Afghanistan would develop PTSD. Yet surpisingly, veterans account for one of the smaller groups at risk of developing PTSD.

According to the RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, 94% of women who are raped experience PTSD. The reality is that the group most likely to experience PTSD are sexual abuse victims, even more so as when the abuse occurred during childhood as with Ilario and Kelley.

So why have millions been siphoned into PTSD charities, when almost all of those charities will only help veterans and refuse to help any other PTSD sufferers? The answer is simple. War is profitable. Sexual abuse victims are not.

In 2019, the US’s federal discretionary spending on the military is a whopping $678.6 billion, which accounts for 52 per cent of the government’s budget. The US spends more on the military than China, Saudi Arabia, India, France, Russia, United Kingdom, and Germany combined.

As governments and charities continue to discriminate against PTSD sufferers, PTSD continues to be relentless. And unless meaningful measures are put in place so that all victims are deemed worthy of help, its deadly and fearsome rampage will not desist.

This week, a 17-year-old Dutch girl was legally euthanized as a consequence of PTSD. Noa Pothoven was sexually assaulted when she was 11-years-old at a friend’s party. A year later, the same thing happened at another party. Then at 14, two men raped her. In her last post on Instagram, she wrote: “I deliberated for quite a while whether or not I should share this, but decided to do it anyway…I will get straight to the point: within a maximum of 10 days I will die. After years of battling and fighting, I am drained. I have quit eating and drinking for a while now, and after many discussions and evaluations, it was decided to let me go because my suffering is unbearable. It’s finished. I have not really been alive for so long, I survive, and not even that. I am still breathing but I am no longer alive.”

She asked her followers not to try to convince her otherwise, as it was her decision and it was final. She told them: “Love is letting go, in this case.”