Rachel Schneller | PTSD: The Best Thing that Ever Happened to Me

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. Government.  Read more about Rachel here ~ DS

PTSD: The Best Thing that Ever Happened to Me

by Rachel Schneller

PTSD felt like the worst thing that had ever happened to me. I came back from Iraq in 2006 feeling damaged, like the FedEx package in the movie Cast Away that arrived at its final destination beaten up beyond almost all recognition. I didn’t know I had PTSD, I just knew that something was wrong. Everything and everyone felt like a threat. Everything made me angry and want to fight. I oscillated between sheer rage and numbness, because feeling angry all the time left me exhausted. But I couldn’t sleep much, which also made me angry.

Photo from Private Collection (used with permission)

If I had not sought out treatment for PTSD, I believe I would have wound up dead, in prison, or homeless and unemployed, carrying a sign on a street corner somewhere raging against the world. Best case scenario, I would have managed to continue to somehow drag my bitter mess of a self to work each day, where I would have made the lives of everyone around me absolutely miserable.

Don’t get me wrong, there were parts about being completely lost in my traumatized self I enjoyed. The rage and anger resulting from my experience in Iraq made me feel more alive than I had ever felt before. I was completely focused and driven and could work insane hours at high intensity like a superhero. Everyone around me seemed slow and crippled by worry, whereas I felt no pain and absolutely no fear (I also felt no joy).

After six years of rigorous treatment for PTSD, I feel now like I am both healed enough to engage with the rest of the world in a healthy way, and still aware that I went through a life-altering experience that left a permanent mark on me. I am bilingual and bicultural in PTSD. And honestly, I would not have it any other way. My service in Iraq was important and one of the most meaningful periods of my entire life. My experience with PTSD has made me more sensitive and compassionate toward other people. My treatment for PTSD helped me grow into a better person than I ever could have become without Iraq and without PTSD.

My bottom-line message on PTSD is to get treatment.  To get treatment, you need a diagnosis.  To get both the diagnosis and the treatment, you need to see a professional.  You should do all these things because they will make you a better person.  Be brave and undeterred in your mission.  Since speaking out on PTSD several years ago, I have been approached by numerous people who are suffering symptoms of PTSD and ask for advice on what to do.  I tell them all the same thing: get treatment.  Some worry that seeking treatment might impact their careers or families.  What I always say is that untreated PTSD is much more likely to ruin your career or family than seeking treatment.  Some worry about stigma attached to a diagnosis, or that they will be limited in overseas assignments.  My response is: don’t worry about things outside of your control, such as what other people think and where you might be in a year or two.  Shift your attention to the here-and-now and do what needs to be done today.

I would love to design a compassionate, comprehensive program for people with PTSD.  I daydream about doing this, where several years ago my thoughts reverted back to helicopters, rocket attacks, and endless expanses of concrete barriers.  My ability to focus has been honed through years of yoga and meditation, practices I found particularly helpful in my treatment of PTSD.  I still feel no fear, and still have limitless energy to fight for the things that are important to me.  But now I also feel joy.  And finding joy and beauty in life after surviving a horrific event is to experience joy and beauty in a deeper, more meaningful way than ever would have been possible before.  Although I could not see it at the time, PTSD was the best thing that ever happened to me.

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7 responses

  1. Thanks to Donny for raising some important issues- and to the other supportive responses as well. There is a debate on whether it would be better to put more effort in trying to “screen” for PTSD before deploying someone for a war zone, or beefing up “resiliency” skills. While I think both are useful, I tend toward the resiliency approach. As others point out, it is impossible to predict who is going to get PTSD, and once they have it, there is no going back.
    Training folks how to deal with adversity and crisis situations is much more useful. Some of the most useful training I got before I left for Iraq was a first responder who taught us how to do triage and how to save someone’s life in the case of severe injury. This made me feel empowered to face a life-or-death situation with the possibility of saving a life. More training along these lines is something worth investing in. Instead, the overriding message we tend to get in State is that deployment in combat zones is fine, don’t worry, keep volunteering.
    The “buck up and/or shut up” argument- this may be an indicator that the person saying this has heard this his/her entire life. When you hear it, please treat the person saying it with sympathy as they may be struggling with their own issues. Rage and anger are default emotions for the traumatized.

  2. My name is David, I am a two-tour Vietnam veteran and I have PTSD. I can live with it, but it will never go away. Rachel Schneller’s article is dead on about PTSD, especially in three areas. First, if you have it or think you have it, seek help -especially if you are deeply depressed and have had thoughts of suicide. There are others out there with it such as Rachel and I, and we and most of our brothers and sisters-in-arms who have it are more than happy to help you learn how to deal with it, along with some very wonderful folks at Vet Centers across the United States.

    Secondly, as Rachel pointed out, the anger,hypervigilance, and frustration drives you relentlessly, which is one reason why I worked 50-70 hour weeks for 40 years. . . until PTSD caught up with me when I retired.

    The final area that she points out is also one of the most important. We who have it are changed people, but with treatment and -most importantly- the self-will to fight it and to come to terms with its triggers, your life and the lives of those you love will become so much richer, happier, and fuller. Thank you Rachel for speaking out, you may have positively touched and positively affected more of our comrades than you know.

    • David,
      Thank you for your service in Vietnam and for sharing your story. I appreciate very much that Rachel took the time to write this piece for us. It shows that even as people are forever changed by their experience, they can recover and live meaningful lives. Take care.

  3. I have a slight bit of sympathy for Ms. Schneller, but when she volunteered to go to Iraq, did she think it was going to be like the movies – where the “action” is isolated from the viewer who can watch the carnage in the comfort of his home with a coke and bucket of popcorn? I’ve spent significant amounts of time in Iraq and Afghanistan while in the military and as a civilian. If “helicopters, rocket attacks, and endless expanses of concrete barriers” are what caused her angst, perhaps the best place for her to be working is a tire shop in the middle of Wisconsin.

    • Donny dear,
      Since as you say you have spent significant time in Iraq and Afghanistan, you must know how these two zones are impacting the members of our military force and the civilian employees of the USG. That Ms. Schneller chose to speak out about her struggle and her recovery is helpful to others who are alone in their quiet pain and misery.

      PTSD Awareness Day was first established by Congress in 2010 after Sen. Kent Conrad, (D-N.D.), proposed honoring North Dakota Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Joe Biel, who took his own life following two tours in Iraq. Biel’s birthday was June 27. The reason I am blogging this series is to add awareness about PTSD particularly in the Foreign Service where it is not talked enough much. This is an opportunity for all of us to listen and learn about post-traumatic stress and let all our troops and civilians — past and present — know it’s okay to come forward and ask for help. That is the intent of PTSD Awareness Day.

      So when they come forward to tell their stories, do we really need to tell them to go work at a tire shop in Wisconsin?

    • Donny: Your reply smacks of ignorance and arrogance. PTSD is not a choice. It is not a sign of weakness. It is not predictable. Some of the strongest, bravest and most committed warriors — and diplomats — I have ever known have suffered PTSD. Others who don’t seem particularly brave went through very similar experiences with no long-term ill effects. (I emphasize “similar” here because no two people will ever have the exact same experience. Standing just a few feet to one side or the other can make a huge difference in how a rocket impacts individuals.) It is not a question of how brave a person is, how strong or how committed. PTSD is a physical reaction to very complex set of factors. It can strike ANYONE.

      • Amb. Fairfax, thank you for your note. I suspect that the next many years we, as a country, will be faced with the challenge of how to deal with a tidal wave of men and women symptomatic with PTSD. And the further Iraq becomes in our nation’s memory, the more difficult it would be for some people to understand the personal and emotional challenges for these men and women with invisible wounds. I’m hoping that talking about it as often as we can (and hopefully in this blog, not just every June) would help.