Post-traumatic stress disorder: a personal experience
- Aust Prescr 1999;22:34-6
- 1 April 1999
- DOI: 10.18773/austprescr.1999.035
Cliff Evans served in Vietnam between 1966 and 1967. As a crewman on an evacuation helicopter, he was often under fire and regularly had to deal with the horrific injuries caused by modern weapons.
AP: When did your problems begin?
CE: I was about 19 years old when I volunteered for active service. I thought it would be an adventure, but when I got to Vietnam I found people were seriously trying to kill me. You were not safe anywhere. Anyone in a crowd could have been trying to kill you.
When I got back to Australia, we were not supposed to talk about our experiences. The War was still going on, so you just didn't talk. There was no debriefing or anything.
AP: When did you become aware of the problems?
CE: I did not realise I had a problem until 3 years ago. That was 28 years after I left Vietnam. Other people told me I had a problem.
AP: What symptoms did you experience?
CE: Since I returned from Vietnam I have not slept at night. I have recurring nightmares and wake up 2-3 times every night.
The only way to cope was to become unemotional and turned off. I hate crowded places; I prefer to be at home. You do not want to deal with people; you do not need the aggravation. Dealing with bureaucracy can be particularly frustrating.
AP: How did this affect those around you?
CE: I almost cut myself off from my family. I was irritable and on edge. My house is like a fortress as I am very security conscious. I only have 3 close friends and they are also veterans. It is difficult to trust anyone else. In the end I was unable to work.
AP: How did you cope?
CE: I was drinking heavily when I returned from Vietnam and that continued until I was drinking at least two slabs of beer a week.
AP: How did you discover you had post-traumatic stress disorder?
CE: I developed irritable bowel syndrome, reflux and an ulcer. In the end I had to see a doctor because I was worried that the stomach pain could be cancer. The doctor was a veteran who referred me to a specialist. The specialist said I had chronic PTSD. I said `What's that?'. He told me and explained that I had it badly, but had hidden it really well.
AP: How did you react to the diagnosis?
CE: I refused to go into a 4-week intensive program. I had some counselling, but I didn't want to drag up the past so I stopped going.
AP: What made you accept treatment?
CE: I thought I could cope, but in 1997 I became suicidal and had to be admitted. This meant spending time in detoxification and rehabilitation. By talking to people I realised that if I did not do something I was going to kill myself one way or another.
AP: What treatment did you have?
CE: They have a good program at the Repat. Hospital. After 4 weeks living in, there is 6 months of intense counselling. At the moment I have counselling every week, take part in a group discussion every two weeks and see the psychiatrist every 3 weeks.
I was on the maximum dose of an antidepressant, but this gave me a dry mouth and made me stupid in the mornings. The antidepressant I am on now is better, but changing from one to the other was unpleasant.
One treatment has reduced my nightmares. They get you to rewrite your nightmare as you would like it to be. I was sceptical if this would work, but it has helped.
AP: How could health professionals be more helpful?
CE: Recognising PTSD is important. Many veterans go to a doctor, get nowhere, then opt out of the system. Often the only person you can trust is another veteran, so it helps if the doctor is also a veteran. If not, the Vietnam Veterans' Association may be able to help you make contact.
The program I am doing is good, but there is a waiting list. This program will not suit everyone. The counselling is emotional and confronting; you start to remember other things. Some people end up getting into a cycle of readmissions, so perhaps a longer resident program is needed.
More training courses about PTSD for local medical officers would be a good idea.
AP: What would you advise someone with similar problems to do?
CE: There are probably many people with PTSD hidden in the community. Often veterans move away from cities to country towns. They may even take to living in garages, sheds or in the hills. When they need help, it can be useful if another veteran tells them the name of a sympathetic doctor. We support each other.
I now do not think more than a short time ahead. I enjoy each day as it comes.
It was brave of Cliff and his wife, Heather, to agree to this interview. Cliff said he would not previously have agreed to the request, but saw it as a way of helping other people who may have post-traumatic stress disorder.
People who have concealed the disorder are unlikely to present spontaneously. General practitioners need to consider the diagnosis in someone presenting with symptoms or an illness related to stress. The disorder may also reveal itself when a family member consults. Living with someone with untreated post-traumatic stress disorder can also be stressful. This may lead to relationship problems, depression, alcohol and drug abuse and even domestic violence.
While a thorough history is needed to make the diagnosis, this will not be possible if the doctor is not trusted. As Cliff emphasised the importance of the support of other veterans, useful contact numbers are given below.
Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia
PO Box 340
Kallangur QLD 4503
Phone: (07) 3886 3799
Fax: (07) 3886 3700
New South Wales
PO Box 97
Minto NSW 2566
Phone: (02) 9603 4790
Fax: (02) 9820 2839
PO Box 902
Sale VIC 3850
Phone: (03) 5143 1633
Fax: (03) 5143 1889
26 Federal Street
Burnie TAS 7320
Phone/Fax: (03) 6431 7678
PO Box 71
Walkerville SA 5081
Phone: (08) 8342 1866
Fax: (08) 8342 1877
Mobile: 0412 264 346
PO Box 21
Maylands WA 6051
Phone/Fax: (08) 9455 5290
Australian Capital Territory
PO Box 1923
Canberra ACT 2601
Phone: (02) 6258 8358
Fax: (02) 6254 5108
PO Box 41839
Casuarina NT 0811
Phone: (08) 8945 3687
Vietnam Veterans Counselling Service
PO Box 21
Woden ACT 2606
Phone: (02) 6289 6168
Fax: (02) 6289 4702
For a full list of VVCS centres and contact details, see:
For information on accredited treatment programs call:
National Centre for War-related post-traumatic stress disorder
Phone: (03) 9496 2922