Harry was 62 years old when he presented to see me for the first time. He had never sought any sort of mental health care previously and was clearly uncomfortable as he came online for our first meeting. Shifting uncomfortably in his chair, he told me that he needed something to help him sleep. The more we talked, the more I learned about Henry. He was a self made man, working tirelessly to overcome the poverty stricken neighborhood he grew up in. He was successful in his personal and professional life, running an incredibly successful construction company for the past 40 years and enjoying a loving relationship with his wife of more than 30 years. Together they had raised 4 children whom they were very proud of. Harry couldn’t figure out why he had started having nightmares from which he would wake up drenched in sweat and screaming until his wife fully woke him up. During the day, seemingly benign situations would suddenly trigger his heart to race, his palms to sweat and give him a strange but overwhelming urge to run away, although from what he was never really sure. He also told me that he’d started to have these intense and random thoughts about horrible things from his past that would just “pop into my head for no reason. I mean, these are things that happened to me when I was just a little kid. I haven’t thought about these things in more than 50 years. Why on earth is this happening to me?”
Harry was raised by his mother, who struggled to make ends meet. She worked long hours and Harry was often left in charge of his younger siblings for 12 or more hours a day. When his mother was home she was “all over the place. Sometimes she’d be loving and kind and other times she beat the crap out of us. We knew if she came home with a male friend, we better hide. Sometimes the men she brought home would hit us around, sometimes they did things to us that I don’t want to talk about, you know, sexual things.” This lasted for many years and as soon as Harry was able to, he left home at age 16. And he managed to leave his past in the past for many, many years. But something had triggered the traumas of his past and he was now experiencing PTSD or post traumatic stress disorder. Upon further discussion, we discovered that his PTSD was initially triggered by the preterm birth of his first grandson, Evan. Evan was born at 31 weeks and was very sick in the hospital for many months after his birth. There were times that he was not expected to live and this filled Harry with feelings of helplessness at his inability to save his grandson. This helplessness felt a lot like the helplessness he felt as a boy, unable to protect himself and his siblings from their environment.
Harry agreed to start weekly therapy specifically aimed at treating PTSD and also agreed to take medication to help calm the anxiety he was feeling and improve his sleep by stopping the nightmares. After a few months of treatment, he reported significant improvements in his symptoms. He continued treatment for two years and eventually, decided the intrusive thoughts, nightmares, anxiety and panic attacks had subsided and successfully graduated from therapy and tapered off his medications. He told me, “this wasn’t an easy journey but I guess it was one I had to face sooner or later. I’m glad I’m finally at real peace with my past.”