Curing PTSD is a face-to-face battle

Mary Martin (WCIV)

By Valencia

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCIV) -- When Mary Martin was asked to be a health policy analyst for the Air Force Reserve, a position as one of the few female colonels at the Pentagon, she was honored to accept. Little did she know, her appointment would turn into the worst day of her life.

"Every Tuesday morning, we had a directors meeting at eight in the morning," Martin said. "While we were sitting in that meeting a young major came flying through that door. She just sort of yelled at us, and she said, 'You guys, a plane just hit the World Trade Center."

In disbelief, Martin turned on the television and watched the second plane hit the World Trade Center. Out of fear, she rushed downstairs to head home.

"I got in the parking lot. I got in the car. I heard this horrible, loud, roaring vengeance. I knew immediately," Martin said. "I turned to my left, and as I looked, there was this huge plane roaring in toward me and the building."

Martin says smoke filled the air and for a few moments there was nothing. No screams - just fire and smoke.

Martin went to work helping her colleagues every way she could, but she never expected to feel the impact of 9/11 as much as she did.

"Intellectually, I understood that for at least the next 30 days, unless you're just a robot, you're going to have an acute stress disorder reaction," Martin said. "Meaning that, you're going to be hyper-alert, hyper-vigilant, startle easily, be overly-concerned about things. I will tell you, I never expected those things to play out in my life like they did."

For nine years, Martin spiraled through feelings of guilt, sadness and anger. Her anxiety levels were so high, she was literally strapped indoors.

"I can remember the day that I knew that I had to do something," Martin said. "I was actually standing on the back deck of my son's house. The Navy fighter planes, Blue Angels, I guess they're called, they were coming in low, and one of them actually came in from behind me over that deck. I had such a reaction, it was just incredible. I had been watching them. I knew they were there but, this plane came in, and it took me right back to that moment (of the Pentagon attack).

After family and friends pushed her to get help, Martin headed to the VA. Her therapist started prolonged exposure therapy, where she was forced to re-live her trauma on tape.

"I would expose myself to my own voice, telling this story every day until my symptoms got better," Martin said. "My first thought was, 'Why would that work? Why would that work?' The answer is because I'd spent 10 years, nine years pushing it away."

Dr. Peter Teurk is a clinical psychologist at the Ralph H. Johnson Veteran Affairs Medical Center. Teurk is an expert at treating veterans with prolonged exposure therapy.

"We just are trying to get people to expose themselves to the things that they are avoiding," Teurk said. "We learn very quickly, 'oh well, if I just don't put myself in those situations, my heart rate won't go up, and I won't get anxious and I won't get fearful.' Exposure therapy is a technique to get people to do the opposite."

After years of avoiding what happened during the Sept. 11 attacks, Martin finally went face-to-face with her traumatic experience.

"I had no idea that as I told the story I just told youthat I would break downthat I would sobthat I would not be able to breathethat I would have this horrible knot in my stomach," Martin said.

With the help of prolonged exposure therapy, Martin began to heal.

"We see that over time their PTSD symptoms drop relatively quickly. By session 10 or 11, most people no longer meet the criteria for PTSD," Teurk said.

In just a few weeks, Martin was shocked at the positive results she saw.

"Say over a three or four week period of time my emotional reactions to my story went from a 100to somewhere around 25 or 35." Martin said.

Martin's story is a testament to veterans that PTSD is a serious condition, but it does not have to be a life sentence.

To see if you are eligible for prolonged exposure therapy, call the V A at 843-789-6500.