The "22 push-up challenge": The secret no one told you

Asa Barrett from Tulsa, Oklahoma was in the US army from 2009–2015.
Asa Barrett from Tulsa, Oklahoma was in the US army from 2009–2015.

The advent of the “22 push-up challenge” fashioned a trend of enthusiasts posting online videos for the 22 veterans who commit suicide daily in the US as a result of PTSD. With the US Department of Veteran Affairs estimating that 11–20% of soldiers who served in Iraq or Afghanistan will develop PTSD, most charities for PTSD only focus on veterans.

Yet no one tells you that those most likely to experience PTSD are those who were sexually abused, and that being female doubles the risk of PTSD. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), 94% of women who are raped experience PTSD. The lack of support can prove insurmountable for women who have been in situations involving rape or sexual abuse.

The world shivered with unease when the MailOnline first broke the news about a woman in her 20s who chose to be euthanised, under Dutch law, as a result of “incurable” PTSD. She was sexually abused between the ages of 5 and 15. The ravages of PTSD resulted in a lifetime of mental and physical suffering, which included severe anorexia, chronic depression, hallucinations, and led her to be bed-ridden.

UK Labour MP, Robert Flello said, “It almost sends the message that if you are the victim of abuse, and as a result, you get a mental illness, you are punished by being killed, that the punishment for the crime of being a victim is death.”

Yet no one questioned Mr Flello on the message being sent to the victim when perpetrators of sexual violence are the least likely to go to jail in comparison to other criminals. According to Rape Crisis, only 5.7% of reported rape cases end in a conviction.

In his report, The Mental Health Impact Of Rape, Dr Dean Kilpatrick states that rape victims are 6.2 times more likely to develop PTSD than other women and 13 times more likely to have attempted suicide.

“Jane”, from Manchester, suffered childhood sexual abuse, and as an adult, experienced domestic violence, which included physical, sexual and mental abuse. She has been diagnosed with complex posttraumatic stress and is often unable to sleep or eat, sometimes for days. She experiences flashbacks daily and her inability to concentrate means she has difficulty doing basic tasks such as remembering to turn off the stove. Jane has also suffered substantial memory loss–something that affects many with PTSD.

Studies using MRI scans on PTSD patients showed damage and volume reduction to the brain’s hippocampus. Abnormalities in other areas such as the medial prefrontal cortex, which regulates fear responses, were also identified.

“No one knows what it is like to be living in fear every hour of the day,” Jane said with a long sigh. “My heart races so badly, I am convinced I am having a heart attack and it is physically painful. Some days, my body won’t stop shaking. Sometimes I am too scared to leave the house for days.”

Jane spoke of a lack of support. “My friends keep telling me to get over it. One was even shouting at me because she saw my inability to function as laziness. She said that Holocaust victims went through the worst and they weren’t the way I am. Some people think I am making it up because they think that only soldiers get PTSD. Most charities who offer support are only for soldiers.”

Asa Barrett was deployed from 2011-2012 to Afghanistan, and also served in Kuwait and Kazakhstan.
Asa Barrett was deployed from 2011-2012 to Afghanistan, and also served in Kuwait and Kazakhstan.

Thousands of miles away, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the crimson sun loses itself to a sleepless night for 30-year-old Asa Barrett. It is a far cry from the remote and dusty mountains of Afghanistan where he was deployed for almost a year while in the US Army for six years.

“My first experience out there was on the 4th July. It was a small attack, but it set precedence for the next 10 months to come,” Asa said, as his striking green eyes resonated with an unspoken tiredness.

“Two weeks into my arrival, my truck was blown up,” he continued. “The blast destroyed my truck. I had a concussion, injuries to my neck, lower back, knee, and memory loss. I experienced regular gun fights, seeing men killed, shooting at Taliban fighters and the fear of waking up every morning, wondering if it's going to be your last day. I've had grenades literally miss my head by inches and bullets ricochet off my machine guns.’”

Asa was first diagnosed with PTSD after returning home in 2012. He has since witnessed fellow soldiers succumb to alcoholism, drug abuse, violence and several who committed suicide.

“I was hyper vigilant. I was always looking around to make sure no one was trying to kill me. I couldn't sit in a restaurant with my back to any doors. I had to count my exits and made escape routes. I carried a pistol everywhere in case someone tried to kill me,” Asa explained.

It all culminated on July 4th at a baseball game in the US. “When the fireworks started, my anxiety skyrocketed. All I could think was that I needed to get out of there," he said.

“My friends were staring at me with eyes wide open. I felt broken and embarrassed. I left and ran as fast as I could. I had the worst flashbacks of all the bombs, grenades and guns. I could barely breath. Standing in the middle of the road, I fell down and started crying. People were staring. I knew then I had to get help.”

Challenges: Asa struggles daily since returning from war.
Challenges: Asa struggles daily since returning from war.

Over the past five years, nothing has been able to free Asa. Five months ago, he lost a high profile job and the home that he worked tirelessly to buy.

“PTSD is a crippling mental illness. It can destroy a person from inside. It is simply, hell in your mind. I'm in and out of bouts of depression. I have constant anxiety attacks that feel like I'm about to explode.”

“It has affected my relationships with friends, family and partners. I have hurt people because I couldn't love them the way I should. I often feel numb. I just feel so disconnected to the world. PTSD is the root of all these crippling emotions, and it has caused my life to be hell for the last five years,” he admitted.

Asa acknowledged there are many stereotypes that still exist with PTSD. “It isn't something that you can just shake off. It rules your life. Until you experience it and fight like we do daily, don't take it for granted. Don't play it off as if we are weak and frail. We are stronger than you realise.”

Niklas Bertilsson, 33, from Jönköping, Sweden had the life that most dream of–a well-paid job that saw him travel the globe and a beautiful wife with two young children. But it all came crashing down in the summer of 2014.

It was a bike ride that he had taken countless times. Except, this time, Niklas would never reach the lake he set out for, colliding head on with a lorry resulting in brain injuries so severe he needed to be kept alive by machines.

Niklas Bertilsson from Jönköping, Sweden, with his youngest son, Simon, before the accident.
Niklas Bertilsson from Jönköping, Sweden, with his youngest son, Simon, before the accident.

“When I first woke up, I was drugged up and in a lot of pain. I was strapped to the bed and hooked up on tubes. I couldn’t remember who I was or even my family. I couldn’t even remember how to speak, walk or how to hold a glass of water,” he explained.

Niklas endured rigorous months of rehabilitation. Yet, he was not referred to a therapist to discuss his PTSD for over a year, and when he did, he had just a few sessions.

“PTSD is completely life changing. I don’t have energy because my brain often feels very tired. I am unable to do things that are too mentally challenging. If I visit my friend for a weekend, I may need about two weeks to rest. It’s like hitting a wall,” he reflected softly.

“I have lost many friends, but it is something that happens to people with PTSD. It is hard because those are the times you need your friends the most. Even my mother kept saying that I should stop being this way and get my act together. She could not accept it. Many people get divorced, but I was lucky my wife, Josefin, was patient, loving and stuck by me. And I also had my dear friend, Andreas, who was my rock and spoke to me daily.”

After the accident: Niklas feels there needs to be better education about PTSD and more support for sufferers.
After the accident: Niklas feels there needs to be better education about PTSD and more support for sufferers.

Niklas’ life will never be the same, with his dreams of returning to work gone. He believes there needs to be more support.

“PTSD is not a logical sort of brain damage. The only way people can understand is to read and educate themselves. If you know someone who is going through it, talk to them and listen–hold their hand if they need it,” he says.

While organisations continue to choose whom to help, PTSD continues on its non-discriminate selection of hostages. PTSD is a silent serial killer, and its murderous rampage will keep growing unless there are significant changes where support is made available for all sufferers.

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