Radical New Therapy could treat the ‘Untreatable’ Victims of Trauma
At the turn of the millennium, a young woman moved to a cabin on the Mull of Kintyre, a headland in southwest Scotland renowned for the bleak beauty of its cliffs and the treacherous swirl of the currents below. There she took in two horses, and for a time the silent companionship of those geldings offered more in the way of healing than the countless prescriptions she’d been given by psychiatrists, or the well-meaning attempts by therapists to excavate the most painful parts of her past. Then, in early 2013, she did something she had promised herself she would never do again: She bought a bottle of vodka.
The woman, who asked to be identified only as Karen, cannot recall the precise trigger that made her reach for a drink after 12 years of sobriety. But she does remember stumbling into the hospital in Lochgilphead, the nearest town. Intoxicated and near-delirious, she feared the suicidal impulses that had racked her since she was a teenager might prove too strong to resist.
Barclay soon realized Karen had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition caused by exposure to a horrific or life-threatening event that can lead to a wide spectrum of devastating symptoms, from bouts of overpowering anxiety to mind-saturating despair, emotional numbness, night terrors and uncontrollable rage. Sufferers can experience flashbacks to a time when they thought they were about to die: high-definition replays in their minds, complete with smell, texture and sound. Symptoms like these can persist for years, even decades, and leave people feeling so damaged that they can’t help but push everyone away—especially those they love the most.
As Karen had discovered, PTSD can be maddeningly difficult to treat. She still remembers the panic in the eyes of one social worker when his attempts to get her to open up brought on the full force of her terror. “It didn’t matter where I went—nowhere seemed to be able to offer any help,” she says. “The only way I knew how to deal with it was alcohol and also prescription drugs.”