Archive for June, 2011
There are several types of memory, each with different time courses that involve different parts of the brain. One division that is easy to recognize is that of short-term vs. long-term memory. Short-term memory is fast and takes no more than several minutes for recall to occur. This is highlighted by your ability to recall specifics, shortly after an event the particulars of what went on. Such things fade quickly, however. Long-term memory extends beyond those several minutes, to hours, days and years in the past. Another part of memory is called working memory, which is usually associated with short-term memory. It can, however, refer to recalled events or facts held in long-term memory. A formal definition of working memory is the ability to hold facts or the details of an event in active consciousness and, by doing so, adjust or use them. A better, informal definition of working memory is the blackboard of the mind. However, your memory will only hold on to new information (in your long term memory) gained from these events for about five days (this is your short-term memory). Memories that are not significant are usually forgotten or “dumped” and erased after this five day waiting period (this is the time taken to transfer events from short to long term memory). You can store and create memory, as when memorizing spelling words or learning math. The brain will learn or memorize all kinds of information with frequent repetition and constant use. However, if a memory containing only facts is not frequently used, the memory slowly fades away. For example: 1) Can you calculate square root by hand? 2) Do you remember the names of all your high school teachers or classmates? In the second question, chances are you can remember those who also have emotional memories attached to them.
What do each of these kinds of memory have in common? All types of memory are interconnected and pathways in your brain. When you experience a very significant event, the brain records not only the details of the experience (where you were, when, who was there, what happened, etc.) but the emotions you experienced at the time as well. The entire memory of an emotional event (an assault, an automobile accident, a wedding, death of a loved one, a combat experience, etc.) is actually remembered by several systems and stored in separate areas of the brain. That is to say that memory is distributed throughout the brain. No single region of the brain has any one of these types of memory completely embedded in it. Instead, each type of memory involves several areas of the brain acting from different regions, where information is brought together, processed and then re-distributed to where your memories are permanently housed. This happens simultaneously, with all of the regions being activated and processing at the same time, so memories are recalled before you even have it concentrate.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Your mind remembers how to behave to achieve a desired goal. The earlier you succeed using a given method, the more often it is repeated, and the stronger the habit will be. For instance, walking is learned as a one-year-old child and is practiced regularly after that. Unless you are obstructed by an injury or something unusual in the environment, you do not have to think about how to walk, it is automatic process. You need only watch where you are going, and unconsciously you make the adjustments needed for the environment. For example, imagine when you drive a shifting gears in a car. You think `engage clutch, move gear shift down into second, lift left foot off the clutch and right foot onto gas.’ This virtually automatic skill was acquired with labored, conscious learning and after consistent, frequent practice became automatic and unconscious. Once the action was well learned, the behavior became automatic in the sense that it no longer required constant conscious monitoring. This unconscious behavior, allows you bypass the details, and instead to think about the act at a higher level (`I am driving to work. Its gonna be a long day.’). With practice you are able to mentally repackage your behavior, chunking together stray details into a coherent sequence that can be set off with a brief conscious thought. Once the conscious decision is made to drive to work, the drive itself can be quite unconscious and automatic, as you chat on the cell phone along the way. You may arrive at work and remember very little of the experience of getting there.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
An alcoholic picks up a knife and a cellphone in his hotel room somewhere in Northern Virginia.
He decides to use the phone first.
He dials 411, asks for a suicide hotline and is connected. His cellular SOS manifests as a quiet trill on a black phone in a spare cubicle in a fluorescent-lit basement in Arlington.
Haley Lillibridge regards the 571 area code that pops up on her computer, lets her phone ring twice, then picks up. The time is 3 a.m.
“This is CrisisLink.”
The voice on the other end sounds quiet and lost. The voice says he’s thinking about committing suicide.
“We’re really glad you called tonight,” Haley says.
The voice tells her about the alcoholism.
About how his wife left him.
About how his kids didn’t call on Father’s Day.
The voice on the other end tells her about other private, painful matters, about realizing that he’s lost everything. The voice tells her about the knife.
“It sounds like you’re feeling worthless, insignificant, that people would be better off without you,” Haley says, setting up a pivot. “What’s kept you going?”
She absorbs the catalogue of woe, one “mmhmm” at a time, her heart rate quickened but steady, her eyes following her note-taking. Haley is 25. She lives in Gaithersburg. She just got her master’s in professional counseling from Liberty University. She has worked at CrisisLink, a crisis hotline for suicide prevention based at the Arlington Urgent Care Center, for a year and a half.
“I’m concerned about your safety,” she says. “It sounds like you’ve made up your mind.”
Suicide-related calls between midnight and 8 a.m. — Haley’s shift — were up 90 percent from 2009 to 2010. America tosses and turns in the wee hours, when there are fewer distractions, when dark nights of the soul climax in last-ditch dialings of 1-800-SUICIDE.
“I’d like you to be alive for your family. . . . I’m hearing how miserable you are.”
After her fellow counselor Amanda Hendricks leaves at 4 a.m., it’s just Haley and the numbing white noise of the AC intake over her head. Haley and the night and the voices on the other end. Haley and a plastic container of diced pineapple and a nearby magnet that says, “LIVES DEPEND ON US.” The job shows her how devastating loneliness can be. The job humbles her, makes her even more grateful for her family.
“So you’re adamant about living and wanting a full life. So it sounds like a treatment facility would be good. I’d be happy to look up a referral for you.”
Sometimes it’s enough for people to know that someone, somewhere, is listening.
Sometimes it’s not.
About six months ago, there was a voice she couldn’t save. He called from Pennsylvania. He said he was a veteran of Desert Storm and a firefighter in New York on Sept. 11.
He said he was wracked by post-traumatic stress disorder, by hallucinations. He said he recently witnessed a car accident. Had pulled a young girl’s body from the wreckage. The lethality of life had swamped him again.
Haley followed the CrisisLink model. She empathized. She helped him reflect. She explored the caller’s intentions, offered to connect him to immediate or eventual mental-health services. He called back several times that night. She coaxed him away from the brink. He promised her he’d stay safe.
A family member called the next day to say he’d sat in a closed garage with his car running. CrisisLink was the last outgoing number in his cellphone. He’d mentioned the call in his suicide note. He talked about things he’d never talked about before on that call, he wrote. It was a special kindness, he wrote, having a compassionate stranger attend to his wounds.
It was not enough.
“Now you say after talking you feel less desire to kill yourself,” Haley says to the voice with the knife in the hotel. “Now can you promise to stay safe tonight and give us a call back if you don’t feel safe? . . . You know we’re here 24/7 for you. . . . I’m so glad you called. . . . Take care.”
Haley places the receiver back in its cradle.
A 50-minute call. Unusually long.
Was it enough?
The phone rings again.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
You don’t consciously ponder the meaning of the individual written or spoken symbols you see, hear, write or speak. You just do it. For example, you probably don’t consciously attend to the coordination required to drive or walk, use a knife and fork, type on a computer, and much of your introductory conversation “Hello” and “How do you do?” With time and experience, behaviors and decisions that once required a good deal of conscious thought and monitoring no longer do so; they become more efficient in their use of limited attention, and more routine, so that we no longer have to make choices and decisions every step of the way. The meaningful interpretation is automatic. For example, when you learned to write, you used your conscious mind and chose to instruct your brain. You programmed the necessary circuits in your memory, so you could write easily and naturally. When this happened, your mind also established a network of override circuits. These circuits made sure that the need to stop and look up, in case a danger became more important. Your mind also set up a “watchdog” circuit, so you would not stop be distracted too quickly, if say the radio is playing next to you. Finally, your brain programmed what you have to do to form the shapes of letters and arrange them in a meanigful order. You practiced all of these mental processes as you learned to write, to the point that they are now automatic.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Your ability to recognize a face comes from your unconscious brain. This is something so simple, but so profoundly important to the survival. Your brain recognizes faces without any effort on your part. The process is unconscious and automatic. You don’t think about the faces you see, you just recognizes them or not. Your brain is so good at completing this pattern that, even in dim light, even if you can only see half of the face, you can still immediately recognize who it is. But this amazing ability also sometimes causes us to see patterns that don’t really exist. We see a face in the moon. We see a horse in the clouds. We see the big dipper, the little dipper, Orion’s belt. What is really happening is that your brain is taking the most scant clues and piecing them together to see a pattern, without you even having to make the smallest effort to do so.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Maggie Speak and Robert James are a Jeopardy contestant’s best friends: They’re the show’s main contestant coordinators.
Jeopardy is pretty vigilant about keeping contestants separate from production staff — there’s no mingling with host Alex Trebek in the green room. So, the contestant coordinators are really your only friends.
“On the tape day, my biggest responsibility is getting them ready for their stories,” James says.
He’s talking about the 30-odd-second block of time after the first commercial break when contestants share personal anecdotes with Trebek.
Picture that: You’re on the smartest show on national television. You have 30 seconds to share the most interesting thing about yourself.
What would you say?
After you land a spot on the show, Speak and James send you a three-page, single-spaced questionnaire. You are told to return it in a week. It includes five blank spaces for “one-liners,” 10 “leading questions,” and 16 more questions simply identified as “more questions.” These include:
What is the one mistake that no one will let you forget?
What’s the most romantic thing you’ve ever done?
Brushes with greatness and secret ambitions? We want to hear it.
Why did you want to be on Jeopardy!? Was it to prove something to yourself or anyone else?
These, it is suggested to James, are arguably seventh- or eighth-date-questions.
“Most of the time, they’re proud of these things!” he says. “It doesn’t hurt to put your secret ambition out there.”
“You put out your secret ambition, somebody might hear it and something might happen,” Speak adds.
The questionnaire also lists “memorable examples” from prior contestants, including:
“Fabio once saved my life.”
“I broke my toe while chasing a bear.”
“I used to recruit spies for the C.I.A.”
So that’s the bar you get as a contestant. People who run toward bears — not away from them. CIA operatives.
When Tricia McKinney got her questionnaire?
“I panicked,” she says.
McKinney appeared on the show in 2007. “I spent hours and hours with that form,” she says.
Alex Trebek, DIY King
To understand the Jeopardy anecdote, you need to understand a few things about the way the show works.
First, Jeopardy tapes five shows a day. That means, as a player, you could potentially win five times. Which means five changes of clothes, five personal anecdotes and five games worth of contestants — all in the same room.
McKinney describes it this way.
“Twelve really twitchy, crazy people who are all dying to go on TV and win a lot of money,” she says. “Everybody in the room wants to beat everybody else room.”
That’s where the contestant coordinators come in, she says.
“They probably spend half a day just calming everybody down and just making sure nobody throws up,” she says.
For many contestants, their anecdote is their main source of anxiety.
“People tell me that this is the scariest part — this chat thing!” James says. “But the thing is, Alex is so good at his job, he will bail you out no matter what.”
James sits down with each contestant to settle on three of their best anecdotes from the questionnaire. That often requires more work.
Once, after responding to all the questions on the form, a contestant settled on the most interesting thing he could share: “I like to walk.”
“C’mon — ‘I like to walk’?!” James says. “We all like to walk! But we worked with him some more and he came up with some good stories.”
Three final stories wind up on Trebek’s note cards. He makes the final call on what to ask the contestants about.
Trebek likes to hear stories about the military, James says. He’s been active with the USO. He likes romantic stories, too.
“But I can always guarantee that if there’s anything about power tools, he’s going to want to talk about that,” James says.
Trebek, apparently, is somewhat of a handyman around the house, Speak says.
“People would be surprised at what a mister-fix-it he is!”
Now For The Easy Part
During the course of her three-game winning streak, McKinney sweated through four changes of clothes.
“I was just exhausted by the end of the fourth game,” she says.
Contestant Dan Suzman didn’t win when he appeared on the show in 2004. But he says the personal anecdote was the most exhausting part of his experience.
“After that,” he says, “you can focus back on the game, on the score.”
Was he as nervous during the quiz portion as he was during the anecdote?
“No, not at all,” he says. “I know how to answer questions.”
Contestants’ stories come and go in a matter of seconds. Those seconds are probably the most famous contestants will ever be. Often they’re awkward. Often they bumble through it. But in a way, it’s comforting that there are still people in America who simply have no idea what to do with themselves in front of a camera — who have the humility to be nervous about taking up your time.
In the end, Suzman told a story about being chased by a hippopotamus in South Africa. McKinney told four stories, the last of which was about a trip to Germany with a cousin. The two wanted to remember the location of a shop, so they memorized its street name in German. The English translation was “one-way-street.”
“It’s because there are a lot of one-way streets in Germany!” McKinney explains. “See? This is the kind of material I had to work with!”
Today, McKinney skips the anecdotes when she watches Jeopardy. (She did so even before appearing on the show, she says.) “I find them awkward,” she says.
But after four years, Speak and James still remember her.
“She just had a great quality,” Speak says. “She was just kind of the perfect contestant.”
“She came in — she was spunky and fun,” James says.
McKinney, it seems, was a rare contestant who didn’t need much coaching.
Speak says, “Often people just don’t realize what’s interesting about themselves.”Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Stress, trauma, and unexpected life developments — such as a cancer diagnosis, a car accident, or a layoff — can throw people off stride emotionally and mentally. The natural response is to wonder why something bad happened and what to do next. In some people, this can lead to rumination — dwelling on the event — and possibly to a mental health problem, such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Expressive writing — a technique that involves writing about thoughts and feelings that arise from a traumatic or stressful life experience — may help some people cope with the emotional fallout of such events. But it’s not a cure-all, and it won’t work for everyone. Expressive writing appears to be more effective for healthy people who have sustained an emotional blow than it is for people struggling with ongoing or severe mental health challenges, such as major depression or PTSD.
A flexible approach
Dr. James W. Pennebaker, currently chair of the psychology department at the University of Texas, Austin, has conducted much of the research on the health benefits of expressive writing. In one early study, Dr. Pennebaker asked 46 healthy college students to write about either personally traumatic life events or trivial topics for 15 minutes on four consecutive days. For six months following the experiment, students who wrote about traumatic events visited the campus health center less often, and used a pain reliever less frequently, than those who wrote about inconsequential matters.
In the years since then, expressive writing has evolved and its use expanded. Studies have involved all sorts of permutations: for example, participants writing for 10 to 30 minutes at a time, for one to five days — or weekly for four weeks. The standard format involves writing for a specified period each day about a particularly stressful or traumatic experience. Participants usually write nonstop while exploring their innermost thoughts and feelings without inhibition (and the writing samples remain confidential for that reason). They may also use the exercise to understand how the traumatic event may revive memories of other stressful events.
Most studies have evaluated the impact of expressive writing on people with physical health conditions such as sleep apnea, asthma, migraine headaches, rheumatoid arthritis, HIV, and cancer. Likewise, most of the outcomes measured are physical, and the findings — such as blood pressure and heart rate — suggest that expressive writing initially may upset people but eventually helps them to relax.
More recently, researchers have evaluated whether expressive writing helps reduce stress and anxiety. One study found that this technique reduced stigma-related stress in gay men. Another found that it benefited chronically stressed caregivers of older adults. And a study by researchers at the University of Chicago found that anxious test takers who wrote briefly about their thoughts and feelings before taking an important exam earned better grades than those who did not.
Why writing may help
When Dr. Pennebaker and other researchers first started studying expressive writing, the prevailing theory was that it might help people overcome emotional inhibition. According to this theory, people who had suppressed a traumatic memory might learn to move beyond the experience once they expressed their emotions about it. But it’s not quite that simple. Instead, multiple mechanisms may underlie the benefits of expressive writing.
The act of thinking about an experience, as well as expressing emotions, seems to be important. In this way, writing helps people to organize thoughts and give meaning to a traumatic experience. Or the process of writing may enable them to learn to better regulate their emotions. It’s also possible that writing about something fosters an intellectual process — the act of constructing a story about a traumatic event — that helps someone break free of the endless mental cycling more typical of brooding or rumination. Finally, when people open up privately about a traumatic event, they are more likely to talk with others about it — suggesting that writing leads indirectly to reaching out for social support that can aid healing.
Timing also matters. A few studies have found that people who write about a traumatic event immediately after it occurs may actually feel worse after expressive writing, possibly because they are not yet ready to face it. As such, Dr. Pennebaker advises clinicians and patients to wait at least one or two months after a traumatic event before trying this technique.
Even with these caveats, however, expressive writing is such an easy, low-cost technique — much like taking a good brisk walk — that it may be worth trying to see if it helps.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
So let me be clear, you are not conscious of everything you do and how you do it, for every aspect of your life. For example, tying your shoelaces, walking, dialing the phone, or driving, are all guided to a large degree by unconscious processing. Frequently performed actions and behaviors become automatic so your consciousness can turn to other things. In this our complex, information saturated world, the brain is required to handle a vast amount of data. This enormous amount of information exceeds the capacity of your consciousness, which can contain only one or a few things at a time. In fact some researchers suggest that most of what you do on a daily basis is habitual. Which side of the bed do you get out of in the morning? Do you think about the processes of getting dressed, or is it automatic? First the left leg and then the right leg. You put my trousers on the same way every morning. You shave the same way, eat the same breakfast. And so forth. In fact, most of the choices on a daily basis are automatic and out of your conscious awareness.
A good example would be to think of the name of your sixth grade teacher. Before reading the last sentence, you probably weren’t thinking about that period of your life or that teacher. But this information was stored unconsciously and has now entered your consciousness. Soon it will pass back into your unconsciousness, ready to be accessed again if the need arises.
Try for a moment, while reading this passage, to consciously piece together the individual letters in this sentence. Actively focus on how each letter is a symbol, then consider how their meaning changes when they stand in relation to one another, how they form words whose meaning is in turn affected by the words around them, and how these chunks of symbols form a representation in your brain of what the sentence says. Not easy right. Try again.
A few things are worth noting about this exercise; namely that a) in spite of your intentions, you probably couldn’t do it without a significant level of focus, b) you understood the sentence very quickly anyway, and c) it still affected your behavior. Also, since you already knew what it said, the meaning of the sentence didn’t really change when you went over it again, trying to consciously determine why it conveys the particular meaning it does. This illustrates a few factors involved in unconscious functioning, which can be fairly difficult to consciously understand. The first point is this that you unconsciously and very quickly derive meaning from past learning experiences. Second, you have incomplete insight into how this happens, and once the skill of reading is learned, it is hard to stop without conscious effort. Thus reading is an automatic skill that is guided by your unconscious, your behavior occurs without your being entirely aware of it or choosing that it happen.
Over and over again, studies show that people set out on a mission to seek out reasons to support their emotional reactions. And because you are usually successful in this mission, you end up with the illusion of objectivity. You really believe that your position is logicallly and objectively justified. Most people give no real evidence for their emotional reactions and no effort is made to look for alternatives opposing this emotionally based sense of certainty. The mind generally uses the “makes-sense-to-me” rule, where you take a position, look for evidence that supports it, and if you find some evidence, enough so that your position “makes sense”, you stop thinking. If someone brings up reasons and evidence on the other side, you can may be swayed to change your mind. However, the problem is that you may not make any effort to seek out conflicting points of view unless they are presented to you.
Our memory allows us to recall information about what is likely to happen in different situations. Our memories promote expectations and predictions to how life will unfold. For example, when you walk into a grocery store, you know automatically, how things are supposed to go. You go in, grab a cart, pick food off the shelf, line up for a cashier who will take your money for the food, and you can go home. It is not as if you walk into the store and think `OK, what happened the last time I was here’ or `Why are people looting food off the shelves?’ You automatically know how to behave in the situation based on your experience. The knowledge from these memories, makes the world a much more predictable place.
This reminds me of a client I saw who had two failed marriages and concluded, “All men are pigs.” From only two examples, she created a generalization that included three billion men! Her cynicism, her unwillingness to allow any men to get close to her, was the side-effect of two fundamental facts about how the brain work: 1) the brain has the amazing ability to see a pattern with minimal clues, and 2) your brain has a tendency to look for evidence that confirms an already-existing beliefs. So once you have concluded something, you have a strong tendency generalize that conclusion by noticing evidence that supports your pre-existing belief. So a pessimistic, cynical, or defeatist feeling, causes your mind to look for negative evidence and selectively ignore any positives. In this way the pain comes from making negative events larger and more awful than they really are.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
David Sharpe finally hit bottom on the bedroom floor of his apartment in Yorktown, Va. That’s where he sat, legs folded, ready to finish the fight with the demons that had followed him back from the war zone: the sudden rages; the punched walls; the profanities tossed at anyone who tried to help.
There was little in the room but dirty Air Force uniforms, some empty Jaegermeister bottles and a crushing despair. He took a deep breath. Shut his eyes. Closed his lips a little tighter around the cool steel.
And then something licked his ear. He looked around and locked gazes with a pair of brown eyes.
Cheyenne cocked her head to one side.
“It was just one of those looks dogs give you,” Sharpe recalls. “It was like, ‘What are you doing? Who’s going to take care of me? Who else is going to let me sleep in this bed?’ ”
For a long minute, Sharpe stared into the puzzled face of his 6-month-old pit bull. And then slowly, reluctantly, he backed the barrel of the .45 out of his mouth.
“There’s no doubt about it,” he says now. “I owe her my life.”
This is a different kind of tale of K-9 Corps bravery, distinct from those exploits of grenades sniffed out and warnings barked. Cheyenne’s heroics were in her unconditional devotion. Sharpe, whose series of harrowing encounters as an Air Force security guard in the Middle East led to post-traumatic stress disorder, says that just by being there day after dark day, his dog rescued him from a soldier’s death as surely as if she had dragged him bloody from the battlefield.
A decade later, it’s a much more stout pit bull lolling on the floor of Sharpe’s much neater apartment in Arlington County. But Cheyenne still loves to nuzzle her buddy’s hand whenever she gets the chance. And he still loves to tell the story of how a torn-eared refugee from a shabby animal shelter saved his bacon.
“She was the force that pulled me back into society,” says Sharpe, 32, who was married last month and is now a program analyst in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
But it’s also a story of action: Sharpe is trying to give other scruffy pound dogs a chance to save other emotionally wounded warriors. Even as he continues his own recovery from acute depression and PTSD, Sharpe has launched P2V.org (Pets to Vets), a nonprofit group that seeks to link service members and first responders with shelter animals and help them with related expenses and training.
“I couldn’t talk to anybody — not my father, not the counselors — but I could talk to that dog, and she never judged me,” Sharpe says. “We don’t want to hear, ‘Wow, that must have been horrible.’ We just want to talk.”
Sharpe got the idea for P2V after seeing a documentary on the role highly trained service animals can play in a veteran’s recovery. But those elite creatures can take thousands of dollars to prepare and years to deliver. Sharpe saw a more straightforward match to be made between suffering soldiers and animals from the pound.
“Most of the vets I’ve spoken to don’t want dogs to do tricks. We just want companionship,” he says. “Eighteen vets commit suicide every day in this country, and one animal is put to sleep every eight seconds. They can help save each other.”
It costs P2V about $650 for each adoption, including veterinary care, supplies, health insurance and the training consultants the groups make available. So far, P2V has matched 47 animals to vets, many of them former patients at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Sharpe has hired his first paid employee and put together an advisory board that features some local heavy hitters, including former White House press secretary Dana Perino and Rep. James P. Moran (D-Va.). They have started volunteer teams in New York and San Diego and hope to expand further.
Jimmy Childers, a Marine sergeant whose left left was lost and right foot injured when a roadside bomb in Afghanistan detonated, was looking for a dog to relieve the dreary monotony of his therapy routine. When a service-dog organization told him that it would be at least 18 months before could he get an animal, he turned to Sharpe. Two weeks later, he was walking, with two canes, through the pens of the Washington Animal Rescue League in the District.
“Tidus isn’t going to be fetching my [prosthetic] leg for me or anything,” Childers says of the beagle that now lives with him and his wife, Brandi, in Gaithersburg. “He’s here to bring joy into my life, and he does that every day.”
He finds himself less prone to outbursts over, in particular, people who illegally park in spaces for the handicapped. “He really calms me down,” he says.
Retired Senior Airman Sharpe says his own descent into the shadowy storms of PTSD stemmed from multiple deployments at bases in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. One afternoon in a sweltering guard shack, he found himself staring down the rifle barrel of the Saudi soldier manning the post with him. After an intense standoff, Sharpe managed to overpower the man, who turned out to be an al-Qaeda sympathizer.
In Pakistan, he says, he detected and helped subdue two suicide bombers trying to enter a base filled with U.S. military personnel, avoiding the blast only when one of the attackers dropped his detonator.
“They were loaded and ready to rock,” he says. “They were going to blow up the chow hall.”
It was rough duty. There were suicides in his unit, he says. Sharpe was cracking. But he refused any attempt at counseling. He was a mess by the time he got home from his first tour, drinking himself stupid and picking fights in bars. Anything could set him off: snow falling on his arm, a casual word from a stranger.
His visits to family on St. Simons, Ga., were disastrous. When his father, a soft-spoken retired Army Ranger, would try to talk to him, he’d answer with a string of profanities.
“A few months after he left, I found a bunch of holes he’d punched in the walls,” recalls David Sharpe Sr. “He’d moved some picture frames to cover them up.”
One summer day in 2002, a friend asked Sharpe to go with him to an animal shelter in Hampton Roads, where they were stationed. A batch of pit bull puppies had been rescued from a fighting ring.
“I thought, ‘Hell, yeah, I want a fighting dog,’ ” Sharpe said. “I’m a fighter myself.”
There were seven puppies. Only one of them didn’t swarm over Sharpe’s feet, begging for attention. He picked the aloof one, its ears and face already scabbed from an earlier scrap, and named her Cheyenne.
But at his apartment in Yorktown, the hard-drinking fighter started to cuddle his little dog. He started talking to her about things that had happened. She licked his face.
“I felt like a 10,000-pound weight had been lifted off my chest,” Sharpe says.
One night, he awoke from a nightmare and went to the kitchen for a drink. The refrigerator door banged him on the knee and he went nuts, whaling on it, nearly ripping it off the hinges. He heard a little bark.
He snapped “Shut up!” at the dog, but then he scooped her up and took her back to bed.
“She lay on my chest, and I just started sobbing,” he says. “It felt good. She licked my tears, and I had to start laughing.”
It was up and down, and the worst would come a few months later, a stretch of pain and feelings of survivor guilt that would lead him to that dark bedroom with that heavy pistol.
He got better, slowly. When he finally sought professional help, the diagnosis of acute PTSD was nearly instantaneous. He left the Air Force Security Forces in 2005 and began therapy.
“He’s like a different person now,” says his father. “All that stuff was taking over his life. That dog just listened to him for hours.”
In May, Sharpe married Jenny Fritcher, an Air Force staff sergeant stationed at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. She’s about to be discharged and will join her husband, and Cheyenne, in Arlington this fall.
On their afternoon walks along Clarendon Boulevard, Sharpe knows some people are wary of Cheyenne. They see a pit bull and steer clear. Just as some do with angry vets.
“We’re two of a kind,” Sharpe says. “We saved each other.”Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
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