For South Carolina native J. Patrick Hayes, a stint in the United States Navy promised freedom and adventure when he joined at age 18. And the Navy delivered on those promises. For more than nine years, his Navy assignments took him all over the world, including a posting on an aircraft carrier, and led to work helping veterans.
Then one day, four years ago, when he was living in Connecticut, something happened that turned his world upside down. A guy who had worked for him on the aircraft carrier reminded Hayes about tragic events that had taken place during that time—events that Hayes says he’d completely forgotten.
Hayes won’t describe the events in detail—just that someone lost their life, and he felt partly responsible.
“I had put them in the back of my mind and didn’t really think about it,” he says. When the memories returned, it was devastating. “Those thoughts literally took over,” he says.
He broke down crying at work and was not able to sleep at night because of nightmares. He ended up losing his job and isolated himself in his home, staring at the walls.
A coworker, who, like Hayes, was well aware of the conditions veterans face, managed to help him to accept the truth. He described Hayes’ symptoms to him as if they were happening to somebody else—and asked what he should do about it.
“I told him, ‘It sounds like he needs to go see someone because he may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder,’” Hayes says. “And he said: ‘Can I tell you something? That’s you.’”
“I knew what the symptoms were,” Hayes says, “but I didn’t accept them as mine.”
Working toward ‘a life that I could live with’
Even so, Hayes agreed to his friend’s suggestion that he visit the Veteran Affairs (VA) Connecticut Healthcare System. As he did, he came face-to-face with a misconception that may have deterred him from seeing care from the VA. When he was growing up, an uncle—a Vietnam War veteran whom Hayes now realizes must have had PTSD, too—had repeatedly described his poor experiences with the VA hospital. “Every time he came back from the VA hospital, he would be so angry about the care and the things that people said to him,” he says.
But what Hayes found at VA Connecticut was nothing like what he’d heard about from his uncle. While working with a counselor through one-on-one sessions at the VA has been challenging, Hayes is determined to put in the effort. He shows up for appointments and talks about things that he may not have wanted to share.
“I had to trust that this process would work for me, even though in the back of my mind, I heard my uncle’s voice,” he says. “I tried to focus on the possibility that I could have a life that I could live with.”
It has been four years since he first walked into VA Connecticut looking for support, and Hayes says that, despite challenges, he’s grown to have that life. He says the most difficult part of his therapy has been confronting the incident, and admitting to himself that it wasn’t directly his fault—a burden he’d been carrying with him for years.
“While I know now that I couldn’t have controlled the event, I felt very inadequate. I did my job very well. This thing to me was like an eraser of everything I had accomplished—not just my military time, but my whole life."
Moving beyond guilt
Those feelings of guilt are common for people who have experienced severe trauma, and can be a symptom of PTSD, says Steven M. Southwick, MD, medical director of the Clinical Neurosciences Division of the Department of Veterans Affairs National Center for PTSD, and a clinician at Yale Medicine Child Study Center.
“It’s not uncommon for trauma survivors to feel as if they could have done more or that somehow they’re to blame,” Dr. Southwick says.
Hayes says that a unique aspect of his treatment has been VA Connecticut’s close relationship with Yale Medicine. After hearing a talk with Dr. Southwick, in which he described some of the physical responses of the brain following a traumatic event, Hayes says he began to understand his condition in a new and liberating way.
“It was so clear to me that it was my brain’s fault and not mine,” Hayes says. “It’s one thing to tell yourself something, but to hear someone else say it with that set of facts, it was like a weight lifted off of me.”
Not your grandfather's VA
These days, Hayes’ experience with VA Connecticut has grown even deeper. He was hired there as a peer specialist, providing support to veterans who are involved in court cases, and to others who are incarcerated. Though he’s able to connect with fellow veterans on their shared experiences in the military, he still keeps one thing close to the chest—the story of the traumatic event that caused his PTSD. He only talks about it in detail when he feels that will help a veteran deal with their own trauma.
What Hayes does share widely is how VA Connecticut and Yale Medicine have been his lifesaver, and how they can do the same for others.
“I am so passionate about helping people get to the place where they can live with their illness, so that it doesn’t constrain and imprison them,” Hayes says. “I feel my responsibility is to help people be free in their own lives.”
His message to other veterans who have problems is to give VA Connecticut a shot. “This is not your grandfather’s VA,” he says. “It’s so different. Come here and get your life back.”