PTSD is a Natural, Human Response to Disordered Events: An Interview with Chris Eder.

Via on May 15, 2013
Chris teaching a class as part of the Warrior Resiliency Program

This is the ninth interview in an ongoing series called “At Attention, At Peace”; a conversation among teachers, students, and officials about the role of Yoga and meditation in addressing PTSD in the military. Click here to read others. To subscribe to this series, email ‘subscribe’ to lilly.bird.behctel@gmail.com to stay updated on new interviews.

 

Chris Eder, a 23-year Air Force veteran, teacher of Military Broadcast Journalism and certified Vinyasa and Hatha Yoga Instructor, discovered yoga in ’99 after suffering from a pinched sciatic nerve and a diagnosis of Adult ADD. On the search for alternatives to medication, Chris tried yoga for the first time and says of that first class “I was hooked.”

During a 2007 deployment to Baghdad Iraq, Chris began teaching a morning sunrise yoga class five days a week. Upon returning to Italy for his follow-on assignment, Chris attended Yoga Fit training and later went on to receive his 200 teacher training from Frog Lotus Yoga, specializing in Vinyasa and Hatha Interdisciplinary classes.

Throughout his yoga practice, Chris has found both healing and empowerment through sharing the gift of Yoga with other veterans, teaching yoga to Wounded Warriors returning from combat and offering free classes to veterans once a week. Chris currently volunteers with several organizations such as the Veterans Yoga ProjectGive Back Yoga Foundation and War Retreat, serving as a liaison and a spokesperson in the ongoing effort to de-stigmatize both yoga and PTSD and make whole-body wellness solutions more accessible to military personnel. When Chris is not teaching yoga, he is weaving beautiful, customized Mala Beads for his non-profit organization, MalaforVets, which donates its’ funds to Veterans yoga resources.

In this interview, Chris talks about the macho culture of the military, the power of resisting labels, how yoga isn’t just for women and why, on some days, acceptance is the most useful tool he owns.

Lilly: The phrase “Whole Body Wellness” comes up a lot in talking about alternative forms of healthcare. What does the phrase “whole body” mean to you in the context of providing healing for veterans?

Chris: It means that it has to be a whole-bodied solution and there’s not one singular method that’s going to help our nation’s wounded and ill. There just isn’t. There’s no one-size fits all.

Lilly: What brought you to this work?

Chris: Before I did my first teacher training, I knew that I wanted to connect with a veteran outreach program. I knew that was my niche. It didn’t start out as an interest in working with PTSD, but just about making it accessible to the military, sort of as a pre-emptive strike.

Lilly: I heard you say recently at a training, “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is not a disorder, but a natural, human response to disordered events.” Can you say a little bit more about what you meant by that?

Chris: I think of PTSD as a pervasive chaos, caused by your safety response, your fight or flight response, which is supposed to happen. What’s not a good thing is that safety response continues after the danger has passed. That’s when the madness starts.

Lilly: At the risk of oversimplification, if you think of this state of alertness in the system as a light switch that gets left on, what keeps it this way, in your opinion?

Untitled
Chris Eder, Air Force

Chris: For me, I never knew I had PTSD, it did not come on the radar for a long time. I had a lot of exposure to horrific things during my 2003 deployment to Iraq, then I went back in 2007 and tripled that exposure, and it wasn’t until 2010 that I considered something was going on other than my ADD or sleep apnea or what I thought was early onset Alzheimer’s.

Lilly: Can you give me some examples of how those symptoms started to appear?

Chris:  I used to think I’d never met a stranger, because I was such an extravert,  I would talk to anyone. These days, it’s hard to get out of the house.  If in the line of my official duties, I come across you, I will be friendly. Otherwise, I’d rather stay home.

Also, I used to love playing sports. And now I just have no desire. I don’t like the group sport aspect of it, I fear being injured, I have no interest. You can say very little to me that will excite me to the point where I’m thrilled.

The only thing that really gives me joy is doing yoga. Honestly my yoga practice is what keeps me from ending all of this. Not to trivialize suicide, because who knows what’s going on in the mind of someone who decides to go that route.

Lilly: This is one view of suicide: that it is a way for men and women to end a war that is still occurring inside them.

Chris: That’s exactly it. I think something that also added to my symptoms was that I moved two times in the course of my deployments, so there was no time to process all that happened. There was no home base.

I was diagnosed with ADD in ‘99, so at first I assumed that some of the things I was experiencing were related to that: lack of focus, inability to complete tasks. Then I slowly started to withdraw, friends became fewer and fewer. I mean I have 1,300 friends on Facebook but there’s only about five of those people that I actually call.

mala pic
MalaforVets, Ganesh Mala

Then my sleeping patterns got worse, and I started calling out in my sleep. And then my memory started to get really bad. I went to my doctor and said “I think I have Alzheimer’s” and he told me that I couldn’t remember things because I wasn’t getting enough sleep. I finally got tested for sleep apnea and was diagnosed with that. But in the past year my sleep problems have gotten about four times worse.

I came out to Feathered Pipe Ranch last winter to do this training with the Veterans Yoga Project, and I found myself putting checks and circling things and putting stars everywhere. So on one of the breaks I pulled Dr. Dan Libby aside and just asked “do you think I could have this thing?” And he said “you need to see a therapist.”

It was about two months after that before I went in and got screened, and the dude’s like “where have you been?” It was just check, check, check, check.

Lilly: So at this point, as your going through all these tests to see if you’ve got this thing – did you have resistance to the label of PTSD?

Chris: I was diagnosed with PTSD, general anxiety disorder and depression right off the bat. But I don’t have resistance to the label and I’ll tell you why: my son has autism and so when we introduce him, we don’t say “here’s my autistic child.” I say “this is my son Ollie, he’s an amazing person.”

So labels don’t define a person, but the labels are your ticket to treatment and services. For the purposes of treatment and services, I have PTSD. But the label means nothing to me. I can check all those boxes for PTSD, but i’m still an individual.

I think of PTSD as a pervasive chaos, caused by your safety response, your fight or flight response, which is supposed to happen. What’s not good is when that safety response continues, after the danger has passed. That’s when the madness starts.

Lilly: How would you describe the stigma associated with PTSD in the military?

Chris: It’s singular: it’s the fact that if you have PTSD, you can’t be a warrior. You can’t re-deploy. It’s just that simple. Having PTSD means you’re weak. Your job is to kill, you’re not supposed to be weak. End of story.

Lilly: Do you think that more assistance in the return home from deployments, or pre-deployment, could help prevent PTSD before people are medically discharged?

Chris: I’m not smart enough to say that. A lof of military bases and organizations are adding resiliency components. The Army has the Army Resiliency Program, the Department of Defense has Total Force Fitness, which has a five tiered approach to health: physical, mental, spiritual, social and family.

The problem is that yoga at the end of a deployment is too late. It needs to come before deployments. I often ask myself where I would be if I didn’t have a practice.Chris Eder II

Lilly: So if you witness something terrifying, and you don’t have the ability to emotionally engage with it at the time, do you think that that gap, between a traumatic event and processing it, is how PTSD develops?

Chris: So the traumatic event happens, and you go into hyper-arousal in response, because you’re trying to protect yourself. And that’s good. But then, in war, if you come down, you might just be spiked up again. And again. And again. You don’t really ever know. And so you don’t ever really come down.

I can’t tell you that I saw something and immediately had PTSD. And some people could see the same thing that I did and never struggle with it. And others could think they weren’t bothered and then all of a sudden it comes back to them. And there’s a large group as well that comes home and recognize that they’re struggling and get help right away.

Lilly: Did nightmares or flashbacks start to crop up for you, long after you experienced the traumatic events?

Labels don’t define a person, but the labels are your ticket to treatment and services. For the purposes of treatment and services, I have PTSD. But the label means nothing to me.

Chris: Yes. I have several reoccurring nightmares. I have flashbacks of events, with such clarity of mind that I experience smells and sounds. And here’s the crazy part: I can’t remember anything, but I can sit here and tell you with pinpoint accuracy all the things that happened in Iraq.

Lilly: What do you experience in your body when you are having a flashback?

Chris: My heart starts pounding, my breath is shortened. I cry at night. And I don’t know when it’s going to happen. I can go to bed extremely happy and it doesn’t make a difference.

Lilly: I’ve been revisiting the Yoga Sutras with PTSD in mind. And this idea that the goal of yoga is about seeing clearly- without the traps of our conditioning hindering us- has struck me in terms of thinking about recovery from PTSD as gaining awareness about and freedom from your past.

Chris: I can’t control my flashbacks or my delusions, and sometimes, even in meditation, I just have to sit with them. And that’s life, right? Sometimes stuff comes up that’s unwanted and we can’t control. PTSD is a pretty intense level of unwanted experience, but I think Santosha—acceptance—is really important. chris eder III

Sometimes when I’m by myself it’s easy to control. And at other times, especially when i’m in large groups, it’s really hard. I had to sit with my wife for three hours in the DMV the other day and it was horrible. There were probably 300 people in that room. I looked at my wife and said “I’m really not comfortable here.” And she said “does that mean we can’t be anywhere with a lot of people?” and I said “no, it just means I don’t want to be somewhere where someone could potentially have a gun.”

Lilly: What were you experiencing?

Chris: I was on high-alert, checking everybody out, looking at all the coming and going, trying to anticipate any sudden moves. I was in a state of trying to prepare for the worst possible scenario. For three hours.

Lilly: A lot of that alertness and preparedness is, as you mentioned, natural and useful in an unsafe situation. But when it goes too far, it wipes out the other perceptions so that you feel unsafe more or less all the time.

Chris: It seems like there’s a tipping point for me. And sometimes the tipping point is gradual, and sometimes it’s instantaneous.

If I’m driving on the freeway and I get cut off, or I see something that is suspicious, it will hit me immediately and I will just go ballistic. The gradual onset is more interpersonal—where there’s a tension around a miscommunication. I will get sweaty and my heart will start racing and I will know that I have to stop and use my words. I will say “we have to stop because we are not at a point where we are listening to each other anymore.”

I’ve learned if I push it past that point, then I snap, and I won’t stop until I’m satisfied. And as soon as it starts, I almost immediately start to feel guilty but I can’t stop it until I’ve seen it through, to the point where I’ve really harmed someone.

Lilly: I think that speaks to the way that we at first try to defend ourselves with words, and then we get to a more raw, exposed, perhaps more primal place, we attack.

Chris: And that’s a natural reaction. But the inability to control that is the unhealthy part.

Lilly: I think that’s what we’re talking about when we talk about balancing the two parts of the nervous system– the alert readiness that allows us to defend ourselves, but also the ability to step back, take a breath, and consider whether or not we’re actually in danger.

Chris: I can track the days that go by that I don’t meditate and there’s a direct correlation between that number of days and how bad I feel. I got sick recently and I didn’t practice for almost two weeks and I found myself getting into more disagreements with everyone around me. So there’s a marked difference.

Lilly: After you’ve blown up in anger, how do you get back on track without being too hard on yourself about it?

Chris: Last June 27th, which was national PTSD awareness day, I came out to the world. I put a picture of myself up on this site, which showed me in my military outfit making a crazy face. And the caption was “i’m not okay, and that’s okay.”

 I can’t control my flashbacks or my delusions, and sometimes, even in meditation, I just have to sit with them. And that’s life, right? PTSD is a pretty intense level of unwanted experience, but I think Santosha—acceptance—is really important.

And I was just trying to raise more awareness about how it’s okay to be wounded and it doesn’t have to be mean anything about your value and whether or not you’re a warrior.

Lilly:  What are some of the challenges of being a veteran who has an invisible rather than a visible injury?

Chris: I think it’s easier to identify and have compassion for visible injury, for obvious reasons. If you try to consider how you would be responding to an angry vet with PTSD if they were a triple amputee,  it can shift things.

But PTSD does not define me. It’s something that I have, and because I have it I need to get help. And I get help so that it doesn’t become all that I am. Sometimes though, it does become me.

Lilly: How would you describe the role of yoga in your current life?

Chris: I think most importantly it’s paying it forward, by giving back the gift i’ve been given. I really feel that my role as a yogi is so connected to my role as a teacher. If I can offer something to others so that they can be at ease and develop the tools to take care of themselves, then that’s huge.

Lilly: At first glance, the yoga community and the military community are two opposing cultures. What in your mind is the common ground that exists between them?

Chris: I think a lot of the resistance to yoga in the military comes from a masculine standpoint. The ladies in the military who are practicing yoga are all about it. But the men look at the fact that all the ladies are going to yoga and assume it must be for ladies. And some of us just stop there. We assume we know what yoga is.

Chris Eder 1

But one by one, what i’ve witnessed is that men are becoming more open to it. Sometimes i’ll be talking to someone at work and they’ll be talking about how wussy yoga is, and then i’ll take my boots off and drop into a pose, and then ask them to do it. And when they can’t, i’ll get my friend Jennifer to come over and she’ll drop into the pose no problem. So while these guys might be talking about how yoga is for girls, they can’t do what the girls are doing. And that’s how I get them in.

I have a friend in the Air Force who used to give me shit about doing yoga and say that I must like it because i’m around all these girls. And i’m like “what’s wrong with that?.” I gave him a free pass to one of my classes and he came and checked it out. Now this guy is a soldier’s solider. And we’re just getting started, just minor movement, and he was just torked. We go to side plank and he just can’t hold it, and there’s a 50 year old lady next to him with her leg in the air.

Now he comes regularly to my free Sunday class for vets and does yoga 2 or 3 times a week.

Lilly: I think it really is a cultural merging that’s happening, between yoga and the military, but also a merging that’s going on between what we think of as stereotypically masculine and feminine.

Chris: If you think about it, 6,000 years ago, who practiced yoga?

Lilly: Dudes in loin clothes.

Chris: Right. And the elite class. Tell me if you think there’s anything more elite than the military. Because remember the statistic: less than 3 percent of the population is actually fit enough to qualify to serve. And of that 3 percent, less than 1 percent actually do. This is the first year ever that all the people running for president and vice president, no one has served in the military.

PTSD does not define me. It’s something that I have, and because I have it I need to get help. And I get help so that it doesn’t become all that I am.

Lilly: What are some of your visions for yoga in the military, in the next 20 years?

Chris: PTSD has a stigma and Yoga has a stigma. I don’t want yoga to be thought of as an afterthought. I want it to be part of the treatment plan. I believe that there’s a time and a place for medication. I mean I’m on meds and I hate taking meds, but I’m on them right now because I need to be. So I want yoga to be considered part of the standard treatment plan.

What if someone with PTSD was told they were going to meet with a psychiatrist once a week, someone who could give them medication just to make their initial transition easier, but they were also told they were going to see a yoga instructor once a week, who was trained to work with veterans, focusing on mindfulness?

And eventually, as that team worked together, what if the amount of visits to the psychiatrist slowly decreased as the amount of times you did yoga increased, and also the amount of pills slowly decreased? I want to see psychiatry working in tandem with these holistic modalities so that it is an overall part of the treatment plan.

Lilly: Say you meet a vet with PTSD and you have two minutes to say something to him about yoga. What would you say?

Chris: I would tell him yoga is a way for him to help regulate and normalize what’s going on inside. And then he’ll probably say something about how it’s for women and I’ll drop a pose right there in the elevator and ask him if he can do it. And then say “it will challenge you.”

 I don’t want yoga to be thought of as an afterthought. I want it to be part of the treatment plan.

But I don’t honestly care why someone decides to come to yoga, or what they explore in a class. As long as we can get the warrior on the mat, over time he or she will become hooked. I’m amazed by people who come just for physical fitness and then eventually they’ll turn to me and say “so what’s the deal with these chakras?”

IMG_5908
MalaforVets, Manipura Chakra Mala

 

 

 

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Ed: Kate Bartolotta

 

About Lilly Bechtel

Grappling with the question of how alternative forms of healing can address social justice, Lilly has brought poetry, theater and yoga workshops into correctional facilities for the past six years. A graduate of Bard College, she has published in "Field Notes", in the anthology "Creating Behind the Razor Wire: An Overview of Arts in Corrections in the U.S.", "USA Today", "The Brooklyn Rail" and "The Faster Times". Ms. Bechtel is currently working on a book based on the experiences of veterans who have discovered yoga and meditation to be a helpful part of the return home.

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14 Responses to “PTSD is a Natural, Human Response to Disordered Events: An Interview with Chris Eder.”

  1. Paula Reeves-Carrasquillo says:

    Such a powerful series. Namaste, Chris!

    • afnbroadcaster says:

      Thanks!

      • Amberlyn says:

        I know others have already said this and I truly want to give you the benefit of the doubt that you meant no harm, but the use of the word bitch to describe any woman is grossly offensive and a reflection of the character faults trained into males in the military. I am a veteran and a woman who has severe PTSD due to both surviving a brutal sexual assault as well as 18 months of intense mission stressors as a medic and physical injuries due to being issued substandard equipment because I was a substandard soldier according to SWD's or SWPA's. I used to be a "SWB" as you say…but years of physical pain, emotional pain, and being kicked in the face when I was already down by Skinny White Dicks. or Skinny White Privileged Assholes, pick your tasteless and overgeneralizing acronym, made it difficult for me to leave the house, sleep at night or care if I was even alive.
        I wanted to forward your article as educational for others about the realities of living with PTSD. But you have made it clear that I need to start writing my own. And my goal when I do so will be to not insult or isolate my other veterans sisters and brothers in the process. I am sad that you didn't have appropriate editing support on this piece. You outlined a great deal of truths that can't get through to more than half the population (women and the men who respect them).

  2. Yogaji says:

    Is it really necessary to judge other forms of yoga? (RE: SWB yoga). Is there a less-judgmental, healing way to phrase this that does demean other groups? That is part of the healing process as well.

    • Guest says:

      I am a "SWB" with PTSD. The SWB label also took me by surprise when I saw it several times in this article. Yoga saved my life and continues to help me through (or manage) this dreadful state. Regardless of the derogatory labels used in the article the message is incredibly important, and mindfulness helped me see past these labels and get the true message. Yoga and mindfulness training should be part of everyone's mental health toolkit.

      • afnbroadcaster says:

        Dear Guest-

        Full disclosure…I by no means meant to, nor set out to demean anyone. I actually had to think for about 5 minutes what SWB was. I use the phrase to depict what "non-yogis" think yoga is about, not as a term to assess what yoga is. As a practicing yogi, I'm 100% non-judgmental.

  3. you says:

    I didn't finsh this article becuas eo fthh einsults.

  4. Private Yenjamin says:

    Making yoga available to folks suffering from PTSD is one thing. Making yoga available to folks suffering from having been a stock broker or anything else that has caused a tremendous amount of stress is one thing. But to suggest that yoga be used to help people before the stress happens without addressing the issue stated in the YS that "the suffering of the future should be avoided" is a whole other thing and the author of this piece slips that in so casually it's scary. Obviously, yogically speaking, the suffering of being a stock broker should be avoided. I understand that it's no longer the case that yoga practitioners reject society and live in caves, but there is a line. Yoga in bootcamp? Really? Think about that. If someone wants to avoid the suffering caused by being a stock broker they should not be a stock broker. And in connection with the military, please don't bring the BG into this as a retort. Krishna told Arjuna that yoga happens only when "there is no hatred, fear, or even agitation" involved. Since the suggestion that yoga be offered to military people connects to an anticipation of stress, there is no way to connect that prospect with yoga. To avoid suffering, how about not becoming government property? If the government owns your body, it can make you do anything it wants. If it makes you do yoga, then things have crossed over to a very strange place. You can read a book called "Sinister Yogis" to understand that lots of strange things have already happened in the history of yoga, but even there, unlike the author of Sinister Yogis, we can recognize a difference between tantra and yoga. And the yoga we do today is the yoga we do today. But c'mon. Military instituted yoga? Wow. People are free to make whatever decisions they make. They can choose to be in the military, but once they do, they have given up choice. Their bodies belong to the government. So what's being suggested is that the government do yoga with its property. That is truly creepy.

  5. BG2 says:

    I was offended by this article as well. As an instructor, I was hoping to learn something, but the interviewee's attitude toward women who practice yoga is offensive. Very unfortunate.

  6. Natalie Baginski says:

    David Lynch is funding meditation for Congolese refugees who survived genocide and have debilitating PTS. The department of defense is funding a 2 million dollar project right now on treating PTSD with transcendental meditation, and Norwich University is studying how transcendental meditation increases something called "situational awareness". Cadets who meditate have faster reaction times, better aim and less stress during chaotic drills. By less stress I mean the limbic system is calm while the prefrontal cortex is firing. One is calm yet highly aware. There are currently four published studies on TM and PTSD and the results of all four showed that within thirty days everyone with PTS had a 50% reduction in symtoms all the way to being labeled "asymptomatic". I have all four studies on my laptop and would be happy to email them to anyone who is interested. I am writing my Master's Thesis on TM and PTSD. Depending on how the San Diego study goes, the military might actually implement TM as a stress reduction tool. Have them meditating in training before they even go overseas means so they don't actually develop PTS. There are also some prison studies done on ego development and heightened moral reasoning, and effects of transcending (established in Self…). So as outside of our paradigm it is, we really can "avert the danger that has not yet come" and if TM were a pill it would be the hottest drug on the market for PTS. I was going to write my thesis on Emily Dickenson and I saw the results of these studies on the same day I saw the suicide rate for returning soldiers so now this whole topic is my life. It seems like a pseudoscience but the research on TM is elegant. And it's easy. Yes, you can do it in a fox hole, an airport, or in your bunk during basic training. Twenty minutes twice a day, you can do it in a group or alone, no need for yoga pants, no religious belief required, and the EEG changes are apparent within one minute of starting the practice. If the government does want to see these soldiers get better they should look to the research. These soldiers didn't read the Gita and become yogis they joined a war and now they are suffering. We want highly effective soldiers who are fast, think clearly, emotionally stable and strong. Being broken down in the field from stress isn't good for anyone and then coming home and developing PTS results in homelessness, addiction, suicide. So if TM works and it's easy, I hope the military adopts it and I hope it starts in basic training.

    • Private Yenjamin says:

      And forget the yamas and niyamas, especially ahimsa (non-violence)? Forget about the establishment of the behavioral modifications, and go ahead and teach asana to people in order to make them better killers? Again, "wow." It's especially misguided in relation to what the military does with its property. You remember the guy who killed all those Afghani family members as they were eating dinner? How many tours had he done? If PTSD had set in before the last time he was deployed, he might not have been sent back there in the first place. You think the military would just be okay with yoga helping soldiers manage their after service lives? Please. If they're okay, soldiers go back, and no matter how much yoga they do, eventually, going back will lead to PTSD, and then it's just a question of where things get ugly. At home, or elsewhere. So I'm all for what Lynch is doing with refugees. It just shouldn't be used to help the government and its war machine, and really it won't be because yoga can't be turned into something it's not–no matter how many down-dogs someone is ordered to do.

  7. Auki says:

    The commenters above who were offended are obviously thin-skinned and naive to the sexist culture of the military.

    More power to Chris… may his healing Yoga work continue!

  8. CanyonWren says:

    As a SWB who practices yoga and teaches yoga classes for veterans I was appalled by the cavalier use of this demeaning phrase towards a stereotype of who practices yoga. It was not relevant to the topic and I can assure you I will never buy mala beads made by someone with this attitude. I'm not surprised that a male member of the military uses this phrase as I've heard it before except without the SW in front of it. This is how many military men regard their fellow female soldiers. It's also the reason why many of the female veterans who come to yoga have PTSD. They have been sexually assaulted (Military Sexual Trauma/MST), frequently by a person in a position of power over them and they can't just leave their job or ask for a transfer. I'm all for teaching yoga as a means of recovery from the effects of serving in the military, combat or otherwise. I find the idea of using it to make people better killers revolting and a misuse of a practice that could otherwise bring about peaceful conflict resolution to world problems. Perhaps some of the active duty people will wake up to what is really going on in their lives and become warriors for peace.

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