Veteran Michael Cooley is fighting back tears as he struggles to explain why he wants to take the psychedelic brew ayahuasca. And as is so common with sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder, he struggles hardest when acknowledging the effect his PTSD has had on the people he loves the most.
“I see it building in my kids. I see them picking up my per—,” he pauses as his voice starts to break and tears well in his eyes, “—perspective of the world. I see them viewing things the way I view them. And I want to break that cycle so bad.”
His voice drops to a near-whisper as he closes his eyes. “They’re such little hearts. They shouldn’t already hate the world the way I do.”
He starts to sob. “If ayahuasca can take that out of me, then I don’t care what I see, what I have to go through.”
An unrelenting anger
Cooley was deployed three times—once to Afghanistan and twice to Iraq—but it wasn’t until shortly after he’d returned home from his third and final deployment in January of 2009 and found himself suddenly losing his temper with his young stepdaughter that he knew something was deeply wrong.
“I got back and I was angry all the time and I was sick all the time and I lost so much weight. I lost almost 40 pounds within three, four months of coming back from my third deployment. And I was miserable. I hated life; I hated everything. I was mad at everything.”
The pharmaceuticals he was subsequently prescribed did little to ease his symptoms. “Solexa and Zyprexa were what I first started with,” he says, “but from there on out, I’m just angry all the time. Anger, anger, anger.”
Cooley’s PTSD symptoms were exacerbated by how out-of-step he felt with the civilian world. “I lived in a different culture for eleven-and-a-half years,” he says. “I was a solider. I was an MP, military police, of the troops and for the troops. And I loved it. I soaked it up because it felt right and it felt good and it felt like, this was the life, that I’m making a difference and I’m improving things. I am so productive; every single day I have a list of things I have accomplished.
“And then I got out and I realized, that’s not commonplace outside of the military. And if I try to live that way, if I try to live in that fashion, it doesn’t fit. It doesn’t mesh and I don’t fit.”
Even so many years later, his PTSD symptoms persist. Ask him to recall a triggering event and he is back there all over again. “My hands are tingling. I’m angry. I’m hyper-vigilant. I’m aware of everything around me,” he says. “All I want to do is find a safe place because I feel like, if someone were to, like…the most irrational things pop into my head!”
Eliminating the source
The one thing Cooley knows is that he can no longer allow his wife and children to bear the brunt of his PTSD. “When I’m at home, I’m there and I have to control everything within those walls. If there’s something going on within those walls I don’t know about, or I’m not aware of, or I’m not part of it happening, then, if I’m in that mindset, everybody’s doing the wrong thing. And I’ll end up sending the kids to bed at 7 o’clock at night, crying. And then I’m sitting downstairs in the basement, ringing my hands, pacing back and forth, trying to go over the day, going, wait, everybody’s upset…I did this.
“But it’s afterwards. And I’m pacing and I’m going…this is my environment I’m creating around me. And then that causes me to fall into depression because I’m thinking, well what good am I here? My kids go to bed crying every night? What kind of father is that? I can’t even call myself a father. I can’t even walk into my bedroom and my wife laying on the bed ready for bed… how can I walk in there and consider myself a worthy husband to lay down next to a wife, after sending his kids to bed crying for nothing?”
Cooley is emphatic. “I want my kids to be happy. I don’t want them to hate life. I want them to be healed from the damage that I’m inflicting upon them. I’m looking at ayahuasca as, if this is the doorway that’s open to me, and I can accept this doorway, and it can bring peace and healing…” He pauses.
“If just the thought of it can bring a smile to my face then maybe ayahuasca will be able to open my eyes to what is already here that I can’t see, and it’ll let me clean the windows of my perception on the world.”
“I’ve already seen a lot. I want to see something other than hate and death.”
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