Living with PTSD – My Story of Survival, Falling Down the Well, and Finding Hope
By Lisa Wright, Attorney at Law
*This is an article from the Summer 2020 issue of Combat Stress.
My name is Lisa. I am not a procrastinator, yet I have waited years to tell my story openly. In truth, publicly baring my soul intimidates me. But now is not the time for fear. As a wise man once said, “The truth will set you free.” John 8:32.
Part I: My Moment
What is the worst moment of your life? Mine was 9 years ago. I was 26 years old and an officer with the Houston Police Department. I worked nightshift patrol. I was healthy, happy. I loved my job and enjoyed simple things like running, Star Wars, and Toblerone chocolate bars.
It was Monday, August 8, 2011 in Spring, Texas, just north of Houston. I ended my shift that morning, went for a run in my quiet neighborhood where nothing ever happens, showered, and went to bed around 8 am. I set my alarm for 4 pm because I was in law school and had to study for summer finals.
I put my German Shepherd, Gunner, in the laundry room since it was a 100-degree day. I fell asleep, wearing a white tank top and black skivvies (a relevant detail later).
At around noon, I woke up to a thump at my bedroom window. Something was scratching the screen.
Trigger #1: Noises waking me up. Trigger #2: Noises at the window or door.
Then, I heard him: “Fweet fweet fweet!” He whistled for my dog. I can still hear that high-pitched whistle, like nails on a chalkboard. Trigger #3: Whistling.
He had seen the large doghouse and was checking for my dog. Gunner would have attacked him…. that is, if I had not put him in the laundry room. Mistake #1.
I also did not have an alarm because I lived in a quiet neighborhood where nothing ever happens. Mistake #2.
It clicked: someone was breaking in. I threw on my glasses and ran through my house to the garage and grabbed my shotgun: a Remington 870, 12-Gauge pump-action firearm with a bandolier sling, fully loaded with buckshot shells. It was registered as my backup weapon.
I typically rode solo in some of the most violent beats in Houston and kept my shotgun handy; but that day, I foolishly kept it in my garage instead of my bedroom. Mistake #3.
I racked a shell into the chamber. Trigger#4: A shotgun racking.
I was rushing. I did not wrap the bandolier sling across my chest. Mistake #4.
I also forgot my vest. Mistake #5.
I ran back through my house and stopped at my back door, just long enough to take a breath. I opened the door and stepped out to my quaint patio, with purple concrete pavers and a white pergola wrapped with vines. It was my favorite place to relax and sip coffee or a beer.
I scanned the yard. I looked left and saw my bedroom window screen on the ground. I moved toward the alley on the left side of my house. As I slowly cleared the corner, I saw him. He was a white male, approximately 6-feet tall. He was wearing a striped shirt, jeans, and grey gloves. He was much bigger than me.
I pointed my shotgun at him and yelled, “Get on the ground!”
He raised his hands. “Whoa, whoa!”
“Get on the ground, now!” I repeated.
“I’m here to fix your fence,” he said.
“Get on the ground!” I kept repeating.
I can only imagine what he saw. I was short, 125 pounds, wearing skivvies and foggy glasses. I did not identify myself as a cop. Mistake #6.
I did not know what to do. His hands were up, but he would not get down. He was just standing there.
Only he wasn’t. He was inching closer, but my eyes did not see him closing the gap. Mistake #7.
He lunged and snatched the barrel of my shotgun. He whipped my body around as I gripped the stock. My glasses flew off, and we both tumbled to my purple concrete pavers.
And so began the worst moment of my life. I call it my “moment” because I do not know if it was 5 seconds or 5 minutes. Time, space, everything melted away.
He was on top, crushing me. He kept yanking the shotgun, trying to pull it from my sweaty hands. If I had that sling around my body, I would have been able to use my body weight to hold on. He dragged me from side to side. The concrete tore open my legs, back, and elbows.
He grunted in my ear: “Give me the f—ing gun! I’m going to f—ing kill you!”
I just held on. I looked up at the sky through the vines on my pergola. Sometimes I go back and imagine I died in that moment—something I call “going down the rabbit hole.” I imagined that he shot me with my own shotgun and ran off into the sunset, never to be found again.
I laid there with my eyes open gazing at the sky. I saw police hovering over my body, frowning.
“Such a shame. She had the gun right there.”
But something did pull me out of the rabbit hole. I was out of breath. He was overpowering me, but somehow my lungs filled with air. I screamed. He let go. He stood up and backpedaled, but he was still facing me. I was afraid he was going to come after me again. I sprang up and squeezed the trigger. The cannon blast. Trigger #5: Gunshots. He hunched over and fell.
I was scared he was going to come after me again. I tried to re-rack the shotgun but could not. (Later I found out that we had wrestled for the gun so hard, it bent the barrel).
I ran inside and my shaky fingers and dialed 911. I grabbed my other backup pistol: a Ruger LCP .380 caliber. I thought there could be more intruders. I heard my neighbors outside calling me. Officers arrived minutes later.
I was hysterical. I kept asking if he was in custody. I was worried he ran away. One officer kept saying, “They got him.” After they treated my wounds and calmed me down, one of the EMTs knelt and whispered, “He’s gone.”
I cried. He was dead and I killed him.
As an officer, I was familiar with the routine that followed, though it is quite different when you are the victim. There is a lot of waiting. I could not use my phone. One officer called my boyfriend, who was traveling at the time. My boyfriend then called his dad to come check on me, but police would not let anyone through. Yellow tape surrounded my house. A helicopter hovered. News vans parked outside. My neighbors stood by, gawking. My house was a crime scene.1
My union attorney arrived. I was finally allowed to get dressed. My attorney snuck me out through my garage, shielding my face from the cameras. We went to the Harris County Police Station so I could provide a formal statement. I learned some things about my attacker: he was ex-military, a fugitive, and had prior theft charges. Earlier that morning, some neighbors had reported a suspicious male walking around in our quiet neighborhood, where nothing ever happens.
Part II: My Descent
The next few days, months, and years were a blur. I remember the good things: friends, family, and complete strangers who reached out. One of his family members even wrote a letter saying she was praying for me, that he was not a good person, and that I was not the cause of his death—he was. My boyfriend proposed about a week later. The ring and wedding plans were welcomed distractions.
But then there were the bad things: some idiot posted that my attacker was just leaving business cards on people’s front doors. At work, one officer slapped me on the back and blurted: “So, what’s it like to kill someone?” Another officer asked if I had shot a Jehovah’s Witness. Work changed. I was put on routine leave for a few days. I saw the department’s psychologist for a few sessions. I worked the desk for a while.
I eventually returned to patrol but could not ride solo. I partnered with someone who was a much better driver than me anyway. I then left Patrol and worked Homicide for a few years. I finished law school. The day after giving birth to our first daughter, I found out that I had passed the bar exam. I saw it as a sign that I should quit the job I loved and become a lawyer. I had seen enough evil in my lifetime and thought that would maybe fix my “issues.”
I went to a few more sessions with other therapists within our insurance network. They were okay, but they moved around a lot. Building relationships was hard. I was prescribed a generic pill (an SSRI) that treats depression and anxiety. Unfortunately, a few therapy sessions were not enough to keep me from being dragged down The Well—my personal hellhole. It would take 9 years to realize that I had PTSD and needed help.
Part III: The Well
I developed some of these symptoms during my time in The Well.
1. Weight Loss/Gain. I could not eat for a while. Running helped me escape The Loop—when my mind replays everything over and over. I quickly lost about 15 pounds after my shooting. I gained it all back (and then some) after three pregnancies in four years (that math is accurate). I just could not seem to return to the healthy, happy version of myself.
2. Insomnia. Sleep has never been the same. I will budget extra time at night because it will take me an hour or so of watching something funny on TV to relax. I will fall asleep but wake up a few hours later. If a noise wakes me up, like my sprinklers hitting my window, then I typically just start my day right then. I will only wear frumpy PJs to bed. I cannot sleep in skivvies anymore.
3. Paranoia. Any of those triggers I mentioned will start The Loop. I am a nervous person. My husband snaps his fingers when he walks into a room so that I do not startle. Every time there is a knock at the door, my heart jumps. I sleep with a shotgun under my bed. I run with a knife in my waistband. If you are a man and I do not know you, keep your hands to yourself—or risk losing them.
4. Numbness. When I was not paranoid or hypersensitive, I was numb. My generic SSRI covered my brain like a blanket. It numbed the pain, but it also numbed my joy and inhibited my ability to think. I could be happy, but people would not know it by my poker-face.
5. Isolation. I felt hopelessly alone and ashamed, like I had a dark secret no one else had. Someone broke into my house while I was sleeping and tried to kill me—only I killed him first. Not many live to tell that kind of story.
6. Self-deprecation. People say I am hard on myself and apologize too much. After killing someone, I cannot help but wonder what all I could have done differently that day. I think of all my “mistakes.” If I had an alarm, maybe he would have picked a different house. People lauded my strength and courage and called me a hero. I had different names for myself: freak of nature, killer. To me, every human on this earth is a child of God, even when they do evil things. Ergo, I killed a child of God. I live in perpetual guilt and fear because one day, my day will come. One day, I will face judgment. These were just a few of my main symptoms. I thought I just needed more time, but I learned that a mental wound is just like a physical one; it needs time and treatment— otherwise it will fester.
I spent years trying to distract myself with one milestone and distraction after another. Marriage. A new career. Three daughters. A new house. Projects. Things just kept getting harder. I went off my generic SSRI because I could not focus on work. It would help calm me down, but it inhibited my ability to think, read, and write— critical skills as a lawyer.
Going off this SSRI was a bigger mistake. My temper had a short fuse. I would yell and need to go for a walk to cool down. I could not get out of bed in the morning. People would say it was normal to feel exhausted and irritable with three kids, that postpartum depression was common, and so on. My body was not just worn out—my soul was ready to throw in the towel.
Part IV: A New Hope
By the fall of 2019, I knew something needed to change. I found help and hope in three ways.
1. Finding the right prescription. My friend told me about Trintellix—a pill that helps sooth the bad stuff (anxiety/depression), without impeding the good stuff (joy/cognition). By January 2020, I went to a psychiatrist, said goodbye to my old SSRI, and started taking Trintellix. I felt dramatically better within approximately 2 weeks. My old generic pill cost $6. Trintellix costs $60. Worth. Every. Penny.
2. Weekly therapy with a good therapist. I found a psychologist close to home. Minutes after meeting Dr. Mary, I could tell that this was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. She knew what to say and made me feel comfortable. In the past, I would go to therapy about once a month and naively thought that was enough, but people cannot workout once a month and expect to get in shape. I started seeing Dr. Mary once a week. She was out of network, and she charged $190 for an hour session. Worth. Every. Penny.
3. EMDR. Then Dr. Mary suggested that I target what was hidden beneath my iceberg—my PTSD. For years, I dodged those four letters, like I was ashamed of my story, my secret, my “issues.” I would lie to myself and others. I would say, “I have postpartum depression” because it would raise fewer eyebrows then saying, “I have PTSD.” I was afraid that if I said those letters out loud, they would become tattooed on my forehead. I came to realize that if I did not accept the correct diagnosis of my “issues”, how could I expect to find the right treatment?
Dr. Mary was trained in a form of therapy called EMDR—Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. She told me how scientific studies show that by using EMDR therapy to treat PTSD, people can experience vast improvements in a relatively short amount of time.2 I researched it, prayed about it, and decided to trust her—and God. We started EMDR therapy in mid-January of this year. Basically, it involves recalling and reliving the traumatic memories in small doses. It then uses handheld vibrations and sounds through earphones to redirect the brain activity from the more hyperactive side of the brain, to the calmer side. When it was developed in the 1980s, it involved eye-movement therapy, but technology and this form of therapy has evolved since then.
We completed four sessions in about four weeks. The first session was hard. Very hard. I had to go back to the scary box of memories that I wanted to keep locked up forever. My discomfort level was at a 10. The second session was easier. The third, even easier. By the fourth session, I could recall those same horrifying memories, but I did not feel horrified anymore. I knew it was over and that I was safe. My discomfort level at the fourth session was about a 1. I cried on my drive home. After many years, I finally felt healthy and happy again.
It has been several months since my EMDR therapy. I see Dr. Mary every other week and take Trintellix every morning. I am not cured. I still have symptoms. I do not believe that the “traumatic stress” part of it ever really goes away, but I do know the “disorder” part can be treated.
My hope is that my story can also touch someone who may be stuck at the bottom of The Well. The treatment that worked for me may not be the same for everyone, but I want people to know that with time and treatment, there is hope. You can feel healthy and happy again, too. If my story can help even one soul climb out of that terrible, lonely place, then maybe I will have done something right in my life.
1. Priest, J., Chron, https://www.chron.com/news/houston-texas/article/Off-duty-HPD-officer-kills-daytime-intruder-at-2079437.php.
2. See EMDR Institute, Inc., available at http://www.emdr.com/what-is-emdr/; see also EMDR Therapy: What You Need to Know, available at https://www.healthline.com/health/emdr-therapy; see also American Psychology Association, PTSD, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy, available at https://www.apa.org/ptsd-guideline/treatments/eye-movement-reprocessing.