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BREAKING THROUGH

A radical therapy may heal the deepest layers of the brain—and transform the way we treat the often untreatable victims of PTSD
PHOTOGRAPHS BY CRISTINA DE MIDDEL FOR NEWSWEEK

AT THE TURN of the millennium, a young woman moved to a cabin on the Mull of Kintyre, a headland in southwest Scotland renowned for the bleak beauty of its cliffs and the treacherous swirl of the currents below. There she took in two horses, and for a time the silent companionship of those geldings offered more in the way of healing than the countless prescriptions she’d been given by psychiatrists, or the well-meaning attempts by therapists to excavate the most painful parts of her past. Then, in early 2013, she did something she had promised herself she would never do again: She bought a bottle of vodka.

The woman, who asked to be identified only as Karen, cannot recall the precise trigger that made her reach for a drink after 12 years of sobriety. But she does remember stumbling into the hospital in Lochgilphead, the nearest town. Intoxicated and near-delirious, she feared the suicidal impulses that had racked her since she was a teenager might prove too strong to resist.

Dr. Gordon Barclay was making his rounds that day. A consultant in general adult psychiatry with a passion for Goethe, he was a more attentive listener than the street drinkers who had served as Karen’s confidantes during past relapses. From her hospital bed, she told him about the sexual abuse in her early years, and how she’d learned to dull its searing legacy with alcohol. But the terror she felt while lying awake in bed as a young child, afraid to close her eyes, still lived inside her. It was a story she had told too many psychiatrists and psychologists, but the endless retelling had never changed the way she felt. It was as if she was always waiting for the abuse to begin again. In that way, she was still 5 years old. “Everything was tinged with fear,” says Karen, now in her mid-40s. “I was always driven by the past.”

Barclay soon realized Karen had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition caused by exposure to a horrific or life-threatening event that can lead to a wide spectrum of devastating symptoms, from bouts of overpowering anxiety to mind-saturating despair, emotional numbness, night terrors and uncontrollable rage. Sufferers can experience flashbacks to a time when they thought they were about to die: high-deinition replays in their minds, complete with smell, texture and sound. Symptoms like these can persist for years, even decades, and leave people feeling so damaged that they can’t help but push away even those they love the most.

As Karen had discovered, PTSD can be maddeningly difficult to treat. She still remembers the panic in the eyes of one social worker when his attempts to get her to open up brought on the full force of her terror. “It didn’t matter where I went—nowhere seemed to be able to ofer any help,” she says. “The only way I knew how to deal with it was alcohol and also prescription drugs.”

Though Karen drew on her experiences to forge a career in addiction support, she lived her life on a precipice. The abuse she had suffered did not just live on in her mind: It seemed to inhabit the very muscles, fibers and tissue of her body. This visceral volcano was beyond her conscious control: It manifested in panic attacks that felt like a giant screw turning in her gut, bouts of nausea or the times when a lover’s touch would cause her to freeze like a startled deer. No matter how hard she tried to convince herself she was better, her body refused to believe she was safe. “I felt cowardly. I felt shut down,” she says. “The fear in the body attached itself to everything in life.”

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A radical therapy may heal the deepest layers of the brain—and transform the way we treat the often untreatable victims of PTSD.
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