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Originally written December, 2000. Updated July, 2002.

PTSD & Father's Corpse

An Account of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
in the Midst of Chronic Panic Disorder

Part 1 - The Trauma

My house was a short walk from my father's home; only about five city blocks or a five minute walk. My father and I would visit each other at any time the mood hit us, which usually turned out to be about once a week. We would talk, debate, reminisce or simply watch favorite movies together.

On a Friday afternoon in March, 1999, I decided to drop by my father's house for a brief visit. Like countless times before, I used my key to enter his front door and called out, "Hi Dad!" There was no answer, but that was not unusual since he lived in a large house and I didn't know if he was at home anyway. "Dad?" I called again, a bit more loudly. There was still no answer, so I walked towards the living room. The television was on, but the picture and sound were simply noisy static. For a moment, I assumed he had just finished watching a video and was now in the backyard with his dog.

I then noticed that my father was lying on the living room floor. At first it seemed he was just asleep. As I approached to wake him, however, I suddenly noticed that all the hair and flesh was gone from his head. The skull and jaw bone were cleanly exposed and only empty eye sockets stared back at me. Strangely, however, the rest of his body seemed remarkably intact. From the neck down he seemed almost alive, but above the neck there was only a lifeless skull that contained the decaying brain of a once provocative, intelligent and compassionate person. It was then that I noticed the smell of rotting flesh; that so-called smell of death.

As I stood there looking down at my father's body, I could feel myself gradually becoming numb and confused. I felt weak and a bit shaky. My emotions seemed almost to shut down, as though a mental circuit breaker had been tripped. Or, maybe, my emotions were just too extreme to relate to, causing some illusion of absence. My thoughts became a series of brief and purely practical responses; almost robotic in nature. I guess I was experiencing some sort of shock. Having suffered from panic disorder, I had spoken with PTSD victims before. From such conversations it occurred to me that I should minimize my exposure to the trauma. I also knew I had to contact emergency services immediately.

Stepping past my father's body, I walked to the phone in the kitchen and tried calling 911. There was no dial tone. Apparently, the phone had been disconnected because the phone bill hadn't been paid. Walking past the body again, I left the house and went to the neighbor's. I explained that I thought my father was dead and I needed to call 911. The neighbor, a kind elderly woman, invited me inside and let me use her phone. Soon I was talking with the 911 operator.

"I think my father is dead." I said, later realizing the absurdity of this statement.

"Why do you think he is dead?" asked the operator.

"All the flesh is gone from his head." I replied.

I answered a few more questions before the operator asked me to wait outside my father's house for the police.

While waiting for the police to arrive, I reflected on my words. I had told the operator that I 'thought' my father had died! It should have been perfectly obvious to me that my father simply 'was' dead; no uncertainty about it! The notion that anyone could still be alive in such a state was both unrealistic and terribly gruesome. Yet, this was still only minutes since I had found his body. The idea of him not being alive still seemed unreal. Previously I had walked into his home and said 'Hi Dad!' with the full expectation that he would answer. Now I was sitting on the front steps of his house with the image of his skull burned into my mind. And since the body no longer had a face, could I really be sure it was my father? Of course it had to have been my father, but the trauma of the moment had thrown my sensibilities off balance. I was experiencing derealization. The situation was simply so far removed from my everyday reality that it had a dreamlike quality that was hard to accept.

Slowly, my emotions started to creep back. A tide of nauseating anxiety was gradually rising within me. I took a milligram of Xanax to help me stay calm.

Struggling to accept the situation, I wondered 'why' the flesh was gone only from my father's head while the rest of his body seemed untouched? Talking with the neighbor a bit more, I learned that my father was last seen alive roughly a week ago. Apparently, his body had been lying in the living room most of that time, kept company only by his dog and cat. Left unfed all that time, the dog and cat must have been terribly hungry. Yet, I knew enough about animals to know that carnivores usually don't begin eating the head and work their way down. Had the dog and cat simply been eating the body, they would have started with my father's limbs or abdomen; easier to consume and more nutritional. Slowly, it dawned on me that the dog and cat were not consuming my father for food, but rather licking at his face in an attempt to get his attention or revive him. They had simply licked at his face long enough and often enough to remove the flesh.

A police car arrived with a single police woman. She began asking me questions. I answered with brief and direct replies. Learning of the dog and cat, she asked me to enter the house again, by myself, to find and secure the animals in separate rooms. She seemed concerned that the dog and cat might interfere with the removal of the body, might bite strangers, might escape, or might somehow be diseased from consuming human flesh. Since I was familiar with the dog and cat, and they were familiar with me, it was least risky for me to secure the pets myself.

Reluctantly, I entered the house once again. It was unspeakably awkward looking for the dog and cat while also trying not to look at the corpse. I quietly called for the dog and cat, but they were unusually quiet and absent; especially the dog. I began to wonder if the dog and cat had also died and were now two more corpses waiting for me to discover. Wandering through the rooms of the first floor, I found nothing. Walking up the stairs, I found the cat, alive, on the second floor. She seemed both hungry and strangely cautious. I petted her and closed her in the bathroom. I was searching the rest of the second floor when I heard a faint sound from above. I walked up to the third floor and found the dog, also alive. She too seemed strangely cautious, probably frightened and bewildered. I petted her, lead her to a room, and closed the door. The dog and cat now secured, I started back downstairs. Along the way I noticed signs of vomit from the dog and cat; possibly unrecognizable parts of my father.

I exited the house and reported to the officer. We then simply waited for the medical examiner to arrive. I quietly smoked cigarettes on the front steps while the police woman waited in her car. As an hour passed, I noticed how strangely normal the rest of the world seemed. Completely unaware of what had happened, people were going about their business as on any other day. Stranger still was the police woman. Despite being aware of the circumstances, the situation was less personal and, perhaps, less unusual to her, so she comfortably sipped coffee, read a magazine and occasionally laughed at the articles she was reading. The contrast of extremes made the moment seem all the less real, and made me feel all the more distant and disconnected from the people around me.

In hindsight, the conduct of the police woman seemed rather inappropriate to me. She never discussed nor mentioned trauma counseling to me. She had instructed me to re-expose myself to the scene of the trauma. She was overtly cheerful and showed little sign of empathy. On the other hand, she did seem rather young and new to her job. Perhaps she had never experienced a trauma like mine and simply couldn't relate. After all, seeing the mutilated corpse of a stranger is vastly different from seeing that of a loved one. Yet, even when police ask family members to identify a body, they tend to be very hesitant to show mutilation. Perhaps this young police woman overlooked some policy; assuming there was a policy that applied in this circumstance.

Eventually, the medical examiner's van arrived. He inspected the scene and asked me more questions. With latex gloves, the medical examiner and an assistant entered the house with a folded body bag. About five minutes later, they struggled to carry the filled body bag out the front door. A hand slipped and one end of the body bag fell hard on the doorstep. Lifting the bag again, they carried it to the van and loaded it in. For a moment, I wondered about the other bodies in the van with my father, and what other misfortunes they represented.

By now, the animal control truck had arrived. I was told that, since the dog and cat had consumed human flesh, they had to be taken to an animal shelter for testing. I was given a phone number to check on their status the next day. They asked which rooms I had secured the animals in, and I told them. They entered the house and, one by one, the dog and cat were brought out and loaded into cages. The cat mewed and mewed with obvious anxiety. I could only look at her and try to offer soothing words. Likewise, the dog whimpered. Again, I could only offer soothing words with little effect.

The afternoon was becoming a series of traumas. The initial shock of finding my father was the worst. Soon after, this first trauma was reinforced when I had to reenter the house. Then, followed by the heartbreaking circumstances of the of the beloved family pets which were like two traumas more. Now, as the last of the people and vehicles disappeared down the street, I was left alone to enter the house once more to turn off the lights and lock up. I stepped around the body's stain on the carpet and a discarded latex glove while trying not to focus on that inescapable odor. I soon finished my task and walked home.


Part 2 - After The Trauma

Having read about PTSD in the years before my own trauma, I had some idea of what to expect. I suspected that some things would become "triggers" for me. I also suspected that I would experience "flashbacks" of some kind. However, I would soon learn that my preconceived notions of PTSD were not entirely accurate in my own case. Though most of my triggers were bluntly obvious associations with the trauma, other triggers were remarkably subtle. Stranger still, my flashbacks were not the vivid dream-like replay often described by fellow sufferers. Instead, my flashbacks involved an intensely powerful feeling that I was on the verge of reliving the trauma, but never actually did; at least, not in the explicit manner that I expected.

Generally speaking, PTSD is just as diverse as other kinds of anxiety disorders. PTSD is often described as a collection of characteristic symptoms (triggers, flashbacks, nightmares, etc.). However, people and traumas vary widely, so individual cases of PTSD will differ as well. The nature and severity of symptoms will vary from one person to the next. Sometimes a particular symptom may even be surprisingly absent. When considering any specific case of PTSD, it is important to keep such diversity in mind.

Returning to my own case, the events of that Friday afternoon had been so overwhelming that my mind couldn't process the feelings. I hadn't yelled or even cried at all. I felt a deep sadness and horror within me, but I was too dazed and confused to relate to my own feelings. I had gone numb and simply did what needed to be done. The most potent symptoms of my PTSD would be a delayed reaction to the experience; like a lingering collection of echoes within a canyon.

During the first night I became intimately familiar with the triggers and flashbacks of PTSD. Simply thinking of what had happened, let alone discussing it, would conjure up vivid memories of the awful sights and smells with trembling and nausea. However, some discussion was unavoidable because I had to notify family members of my father's passing. With trepidation, I began making phone calls to immediate family. I simply told everyone that I had found my father dead. I didn't wish to volunteer the hideous details and, at the time, I was glad no one asked about the details.

Typically, it's considered healthy and therapeutic to discuss PTSD as soon as possible. Based on my own experience, however, I think there are cases where discussing PTSD too soon may do more harm than good. Either way, PTSD must be openly discussed at some point (with family, friends or in therapy or support groups). Appropriate timing is very difficult to gauge since individual psychology varies greatly and is very subjective.

Strangely, though, my own feelings were not the most important reason I was reluctant to discuss the trauma. The experience had affected me so deeply that I honestly feared traumatizing others by discussing it in any detail. I felt as though I had been infected with some psychological virus that would traumatize the mind of anyone I spoke to. Simply talking about my experience, thoughts and feelings seemed like an act of abuse against others. In hindsight, I probably shouldn't have worried so much about talking openly. Second hand accounts are not as traumatizing as they might seem.

Likewise, chances are that others were reluctant to ask me about the trauma for fear of hurting me as well. Asking someone about their trauma can easily seem like opening Pandora's Box. There is an understandable fear of unleashing a torrent of uncontrollable emotion. However, people with PTSD tend to be good at saying when they feel OK discussing the subject. As long as the issue isn't pressed, gently asking a person if they want to discuss their trauma is perhaps the most helpful thing to do.

Getting to sleep during this period was terribly difficult for me. The lingering feelings of the trauma seemed almost tolerable with distractions such as listening to music or watching television; that is, when lyrics or TV shows didn't include some image or allusion that triggered flashbacks. But when I turned off the music or TV, turned off the lights and went to bed, all the distractions were gone. My mind would then relentlessly gravitate to the scene at my father's house. The impression was so powerfully vivid that I couldn't shake the feeling that, in the dark, my father's corpse was lying on the floor only a few feet away. When I couldn't stand the sensation any longer I got up, turned on the lights and watched TV late into the next morning. Eventually, I would fall asleep from simple exhaustion.

Oddly enough, my trauma did not haunt my dreams while sleeping. I knew that other PTSD people suffered nightmares, so, honestly, I'm not sure why my dreams were unaffected. Even three years after the trauma, I have never once relived the horror in my dreams. The few dreams I've had of my father since he died were entirely pleasant in which he's healthy and happy.

Over that first weekend, my brother Aaron and I began putting things in order. We phoned the animal shelter to inquire about our father's dog and cat. The testing I was told about, concerning disease, was not conducted by this shelter at all. We were simply given an ultimatum; collect the pets today or they would be killed! The person didn't care about the circumstances, just the rules. Naturally, I got rather upset with the person, but this didn't change the situation. We felt overwhelmed and unsure what to do. My brother and I stared at each other for a moment. Neither of us had the space for our father's large dog, and neither of us wanted to expose our own cats to risk of disease. Reluctantly, we decided to have our father's pets put down.

Having to decide the fate of my father's pets so soon added to my emotional distress and was not at all helpful. Anyone who has ever bonded to a family pet knows that such animals become like family. The animal shelter's inflexible procedures and policies in this circumstance seemed terribly misguided. After all, the expense of testing or holding the animals a few more days is nothing compared to the potential expense of complicating a person's PTSD. Furthermore, I felt terribly mislead by the police and animal control people who had told me that testing would be done and neglected to mention the urgent timetable. This is not simply a matter of animal welfare, but also a matter of human welfare. Such insensitivity risks aggravating cases of PTSD and complicating recovery.

Between my PTSD, panic disorder and some cruel moments, I'm not sure how I managed. In some ways, I guess my previous years with panic disorder had aided me in confronting PTSD as well. Then, again, perhaps dealing with my father's funeral, estate and an upcoming panic disorder conference all helped to distract me from inner turmoil. My brother and I never found our father's will, so we could only guess at what he would have wanted. We had a service at the Quaker meeting hall in center city Philadelphia. I actually managed to speak at the service without too much discomfort; focusing more on fond memories of my father's life than the details of his death. The following day we buried his urn next to his mother and sister in Princeton, New Jersey.

The day after the funeral, some family and I gathered at my father's house to collect important family heirlooms. It was still difficult for me to walk about the place where I had found my father. I managed pretty well until we sat down to eat one afternoon. The details of my father's corpse were known only to a few people at the time, so it was entirely by accident that someone started to tell a story that involved the beheading of a chicken. The mere mention of the word "beheading" instantly triggered the awful memory of my father's exposed skull. I was promptly struck with an anxiety attack that sent me awkwardly rushing from the house. With some fresh air and a Xanax, I slowly calmed down. No one asked me for an explanation, so I assumed my behavior was explanation enough.

I continued to struggle with triggers and flashbacks over the following months. Even in my own home, I couldn't walk into a room or open the shower curtain without a powerful expectation of finding a corpse. The experience was like being trapped in a horror movie; constantly expecting some gruesome scene, but never sure when. This sensation was most acute at my father's house. There was still a faint scent of death about the place that I was very sensitive to. Routine visits to my father's house were exercises in emotional discipline and exposure therapy. Given a choice, I might have avoided such visits. However, the bank was threatening foreclosure on the property, so my brother and I had limited time to salvage what we could of our father's life.


Part 3 - Recovery

If someone were to ask me for advice on PTSD recovery, I would strongly encourage them to seek an appropriate therapist or counselor immediately. In my own case, however, I must admit that I did not seek a therapist myself. I'm convinced that an appropriate therapist or counselor would have been a great help in my recovery. But therapy can be rather expensive and my financial resources were very limited at the time. Also, after years of confronting panic disorder, I guess I was arrogant enough to feel that I didn't need therapy for my PTSD. I knew there were traumas far worse than my own, and my panic disorder had certainly been much worse than my PTSD. I honestly felt I had learned enough about psychology and medicine to handle my recovery independently.

Discussing the trauma in all it's gory details really seemed like the healthiest thing I could do. However, I knew some people would be rather sensitive to the subject, so I carefully chose who I spoke to. The few times I did manage to speak about it, I often kept the discussion short because it felt so awkward all round. Overall, I didn't end up speaking about the trauma much and professional therapy really would have helped in this regard.

Discussion aside, the next best thing seemed to be self conducted exposure therapy. Basically, I would force myself to watch graphic war documentaries or grisly horror films that provoked my triggers. Before the trauma, I had watched such things with the casual morbid curiosity shared by most people. But now, such things were more than a remote and abstract curiosity; they represented a very personal and very real aspect of my life. At first, just seeing a skull for a few seconds would make me feel dizzy, nauseous and shaky for an hour or more. Such brief exposure, perhaps once a week over several months, allowed me to view more gruesome images for a minute or more. It was slow progress, but it was progress. Yet I was also careful not to over expose myself. I knew that if I pushed myself too hard, I would only end up making my trauma worse.

On two occasions, I embraced a more tangible form of exposure therapy. For a number of months after my father's death, I still had access to his house. Since the utilities (electricity, water, phone, etc.) had been shut off, I usually only visited the house during daylight. Such daylight visits were devoted to rescuing property and caring for the estate, so the therapeutic impact was somewhat diminished by these tasks. To minimize distraction and focus on my triggers, I decided to make two purely therapeutic visits to the house late at night.

On these two nights, I went alone. Walking into a pitch black, century old house with a flashlight casting eerie shadows is spooky enough I suppose, but it was downright macabre with my PTSD triggers. The expectation of finding a corpse around every dark corner was so potent that I almost felt I was stepping over dead bodies the entire time. This exercise might have been a bit too risky for my state of mind back then. However, I also felt a compelling need to confront the scene and my demons before I lost access to the house. On both nights, I managed to tour every room of the house from the dark corners of the basement to the top floor where I lived for several years. The first night felt like a terribly reckless venture; several times it seemed I might collapse from anxiety with no means of calling for help. Having survived the first night, the second night was somewhat easier, but still not easy. Nonetheless, I felt these exercises in exposure were helpful.

Eventually, the bank took control of the property and I no longer had access to the house. Because of the exhausting effort involved in managing my PTSD, I hadn't rescued everything I had hoped to. Many cherished things associated with my father had become traumatic triggers for me, so I left much behind with later regrets. Nonetheless, I think my family and I managed to save most of the things that were most important. I'll always have regrets, but I temper such regrets by reminding myself that I was under emotional distress and did the best I could under the circumstances. After all, my father would have wanted me to salvage my health before any material artifacts.

Even though the estate and funeral were now behind me, I still struggled with lingering triggers and flashbacks. Such symptoms were very stubborn and took much effort and persistence to confront. With caution, I continued to test my triggers in the spirit of exposure therapy. Sometimes deliberately and sometimes by accident, I continued to test my limits. Often such tests involved trying to watch gruesome movies. However, some tests involved seemingly innocent things like eating chicken off the bone, which felt uncomfortably like feeding off a corpse.

Of course, there were set backs in my recovery. Many times, despite my progress, I simply could not face my triggers. Despite the more zealous interpretations of exposure therapy, I believe there are times when it's healthy to avoid triggers by choice. The "choice" to confront or avoid anxiety provoking situations helps to rebuild a sense of "control" that PTSD (and anxiety disorders in general) tend to undermine. The appropriate balance between exposure and avoidance is a very personal and subjective issue.

In my own case, I could only briefly discuss my trauma within the first year. During the second year, I was able to discuss my trauma in detail and even began to seriously write about it; albeit with some difficulty. Now, three years later, I seem almost recovered from PTSD. However, I must again emphasize that my own experiences are not necessarily representative of PTSD in general. What worked for me may not be appropriate for everyone. Everyone has different life experiences and different sensitivities, so I strongly feel that treatment of PTSD must be very flexible and adapted to the individual.

I'm not sure I'm ready to write a conclusion to my PTSD experience. However, a recent visit with a fellow anxiety friend proved remarkable. During our time together, we decided to visit the Mutter Museum. This small, yet notable, medical museum has been called "a museum of a museum"; in other words, a preserved example of medical museums from the last century. Consequently, this museum features many human skulls, skeletons, deformities and unusual corpses. The displays are meant for students of medicine as well as the general public. I wasn't sure how I might feel being surrounded by so many triggers, but I felt strangely compelled to confront the challenge. Fortunately, I handled the experience well and even managed to enjoy the exhibits. I don't consider myself cured of PTSD, I'm simply much less sensitive to triggers and flashbacks than I was a few years ago.

Another area of progress regards my memory of my father. During my first year or two with PTSD, the good memories of my father were awkwardly entangled with the grotesque memory of his corpse. I found it hard to think of him, or be reminded of him in any way, without some degree of flashback or an uncomfortable mixture of emotions. However, as I slowly recovered from PTSD, the good and bad memories gradually separated. I was eventually able to re-embrace the good memories of my father and even enjoy some nostalgia.

Aside from talking and exposure exercises, writing about my trauma and PTSD has also been very helpful. Of course, such writing was terribly difficult at first. I couldn't write much about the experience during the first year. During the second year, I managed to write a first draft of this account. Yet, that first draft was an emotional challenge that took months of repeated attempts and, ultimately, was considered by some to be excessively sentimental. This latest draft wasn't exactly easy either, but only half as difficult as before and hopefully more moderate. Writing about my experience has forced me to view the circumstances and my feelings from perspectives that I might have otherwise overlooked. Personally, I feel such writing has been very therapeutic.

Before PTSD, I often wondered why people didn't write about such experiences more often. The most obvious reason is that such things are simply very difficult to write about. Yet, there are less obvious obstacles as well. Writers are likely to feel that no one will want to read about such horrible experiences. Also, finding adequate language to express the extreme emotions of PTSD is enormously difficult. People who try to write such accounts are likely to feel the effort is a painful exercise in futility. Nonetheless, PTSD is an important subject that deserves better understanding. As I mentioned in this account, having read about the experiences of others proved helpful at the very moment PTSD entered my own life. In part, I wish that more people would openly write about their traumatic experiences, but I am also sympathetic to anyone who chooses to not write nor speak of such things.

Lovingly dedicated to my Father.

Special thanks to my brother Aaron, the Rath family,
Richard Herman, and many other family and friends.