Escape From Darkness: A Marine Copes with PTSD

Marine Sergeant Matthew Bailey faced deadly fire in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then he came home to an equally harrowing enemy: PTSD.

Marine Sergeant Matthew Bailey enlisted in the Marines after 9/11. "I felt like I needed to do something with my life," he says. Although he escaped physical harm overseas, three tours of duty left Bailey in the painful grip of PTSD.
Photo by Chris Sembrot

When the darkness finally consumed him, Marine Sergeant Matthew Bailey had been home from Iraq for almost two years. Alone in his father’s house in Medford one late afternoon in 2008, Bailey walked into his bedroom and closed the door. He put on his dress blues, loaded the old .38 revolver that had belonged to his great uncle Vernon, a retired Philadelphia cop, and stood facing the mirror. Holding the gun at his side, Bailey hesitated. A few days earlier, his girlfriend, Katie, had told him he was going to be a father. The thought only drove the 29-year-old veteran deeper into despair.

Bailey pressed his uncle’s gun to his temple, closed his eyes and pulled the trigger.

He heard a faint metallic click. For reasons Bailey still can’t explain, the gun did not fire. He looked at the .38 in disbelief, let it fall to the floor, and began to weep.

“I was ready to do it, because man, it was dark,” Bailey said, sitting inside a Medford Starbucks in February of this year. By then, he had finally sought help and was showing signs of healing after his descent into the living hell of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Bailey’s struggle with PTSD had been all-consuming. For years, he could not hold down a job or maintain relationships with family, friends or girlfriends. He became addicted to a stew of drugs, including oxycontin, sleeping pills, Adderall and cocaine. He chased adrenaline highs with reckless abandon. If he hadn’t gotten help, he likely would not be here today, telling his story as a lifeline to other veterans still trapped by their affliction.

“I didn’t see anything but the darkness,” he said. “I couldn’t see the possible beauty of a child coming into the world. I was scared to death of that. And I was ashamed. But when that gun didn’t go off…. That was some kind of God experience, man. I’d been spared. Again.”

But his botched suicide attempt did not prove to be the wakeup call Bailey needed. The bottom was still three painful years away.

I first met Bailey on August 12, 2005, at a prayer service on the banks of the Cooper River in Collingswood. Just 24, he was getting ready to leave for his third tour of duty, and his mother, Beth, a highly spiritual woman, believed prayer was what he needed most. I was there to report on the service as part of a magazine series I was writing about South Jersey families affected by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Bailey had enlisted in the Marines shortly after 9/11 because, “I felt like I needed to do something with my life.” After training, he spent 11 months in Afghanistan, going on the offensive in 2004 and 2005 to flush Taliban fighters from remote villages in the Tora Bora Mountains and prepare the country for its first democratically held presidential election. Now, after five months stateside, he was set to leave again, this time for Iraq.

“You have to accept reality,” Bailey told me that afternoon. “We’re going to be in harm’s way and we could die at any moment. We could lose people, but you have to accept it, emotionally, mentally, and I’ve already done that. But it’s going to be tough. I’m in for a big ride now.”

I left Cooper River that night with a sense that Bailey was well prepared for what he was about to encounter. Six years later, I got a call from Bailey’s father, Claude. He told me his son was going to be on the Dr. Phil show later that week. “You might want to watch it,” he said. “I think you’ll be very surprised.”

When I tuned in, I was stunned. Sitting on stage with his mother, girfriend Katie and Dr. Phil McGraw, Bailey seemed a mere shadow of the confident, charismatic Marine I had met in 2005. Gone was his winning smile and easy charm, replaced by a face clenched in anger and fear as he and his mother recounted the many ways Bailey had declined since coming home. Nightmares. Addictions. Suicidal thoughts. And a rage that left him denting cars with his fists.

During the show, Bailey recounted some of the horrors he’d witnessed in Iraq. A close friend whose body was torn asunder by a roadside bomb. Men he had killed. Women and children whose lives were lost in the fog of war.

“If there is a God, and there is a heaven,” Bailey told Dr. Phil, “I don’t see myself going there.”

Thinking back, Claude struggles to describe what it was like watching his son disintegrate so rapidly.

“What you send over there and what you get back are two very different things,” he says. “We sent our son, and they brought back nothing but horror.”

The statistics on PTSD are staggering. According to the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, 11 percent of soldiers who fought in Afghanistan and 20 percent of Iraq War veterans have been diagnosed with PTSD. (By comparison, about 31 percent of U.S. troops who served in Vietnam have been diagnosed.) The Washington Post recently reported that more U.S. troops died from suicide on active duty in 2012 than in battle, making it the number-one cause of death among our soldiers last year. And while awareness of the disorder has risen throughout the past decade, many clinicians who specialize in the treatment of PTSD say there is a long road ahead.

“Since Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s more commonly talked about. But the actual symptoms are not talked about nearly enough,” says Dr. Steven Brodsky, PTSD expert and clinical director of the OCD, Panic & Trauma Center of New York and the affiliated center in Teaneck. “It’s easy to spot things like flashbacks or violent acting out, but the quieter symptoms are being lost along the way.” Those quieter symptoms include an inability to maintain relationships and a need to avoid situations that bring back bad memories.

Brought on by the persistent repression of horrific memories, PTSD manifests itself in many ways. According to Dr. Nancy Friedman, PTSD coordinator for the Department of Veteran Affairs New Jersey Healthcare System’s campus in East Orange, symptoms can be broken down into three primary categories—re-experiencing, arousal and avoidance.

“Avoidance may be the most harmful aspect of PTSD, because instead of processing and digesting their fear, they stay away from all reminders of their feelings and thoughts related to it,” says Christina DiChiara, a post-doctoral fellow and specialist in PTSD treatment at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s the avoidance that allows the trauma to fester.”

Bailey experienced all of these symptoms when he got home. He needed pills to sleep, pills to wake up and pills to dull the pain resulting from traumatic brain injuries he suffered overseas. (Bailey sustained the first in a series of concussions when a vehicle he was traveling in was struck by a roadside bomb.) Meanwhile, his pent-up anger often caused him to pick unprovoked fights with random individuals. And his insatiable hunger for adrenaline led him to climb onto the hood of his girlfriend’s convertible and hang onto the windshield frame as she sped down the Atlantic City Expressway.

“We were scared to death of him,” his mother says. “I told him many times that I was more scared when he got back than when he was deployed. But he didn’t want to see it.”

Even in his darkest moments, Bailey would not surrender to the need for help.

“It was an ego thing, man,” Bailey says. “‘I’m a Marine. I don’t need help. I don’t want any handouts. But that was just a suit of armor to let everyone think things were good. But everything was definitely not good.”

DiChiara has encountered Bailey’s mindset more times than she can count. “His experience is really common,” she says. “As a soldier you need to see yourself as this fierce warrior in order to get through war. And in combat, if you experience trauma, you need to stuff it so you can survive. That’s what keeps you alive. But when you come home, it works against you. The battle mindset is really what keeps so many vets from seeking help.”

As shocked as I was to see Bailey on TV that afternoon in 2012, I was even more surprised by the man I met in Starbucks last February. Dressed in a wool sweater and jeans, he seemed lighter, as though he had shaken off a massive weight.

“I’ll tell you what, there was a time when I never thought I would be able to feel this way ever again,” he told me. “But I was spared in Afghanistan. I was spared in Iraq. And even after trying to kill myself. There are no coincidences. I’m here for a reason. But I had to reach the bottom before I could see it.”

After their daughter was born in July 2008, Bailey and Katie tried living with his parents, who had gotten back together after a eight-year separation. But after a few months, Beth, who had little tolerance for Bailey and Katie’s lifestyle, insisted they leave. Beth felt she and Claude were enabling Matt’s behavior, including his drug-taking and failure to keep a job. If Bailey and Katie had to stand on their own, perhaps they’d focus on making a living and taking proper care of the baby.

So Bailey and Katie moved into an apartment in Blackwood. It was then that he began selling pills on the street. His own addictions had spiraled out of control. He avoided being in the apartment whenever possible, spending most nights in the wooded area across the street, obsessively chopping logs and eventually digging himself a foxhole, the only place he could get any sleep.

To support his addiction, Bailey started cruising around in his pickup truck, casing foreclosed properties and strategizing how he could break in at night to steal copper and electrical wiring. At sundown, he’d dress in black, park a distance away and haul the booty through the woods to his truck.

In a matter of weeks, Bailey made a few thousand dollars selling the stolen goods to local scrapyards. But, after he checked out a residential neighborhood one afternoon in January 2012, a suspicious resident called the authorities. Four police cars surrounded his vehicle. Peering inside, they spotted a single piece of copper pipe and a few tools. Bailey spent the next four days in a Camden County jail cell.

“I remember sitting in that cell and thinking about what my life had become,” says Bailey. “I mean, damn, I was a United States Marine, sitting in a cell and wondering how I got there.”

After Bailey was released on bail—the charges were later dropped—his mother called an interventionist named Joani Gammill, who spent a day with Bailey and decided to call several media outlets, including Dr. Phil, the talk show hosted by Phil McGraw. Gammill—a recovered addict whom Beth had met at a conference on substance abuse—agreed that Bailey needed immediate help, but she also felt the rest of the country should hear his story. Within a matter of days, Bailey, Beth and Katie were on a plane for Los Angeles.

Can PTSD be cured? The VA’s Dr. Friedman says, “the word cure is politically charged, but what I do know is that people can get significant help with their symptoms. They can become much more manageable to the point where they interfere less and less with everyday life and vets feel more confident moving forward. But that all depends on getting help.”

For Bailey, help came soon after appearing on Dr. Phil in April 2012. In the audience that afternoon was Dr. Frank Lawlis, a member of the show’s medical board, director of psychology and brain plasticity for Origins Recovery Center in South Padre Island, Texas and an expert on anxiety disorders, including PTSD. After the show, Beth, impressed with Origins’ reputation, pursued a spot for her son in the treatment center.

Bailey stayed at Origins for three months, immersed in a variety of therapies, including meditation, sensory deprivation, biofeedback and 12-step recovery.

Bailey was fortunate. A stay at Origins can cost $20,000 to $30,000 per month. In his case, the expense was waived. Many other vets suffering from PTSD have no choice but to seek free outpatient or residential treatment from their local VA hospital.

According to Friedman, the VA offers two forms of evidence-based treatments for PTSD: prolonged exposure and cognitive processing therapy. Both forms of treatment help veterans manage stress associated with traumatic memories. Prolonged exposure involves having veterans retell and reprocess their painful stories in therapy sessions.

“Prolonged exposure allows the person to remember the event and go through it so many times that the anxiety eventually decreases,” says Friedman. “Cognitive processing therapy usually involves writing about the traumatic events that led to the PTSD. CPT helps the vet identify the thoughts, beliefs and feelings associated with the trauma, re-evaluate the experience and ultimately reach a more balanced, reality-based view of what happened.”

The government picks up the tab for these treatments. According to a 2012 report by the Congressional Budget Office, the first year of PTSD treatment costs Uncle Sam about $8,300 per soldier.

Bailey’s path to recovery was hardly typical, but the results have been encouraging. He’s been home for more than a year, living with his parents in Medford and working as a foreman for a South Jersey swimming pool company while spending weekends with his daughter, who lives most of the week with Katie. He’s clean and sober, no longer dependent on any medication and optimistic about his future. Still, his mother knows this struggle will be with him for the rest of his life.

“The past year has been an inspiration,” says Beth. “He’s not depressed anymore, and he looks great. He laughs, he smiles, he’s sweet. But I look at those eyes and I know there’s still something missing. He’s struggling. He’s far away, never 100 percent in the moment. And it’s very hard knowing I have a son who came home from some senseless, political debacle with a mental illness.”

Bailey chooses his words carefully, never proclaiming himself cured.

“I can no longer say I’m suffering from PTSD,” he says. “I’m going through it. And I’m going through it okay. But there are thousands of guys out there trapped like I was, and I need to be a voice for them. To let them know that it’s going to be okay. They can find grace and serenity in life. There’s a way out of the darkness.”

Nick DiUlio is South Jersey bureau chief for New Jersey Monthly.

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