On June 27, in recognition of National PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) Awareness Day, the Innocence Blog featured an interview with Ohio-based exoneree and PTSD-researcher Ginny Lefever. The response from readers was eye-opening. People eagerly shared their own experiences; others wrote in to learn more about the syndrome, especially as it relates to the lives of exonerees.
Given the level of engagement around the interview, the Innocence Blog invited readers to submit their questions to Lefever about PTSD. An impressive number of people wrote in.
Lefever reviewed all of the questions and kindly decided to respond to each one. The Innocence Blog is pleased to share her answers with readers today.
If you are an exoneree or you know an exoneree who may be interested in learning more about Lefever’s work or in participating in her research study, please contact her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Your participation and information will be kept confidential.
Allen Remillard: I’m speaking as a man who was falsely accused of a crime that’s minor in comparison with what I usually read here. That being said, I don’t know if my opinion rates very highly. I spent more than three month in solitary many years ago, and I can tell you that there are still times I’m afraid to leave the house, more than thirty years after the trauma.
I normally don’t voice my opinions but I couldn’t resist this one when you asked for falsely accused. Hope is a difficult commodity to get. I still suffer and I can’t control it or make it stop. For me the end can’t come soon enough for me.
Ginny Lefever: I am truly sorry for all you have suffered. Everyone’s opinion is important; please understand we are all in this together, and stronger because we are. That being said, it is my personal philosophy that living well is the best revenge. Every day I am afraid, or depressed, or miserable is another day “they” win.
Nurses are taught that pain is what the patient says it is. It really doesn’t matter what crime you were accused of, or if someone else’s wrongful conviction seems more horrendous or more unjust that your own. Your suffering is just that: yours. I applaud your courage in speaking out, and encourage you to continue to do so. It is critical to your recovery, which I believe is possible.
Onion_toes: How difficult is it to move forward once your innocence is proven and how does PTSD play a part in this?
Janeen Brown: How has ptsd affected the exonerees and how have the managed acclimating back into society?
Ginny: These questions are similar, so I hope this response answers them both:
Shortly after my arrest, an attorney I met with early in the process said something I hold onto to this day. It goes like this: there will always be people who believe you are innocent, and people who will always believe you are guilty, but most people really won’t care one way or the other. I cannot speak for other exonerees, but from a personal perspective moving forward is a daily decision. As it is for everyone, some days are better than others, but PTSD certainly brings its own challenges.
For me, some of my worst symptoms are from the inability to concentrate and stay on task, make decisions, and irritable bowel syndrome. Completing my bachelor of science degree and graduate studies have been really challenging; the demands of assignments and the incredible amounts of reading required are overwhelming at times. Irritable bowel is a common comorbidity of PTSD, and while medications are helpful, it creates its own challenges. One of my major research goals is to help determine the extent of PTSD among Exonerees and how it impacts us. No one really knows that answer.
Some of us medicate our pain of wrongful conviction with drugs, alcohol, workaholism, food, and relationships. Some of us are homeless; some of us have been unable to cope and have taken our own lives. Some of us are too sick or damaged to live productive lives. Some of us seem to be doing pretty well. Part of my research is to look at numbers, and provide some insight into what works, what doesn’t, and begin to affect some change.
Obie Anthony: I’m so glad that you’re doing this I do have a question which is what are some things that can exacerbate ptsd in exonerees? And what do studies show about how to deal with or cope with, but mainly change, the male to male conversations and attitude that comes with being in prison and same thing goes for female to female?
Ginny: One of my favorite books is Life Strategies by Dr. Phil McGraw. Among his Ten Life Laws is “People do what works.” To survive prison, we all adopted behaviors and patterns to protect ourselves. You staked your territory and position, and made it clear that it was your way or the highway, and stood your ground. I suspect on some level that worked for you but it no longer serves you well in what we hope is a safer and less hostile environment. You learned to adapt, but for whatever reason are hanging on to that learned behavior. Just as you learned it, you can unlearn it. When you are ready, you will. I just don’t think you are there yet, my friend.
Anything and everything can exacerbate PTSD. Smells are very powerful triggers. Anything that reminds us of the nightmare of wrongful conviction can be a trigger. Crowds, noise, the tone of someone’s voice, or being in any situation where we feel we have no control are all potential triggers. No one has really studied how exonerees are specifically impacted, but from studies of veterans and victims of disasters and violent crime, one can reasonably make these assumptions.
I thank you for participating in this discussion, especially as a fellow exoneree. Several others have expressed interest and support for my project, and I am grateful for each of you. The input of each of us is critical for the success of the research; this is a daunting task and your encouragement is much appreciated.
Joe: How do you get over hurt and pain when there’s not a person in the world that can relate?
Ginny: I do not believe you ever “get over” that kind of hurt and pain. Trauma of that magnitude isn’t a cold or the flu; being wrongfully convicted forever changes who you are. However, I do believe recovery is possible, and with time and hard work, we can heal and not just survive but thrive.
I am sad for you that you feel so alone in your suffering. As of today, there are 1,855 exonerees listed on the National Registry of Exonerations. Most of us have been where you are, and felt, at least for a while, as you feel, myself included. My first Innocence Network conference was life-changing, because I felt for the first time in forever that I was among folks who finally understood. I encourage you to connect.
Artisbread: How bad does the PTSD get? Is it directly related to the experiences in prison? How does that affect your relationships with loved ones once you’re out? Are there some that may have believed you to be guilty throughout and have a hard time coming to terms with the innocence?
Ginny: For me personally, I have never felt suicidal. I have had more than one “meltdown,” most recently about a year ago when I lost my phone and purse in a major international airport while traveling alone. Crying, shaking, hyperventilating; I couldn’t think, speak, it was terrible. Symptoms may be different for each of us, although there are probably patterns and commonalities. As for how bad does PTSD get? There are no available statistics for exactly how many exonerees have died, but more than one has taken his or her own life.
I left prison without filters; I don’t intentionally set out to hurt people’s feelings, but there have been times I have said and done things that have alienated friends and family. They are not the people I left, and I am no longer the person they knew. The years and experience have changed me; that is reality. There are people who just will never going to believe I was wrongfully convicted. It still hurts, but I have come to accept it.
Thetinybeast: Do you believe PTSD can properly be treated behind bars considering the circumstances in prison? Can tools such as meditation and yoga help alleviate the symptoms of PTSD? Did your PTSD stem from childhood trauma and/or from your arrest to prison time? There are a combination of issues that lead to wrongful convictions, but how do you believe we can best avoid these mishaps in our criminal justice system? Thank you! #AskGinny
Ginny: I do not believe that PTSD can be properly treated while incarcerated. By definition, the disorder is “post” trauma, not during the trauma. This is just my opinion, but it would be like trying to revive a drowning victim who is still submerged in water, or heal someone’s burns who is still in the fire.
As for yoga and meditation, there is credible research again among veterans and victims of violent crime that supports their efficacy in treating PTSD. It has also been used effectively with first responders and others who work in high-stress environments. Yoga Warriors is one group that has been approved by the National Association of Social Workers. While not an endorsement, you might check their website at http://www.yogawarriors.com
My own PTSD probably began from childhood experiences, but was not fully manifested until after my arrest and incarceration. I can only write from my own experiences, and from what relatively few other Exonerees I have spoken to about their own experiences, which are their own to share. However, as a general statement, many like myself had less than happy childhoods and personal struggles before our arrests and convictions. I do not know whether those situations increased our PTSD or helped us develop resilience.
The National Registry of Exonerations keeps statistics that categorize what lead to the wrongful conviction of each of us. This is a complex and difficult question to answer, particularly in context of a discussion of PTSD and its impact on victims of wrongful conviction. In my case, “expert” testimony by James Lonel Ferguson, former chief toxicologist for the county crime lab, was fraudulent. His false testimony was described as the “linchpin” that held the case against me together by the State and the judge who presided over my trial. Twenty-two years later that same judge overturned my conviction, referring to Ferguson as “a convicted liar.” Junk science is a major cause of wrongful conviction, but not the only cause. Please visit the registry’s website at http://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/Pages/about.aspx
Zach Selan: Can PTSD be used against someone’s credibility in a suit of false allegations?
Ginny: It has been my personal experience that almost anything can, has, and will be used against someone’s credibility if it suits the purposes of the person trying to discredit him or her. If allegations are false to begin with, using someone’s chronic illness against them would certainly not present a moral dilemma.
Zach Selan: What can be done to educate public on PTSD?
Ginny: Before my own PTSD experience, I thought of homeless veterans, especially those from the Vietnam War, if I thought of PTSD at all. Much of what we know about the illness came from studies of this demographic. Social stigma is still attached to the disorder and mental illness in general. But I hope that is changing, and I hope that by talking about it and writing about it, people will more accepting and treatment will improve for all sufferers. Every time there is another natural disaster, or an act of violence or terrorism, or another wrongful conviction, there are more victims of PTSD.
Zach Selan: Why does my friend with PTSD feel like she is a ghost in person, [like the person] I love is gone?
Ginny: I have sad news for you, Zach. Your friend you love is gone, and she feels like she is a ghost of the person she was because that is exactly what she is. One cannot undergo a trauma event, or series of events, without being forever changed by them. However, with treatment, patience, kindness, and love, recovery is possible. You can never have that person back the way she was, but you can have a healthy, whole person you might love even more. And so can she.
Linda Babineaux: My son was falsely accused and spent five years in prison. I believe that he is coping with PTSD symptoms besides being very stressed trying to clear his reputation while dealing with illegal authority and trying to regain his life.I also am asking for advice and insight in dealing with these symptoms.
Ginny: I am truly sad and sorry for you and your son. How fortunate for him his mother loves him, believes in him, and wants to help him get better. I cannot know from this discussion board if your son suffers from PTSD, but I would encourage you to learn all you can about this disorder and to reach out to your local mental health association. I do not know where you live, but the suicide hotline should be able to refer you to someone locally. Even if your son is not ready to discuss treatment, you should find someone for you to talk to. You have been impacted, as well.
Gates: Ms. Lefever, I’m interested in knowing if the description of Alan Chen offered in this National Review article is characteristic of an individual suffering from PTSD. Chen apparently stays home a lot, is humiliated, is unable to work, and feels as if he is living in a different world. More generally, I’m interested in your thoughts about whether PTSD can result from false accusations made by the government goons in civil proceedings as well as criminal ones.
Gates for Powhatan Energy Fund LLC
Ginny: My opinion would not be worth much in this situation, and I am hesitant to offer it. My opinion of an author’s observations of a third party’s lifestyle and behavior has little relevance to anything. This discussion is about PTSD, and how it impacts the lives of exonerees. Being falsely accused of anything can be traumatic, but in this situation, I simply don’t have enough real information to form an opinion. I am sorry I was unable to be more helpful.