Persevering Through PTSD: A Veteran’s Journey
At Shepherd Center’s SHARE Military Initiative, Marine Corps veteran, Michael Cataldi, learned to cope with the symptoms of a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Serving others is in Michael Cataldi’s DNA. His grandfather was a marine, serving in World War II, and his uncles served with the Marines during the Korean and Vietnam Wars. He has always carried that pride with him, but Michael says when he saw the footage of the planes hitting the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, he felt the overwhelming call to serve his country. Just shy of turning 19, he joined the Marine Corps.
“I absolutely fell in love with it,” Michael explains. “The Marine Corps was everything.”
In 2004, during his first tour in Iraq, he started experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) but was not officially diagnosed. Michael began to feel detached and started losing sleep after he witnessed a horrific helicopter crash involving multiple marines and sailors. His psychiatrist prescribed medication to help with the symptoms, but Michael still struggled.
“I would be missing parts of my day where I didn’t remember what I did,” Michael explains. “My career started suffering because I would fade out and come to and not remember what I did in between. I became more reckless. I would have nightmares at night and flashbacks during the day.”
When he returned home from Iraq in Spring 2005, Michael felt like a different person. He was taking several medications and seeing a psychiatrist who was not the right fit. During training for redeployment, he pinched his sciatic nerve. When his command discontinued his prescription for pain medicine suddenly, he experienced withdrawal and turned to alcohol.
Before Michael was deployed to Iraq for a second time, he was diagnosed with PTSD.
“I was sent on a convoy movement and hit my head on a machine gun mount. I was sent back to base, and I lost all sense of time and space.”
As Michael transitioned out of the Marine Corps and back to civilian life, things got worse.
“I wanted to re-enlist, but everything declined. I began experiencing irritability, blurry vision, migraines, and I had issues troubleshooting,” he says. “Along with PTSD, I was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury. I ended up homeless at a truck stop in California until my stepdad found out I was homeless and drove me home to Maine.”
In Maine, Michael continued to abuse alcohol and became homeless again before moving back in with his mother and meeting his wife in 2014. In 2015, he sustained another traumatic brain injury (TBI) in a moped crash that resulted in a three-week medically induced coma, which led his medical team to take him off his medication.
“They were just focused on keeping me alive,” says Michael. “But with the withdrawal from the medication, I was in a deep hole and was very depressed.”
Michael and his wife knew it was time to do something when his depression led him to consider suicide. The couple called Semper Fi and America’s Fund, and within 48 hours, a representative visited and connected him with Shepherd Center’s SHARE Military Initiative. This comprehensive rehabilitation program delivers world-class, interdisciplinary care at no cost to veterans, service members, and first responders dealing with traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and mental health concerns.
While Michael attended SHARE, he learned the positive effect of exercise on his mental and physical health. A few years after he graduated from SHARE, he began experiencing a need to move constantly, so he returned to SHARE to find a healthy, balanced exercise routine.
“SHARE helped pull me out of the deepest darkest hole,” says Michael. “Before SHARE, I didn’t do anything. I didn’t care about what I ate or drank or if I moved my body. Then I was go, go, go. SHARE helped me find a middle road, and they continue to provide care. I’m so grateful.”
Michael is continuing to stay active, even training for marathons.
“I like to push myself to see what I can do. I just finished the Marine Corps Marathon,” says Michael. “My new mantra is depression hates a moving target. I’ve found where it can be too much, but in the right balance, movement is vital for being healthy, both mentally and physically.”
Michael worked with his doctor to safely get off medication. The SHARE team continued to help Michael develop tools to mitigate symptoms of PTSD and identify his core values, which include being of service to others – human or otherwise.
“One thing SHARE did this time was to really help me focus on my core values, which is giving service,” explains Michael. “It’s important for me to continue serving in one way or another, whether it’s to people or to animals. I volunteer as a holistic veterinary assistant for my father-in-law, which I find very meaningful, and it has opened up my eyes to holistic care. I’ve seen it help so many animals. Now, I get acupuncture, chiropractic adjustments, and Reiki regularly.”
Today, Michael continues to serve others by telling his story, hoping to help anyone in a similar situation.
“I’ve got purpose,” he says. “I’ve got a place in this world, running marathons, helping animals, and helping other people. If sharing my story helps someone else get through the same situation, then it’s worth it.”
Written by Lindsey Rieben
Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.