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Discovery Channel hostage creates PTSD support group: 'Everything happens for a reason'

Jim McNulty. (Photo, ABC7){ }
Jim McNulty. (Photo, ABC7)
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MONTGOMERY COUNTY, Md. (ABC7) – Jim McNulty was not supposed to be at the office the day an eco-terrorist stormed the lobby of the Discovery Channel headquarters in downtown Silver Spring.

The then 36-year-old was a senior producer of marketing for the cable lifestyle channel, TLC. His job entailed crafting, shooting and editing on-air campaigns and episode promos.

On Sept. 1, 2010, McNulty was working at a post-production house offsite. His fantasy football draft was canceled last minute, freeing up time for him to return to the office to meet new clients.

“I’m not really paying attention, I walk in and the guy points the weapon at me and yells, ‘On the ground! On the ground!’” McNulty recalled.

For nearly four hours, McNulty laid face down on the floor as the gunman ranted, raved and interrogated his three hostages. He wore a yellow backpack filled with explosives.

Police surrounded the Discovery building. A loudspeaker announcement alerted all 1,900 employees to shelter in place or evacuate. McNulty, however, had no option, but to stay put. His wife, son and daughter – then two and five – repeatedly flashed through his mind.

“I said Hail Mary after Hail Mary after Hail Mary, and guardian angel prayers, you name it," he said. "And at one point I said, ‘Okay God your will be done,’ and this peace came over me.”

Figuring there was little to lose and a lot to gain, McNulty and his fellow hostages ran for the exits. Once all three had successfully escaped unharmed, a sniper killed the gunman.

“The night I got home, I looked in the mirror and I didn’t recognize the eyes that were looking back at me,” McNulty said. “You start asking yourself, ‘Why am I still here?’”

McNulty took many weeks off work to cope with the sobering reality of coming face to face with death. Discovery put the then 36-year-old in touch with an FBI crisis counselor who helped him cope, but strange, newfound symptoms of irritability, flashbacks and fear continued.

“It’s been eight years and I could probably recite the conversation to you," he said. "That stuff is seared into my brain.”

Over time, McNulty learned that he had acquired post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Based on scientific research, experts estimate the mental condition effects around 5 percent of Americans, or 13 million people.

According to McNulty, PTSD is merely a fancy way of saying the human body’s defense mechanisms have been activated and are refusing to shut off. As such, he would like to see the condition referred to as “unconscious hyperactivity” to help cut down on the stigma.

“Because it’s your unconscious, you can’t control it," McNulty said. "You have no way of saying, 'No you can stop that now.' And that’s one of the most frustrating things, that loss of control.”

For example, McNulty would be sitting at his desk working “somewhat normally” while mentally re-living his throws of trauma. In turn, his brain could turn an innocuous place such as church or home into a shark cage or bear cave.

“Everyone has different triggers and reactions,” McNulty explained, adding that he would experience vivid visual flashbacks of spilled soda and a FedEx package in the lobby. “A lot of times you’ll get dizzy, your fingers will feel like pins and needles.”

Mass shootings, most notably Sandy Hook and the near killing of former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, gave McNulty a sense of “survivor's guilt.” Meanwhile, loud, unexpected sounds would trigger flashbacks. For example, a waiter once dropped a tray, generating a big bang in the restaurant and putting McNulty into a proper panic.

“Getting better with PTSD isn’t about the symptoms going away, it’s about learning what your triggers are, learning how to process them and learning how to deal with them," McNulty said.

One evening while watching CNN, McNulty saw a story about Rainn Wilson of the Office helping doctors in Haiti following the deadly 2010 earthquake in the island nation of 11 million. McNulty described it as a “light bulb” effect moment.

“I said, 'Oh my God, that’s it! I can create a post-traumatic stress group," McNulty said. "I mean, I have a marketing background, I’m in communications, I went through this, and I know I can do it.”

On what turned out to be the second anniversary of the Discovery Channel hostage incident, McNulty stood before his fellow parishioners at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Rockville and announced he was forming a church-sanctioned PTSD peer support group called, The Upper Room.

“I said from day one, 'If I can help one person because I went through what I went through, then it was worth it,'" McNulty said. "I’ve really come to believe that everything happens for a reason.”

In the six years since, the Upper Room has welcomed military veterans, victims of domestic abuse and cancer patients, among many others. Although each member’s tale of woe varies, they collectively share a desire for a life of normalcy.

“In order to live, I needed help,” Vietnam War veteran Ed Smith said. “There’s no way to explain combat.”

Smith, a D.C. native who had once seriously considered becoming a Catholic priest, served a one-year tour in Vietnam, which exposed him to unspeakable atrocities.

“I did things in Vietnam, I’m not even going to get close to telling you about,” Smith said, fighting back visible tears. “There’s a safe place here, and that’s what I need, I need to find safe places.”

“Someone told me about the Upper Room and next thing I knew, here I was,” said a female group member who asked to remain anonymous. “I can’t imagine where I would be right now if I didn’t reach out and get help. Recovering from trauma is exhausting, recovering in a vacuum is so hard.”

McNulty is now writing a book about his struggle with PTSD and his successful road to recovery. He’s penned the traumatic portions, but still has more work to do.

“I’ve worked very hard to not focus on the what ifs and more on the what’s next, and that’s really where the support group came in," he said. "It’s about a group of survivors coming together and sharing stories, and finding hope that it can get better. I am living proof that you can have post-traumatic stress and get on with your life.”

The Upper Room meets on the final Wednesday of every month at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church along Norbeck Road in Rockville. It is free and open to anyone struggling with PTSD. The meetings are grounded in the Christian faith but are open to people of all religious denominations. They typically run for approximately 90 minutes and include a topical message and open forum.

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