What PTSD is for me (Part 2)
Updated: Aug 29, 2019
Today, I will begin with my experiences since leaving Iraq in July 2004. I've been contemplating how to give you insight into the other side, the longer side, the side after coming home from war. I feel that every event after leaving Iraq has been influenced by my deployment there, but I'll try to keep it to what I feel is more along the lines of the "PTSD" that I speak of in my title. I'll also try to explain what I meant in Part One about my sense that perhaps there may be some other thing that arises when returning from a combat zone that lies outside of the definition of "traditional" PTSD. If you haven't read Part One yet, click on the link and go back! It's worth the read in my opinion, and it places everything in this post in context.
Lastly, I want to make clear that this is my experience only. While other veterans may have experienced something similar to what I describe, many vets have not, and so I can only speak for myself. Also, it wasn't like I had a perfect life before experiencing combat, which further complicates things. So, once again, I only speak for myself. Okay, with all of that out of the way, let's continue.
When I used to think of a veteran with PTSD (before I became one, of course), I would think about a crazy guy who would freak out if there were loud sounds like fireworks or other reminders of war. A friend of mine in middle school had a vet for a teacher and told me he would jump sky-high if someone dropped their books on the ground. I had seen the war movies. Many of the Vietnam-era ones touched on the difficulties of coming home, and it seemed they never had a happy ending. I knew that many homeless people were veterans and that they were mainly from the Vietnam era. I also knew those guys were spat upon when they returned from Vietnam, which inevitably made some want to hide their veteran status.
We were not spat upon. In fact, they pulled out all of the stops for our Welcome Home ceremony. This was when people started saying "thank you for your service." I didn't know how to respond. (I still don't.) We were the first ones back after all. Maybe I'll explore how I feel about that a bit more in a future post. We had our own fireworks show and a concert with Puddle of Mudd on our little German base. The people of the town to which our base was adjacent were happy that we had returned and could spend our money. I think we even had a parade, or were we in a parade? I don't know, it was such a blur. I was just happy to be back in the "real world" again. It came with its limitations, but being back in Baumholder, Germany meant we were free to roam the Earth without the constant threat of death. We could also be proud to be back home. It was a great time. The honeymoon phase, however, did not last very long.
Within the first few months of returning to Germany, several crimes of domestic violence were committed by soldiers who found out their partners had been cheating while they were deployed. DUIs on Post increased dramatically. I was in the parking lot when another soldier put his M-4 in his mouth and pulled the trigger in front of his barracks. I don't know why he did it, but somewhere inside I felt I understood where he was, if only for a brief moment. There was this grey, ominous feeling that we had all came back "with something". Something was certainly different.
A few soldiers came up to me one day during our "re-integration training" (which was a total joke at the time) and asked if I had felt like something was different. I told them I did, and that I had felt it initially when I redeployed back in March. They admitted they felt something had changed in them too, but they didn't know what it was or how to explain it. I didn't either. It was like we returned to the same world we left, but it was not at all the same. Something was different. Something was wrong, but what was it?
It seemed that nothing could compare to the intensity of being in war. I felt that if I could survive that, what couldn't I survive? The constant drive to seek adrenaline was exciting. Bungee jumping? Sure, twice on the same day. Speed racing? All of the time. Every chance I would get, I would go to the local car rental and rent only the best cars for a day: Audi, BMW, Mercedes, Renault, Fiat (not that little thing we have here), even Volvo had a few strong "kombi's". I would then take them out to the German Autobahn and just open it up! If you have never visited Germany, let me just confirm for you that the Autobahn is really a thing, and it does let you go as fast as you want, and it's not just one highway, but all of the "A" highways. When the road is straight enough, the speed restriction is lifted and you are totally free! 240 kph (150 mph) was around my top speed, although I'm sure I could have pushed it further with a few of those cars. I was a thrill-seeking machine and the roads were always a fun place to get my thrill. When I purchased a motorcycle, things really started getting fun.
Within the first year of leaving Iraq, several things occurred that I could not explain at the time but would slowly add up to be an undeniable confirmation of my own PTSD status, even if I had been denying it. An old car back-fired and I dove behind another car scraping myself up a bit. No big deal, right? That jumpiness went away after about a year. I wouldn't go anywhere in public without a very sharp knife in my pocket and would keep my hand on it, just in case. Not so bad, right? Personal safety. It’s not like I had a buddy with me with 210 5.56mm rounds ready to go. Once I walked into a meat market with the hopes of buying some good cuts for a barbecue, and then I puked on the floor without warning or reason as I stood in front of the wall of bloody meat. What was heck that? Ever since leaving Iraq, I would have these fairly violent reactions to lots of blood. Cognitively, I’d be fine, but my stomach had a mind of its own. I think it's not impossible to understand the connection to the war, but when it happened, there were no memories of the war that came to mind, just a need to expel the contents of my stomach, quickly. So weird. What was that?
Every window, door, and staircase was identified with extreme ease and precision the moment I would walk into a store, restaurant, or theater. I remember clearly sitting in the DMV in Texas waiting to get my license and imagining that if someone would run in with a bomb, where would I go, what would I do, what if it were a grenade that was tossed in instead, what if they had a gun, how would I get out? Yeah, it was like I was amped up all of the time, burning up all of this energy going over all of the possibilities that were just never going to happen. Going to the mall became impossible; too many variables. Large crowds? Nope, not doing it. I was waiting for the next attack, but it never came. Was I disappointed? I think not, but I wasn't letting go of the possibility either. It was exhausting. Why would I ever want to go out in public?
One day I was back in Texas at a friend’s house and somewhere in the near distance a tractor dropped a load of something heavy and it hit the ground with a single, loud thud. Being late in the afternoon, the sun was lower on the horizon and the lighting was eerie. Everything seemed orange. Sand colored. And then, I was back there. I could hear a radio squawking. I turned to my buddies. “Turn it down, they are watching us. Take cover.” I was having a flashback. A real, honest-to-goodness flashback. I didn’t even realize it until my friends starting saying things that just wouldn’t make sense in a combat situation. The lighting shifted, the adrenaline stopped flowing, and then, I was back. What the hell was that?! At this point I was feeling like there were so many things happening that were out of my control, as if my mind and body were somehow disconnected. What was going on? Why was this happening?
And then there were the dreams. I can keep busy during my waking hours just fine, but since we need sleep to survive, I must go to sleep, and I can’t control what happens then. I don’t want to get into it too much. Just know I can’t escape my dreams.
I do make attempts to challenge myself. I dated a lovely woman in San Francisco who wanted me to attend the Women's March with her in downtown SF. I thought it was absolutely insane to think that I would try to go out into a public area like the Civic Center during a march, but for whatever reason (probably to torture myself) I did it anyway. Within a minute of being in front of City Hall, I counted the number of snipers that were on the roof tops guarding the march. 13. I told her about them, and she didn't believe me at first until she saw their very tiny silhouettes with even smaller barrels peeking out. "How did you see that?" she asked. “How could you not?”, I thought. I tried to keep focused on the present moment, kept my eyes mostly forward or down not to scan every window and rooftop, and I tried to have a good time. I finished the march. In the end, I was actually glad I had pushed my limits, but it wasn't easy at all. I was very uncomfortable most of the time, but I didn’t run away. Post-traumatic growth. It’s a thing.
Perhaps I thought that through lots of internal processing, therapy, and time passing that I would eventually “get over it”, and then something happens to remind me that my experiences will never leave me. I was in Paris for a conference last summer when someone was hit by a car across the street from me as a friend and I walked to the convention center. When the guy screamed and then was hit by the car and flew up in the air, everyone froze where they stood in the streets, shocked apparently, so I sprang into action and ran over to see if the guy was okay. He definitely was not. He was losing a lot of blood and totally unresponsive. I did what I could to stop the bleeding before a crowd gathered around us and more of the local people helped. They all spoke French, of course, so I felt they could handle the rest of the situation and I stepped away. I hope he lived. The woman who hit him was losing her mind. I felt bad for her. Everyone’s life had just changed in an instant. I know what that’s like. My hands were covered in this man’s blood. My friend just happened to have hand sanitizer in his bag and we just had a baguette so he also had napkins. I was able to wipe off my hands and we continued walking to the convention center. I had often wondered if I would jump into action if something ever happened around me, and I was happy to find that I did not hesitate. I didn’t puke either with all of that blood, which that was a good sign. However, the following nights were very intense. I didn't sleep at all. I couldn't sleep. It was like I was reliving everything all over again the moment my eyes would shut. Literally, everything. The demon had been awakened, and I wasn’t going to sleep for a while.
It's been a little over 15 years since leaving Iraq, and it still feels like yesterday. At times, it feels like the world is buzzing by, doing its thing, and I'm just standing still, watching it all go by, not participating, and feeling totally out of place. In my everyday life, I'm constantly evaluating threats of all kinds, although I actively try to take steps to ignore them. If I'm on campus, I feel like I can let my guard down just a bit less. Most people on campus aren't from the local area and somehow that makes it easier to determine that they are mostly harmless. To be fair, most people in general are harmless, but I guess if you’re not from here, you don’t have that “Masshole” attitude. (Seriously, some people are proud to call themselves that here!) When I start driving and interacting with the general public, it's a different story. Boston isn't a place for someone with PTSD, or maybe everyone has it here. I swear it feels like everyone wakes up on the wrong side of the bed every single day. The default is anger, especially on the roads, so I try not to drive during normal hours as much as possible. Let me tell you, a drive at 5 am in Boston is not that bad.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) describes PTSD as having four distinct clusters of symptoms: intrusion or re-experiencing, avoidance of triggers, negative affect or emotional numbing, and reactivity or hypervigilance. I think from my description above, you may be able to point out each of these “symptoms”. Yes, I have PTSD. However, combat-related PTSD also includes non-specific symptoms such as insomnia, irritability, issues with memory, difficulty concentrating, and poor decision-making abilities. Why is this the case?
When I was in Iraq, right around month 4, something happened to my memory that I can’t seem to undo. Every day prior to then I felt like I could remember, but then life became a blur and it hasn’t ever stopped being a blur. My memory is absolutely horrible. I depend heavily on lists and notes and online trackers because I just can’t remember things. Interestingly, it’s not semantic memory (knowledge), but only episodic memory (what happened). What did I have for breakfast? I’ll have to get back with you on that one. Hmm, selective memory impairment? Seems on the same order as all of the other biological symptoms that I had where the origin seems reasonably understandable (the war) but it’s feels totally uncoupled from consciousness. What is that?
There are so many more examples of my “symptoms” that I would be here for another week if I tried writing them all, but again, the goal I had in mind was to provide you a glimpse into what my experience as a veteran being back “home” is like. Trying to understand the nature of combat-associated PTSD is what drives me forward in pursuing my education and research. We just don't understand what happens when the brain returns from war. I am going to change that.
Do you know someone who struggles with similar “symptoms”? Do you struggle? Do you feel like you’re alone in this as a vet or as someone who cares about a vet? You’re not alone, or at least you don’t have to be. It’s always a challenge to reach out to others. I can’t offer any cures, but I can offer my understanding. Reach out to me if you’d like. Leave a message in the comments or send me a message directly on the site.
Take care out there, friends.