I often find myself wondering why I faltered. What happened in my head that I just all of the sudden was rocking combat stress. Don’t misunderstand me there was plenty of lead up but while I was down range I never had a problem. I functioned in Afghan and Iraq without issue. I was stressed even sometime quite crazy but I was never reliving the moments I wasn’t overflowing with guilt I was ok.
The first noted aspect of PTSD I felt was after Afghanistan I slept for days, only getting up and shaving to go to morning formations and then going back and hiding my barracks room and sleeping. I was not suffering from PTSD persay I just missed the war….. Yea I know that’s special.
But the fog broke and I moved on. Afghan was not nearly as bad as Iraq for me, I think that because in Iraq I was in charge of more stuff and my decisions had more of an impact on my guys’ lives. Then mid way through the tour. Was separated for my men, and marooned in soldier hell near the flag pole. There I actually suffered more attacks than with my troopers and it had a more significant effect on me because I had no back up, no one to shake it off with, no one to look left or right to when the suffering got a bit more than I cared to handle at that time. Then when at the end of the tour I was returned to my men at the completion of that mission, they assumed it had been an easy ride and were actually resentful towards me. So I shut up and sucked it up, I saw the explosions and the deaths and the last gasping breaths every time I closed my eyes. But I sucked it up because they felt they had had it worse and it would not be fair for me to try to convince them of otherwise.
Then I came home. It hit like a ton of bricks as soon as we were in Kuwait. I did not even know how to deal with the guilt, the anger, and the fact I was on my own in my head. At home I was a mess, I was to myself. I made stupid mistakes and was living as if I thought I would die at any second. I was drinking so much to try to self medicate, just to take edge off. Driving too fast, starting fights, taking unnecessary risks just for a laugh. I would go from high as a kite to borderline suicidal at the drop of a hat. It was a dark time. Months passed and things mellowed. Then years went by and this blog started to help.
Now I have residuals, I still feel it occasionally or will have a strange dream they are not really nightmares anymore. If someone were to ask do you have PTSD, I would say sure but its the light beer version now instead of the 151 it was at first. So what caused the crumble and then the subsequent return to normalcy.
I think it all revolves around resilience and the components that make it tick. Resilience is what allows you to be a timex, take a licking and keep on ticking. There are some inherent components just something that is part of your personality. There are past life events that help influence your ability to take the suck and embrace it. There is your support network and your family, friends, military units, and other people with whom you can be in the suck with. There is however a breaking point. A moment when everything gives and that little hole in the dam becomes a raging river in a split second. But that hole has to exist first. For me I think it’s when I lost my squads support. That’s when I crumbled. Even when I still believed they were supporting me even though we were separated I was doing ok, but upon my return when I felt the sting of what they had assumed was the raw end of the deal that was horrible. Even though I had seen far more death and pain and fear than they had, I was assumed to have had the easy ride and thus my hole in the dam became a river.
But resilience is the thing that has contributed to me coming back to normalcy. I had weathered tough times in my childhood, it had taught me “this to shall pass”. As long as I could keep myself alive and relatively sane I would get through it to a point where it did not impede on my life. I had a solid support system of family and friends backing me up. I also had a new mission and purpose in life to get an education and make a life for my wife and me. That’s all fine and dandy until I am faced with a patient like yesterday who was a Vietnam veteran.
Here he is at least 35 years after his war and the mere mention of him being a veteran reduces him to tears. I am certain his trauma was more severe his fear was greater. But why am I hanging in there after only 3 years, having made it through college and started working, whereas he is homeless and has been for decades with no mental illness other than PTSD. What’s the separation? I don’t judge him, I judge myself. Why am I ok? What made it easier for me to bounce back? Is there some way to teach that. I was not born with that ability I had to have learned it somewhere. More importantly how did the guys that went over there embraced the suck and came home fine, do it? Can that be taught. The army tried something like that with resilience training but it ultimately seemed like another time when the good idea fairy struck an officer even though he had no clue how to follow through.
But now we are here. I am on the sunny side of the moon now just hanging out. I can not help but wonder how much combat stress has helped me. I know you probably had to re-read that last statement. Consider my point though, never have I been so emotionally, mentally, and psychologically tested as I have been over the past three years. Faced with the enormity of the obstacle that my guilt and fear was, not to mention the feelings of self-loathing for having not been strong enough to just handle them outright. And so I sit atop my pile of bodies, skeletons, and ghosts, with a big grin on my face. I am more prepared for what is to come, there will not be much that will be harder than what I have made it through all ready. I know myself, because I have had to rebuild myself piece by piece, that makes me an incredible enemy for any obstacle that stands in my way. Because I could not even stop myself from overcoming what was in front of me. This suffering has been a steeling process, I have come through it more mature, more aware, and honestly as hard as it may seem more humble. I did fall, I did stumble, I did struggle, and all this from a kid that did everything easily… I was reminded of what it means to have been tried.
So what to take away from this. Perhaps being maladjusted as we are is not such a bad thing, it has made us all resilient. It allows us to overcome obstacles, to have more empathy for others, to have more creative solutions than those regular well adjusted folks, and if it doesn’t break you it sure as hell makes you stronger. There is a big focus to reduce the stigma associated with combat stress. I want to push it past that, I want, to borrow a line from bill Shakespeare, to make others hold their manhoods cheap that they have not suffered as we have. I want it to be viewed as a badge of honor and courage just as our purple heart is viewed. We live with this everyday, We work through our fears, We process our guilt, We carry our dead with us and yet we are still outperforming you able bodied and minded individuals. I know I am a little maladjusted, maybe a little nuts… What’s your excuse? My disability has enabled me to kick your happy ass.
A First rate Madness by Nassir Ghaemi was the muse for this article. It is about how many of our greatest leaders of all time have suffered some form of mental illness and have overcome it to be incredible crisis leaders. Guys like Sherman, lincoln, FDR, Ghandi, king and Kennedy. Its a good read from a scientific perspective.