I had someone ask me through the website whether what I had been through had made me lose my faith or become angry at God. They asked me this because ever since they returned from Iraq, they have felt like a stranger in church on Sundays. The short answer: Yes. I had a serious loss of faith.
I think it's human nature to question your faith when you experience something horrific. I thought, "God can't exist. If God was up there, he wouldn't let this shit happen." That's the crisis of faith. Questioning. If God's up there how could he let such horrific things happen? I didn't realize it at the time, but when I was asking that question, I was asking God for an answer. When I didn't get one, I got angry. Angry at God. I thought, "God, if you are listening, Fuck You, you bastard. How could you let this shit happen. Benevolent, my ass. You are spiteful. I hate you." Yeah. Some pretty angry sentiment there. And I don't know a single vet with PTSD who hasn't gone down this road at some point. It doesn't matter if the soldier is Christian, Jewish, or Muslim. The crisis of faith followed by anger always seems to happen.
Let me lay out a series of events for you:
1996 - First Year in College. I meet a guy named Rami Hassouneh. We become fast friends. We go to a coffee shop and he orders in another language. I ask him what he is speaking and he says, "Arabic". I tell him I could never learn that language.
1999 - Joining the Army. I score a 99 on the ASVAB. They ask me if I am interested in languages. I take the Defense Language Aptitude Battery (DLAB) and score a 144 out of 150. They give me a choice of languages: Arabic or Arabic.
2000 - I graduate with honors from the Defense Language Institute.
2001 - After another year of training, I get to my first duty assignment in Wiesbaden, Germany.
2002 - I go on a Liaison Mission to Kuwaiti Ministry of Defense. One of my fellow linguists jokingly calls me 'Harris of Arabia'.
2003 - I get deployed as part of a Mobile Interrogation Team to Kuwait in preparation for the invasion into Iraq. We cross the berm on March 19th and I begin the deployment that changes me forever.
2004 - I am sent home with an active duty diagnosis of PTSD. I decide to return to college.
2006 - I meet my wife on March 24. We get married on September 27th.
2007 - I graduate Magna Cum Laude with a Degree in International Business. I struggle and struggle to find work. The economy has started to circle the drain.
2010 - My daughter is born on November 8th.
2011 - I decide to start blogging as an outlet for my PTSD. Within a month, Combat Veterans with PTSD is born.
In Short: If things wouldn't have turned out the way they did in Iraq, I wouldn't have my degree. I wouldn't have my wife. I wouldn't have my amazing and beautiful daughter. Combat Veterans with PTSD would never have been born.
I don't know whether I believe in God the way many do. I wouldn't even call it faith - I would call it spirituality. I can't attribute what I went through to some grand design. Or can I? I still don't know. That's over a decade of 'coincidence' that I can't explain. I know I am still angry. For me to realize my purpose, I had to go through all of THAT? Yup, still angry.
My wife made it very clear to me yesterday that I have obsessive compulsive tendencies that have been manifesting more and more over the past few months. This scares the crap out of me. I am going to talk to the docs and the social worker about it as soon as possible. That's a relatively new wrinkle that I need to get ironed out. I start doing something that I am passionate about and I lose sight of everything else. I can't get my mind to focus on other things. I think the obsessive aspect of my PTSD that has manifested over the course of the past year had played a major role in making me seem emotionally inaccessible. Is being my kind of intelligent a curse or a blessing? I can disappear into a thought or idea for days and not realize the passing of time. Before the PTSD, I had ideas and thoughts like this, but I was always grounded by the passing of time. I have lost that sense. How do I regain it? I don't know. I wish I did, but I don't.
So now I have to be even more careful: I can't afford to start obsessing about whether or not I am obsessing. That sounds confusing right? I almost laughed when I wrote it. It's true, though. Looking at this another way, catastrophic thinking is, in my mind, a form of obsessive compulsive behavior. Is it that much of a stretch to think that the obsessive behavior could manifest in other ways? I don't think so.
I ask that you, my readers, think deeply on this. I am asking for your input. I hope everyone has a great weekend. I will continue to think on this as well. Maybe together we can find a workable solution for coping with this.
I don't know where it came from, but I was feeling really nostalgic late last night and was poring over everything I had written since I got back. I was even looking for the discs of pictures. Nothing was satisfying or fulfilling the feeling that I was missing something. I got really frustrated and eventually went to bed a little after midnight. Something woke me up before the alarm. I felt compelled to sit down and search my mind for what was bothering me. I finally figured it out when I looked at the date: March 29th.
It all came flooding back. I was with the mobile interrogation team. Don't remember where. I just remember the guy they brought in. He was a wounded Iraqi soldier. They wanted me to interrogate and find out if the guy had any information. He was so terrified he had wet himself. When he saw me, he defecated himself. His uniform was singed in places and he looked like he had been through hell already. I wanted to show him compassion, but my job as a translator was to mirror the mood, tone, and inflection of the interrogator. So I held my place. Then the interrogator did something I will never forget. He grabbed the soldier's arm. Something so simple, right? He grabbed his arm.
The Iraqi detainee went into shock. I rushed over and pulled up his sleeve and couldn't believe my eyes. He had been close enough to a serious explosion that the concussion had shattered his arm. His arm was a collection of fracture blisters. No one had caught this. The Iraqi soldier was so scared of us that he never once asked for help or treatment.
I knelt and did what I could to comfort the man as the medics worked to stabilize him. I told him not to worry, that we have the best doctors. I told him to stay calm and to look at me - he kept on looking at his arm and getting even more scared. So he stared. And stared. And stared. He blinked really hard and looked at me with a look I couldn't understand. Then he smiled a sad smile and thanked me, "Shukran, ya Saydi" I watched at the light faded from his eyes. His body just couldn't process the fear and trauma.
His last words were to thank me and address me with a title of respect. I looked at my watch: 0632. 3/29
I remember thinking: 42 more detainees inbound - 30 mikes out. It's going to be a long day.
I know my compassion must have shone through and provided this poor man comfort, but I still felt like shit. yet another day and anniversary to watch out for. I can understand why I suppressed this memory. I really can. The question I have is why now? Why today? And is it coincidence that the memory came back at 0632 in the morning? Was that was jogged my memory? The memory is too real. Too clear in my mind. The look of the fracture blisters...don't think I'll be eating much today.
I will spend time with my daughter today and I will be processing this mess of emotions in the back of my mind. My daughter calms me. Her simple perspective and unconditional love make it possible for me to process this. She'll know something is wrong and will want a lot of hugs from Daddy today. That's OK with me. We'll play and I'll process and maybe I'll find a way to make sense of the feelings I have. I guess I will see how it goes.
One of my readers, Josie F., wrote some questions in the comments to A Loving Call For Help From A Reader. The questions were pointed and earnest and I felt I needed to address her questions as soon as I could. Here's what she wrote:
I've reread this a few times Max; you tell a lot here about the psyche of a returning soldier - perhaps you say it all. What about getting through this? Are you through it; have you addressed your guilt and if so, do you feel in a better place.. are you easier on yourself or for others to live with? Or, does the power of the guilt drag you back no matter how good your life, your support system? When you are in your cave, do you lose track of time? What turns this around for you, ie, does something happen to start to bring you out? Do you forgive those who may have unknowingly triggered you into the darker thoughts, or hold them hostage... make them pay some penance too, thereby alleviating some of yours? I hope these questions aren't too harsh to ask but would shed a lot of light onto the behavior of other vets, such as mine. Thank you.
Getting through it? No. Learning to live with? Yes. I have confronted the guilt I feel for having survived and know that I will still feel guilty for the rest of my life. It's whether you let that guilt motivate you that is the question. I remind myself that I would be dishonoring their memories if I refused to live my life to the fullest. It doesn't mean I don't have my bad days and weeks. Anniversaries are particularly hard. It rends the heart because you are forced to remember. I tried ignoring anniversaries in the past - that backfired...BIG TIME.
Hiding in the Cave: When I am in 'cave mode' I definitely lose sense of time. This past time was particularly bad. It wasn't only the passing of time that was skewed, but events from the past year's place in the timeline were screwy in my head. As for what brought me out of it? My love for my family and fear of losing everything in my life that has redeeming value.
Forgiveness: I never got mad at others for triggering memories or my sense of survivor's guilt. I have always been my own worst enemy and never blamed others for putting me in my current situation. That may be due to my introspective nature. I am not sure. I know some vets, when they are feeling this way are feeling emotions so toxic that they lash out and 'blame' others, but it's less blaming than trying to push a person away. It's as I said in the comments of the earlier post. Sometimes the toxic nature of the emotions a vet is feeling are so diametrically opposed to the love you are showing them that they feel compelled to drive you away - they can't handle the intensity. If you feel like you are being held hostage for unwittingly triggering this behavior, that's not healthy. I would never make someone else 'pay penance' for me. That penance is mine to serve.I hope this answers the questions you asked Josie. I can only tell you the answers from my personal experience - every vet is different, yet the same. Ultimately, you are the only one who can ascertain whether your relationship with your vet is something he wants to salvage/maintain.Thank you for your questions and never be afraid to ask the difficult questions. Sometimes people ask questions I have to answer for myself too!
Yours in Health,
So, people have started finding out that I am out on disability. I got angry. Angry with myself for not realizing that it was going to bother me. I wasn't ready to confront that, fair or not, people are going to judge me because of this. They don't have to know anything about PTSD but they will still judge me.
So I got angry. And then I wasn't anymore. They can all kiss my ass. If they don't want to understand, then they are not worth my time or aggravation. The response of a real person, a caring person, would be asking my wife if I am doing alright. That's my feeling in my gut right now.
Unfortunately, I can't afford to act that way or think that way. People are, by nature, scared of what they don't know. And PTSD is a BIG, BIG unknown for many. So, I will continue to do what I have been - telling it like it is and hoping that more and more people notice.
To all those folks out there with PTSD: Stay strong and patient. If they are willing to listen, explain it to people. If they are not willing, walk away and be stronger for it. I know I am.
OK, when I said I was committed to doing everything in my power to learn to cope with my PTSD, I did mean everything. I went to the OIF/OEF support group last night at the VA Outpatient Clinic near my house. It was me, the Doc, and one other vet. None of the other regular guys showed up. Curious, the other vet asked me about myself and I told him the basics. He asked me why I hadn't come to group before if I had been home for so long. I told him the honest truth: "Because last time I came, everyone pulled out their dicks and compared trauma. I don't care to compete and I don't want to corner the market on suffering."
The other vet laughed. He said most of those guys know they aren't welcome. He said the group is a bunch of serious guys that want to make lives for themselves.
You have no idea how happy I was to hear that. I had been looking for people like me to connect with in the flesh. I needed the real life contact with others and I got it. I didn't realize how much I missed the connection with other vets until I went yesterday. I look at all that I have accomplished and all that I need to learn and I don't feel so overwhelmed, knowing that there are other guys, in my area, that are struggling with the same hurdles I am.
So here's my message: Even if you aren't ready to share, go to group meetings if you have them in your area. Just listening to what other vets have to say and how they react in situations similar to yours can be very educational and provide you with a very important connection other vets. You may not feel like you want the connection, but I would wager you need it. Loneliness and isolation is what really sends us down the rabbit hole, so hold on tight and trust yourself enough to make new friends - friends who know EXACTLY what you are going through.
I know I stated as much in previous posts, but I am done letting the PTSD be the focal point in our lives. As a result of this promise to myself, we tried something we haven't tried in a while: We went out shopping at a department store. Here's how it went.
My wife needed new shirts for work so we went to Kohls. We walked in, wife next to me and Caley in the stroller. The place was packed, I mean packed. For those of you familiar with Kohls, yesterday was a Kohls Cash day. Yeah. Oops. My wife, Dani, turned to look for my reaction. I immediately turned down the aisle with the least amount of people. Dani asked me, "Isn't women's clothes the other direction?" I told her it was. She looked back at the crowds near the registers and we both started to chuckle.
Then Dani's face turned deadly serious and she asked, "are you going to be ok?" I told her I would be ok and told her that I just needed to stay out of the middle of the crowds. We went 'around the block' and avoided the mess at the registers. She got her shopping done and we headed up towards the registers. I started feeling a little nervous, because it was very crowded. I looked at my daughter, who was straining to get out and run around. I got her out and we ran around in a wide open space, while we waited for mommy to check out.
When mommy was done, we collected Caley up in the stroller and left. Dani was looking at me with thoughtful eyes. She didn't say anything but I think my reactions surprised her. Here's why:
I the past, I would have walked in, seen the crowds, become instantly super anxious, and turned right back around and back out, leaving Dani and Caley in the store. Usually, Dani would get frustrated - she wanted to do something as a family - and turn around and we'd go back home. See how the resentment builds? Well, NOT THIS TIME!
Yes, I recognized that the crowd made me anxious. The jump I didn't make was to assume that something bad was going to happen and that i was going to flip out and do something stupid.
Yesterday was refreshing. We'll have to do it again some time soon. Just not today. Baby steps, baby steps.
Ok, so everything's going well right? Well, it's 2:06AM and I am writing this blog entry. I just got over compulsively washing the 'blood' on my hands. It was one of the doozies. The kind of reliving in HD moments I could do without. It is also the kind of nightmare that makes you wonder, against your will, if working so hard to get stable is worth it. When I thought that, I got so mad. I mean REALLY FUCKING mad. One nightmare and I'm ready to hang 'em up after all that I have regained in the past few weeks?
This just goes to show you how slippery the slope can be and why it is so important to talk to your spouse or friends or anyone who cares about your nightmares and how they make you feel. They don't need to know the details - just how they suck the will to believe in getting better right out of you. I have a few hours until I tell my wife. I want her to enjoy her morning workout and weight training before I throw worry into her mix of emotions. I love her and I told her that I would communicate every little change. This matters. If you are like me and have other people that care about you, don't shut them out. Invite them in - they want to be there to love and support you. This past year, I lost sight of that. Not This Time...
After the holidays were over, things got even worse. My wife was getting desperate to get through to me and was emotionally, spiritually, and physically spent. In February, she sat me down and figuratively slapped me out of it. Those details are too personal to share, but boy did it snap me out. It went into a serious introspective period that lasted about a week and half. When my wife snapped me out of it, I gained a clarity I hadn't experience for the better part of a year. I looked back and felt crushed by the guilt - of not being there for my wife and daughter. The guilt was so oppressive at first I felt like I was suffocating. I had a significant sense of the loss of time. Much of the past year I don't remember - at all. I missed doctor appointments at the VA, I had really let the PTSD take control. So what the hell happened? After a lot of talking with my wife and a lot of introspection, these are the things that I figured out that sent me down the rabbit hole for the past year:
OK, so those were the big three. My wife and I have talked about all of this and are working to fix all that we put out of place. I love my wife for her strength and her commitment. Not many women have the intestinal fortitude to hang around when they get put through the emotional wringer like that. I am back in therapy and I am starting back up group sessions again. I am going to make sure I continue blogging because it helps to clear my head and get out the 'bad shit'.
Most of all, I want to thank everyone who has read my blog and expressed gratitude. Your gratitude has been like the sun breaking through the clouds after a storm. I never intended my 'online diary' to turn into this. Let's move forward. Together. For Every Day is a New Day.
I just received this anonymous comment and asked that I address it in a blog post. He says:
"I am tired. Burntout. detached. I know what needs to happen but I am too tired to make it happen. Just be husband, father, protector, rock. It is so hard now. I have to psych myself up to get involved and interested in the garage or building something and bam. The kids are fighting. Back to mr. dad again. Some how it feels hollow. It takes so much effort to psych myself up and try to get on a roll. I take so much medicine to deal with the shit in my head but cannot even deal with it because of the shit right in front of me. If most guys have trouble being a stable father then where does that leave me? Everything is twice as hard now. I can’t let her know. I have put so much on her already. How unfair and selfish can I be? I will smile because I am supposed to. Laugh because it is expected. Somehow I have become the best actor in the world. The overachiever that went to Iraq is gone and I am here. And I am so damn tired."
First off, I have to ask it and then I will follow up with comments in the comment section. If 'So Damn Tired' means you are considering harming yourself. GET HELP: 1-800-273-TALK.
OK, I had to say that first. I am going to post this now, just in case and follow up in the comments. Anyone who wants to can jump in for support!!
As I continue my life with PTSD, I will share my challenges and discoveries on this blog.