This past Saturday, I waded into the deep end and attended my sister-in-law's engagement party - lots of people I don't know and lots of people I wasn't sure I would feel comfortable around. I've explained it before but I will explain it again. When I am around people I don't know the hyper-vigilance kicks in and it forces me to examine the actions of every person around me for threats.
Surprisingly, it went fairly well. I felt the compulsion to give in and watch everyone. Somehow, and I really don't know how, I was able to keep the hyper-vigilance at bay. Fighting the urge was exhausting, though. I fell asleep three times while I was at the party and it was out of sheer emotional exhaustion.
I thought about that as my wife was driving us home. Are these my two options? Giving in or exhausting myself fighting the urge? It really bothered me on Sunday and Monday when I was at work. I kept on thinking that there had to be another option - another way of dealing with the hyper-vigilance and anxiety.
Then something unexpected happened. I was waiting on an elderly couple at the store and the old man was very grateful for my help and proffered his hand. When I shook his hand, I saw the tattoo on the forearm of his other arm. Numbers. He was a Holocaust survivor.
I got goosebumps.
He saw me notice and he grew concerned at the look on my face. He asked if he was the first survivor I had ever met and I told him, to my knowledge he was. He nodded slowly. He was very astute. He asked me if I had been in war. I told him that I was in Iraq.
What he said next was a gut shot:
"You have the look of the American soldiers who freed us from Dachau. Your memories live with you every day. I can see it in your face."
I didn't know what to say. I just nodded my head.
"So do mine. I am comforted by my faith. In our faith, God cherishes those who are just and righteous. Only a righteous man is haunted by war."
With those simple words he patted me on the shoulder and walked back to his wife who was picking out bagels.
Talk about food for thought. Having the memories as bedfellows means I am a righteous man? Is this the price of righteousness? So where's the upside of being righteous?
This is what I have been struggling with since Monday. Needless to say, these are not the kinds of questions that don't have easy answers. So...I keep on looking for them.
Well, that was an unexpected turn. A few days after the horrible nightmare I had last week, I suddenly found myself motivated to examine how I had been living my life. It wasn't pretty. I wasn't doing everything I know I am able to be. I wasn't being a partner to my wife, I wasn't pulling my weight at home. I was anxiety eating myself into diabetic shock, slowly gaining weight, pound by pound.
It hit me that I now have a consistent work schedule where I am home for dinner almost every night. I could actually go to the gym regularly as well. I actually sat down and made a commitment to my wife to be a better man and husband. For the first time in a long time and I am feeling a little more like 'myself'.
It didn't hit me until a few days ago that I was feeling this motivation, this change in outlook because of that horrible nightmare. I'm not sure how or why this is true, I just know it is. It's like there's one less shackle weighing down my soul.
All of the things I accomplished this week just added intensity to the brightness of the light in my heart. The 501(c)3 formation documents are officially submitted to the IRS. One logo is done, one done soon, and one in the works. I was asked to be the keynote speaker at Veterans' Day events in my home town. I confirmed my speaking engagement at St. Francis University. Combat Vets' Google Plus Page was listed as one of the "99 Google Plus Accounts Military Service-Members Should Follow".
Despite all of this, I am deeply anxious that the other shoe is going to drop. It tempers my happiness and dulls my optimism. At least this time, it
It happened Sunday night into Monday morning. Since then, I have been struggling to describe how terrifying these last nightmares were. I am not going to rehash the details again - the nightmare was about the friendly fire incident. Combine that incident with nightmare groundhog day and you get the picture. I experienced that recollection over and over and over...
The truly terrifying part: I knew I was dreaming. After the first 'playthrough', I tried to wake myself up, but I couldn't. After a few more replays, I started to get scared. Why couldn't I wake up? I thought maybe I had to do something, change something. But I couldn't, I was only along for the ride. All I could do was spectate.
Screams and death moans.
The smell and taste of blood in the air.
I got to feel everything - especially the helplessness. On top of that I experienced the helplessness of not being able to wake up, even though I was lucid. It was like being trapped inside myself with no way out.
I started to scream in my head, screaming to be let out. I started to feel like I was losing myself.
The alarm jolted me awake. Terrified and disoriented, it took me a second to come back to the present. I was exhausted. All of my muscles ached like I had been clenching all of them. My heart was beating so hard it actually hurt.
And then came the relief. It was over. I didn't have to experience that scene again. I was back in control. I was still pretty messed up, though. I was only able to make it through half of my shift on Monday before my need to be alone and process what had just happened overwhelmed me and forced me to go home. I am still processing it. I don't think I have ever been so terrified in my whole life.
What the hell was the meaning of that nightmare? Was there a message in it? I don't know and I have a feeling I won't know for a long time. All I know is that somehow, my perspective on work and life has changed. The differences are subtle. Maybe one day I will figure out why.
My therapist proposed a change in venue for this week's meeting. I was circumspect at first but when I arrived at the entrance to the park and we started walking, I felt a sense of urgency and took off up the path, looking at everything around me. My mind let go and I was able to just focus on the trail and all of the intentionally undisturbed nature surrounding me. When we got to the boulder outcropping, I felt a desire to take pictures. It was beautiful out there and I very quickly grew angry at the pothead scum who had defaced the outcropping with their stoner messages. When I climbed to the top of the boulders, the anger melted away. The light was playing on the ground in the most calming and mesmerizing fashion. I just stood there for a while. On our way back, I stopped and took more photos of nature. It felt almost compulsive.
Something happened out there and it was a really good thing. I felt spiritually alive. I had forgotten how much nature heals. The life around me resonated with my shattered soul and finally felt at peace.
Needless to say, I will be going back there - often.
During this whole session, my therapist and I didn't talk about anything. I think she sensed that I needed this moment of peace undisturbed - especially after the ten year anniversary that just passed. Thank you Soldiers Project for finding such amazing volunteer therapists!
As I continue my life with PTSD, I will share my challenges and discoveries on this blog.