I have written and erased this post more times than I can count in the past week. It was a tumultuous week for me. I was talking with my therapist about the timing of when I felt I started losing control over my anger and about the thought pattern - I don't know what's coming next, but whatever it is can't be good. After thinking about it, I started to lose control and emotionally withdraw right after my daughter was born. I said it so nonchalantly. We concluded our session and my therapist left.
About ten minutes after she left, it hit my like a ton of bricks. Holy shit, my daughter's birth is the root of all of this. As I thought about it more, I realized that this was the first time in my experience that intense POSITIVE EMOTION triggered my PTSD. That realization turned everything on it's head. So let's explore what I mean in more depth:
Finally realizing this has given me some element of power over it and control over my fears. It has been and exhausting journey, but I am hopeful that things will improve as I move forward. It's hard to cope with fears when you aren't aware of what they are. For the first time, I feel like I have a little better control over my anger again. Here's to hoping that things continue to get better.
To My Wonderful Daughter Caley: When you are older and you discover this blog, I want you to know I love you more than words could ever hope to express. Don't ever, even for a second, think that this was your fault. Know that it is the intensity of my feelings for you that make this healing possible. I love you widget, don't ever forget it.
I explained in the previous post that I was getting really amped up and didn't know how to shut it off. Well, as the day and night unfolded yesterday, the reasons for this became abundantly clear. My body was preparing me for action - action that had the potential to go on for a long time. There was no saying how bad this storm was going to be in our area. I didn't know if I was going to be taking my family on a flight to safety, if I was going to have to deal with potential looting, if my friends were going to need my help, etc.
What I realized is that I was amped up, not anxious or nervous. I was just ready. When I say ready, I mean READY. My body saw the potential threat in the coming storm and started priming the system for action days in advance. If something would have happened yesterday, I would have acted immediately to resolve the situation, no hesitation, no fear.
This effect on my body was predominantly primal, physiological. The docs at the VA and elsewhere have been talking about the 'battle brain' or 'fight or flight' and how that part of the brain taking over is what causes some of the issues we have with PTSD. While I understood the argument intellectually, I didn't fully understand the depth of what that meant until my body started amping me up in preparation for this storm.
Many of us can turn this on, short term, when the need arises, but there is still a lag before the clarity of purpose sets in. Getting amped up days in advance for what could happen reduced the lag created by needing to 'flip the switch' down to near zero. Hence the pre-storm build-up. I would have been ready for anything - running for cover, protecting my family from the elements, protecting my family from people, killing if the need arose to protect me and mine. Morality and gray areas be damned. Yet through it all, I knew what was happening this time. I knew the necessity of it and I knew that it could scare people to see the side of me that allowed me to survive outside the wire in a hostile environment with just three other guys to watch my back.
It was surreal. I was just along for the ride yesterday. I could freak out in my head all I wanted to and still trust that instinct would direct my body to make the best choices to ensure my survival and those I choose to protect.
Today, the threat ended. My body turned it all off and I crashed. I slept almost 10 hours during the day AFTER I woke up to start the day. The adrenalin dump was so extreme that my kidneys hurt and I felt like a junkie coming down off a high.
Then came the fear and anxiety, the anger at myself. How could I lost control like that? The thoughts of what I could have done yesterday (and the things I did have to do in Iraq) haunt me. This one is going to take some time to work out. I am just glad that it's over and I can start to work through the new wrinkles that this experience has introduced to the party.
I know a lot of my readers were in the path of this storm. I hope this finds you all well and in good health.
So here I sit. It's 1:30AM and I am typing this on the computer, obsessing about this storm that's coming. I have this horrible gut feeling that it's going to be worse than they think. I can't shake it. We live in eastern PA, 30 minutes from the New Jersey border. According to the National Weather Service, we are smack dab in the center of the cone of possibility. The projected path puts us squarely in the cross-hairs to get the full force of the storm.
Enter serious anxiety. I was at work all day so distracted I could barely think straight. Do we have everything we need? What about a fully stocked first aid kit? What about enough water? Batteries? Emergency evac routes? If it gets really bad, what about potential looters? Could this traumatize my daughter? She's only two years old. What about our apartment? We have a lot of windows...
I could keep on going, but you get the idea. The adrenalin is pumping and I am going into all go survival mode and I am scared shitless that entering into that mode (which my wife has only seen glimpses of) is going to do more to scare my family than the storm will. My heart is pounding right now and I feel the blood pulsing through my hands as I try to type this. I have to get up in five hours for work and I doubt I will go to sleep.
So where do I go from here? I am standing on the precipice. The air at work was charged with a certain energy...Does fear have a smell? I am trying to talk myself down, but the adrenalin keeps getting in the way. My hands won't stop shaking but I have to try to get some sleep. I know I am not the only one out there losing sleep over this, but the waves of my adrenalin are isolating me in ways flooding waters never could.
Well, this was an interesting session. I had just gotten out of individual treatment just a little bit before I headed out for CPT group. When I got to group, I was agitated and emotionally raw, the anger oozing out of every pore. It was obvious to everyone in group.
I talked with them all about my anger coming out a lot more since I have begun confronting the PTSD and they all understood. The anger coming back out to the forefront is apparently part of the healing process. Wish I would have known that in advance. So is it any wonder that as my anger becomes less and less easy to control that my anxiety has ratcheted up proportionately? Uh.....No?
The doc explained that phenomenon to all of us in group. When the anger isn't tightly controlled, we become unsure of what is going to happen next - but whatever is going to happen next, it won't be good...
What also came out is that anger manifests more strongly as I feel less in control at work. Thus my cycle of quitting jobs every 6 to 8 months. Well, it appears that cycle has taken longer to come to a head with my current employer, but I am there. It's frustrating knowing that the cycle had continued over the past three years. So what is my biggest priority right now?
Breaking the Cycle
I will not walk away from stability and employment, despite how draining my workdays can be. I gotta break the cycle. If I want to ensure stability and safety for my family, I can't give in to the urges to walk away from what distresses me.
Let's see how things go...
I had a reader ask me about my anxiety that I experienced over the past few days. I had commented on Facebook that I was having a rough day with it. Here's the cut and dry of it. I take three extra anxiety pills with me to work every day, just in case. I felt jittery when I got up on Friday. I got to work and the anxiety got exponentially worse almost immediately. I got a glass of water and my hands were shaking so hard that I almost couldn't get the pill out of my pill case.
About an hour later, I felt a noticeable down-tick in my anxiety levels. It lasted for about two hours. I had to take another pill. Same deal. I held on for as long as I could but I could feel the tangible tension in my shoulders and what I can only describe as a pressure in the back of my head. I immediately went to my boss and asked if he minded if I went home early. He said it was fine and I headed out.
My first instinct was to 'suck it up'. I was almost through the whole workday. Aside from the anxiety ratcheting up, I have no concrete reason for why I asked to go home. I guess I just knew my limits that day.
I got home and I zonked...hard.
My kidneys hurt when I woke up. I knew that the adrenalin had been coursing through my body in massive quantities but I didn't know why. I still am confounded by the intensity of the anxiety I experienced. There was no conscious trigger that I can identify and that scares me.
But back to the matter at hand: How do you know when it's time to call it a workday? I haven't a clue. I just listened to my body. I paid close attention to the clues my body was leaving me along the way. Each one of us is different. We all have different limits when it comes to dealing with anxiety. I have a high threshold, but when the threshold is reached....watch out. My reactions can be volatile and scare the uninitiated. So listen to your body, the cues it gives you. It's better to lose a few hours pay than lose a job.
How do you deal with anxiety? I'd love to hear from you all on this.
I recently asked on my Facebook Page if there were any issues that my readers would like me to discuss in my blog. My fellow advocate, Uncle Sam's Mistress, asked if I could discuss the following issue:
How do spouses and loved ones of service members with PTSD balance the celebrating events (like birthdays, anniversaries, holidays) with the needs of the suffering service member to have alone time - a safe harbor in the storm?
This is an issue that my wife and I have struggled with greatly, especially when the PTSD started getting out of control a few years ago. I would want to go out to an event or social occasion and I would reach my threshold for being around people I didn't know WELL before the event was over. It ruined more than one night out for us. As we discussed these issues, we determined that the house (or at least, part of it) should be closed off from other people. Here's how we attacked this issue as a team.
More often than not, I will reach my energy threshold for being out in public way before my wife and will be ready to leave a function or social gathering. We found that taking two vehicles has really worked for us. If I was ready to leave, I didn't have to wait to head out. I would communicate to my wife that I was reaching critical mass and I would go home to relax. My wife could stay as long as she wanted. While she would love to be able to spend the whole evening or day out and about with me, it's just not possible most days.
There are times when events are held at home (children's birthdays is a great example). These events are the hardest for me to handle because people (yes, that includes family) are invading my safe space. If the I don't have a safe place to retreat to away from everyone, I get snippy and irritable with everyone. It can ruin the day. My wife and I decided to make our bedroom and bathroom completely off-limits in our apartment when other people are over. If I feel the need to retreat to safety, I can do so. Sometimes I am even able to return to the event in small doses.
Don't Talk Religion, Politics, or Any Emotionally Charged Issue:
This may seem like a no-brainer, but people like to talk about what they are most passionate about - often that can lead to a really nasty situation with a veteran suffering from PTSD. For many of us, our opinions have a tendency to be set in stone and sacrosanct when it comes to these types of issues. Anyone challenging their ideals can trigger the PTSD.
Veterans with PTSD do not take kindly to being surprised, especially in the place they retreat to to decompress. If you want to make a veteran retreat into himself faster than you can blink, surprise him at home with a birthday party. Not only can this lead to outbursts of anger, but it can also destroy the veteran's sense of security. This is crucial. If we don't have a place to go to unwind, it can cause us to regress substantially.
Sometimes We Need a Reminder:
More often than not, if I have a choice, I am staying at home on my couch watching a movie or playing a game or just kicking my feet up. Sometimes we need someone to remind us that socializing is necessary for us as much as we hate to admit it. Connecting with people gives us a sense of inclusion and belonging to society. We just need that interaction to be on our terms - not anyone else's.
I think that covers all of the major points that resonate for me. I urge you to discuss this with me and your loved ones. If you have any questions or need clarification, please ask!
Last Wednesday, I was supposed to go to CPT group. I ended up stuck in the house with serious anxiety issues that made me marginally functional at best. Out of the blue, I felt anxious about everything and nothing all at the same time. The feeling was so intense that my adrenalin kicked in so violently I felt sick. I don't know why it happened, but I am starting to see a pattern in my behavior that worries me a lot. Before Iraq, I was in great physical health. Now, I have borderline high cholesterol, respiratory issues, severe allergies. It is like my body is attacking itself. The only common element I see that has been constant across all of these health issues has been my severe anxiety and the burst of adrenalin that goes with it. It can't be coincidental. I firmly believe that prolonged periods of anxiety and adrenalin induced hyper-vigilance is deleterious to your health. I am curious is any other veterans or caregivers of veterans have thought about this connection. I hope to hear from you all on this subject. I find it hard to believe that I am the only one who suffers these symptoms.
It's been a longer week than it should have been and way too long since I used this blog to get my thoughts out. I wanted to write about one aspect of Cognitive Processing Therapy that has been really good for me and difficult as all hell - both at the same time. The doc says accepting what happened is a major step in the therapy process that presents the biggest challenge for most guys. Doc continually talked to us about acceptance and it started to annoy me how much he talked about it. I knew in my heart of hearts that I would never be able to accept what had happened.
I have been thinking about this constantly for the past few weeks and I finally had a breakthrough two weeks ago that I never got to write about - I was unwilling to accept the wrong thing. I finally made the connection that acceptance isn't about accepting the horrific things that I saw. It's about accepting that there was nothing I could have done to change the outcome. It was completely out of my control. THAT was what the doc talked about when he talked about acceptance.
I was so relieved when I made that connection. I felt like I had reached a guidepost on my journey. And then, as the world always does, my world did everything in its power to challenge this new found clarity. While I won't go into specifics, work threw down the gauntlet and I lost my temper. I got very angry at work and caused a lot of people a lot of worry. I ended up going home that day just so that I could regain control of my emotions.
I recognized what was happening and felt powerless to stop it. It the past, this type of stumble would have sent me into a tailspin for weeks, if not months. That didn't happen this time. I was angry and agitated for the rest of the day but somehow found it within me to let go of the anger. What had happened at work to trigger my PTSD was outside of my control.
Then, I simply accepted that it had happened and felt all of the angst and raw jumble of emotions dissipate. I went to bed exhausted but relieved and woke up the next day feeling much better. So, the concept of acceptance has taken hold and helped me to rein in volatile emotions.
I felt so much better until I saw how worried and stressed my wife was. She was so afraid that I was going to regress. She was scared to death that I was losing the battle with PTSD, that the PTSD was winning and she was losing her husband to it again. I saw the fear in her eyes and I felt horrible, guilty, and responsible for her distress.
So over the past week I have worked diligently to impress upon her that I am not slipping back into the horrible funk I was in last year - that I am OK. I explained to how much my ability to cope had improved since I started CPT. While she understood what I was saying, it didn't lessen the fear for her.
And that's when it came out.
Because of turmoil and instability my PTSD can cause in our lives, she never feels safe and our life never feels stable. It was at this moment that I recognized how much my therapy could help her and other caregivers as well. I sat down and talked to her about my CPT and the concept of acceptance. While I was talking to her I remembered something that her mother used to always tell her. I reminded her of it and am going to leave it with you now, for there is much truth in the following words.
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time;
enjoying one moment at a time;
accepting hardships as the pathway to peace
What a long week. I keep on trying to find the time to write this post and others, but life intervenes. What is frustrating is that I always feel better after I get out my thoughts in this blog, yet right now there doesn't seem to be enough time in the day. *sigh*
Anyways, this past CPT session was pretty stressful. One of the guys brought the kid of a friend to group. The kid was in his early to mid 20's (wow - I just called someone in their 20's a kid. Must be getting older...). He was shot in the shoulder over in Iraq by a sniper. He was ghost white from the pain and the pain meds. His PTSD was deep and very severe.
And it felt like I was looking at a shadow of myself before I got help, when I first got home from overseas. His life was in shambles and he was pushing everyone in his life that cared about him away but you could tell he was desperate for the loving touch of the ones who loved him. He was a ball of jitters, anger, depression, catastrophic thinking, paranoia and guilt. It was hard to look at, hard to watch. I wanted to reach out to him and let him know that he was going to be OK. The state he was in, he wouldn't have believed a word I said, even if I said the sky was blue. He had insomnia, partially from the pain of his injury and partially from his wounded soul.
I didn't have the physical injury, but the rest...well, I don't like to think about the shriveled husk of a man that I was before I got help for my PTSD.
Here's the good part, the part that gives me hope: Every guy in group, no matter how bad their situation was, reached out to that young man with compassion and knowing love and support. We all told him he had a place with us if he needed it. The common bond of traumatic experience brought us all closer in that one moment. I think is was a benchmark moment for all of us in group. I don't know why, but something about that moment changed the dynamic in group and changed it for the better.
A lot more happened in group in addition to this. It was an eventful session. But that is a tale for another post. Off to hug my daughter now.
I have another big week ahead. I am applying for another position at work that will significantly reduce my daily exposure to mold. You'd think I would be excited about the prospect. Instead, I am stressed that I won't be the best candidate. I am afraid that they won't pick me. I am pissed that I have to do this in the first place. I have the best, most supportive manager in the world and I feel like I am letting him down because my body won't behave.
Here's the weird thing. I have begun to realize that I have, in the past, wallowed in these emotions, draining all of my energy before I even get home from work. Stress, fear, and anger have been my on-again, off-again companion ever since I got home from overseas. There's a pattern of behavior in all of this that I don't know how to articulate and it is annoying me to no end.
Simplifying does seem to be helping to reduce the effects of these three, but not fast enough. Getting stressed about this coming week is making me more stressed. Snowball effect sucks. I am glad that I have CPT group this week. Bouncing my thoughts and frustrations off the guys in group does seem to help, even if only a little.
Breathe, Crazy! You have off tomorrow. Sit down, read, play with your daughter and forget you have a week of upheaval ahead.
As I continue my life with PTSD, I will share my challenges and discoveries on this blog.