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.
This past week has been a whirlwind as I worked to get everything ready for the fundraising campaign to go live. It has been an amazing experience and I have found myself looking at the world from a different perspective. I never realized how fulfilled I would feel as I pushed the envelope to advocate for veterans. I have felt energized and happy, better able to attend to my family, better able to attend to my own needs. I have felt so good this past week that I started to think something must be wrong. Being this happy was alien to me.
And then it hit me. And it hit me HARD. When I was telling my parents about my venture, they were 100% supportive but my mother asked me a very pointed question: "Max, you are overweight. If you are going to be the public face of this organization, you need to look the part." Something so simple. She thought I was going to get upset or feel hurt by her comments.
Nope. Not at all. As a matter of fact, she really made me think. If I am going to fight the stereotype and stigma associated with PTSD, I can't look like a 'sorry-ass dough-boy'. When I sat down and thought about it, I made another realization and it wasn't one I liked. I still hated the guy in the mirror. Despite all of the good I wanted to do, I was still striving to live vicariously through the successes of others.
For the first time, that realization didn't paralyze me. It didn't make me feel less than. It made me disgusted with myself - determined to DO something about it. It was time to Walk the Walk. I have been talking the talk for two years, shying away from holding myself accountable for my inability to take care of myself. I found it was easy to ignore my own deficiencies if I helped other veterans and their loved ones learn to live with PTSD. I can't delude myself anymore. If I am going to be taken seriously, I need to take care of myself and not look like a sloppy 'mess'.
So here's the skinny (pardon the term): I weigh 278.1 pounds. My 'fighting weight' in the army was 234. Today I started living by example. While I have done much to learn to cope with my PTSD, I wasn't able to overcome the feelings of inadequacy to take better care of myself. So no big promises. No grandiose plans. I am going to get in the best shape of my life and I'm going to show you all what grit and determination can do for a veteran with PTSD. Here's how I look now:
Yeah. Doesn't exactly scream "Support My Cause!"
This is the only promise I will make: I will do everything I can to look the part and earn the self-respect I so dearly desire. I WILL WALK THE WALK>>>No update pictures, no stories, no excuses. Just action. I will show you all what I am capable of and take a picture again on April 10th (A few days before the end of my fundraising campaign). All I ask is that you ask yourself. Do I just 'like' comments and say I support a cause or am I willing to walk the walk? Are you willing to spread the word? Are you willing to speak out against the stigmatization our combat veterans with PTSD face? Do you have the ability to donate to worthy causes but don't? What will you do to walk with me?
What do you do when you realize that everything you have been doing for free (advocating for veterans and educating civilians) is something that you'd like to do as a career?
I can tell you this, while it doesn't take away from the fulfillment I find in helping veterans and their loved ones, it does motivate me to find ways to make my dream job a reality. In recent months, so much has happened that has drawn a lot of attention to the deficiencies in our behavioral health system. I hear and read about all of these so-called experts talking about how we need to fix the system and they all agree: we need to add more layers of bureaucracy and research. Remind me again, how does this help? When are organizations going to start listening to the ideas of the people they are designed to help?
Our behavioral health system is out of date and out of touch with the realities of today's population. I have looked around. Unless you have a substance abuse problem, it is almost impossible to find real-world peer to peer support groups.
I have a strong desire to change this and have some ideas on how to affect positive change. I do need to consult with some folks about some certain subjects and would appreciate any advice that people could give me. Here's what I need:
I am sure there will be more down the line, but right now, I am interested in gaining feedback from people with these areas of expertise so that I can perform a feasibility study for an idea that I have. If you know anyone who may fit this criteria who may be interested in finding out more, please have them contact me through the website! I have tomorrow off, so I will be spending some downtime with my family. A little decompression before starting a new gig at work is always a good idea. I plan on writing some more of my next installment of my serial novel. It always seems to clear my head. Have a good weekend, everyone!
So, yeah...I started working out again this past week. I have realized that the only way that I am going to be able to stay committed to working out is to go all out. What's odd is the way that I came to this realization: I have been in a funk for the better part of the past week. I couldn't, for the life of me, figure out why in the hell I was feeling so down. I started putting it together after I had worked out last night after work. I had been starting slowly and letting my muscles get reacquainted with weight training. I hadn't added cardio into the mix quite yet. When I got home from from the gym last night, I was almost instantly grumpy and withdrawn.
And then it clicked.
I wasn't fully committing to working out and I wasn't kicking the endorphins into high enough gear for the 'feel-good' to affect me. I thought about it a lot. I felt good while I was working out but it immediately started to fade as soon as I was done. It kept on leaving the gym feeling faintly dissatisfied. I knew that you had to attain a certain level of physical activity for the endorphin release to sustain itself for any length of time. With this in mind, I decided it was time to throw in a half-hour of cardio today. My body felt good and I wasn't sore, so I figured I might as well.
So today, I got out of work, headed to the gym, did 30 minutes of cardio and then weight training. My hunch appears to be correct. When I finished my workout, the good mood was still there and I felt good. I still felt a little out of balance after a week of 'I feel good, I feel like crap'. I liked the way I felt today. I was more aware and focused at home. I wasn't withdrawing from my wife and daughter.
So let this be a lesson to everyone else out there: When your doc says you need to exercise, take it seriously. I feel so much better when I am working out. I am more alert, more engaged. *so tired - going to bed and finishing tomorrow...*
Ok, to finish up:
The word of caution I have for all of the others out there that are feeling balanced on their medication: Exercise releases a lot of chemicals into the brain that cause feelings of happiness and contentedness. It might be a good idea to pay a little closer attention to your mood while you are getting into the habit of exercising consistently. Any time you drastically change your brain chemistry, it can change the potency, duration, and effect of the medications we are on. Please don't take this as an excuse to avoid exercising. Trust me when I say that the difference is wonderful. Just don't do it half-way. You'll thank me later.
When this first happened, I wanted to write something immediately. I felt compelled to write from the heart on this, but I waited. This incident devastated too many lives to be written off the cuff. I decided to look into some background information so substantiate my views and in the course of doing that research became more and more disturbed, more and more concerned for the direction our country is headed. So, here goes.
The proliferation of firearms in the United States has reached critical mass. Industry lobbyists in Washington have worked tirelessly to pave the way for almost anyone to be able to purchase and own firearms. While I believe in the Second Amendment, I think it's time we actually looked at what the Second Amendment actually says.
"A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed."
Well, this seems pretty damn black and white to me. 'If this criteria is met, then this holds true'. Is the United States general public now considered a 'well regulated militia'? Is owning an automatic rifle 'necessary to the security of a free state'? Unequivocally, NO. We have local police, state police, the National Guard, and more. There is absolutely no reason for assault rifles to be available to the general public.
Before any NRA sycophants get on here and rant, you better think carefully about what you say. I fought to protect the ideals of this country, so don't you dare impugn my intentions. You want to argue your 'right to bear arms'? Last time I checked, this right is an AMENDMENT. First and foremost we have a duty to uphold the core tenants of the Constitution. Let's visit the core tenant of that wonderful document:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness."
It is not a coincidence that Life takes the spot as highest in precedence. When others' rights to bear arms encroaches on another citizen's right to live a life in pursuit of these three basic tenants, I draw the line. No parents should have to live in fear of sending their children to school. They shouldn't have to fear a phone call telling them that their six year old was murdered in cold blood by an assault rifle toting psychopath.
I thought deeply about the philosophy that 'guns don't kill people, people kill people.' While semantically true, this is a delusional rationalization. Yes, guns don't kill people. Someone has to pull the trigger and we, as a society, have made that insanely easy to accomplish. It's time that we held ourselves to a higher standard.
Special Interests and Politics:
While the above incident is horrible, it is a symptom of a deeper malady - a cancer that has spread insidiously into every facet of National Governance. Special Interests, working to promote specific agendas have taken our political system hostage. Special interest groups have taken over policy making so completely in Washington that the average politician can't get elected without taking money from these groups and offering policy reciprocity in return. We supposedly elect these politicians to office out of a belief that they will do what is best for their constituencies. Now, campaign platforms are empty words designed to keep power-hungry 'public servants' in office. Special interest groups are the ones that facilitate this. Their money buys influence and power in Washington, drowning out the voices of the average American who doesn't have millions of dollars to throw at corrupt politicians. The firearm special interests and the NRA both tout deep and abiding beliefs in God. Unless God is now synonymous the almighty dollar, these folks and the politicians that support them are the most profound of hypocrites. Last time I checked, avarice was one of the seven deadly sins. The firearm industry and their cadre of bought policy-makers have sold the lives of our children out of a desire for more money and more power. So I say this to those policy-makers and lobbyists - HOW DARE YOU.
It's time that we take back our power from these elitists. I didn't go to war to protect and uphold the Constitution of the Unites States just to watch it be slowly subverted to fit the greed and need of a select few.
Ultimately, it is these lobbyists and policy-makers that have supported lax firearms policies that I hold accountable for what happened in Connecticut. If I had my way, they'd all be brought up on charges of Negligent Homicide. Take what you will from this, but my stance will never change. Policy-makers are given their power by us. We can just as easily take it away. It's time they start advocating for us and not the special interests.
Mental Health Care in the United States:
Since I was diagnosed with PTSD, I have taken a keen interest in the state of the mental health care system in our country. Bluntly, it's embarrassing. So little education is out there about mental illness, mental disorders that those with these issues are viewed by many as second-class citizens at best and a danger to the general public at worst.
News Flash: My name isn't Rambo. I will not go on a murderous killing spree because of the horrific things I witnessed in a Combat Zone.
PTSD, Depression, Bi-Polar, Schizophrenia. People hear these words and become fearful. Thousands and thousands of people never come forward for treatment out of fear of being shunned by a society that holds no place for them. Whatever happened to compassion for our fellow man? Not surprisingly, those sufferers with the most understanding families that actively support their treatment, that show them unconditional love are substantially more successful in mitigating the effects of their illness/disorder on their lives. It's time that we, as a nation, worry more about others again. Where is our heart? Our nationalism? Our pride in what it means to be truly American? Since when did ignoring or marginalizing a portion of our population become acceptable?
The only way to fix this is to get rid of the vast bureaucracy that overshadows our efforts to provide for our citizens with mental illnesses and disorders. In the case of Veterans, the system is so cumbersome that they have to file with one organization (the VBA) in order to be provided with free health care from the other (VA Medical). It takes days, months, and sometimes years to get the help we need. And the first solution given by most psychiatrists? Medication.
There's another special interest that disgusts me. Pharmaceutical Companies. The FDA approves these drugs when the side-effects are worse than the malady they are addressing. I saw an add for Cymbalta on the TV in the work break room the other day. The first 15 seconds were about what it addressed: Depression. The last 45 seconds addressed all of the possible side-effects. By the end of the ad, I couldn't even remember what the hell the drug was for until they flashed the name back up on the screen.
Do you know what has been most helpful to me in coping with my PTSD? The compassion of others and finding therapists that help me learn to identify and cope with my symptoms. It took me EIGHT YEARS to finally find this kind of help. And I'm one of the lucky ones with a supportive and loving family.
So, have I gotten your attention yet? Please don't let this issue pass you by. I hope to hear from everyone on this issue, for and against the view I have presented. Discourse is the only way we can get to where we need to be. It's a topic of discussion that hasn't been addressed in way too long. Let's find our hearts again. Let's work to hold our public officials to a higher standard. And for Pete's Sake, get these weapons out of the hands of the general public.
This past week, I have done a lot of thinking about why my anger is getting harder and harder to control. After a lot of deep thought and talking to my individual therapist, I have examined my life at home and at work to try to narrow down where the increasing stress is coming from. This past Monday, I got pulled aside at work and was talked to by the management trainee in our department. While I don't recall exactly what it was that I did (which is problematic as well), it suddenly became crystal clear that the vast majority of my stress stemmed from stressors at work. I realized that the more stressed I became, the more forgetful I became, the more distracted I was, and I was substantially easier to anger.
With this in mind, I evaluated what about my job was making me so stressed, so miserable and I realized it was all of the management tasks. I was stressing about finding the time to write reviews, talk to employees, train and develop subordinates, improve merchandizing, writing accurate orders, maintaining maximum product freshness, product rotation issues, etc. The list went on and on and the more I thought about those tasks, the more worked up I got.
It couldn't be that simple, could it? I had promised almost a year ago that I would do everything in my power to maintain a healthy work-life balance. Could stepping down from the management team and assuming a role of less responsibility and accountability really be the answer? I talked to my wife about it and she agreed that the stress that work was causing me in my current position was not worth the bump in pay. So, I approached my boss and his boss and asked to sit down and talk. I let them know that I was stepping down and had a desire to be a plain old full-time employee with no management responsibilities.
Neither one was surprised and both were relieved. They told me that they had talked about offering to let me step down as an option. They noticed that I had become more and more distracted and much more irritable at work. They knew that with my current levels of stress, that I wan't happy. The were concerned about my welfare. They knew what I was capable of. They also knew what a toll my PTSD and events over the last two years have taken on me. They understood why I was stepping down and understood my reasons for doing so. They approved it and a great weight was instantly lifted from my shoulders. For the first time in a long time, I felt a moment of peace. While I took a pay cut, it is more than worth it to come home from work without the stress that had been weighing me down. I swore I would never put work before family ever again and I knew I was getting close to breaking that promise to fulfill duties at work.
So there you have it. I wanted to share that because it's food for thought. Many of us take on more than we can handle. The more stressed we are, the harder it is to cope with our PTSD. If things start getting away from you, try to identify why. It was one hell of a relief for me.
My wife and I were talking yesterday about how we both tended to respond to situations out of habits formed over the past two years. I didn't to do something, my wife gets frustrated and mad, I feel guilty and withdraw. For any other vets and spouses, does this sound familiar? I am sure we are not the only ones who have fallen victim to habit.
When I realized what was going on, my wife and I talked about it and we came to an agreement, a compromise that will hopefully help us from falling into those habits. Here's what we agreed on:
What's the reasoning? I have a tendency to fall asleep for a nap after work because work is very energy consuming. The end result: There are a list of tasks that I would normally do that didn't get done that, over the course of time, made my wife resent me for not doing. My wife and I talked about this and she agreed to afford me the opportunity to show her that I DO CARE. So after coming to this agreement, I thought a lot about the stress my wife was under. My wife did all of the work around the house. This was because she either didn't think I would remember to do my tasks or she thought that I didn't care. This led to an enormous amount of Caregiver Stress and eventually, Burnout.
So today we tried an experiment. I had a day off today. Last night I talked with my wife about going out somewhere and doing something. While she was gone I would do chores around the house and afford her the opportunity to decompress and unwind. She said, "Well, some of the folks from the gym are going out for breakfast tomorrow..."
So this morning we woke up, and my wife went out to breakfast with friends, leaving our daughter with me. After breakfast, she went out to the mall. While she was gone, I vacuumed, cleaned the bathrooms, mopped the floors, and folded my laundry - all while trying to keep my daughter entertained. When my wife came home in the early afternoon, she said she felt stoned. I jokingly told her, "This is what feeling relaxed feels like." Later in the afternoon, my wife got ready and left for work. I prepared dinner for Caley and me and then cleaned up the kitchen. My wife came home from work relaxed, happy, and grateful - three things I haven't allowed her to feel in way too long.
Now the evening is mine. I get the rest of the night to relax. So it works out well for everyone. It also helps me feel better because I don't feel like a burden rather than a husband.
I would really love to hear from Veterans and their spouses on this issue. It's too important to ignore.
I experienced a new level of nightmare on the night before Thanksgiving. The smells and sounds were always there, but these new recollections/flashbacks now include the fear, anger, horror, and disbelief that I experienced in the moment. The end result: I fell asleep on the couch at the in-laws and had nightmares. My daughter was the one who startled me awake. I became aware of what I had done when I looked over and saw her kneeling on the floor in the middle of the room and the looks or horror on everyone's faces. My startle reflexes had caused me to scare the bejesus out of my daughter.
Needless to say, for my sanity and safety and that of my daughter's, my wife and daughter have been sleeping at her parents' house so that, God Forbid, I don't actually hurt her. She was scared by my startle response, but unhurt. She's over it but I can't forgive myself. It is my worst fear - hurting my daughter.
I was at work yesterday and had a breakdown. I effectively hadn't slept since Friday night. My father took me to the VA and they are putting me back on Trazadone. The doc said that it would keep me from being physically able to act on any startle response.
I needed someone to talk to about what had happened that wasn't emotionally invested in a positive outcome. So, naturally, I talked to Rod Deaton. Rod may be a doctor at the VA and I may be a veteran with PTSD, but we are friends and do not share a doctor patient relationship. What is great about having someone so knowledgeable to turn to in situations like these is that he can stay calm and talk me down from my figurative ledge.
Talking to him last night definitely did that. He made me remember that I am a good and honorable man. That, in and of itself, would ensure that there wasn't a repeat of what happened on Thanksgiving. Additionally, he made me realize that my I was allowing me fears to blow what had happened out of proportion. I am, and always have been, my own worst critic. When I get into situations like this past week, I verbalize my irrational fears to those I love, causing them to worry excessively. I force them to think the worst.
It's form of self-flagellation. On some level I have been punishing myself continually since my daughter was born. I think about all of the worst-case outcomes to my behavior and believe myself capable of making those outcomes a reality. It's self-fulfilling prophecy. I have been hamstringing myself like this ever since my daughter was born. It all stems from irrational fears of losing my family, my daughter.
I won't go into all of the details but my conversation with Rod last night led me to make some incredibly substantial realizations about myself:
So what's the end-result of the mess of a week? Blessings dressed in wolf's clothing...
So it has been a traumatizing and productive week all at the same time. I am still exhausted and have to work at not being too hard on myself, but my wife and daughter deserve to enjoy the man I am - not the man I was afraid I could become.
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 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!
As I continue my life with PTSD, I will share my challenges and discoveries on this blog.