Hello all. I'm so sorry to have been gone so long. It's been a very challenging past few months in some ways and a revelation in others. This is going to be a pretty long blog post, so hold onto your hats. I have a lot to talk about and it's been too long.
Why I Haven't Blogged in Such a Long Time
With everything going on with the divorce proceedings, I needed to disconnect. It was killing me not being able to blog about what I was going through. You see, the thing is, my blogging about my PTSD has always been about sharing what I've learned and what I'm struggling through. With the divorce proceedings, it wasn't about just me - it was about my ex and about my daughter. When going through a divorce, there's no possible way to separate the personal from the interpersonal and I had to seriously think about how what I might possibly write might unintentionally negatively impact the outcome of of the divorce.
More importantly, I was seriously concerned about my daughter. Some day she's going to read this and I don't ever want to write something that could confuse or hurt her. She loves her mother and she loves her father. Nothing should ever change that. Our daughter needs to know that, despite the divorce, she still loved just as much.
I think that the biggest thing is that this divorce was emotional hell. To be there for my daughter, my everything, I had to compartmentalize what I was feeling until the divorce was official. Now that the decree has been officially signed by the judge, I can talk about how this has impacted my life, and just mine. It's a complex mess of emotions and they're coming down on me like a ton of bricks right now.
Which, of course makes this the perfect time to talk about all of this.
So, here goes...
Where Things Stand Now, Personally
For those of you who know a little bit about my story, you know that July 30th is the anniversary of the friendly fire incident. Well, now it's also the anniversary of the official divorce decree - the ignominious end to my marriage. Well it's also the birthday of Caley's brand new cousin, born last Thursday, to Caley's aunt on the other side of the family. What does that mean for me? It means that I will never get to know him, love him. I will never get to see him grow up and I'll never have the opportunity to share in the joy that this baby has brought into the world.
Pardon my French but...talk about a mindfuck.
On top of all of this, I had compartmentalized the biggest emotional hurt in all of this - the fact that I am now going to miss out on half of my daughter's childhood is really screwing with me. The emotional devastation just the thought of that could cause is terrifying to me and, now that the divorce is final, the box surrounding that wonderful little tidbit of joy is spontaneously combusting.
To say that the next few days are going to be rough would be a bit on an understatement.
With all of this, I've still managed to make some positive changes. I've managed to make some friends, one of whom is a fellow combat vet. The other, his father. Both of them accepted me as I am, no judgement. It's a feeling I haven't had in a very long time. I've even reconnected with a friend I knew back in 2006 and lost contact with.
For the uninitiated, this is big stuff for me. I had somehow managed to alienate pretty much all friends I had due to my inability to put up with outside bullshit. My strained marriage was all I could take at the time. When the marriage effectively ended last August, I couldn't handle the prospect of losing even a distant friend and closed myself off from everyone except for my family.
And then there's my family. Oh, God, my family. If they weren't around to shower me with their love and support, I can't even imagine where I'd be right now. Since the separation, I've grown close with my parents in a way that I didn't think was possible. With everything going on, we were able to completely look past old hurts and 'circle the wagons', so to speak.
My parents have been amazing. Their only concerns in all of this were my welfare and the welfare of their granddaughter. This divorce could have emotionally devastated my daughter. Instead, she's well-adjusted and emotionally healthy. A part of that is due to the love my parents made sure to shower her with. That may sound weird but when all of this was new and confusing for Caley, my parents were there to give her all of the love and support possible to give. And they were there for me when I didn't have Caley and needed to just cry or vent my anger (the healthy, grief-related kind). Through everything I went through to get through this past year, good and bad, my parents were there - every step of the way.
And then, on top of all of this, my sister moved back to NYC from Syracuse. Caley and I have been able to spend more quality time with her in the past year than we have been able to in the past few. Again, more love and support from family, when we've needed it most.
The biggest positive change has been in how I see myself. I know I'm a good guy and a great father. I want to be even better in both of those categories and that's something I'll never, ever stop striving for again. For the longest time, I'd lost sight of who I was and what I'm capable of. Being able to feel deep hurt also means you're able to feel deep love and joy and I wouldn't have it any other way. Some people think showing emotion and feeling deep emotions is a liability and a weakness, but I think it's just the opposite. My ability to feel everything in my life, unflinchingly and without reservation, is where I derive my strength. If I wasn't in touch with what I feel, I shudder to think how difficult it would be to cope with my trauma. The faster you feel what you need to, the faster you confront your trauma, the faster you learn to cope with your trauma.
And. That. Is. COURAGE.
It's a kind of courage that few understand, most either don't or won't acknowledge. It's what gets me through the rough days and makes the good ones even better.
Where Things Stand Now, Professionally
After years and years of struggling with employment for a decade, I can honestly say I am now living the dream. I am Chief Business Development Officer of a veteran-owned Cybersecurity startup and I love every minute of my work. I've really thrived in this new environment and I now have very clear insight into why. Entrepreneurship is, counterintuitively, a perfect environment for veterans with PTSD. Here's why:
Needless to say, alleviating workplace stress has had a huge impact on my personal outlook and by ability to cope with my PTSD.
My Spiritual and Emotional Reclamation
After ten years, I have finally gotten to the point where I was ready to explore my emotional and spiritual health. For the longest time, the only place where I felt like I belonged was in the military. In the civilian world, I never felt like I had 'people', either before or after my time in the service. When I started thinking about what to do to re-engage spiritually, I started by looking at where I came from.
My dad's side of the family is ethnic Jewish, but I knew next to nothing about my Jewish cultural heritage. Well, I became curious to explore my heritage and reached out to a local rabbi. He told me about the different Jewish denominations and how they believe, without telling me what they were called and asked me which belief structure rang most true to me.
After sharing which denomination resonated with me the most, he referred me to another rabbi. Well, I met him and discovered that he was a retired Navy chaplain. My first time attending Shabbat services was Veterans Day last November. The experience was unbelievable. The entire service was dedicated to making sure everyone understood the depth and seriousness of the sacrifices made by our service members. It was surreal. I felt like I was home, that I belonged somewhere, that I had a people.
I've continued to attend on Fridays when I don't have my daughter and it's helped to make me feel more connected and engaged. I finally feel ready to reconnect and take the risk to make new friends and meet new people. How about that?
Post-Traumatic Growth: Why It's Not Mutually Exclusive from PTSD
I always hated the term. It's sounds so cliche and for a full decade seemed unobtainable. I think, on some level, I hated the idea of Post Traumatic Growth because I couldn't imagine that I'd ever experience it for myself.
Well I was wrong. I've been thriving and growing and becoming more and more comfortable in my own skin, asserting myself more and more.
I've been reticent to acknowledge the idea that I may be experiencing it because so many people equate it with, CONGRATS, you're HEALED!
Ummmm, No? That's not how this works. While I am experiencing a personal and professional renaissance, it doesn't mean I don't still have to content with my PTSD. I still get triggered and I still battle with hypervigilance, depression, insomnia, low self-esteem, and more.
It's confusing as hell. How can I be experiencing growth and still struggling with PTSD every day? When I figure it out, I'll let you know. I'm at a total loss right now.
So What Next?
I know this is a lot to absorb and I'm still working through all of this myself but there are a few things I do know for certain. I'm free to blog again and I won't be stopping again if I have any choice in the matter. I took a lot of time this past week to write this post and it's amazing how much this writing process has cleared up my head.
Thanks to everyone for sticking around. See you in the next blog post!
I've been blogging for a while now - since January, 2011. It's hard to believe it's been that long, but it has. I've shared my struggles and my victories and I have been gladdened to see that by sharing my struggles, I've made a positive impact in the lives of my fellow service-members and in the lives of the ones who love them.
Over the course of those years, I've gotten to know quite a few bloggers sharing similar stories. One, in particular, has always had a deep impact on me: Living with PTSD & TBI. The author, Uncle Sam's Mistress has a talent for clearly and emotionally depicting how difficult life is for someone deeply in love with a veteran with PTSD.
Over the past few years, we've gotten to know each other tangentially through our respective blogs and through Facebook - sharing posts, insight and a kind word.
I began to grow concerned that I hadn't seen a blog post from her in a while, as I know my readers have been for me these past few months. One of my greatest regrets is that I couldn't see past my own challenges to check to make sure everything was OK.
When she posted her latest blog post, From A Stigma to A Statistic, I sobbed. I sobbed for the loss of her husband, I sobbed because of the profound and heartfelt pain she expressed through her words, and I sobbed because PTSD had taken another veteran too early. I did my best to let her know through comments how deeply distressed I was for her loss, but don't think I ever found the right words.
So that's why I'm writing this tonight.
Dear Uncle Sam's Mistress,
To One in Sorrow by Grace Noll Crowell
Let me come in where you are weeping, friend,
And let me take your hand.
I, who have known a sorrow such as yours,
Let me come in -- I would be very still
Beside you in your grief;
I would not bid you cease your weeping, friend,
Tears can bring relief.
Let me come in -- I would only breathe a prayer,
And hold your hand,
For I have known a sorrow such as yours,
To my family, friends, fellow bloggers, and faithful readers, I ask the following: Show your solidarity. Write your name (or pseudonym) in the comments along with a kind word. Just a moment of your time would mean so much.
It's been a while since I've written a blog post. For that, again, I am truly sorry. I never intended to go this long, but one of the first things to go when PTSD and depression are starting to get away from you is your accurate sense of the passage of time.
When the holiday season started, I thought I was dealing well with the end of my marriage. I was focused, motivated, and very dedicated to my daughter. I was going to the gym and training in MMA twice per week. I was enjoying my job and thriving.
Things changed so subtly that I only noticed how depression and PTSD had started creeping in on the edges until things were dangerously close to a tipping point that would have seen me spiraling back into a very dark place.
On Christmas Eve, I had to take my daughter to her mother's house. Caley was communicating effectively how much she was grieving that mom and dad were no longer together and it hit me like a ton of bricks. When I woke up on Christmas day, I could feel the depression pushing the walls in. I closed myself into my apartment and pushed back with all of my might.
I thought about everything that I have been through over the past few years. I focused on how much progress I've made. I looked at what I have been able to accomplish, despite the PTSD. More importantly, I focused on how I have managed things since my wife said she wanted a divorce.
Logically, I knew I should be heartened by what I have been able to accomplish. So why didn't my feelings match what I have been able to provide for myself and for my daughter? For those of you who are familiar with my blog, you know by now that blogging helps me to articulate what I am feeling and why. Writing out how I am feeling, in general, has that effect.
Well, on Christmas Eve, I had received a Facebook message from a friend, sending me best wishes and hoping that I was doing OK. I responded with an outflowing of emotion and then, because of the nature of PTSD, summarily forgot that I had written her back until half way through the day on the 26th. Here's what I wrote her:
thank you for reaching out. It's been a bit dark for me in recent weeks, since the holidays started. I'm really struggling. I just want to curl up in a hole and I'm fighting the depression with everything I have. The sad part: it's been a slow creep. A death by a thousand cuts, emotionally. I have so much to live for and be proud of but I can't see the forest through the trees right now. I'm about to step into my parents' house to fill them in. You have no idea how much it means to me that you checked in. I hope you have a very merry Christmas. I'll be sending out an email to fill everyone in, since I've been silent for a bit. I am going to need support getting through the next few months, as the divorce gets finalized. I know I can be honest with you so I'll say it. I'm ashamed. Ashamed my marriage failed. Ashamed I can't keep the depression in check. Ashamed I haven't kept up with my blogging. Ashamed. Ashamed. Ashamed. I shudder to think where I'd be right now if it wasn't for my amazing family and friends like you.
The crazy thing is that I barely remember writing this or discussing what I wrote in it with my parents until I saw the response from my friend on Facebook.
You are right Max you do have so much to live for and be proud of, a great deal, more than most! I wanted to check in several times but at the same time want to respect your need for space. You may always reach out anytime you need someone, even if it's just to listen, share a meal, walk and talk, whatever... YOU HAVE NOTHING TO BE ASHAMED OF, trust me when I tell you that forgiving yourself is a must, you need to allow yourself forgiveness because we are all only human trying to get through what can often be a hard and difficult path, it's ok that life doesn't work out like we thought, or that the path we were on changes, as hard as it is for you at this moment I promise you that you will understand at one point in your life and you will know you went through all of this to get through it, I know you will because you didn't get this far without having that courage and strength. I can not ever say I understand what you are dealing with because I have not lived your life, but I can tell you that you don't ever need to go through any of it alone, you have too many people Max who care... Please enjoy the joy of your family, of your daughter and have a blessed Christmas. 2015 is a year for opportunities and growth and love... Merry Christmas!
Sometimes, all you need is a little validation from a friend. If you are a friend of someone with PTSD, please read what was written by my friend above. She never claims to understand what I am going through but she validates my emotions while gently reinforcing the positive and forcing me to evaluate the truthfulness of the negative emotions that I was feeling.
Her words were exactly what I needed to hear. It allowed me to safely distance myself from the volatility of my emotions and figure out what exactly had transpired over the past few months that had landed me on the cusp of full-blown despair.
Here's how insidious PTSD and depression can be, even when they are being well managed:
What's so frustrating is that, in 20/20 hindsight, it's all so clear. Why couldn't I see it when it was all happening? I mean, I was in a good place. I effectively managing my PTSD triggers and was devoted to my daughter (still am). So why, WHY, am I sitting here writing this blog post? How did I get here?
Well, I have a choice to make. Learn from this and move forward to correct all of the things I am not doing to effectively cope, or I can disappear again.
Not much of a choice if you ask me.
I'm spending the rest of the holiday season resting and relaxing and relishing every moment I have with my daughter. Once 2015 begins, time to rededicate myself to doing the things I need and love doing.
All I know is that I have never been so grateful for the amazing family and friends I have in my life.
It's time to focus on the things that are working and fixing the things are aren't.
Here's to the New Year...
It's been a very long two months. I didn't trust myself to blog about what I was going through, so I haven't blogged about what has transpired. I know I've always been very open about what I am going through, but sometimes you just need to take the time for yourself.
So here's the short of it: My wife and I are getting divorced. I know we said in earlier posts that neither one of us would take that precipitous step until we had been separated for six months, but things were just not working.
We didn't come to this decision lightly. We committed to everything that we said we were going to commit to. We have been giving every consideration to the impact this has on our daughter, went to marriage counseling, everything.
We attended multiple counseling sessions, together and individually. What became very evident to both of us is that too much water had passed under the bridge. I can't be to her what she needs and she can't be to me what I need. Our life paths had diverged too much and there was no foundation of trust or communication for coming back from the precipice.
So...we talked. A lot. About a month ago, we mutually agreed to move forward with divorce. It happened on a Thursday. That Friday, Saturday and Sunday that followed were the most emotionally intense days I have gone through since returning home from Iraq. I completely imploded that weekend. Emotions overwhelmed me. The grief was intense. I talked about it with a friend who has gone through divorce and when I told her that it felt like I was grieving for a death in the family, she told me something that I'll never forget.
To me divorce was more emotionally intense than losing a loved one. When a loved one dies, there's closure - it's final. With divorce, you don't get that luxury. You don't get closure ever - especially if you still deeply love your partner. Especially when there's a child involved.
Well, how about that. It definitely put what I was feeling into perspective. While it helped, I still had to confront what was happening to me and I had to do it quickly. I didn't have a lot of time and I had to be functional for work. Somehow I managed to pick myself up and dust myself off by the end of the weekend.
And then something amazing happened.
I found hope in a blunt assessment of my recovery from that weekend: That was the most intense emotional episode I have gone through since I came home from Iraq and I'm still standing...I didn't disappear down the rabbit hole again. I didn't let the depression consume me.
Don't get me wrong, I feel the depression and anxiety 'banging on the windows' trying to get in but I have held onto everything that I have learned, and held on fiercely. I have now, at the core of me, a steely resolve - to do right by myself, my family, and my daughter. The inner fire is burning bright.
Just for clarification, no I don't like that I'm getting divorced. It's had quite the impact on my self-confidence and my focus. I think about my soon-to-be ex every day. I worry about the long-term impact this is going to have on my daughter, despite our collective best efforts to soften the blow. It's impacted my ability to focus on work and has caused me to question my ability to perform the tasks I have to do at work every day.
I continue to struggle every day with this whole mess, but every day is another day I prove to myself that I have the strength to endure this and come out the other side, still capable of loving and laughing.
So, what now? Where do I go from here? That's the trick. I don't know. But I'm looking forward to the journey. I want to turn the page and start a new chapter in my life, but I really have no idea where to start. One thing I know for certain is that I will be sharing that journey with all of you.
Yes, my PTSD has taken its toll on my life but life didn't end when we decided on divorce. All I know for certain is that I don't want to take this journey alone. I just need to figure out what the hell that means for me and what I want to do about it.
So, I disappeared off the radar, again - this time for good reason. All of my spare time has been dedicated to contending with family issues at home. The end result: My wife and I are entering into a trial separation, as of today. Before anyone overreacts to this, I need to make this clear - it was a mutual decision. We have taken this step BECAUSE we love each other and want to save our marriage.
Seems counter-intuitive, right?
It really isn't and I'm going to explain why so that maybe the lessons we've learned from all of this will help other couples in distress for the same reasons. I wasn't sure whether I really wanted to write about this, but I felt I needed to articulate in writing our thought process - that and blogging always helps me process through my emotions, so...Here we go.
If you've been reading my blog for a while, you know that I've been struggling with PTSD and depression for years now. Back on November 8th, 2010, my amazing and wonderful daughter, Caley, was born. When I held her for the first time, I was overwhelmed with the profundity of my love for her. It was at that moment that I had the insidious and destructive thought: "If anything ever happened to her..."
My PTSD headed very quickly into a downward spiral and the depression followed, gleefully riding the coattails of my PTSD on the way down. I withdrew completely from my wife and from my daughter over the course of the next year, leaving my wife to contend with caring for two kids on her own: Our beautiful newborn, and me.
I hit rock bottom in early 2012 when my wife confronted me with my withdrawal and gave me the ultimatum: Get help or we are leaving. This sounds really blunt but my wife had tried every other way of getting my attention and nothing had worked. I was so deeply in the throes of my own despair that I needed the emotional slap in the face to be able to see through the fog of my depression. When I did, I was horrified. I had emotionally abandoned my family. The guilt I felt was crushing - so crushing that I seriously considered committing suicide so that I wouldn't be able to hurt them anymore. That's how insidious depression can be. I couldn't see the forest for the trees and almost deprived my daughter of a father and my wife of a husband - Not because I wanted to selfishly end it all, but because I couldn't see any way of preventing my family from getting hurt again.
To this day, I still don't know what, exactly, pulled me back from the ledge but I'm grateful that I found a way. Just thinking about how close I came still horrifies me and always will. Over the course of the next few days, I started to gain a bit of clarity and was able to make a compact with myself - that I would never, EVER, let things get this bad ever again. I knew that the road ahead of me was going to be long and painful, but I needed desperately to be the Father and Husband I know I can be when the PTSD and the depression haven't taken me hostage.
Over the course of the next two and a half years, I have put in the work. I've gone to therapy, learned how to effectively cope with my PTSD and depression, learned how to watch for warning signs that I may be headed in the wrong direction and also learned that I needed to remove as much unnecessary stress from my life as I possible could.
The end result:
Up until a few months ago, I thought that the whole concept of Post Traumatic Growth was a load of crap. I found myself, all of a sudden, full of drive and energy and motivation to live life and live up to the ideals I had always striven for. I finally felt I was WORTH fighting for.
What happened next completely blindsided both my wife and I. It sucks and it hurts, but I think you will see clearly how we got to this point.
I Need Some Time Apart to Clear My Head
Over the course of the past few months, I noticed that my wife was getting angrier and angrier with me over the smallest of transgressions. I started talking to her about it and expressed a desire to get help and get therapy, for both of us, if necessary. Nothing ever came of it and I thought, after some very serious heart to hearts, that we were moving past the anger and emotional distance (things have deteriorated so far for my wife that she's completely emotionally closed off and unable to show affection or appreciation - we've been living like roommates for the better part of the past year).
Over the course of the past few weeks, things had gotten progressively worse between us and it seemed like the hurt feelings and emotional distance were gaining momentum, regardless of how I tried to reconcile with my wife. The end result: I told my wife that I couldn't live like this anymore - that I felt like I was walking on eggshells because the was angry all of the time and was either unable or unwilling to be intimate or reciprocate my affection.
That's when she said those fateful words: "I think I need some time apart to clear my head". I felt the bottom fall out from under me and I clung desperately to the edge of my sanity.
Over the course of the past week and a half, I've climbed out and things have settled down. Yes, my wife and I are separating but it's a mutual decision and I'm going to take the time to explain why this doesn't mean the end of our marriage.
The Five Stages of Grief
It was only after I had finally accepted what needed to happen that I just gone through the five stages of grief for the state of our relationship. It's analogous to the stages of grief that a person would go through when the doctor had told them that their loved one being kept alive by life support was going to be taken off of it according to wishes presented in their living will - the machines would be turned off and the person would either breathe on their own or they'd die. For our marriage, things were very much the same. My wife needed to get the space she needed (turning off the machines) so that she could process through the intensity of her emotions and figure out whether she was able to move past them and recommit to trusting me and loving me the way she knows I need (finding out whether our marriage will breathe on its own). Here's how the five stages of grief play into this:
However, rather than a means to an end, separation can be a helpful tool to stay together. This seems counterintuitive when a marriage is troubled and relations are fragile. Most of us believe that when we feel our spouse slipping away from us, we should merge together more, get as close as we can, and do more to "make the marriage work".
After reading that excerpt, things started to make a whole lot more sense. Our lives were financially stable, our work was stable, and most importantly, I wasn't only stable, I was ME again - the guy with the inner fire and the sense of purpose. It was finally safe for my wife to not be in survival mode anymore and when she let down the walls she had put up to survive, she was completely overwhelmed with how angry she was. She fully recognizes that I never meant to hurt her, but the end result was the same: She felt like she had been betrayed and abandoned by me for the better part of the past almost four years, since our daughter was born. As anyone will tell you, the more deeply you love someone, the more deeply you hurt when you feel abandoned and betrayed by him.
All of a sudden, I understood completely why she needed separation. The emotions she was feeling were so intense that any time she saw me, it triggered her emotions and none of them were particularly happy ones. The only way she could possibly start to work through all of this is by removing the source of the pain: Me. So, a few nights ago, I explained to my wife that I accepted her need for separation and why. Believe it or not, it was a huge relief for both of us. Up until that point, my wife was concerned that I wouldn't be able to find a way to accept her need for space and that the marriage would end before we even had a chance to work on it - not because we wanted it to, but because of irreconcilable differences.
Over the past few days, we've spent a lot of time getting on the same page and laying out the groundwork for separation and what it means for us and for our daughter. By loving my wife and supporting her in her need for space, we have already started down the right road. It may sound weird, but working together to coordinate the separation has been the closest my wife and I have been in years - because we are working together to save our marriage and working together hasn't been in the cards for a while now. In the next blog post, I will detail our Separation Contract, what it entails, and why. I could continue on and make this all one massive blog post, but this seems like a logical place to split it up. I know that there are readers out there that are probably in the same position we are in and can't seem to find a way forward. I hope that the struggle that I've gone through, both with the PTSD and Depression and with coming to terms with my wife's need for separation can help those of you out there that find yourselves facing a similar scenario.
Thank you all for your constant support and continued readership.
It's June 30th, the last day of National PTSD Awareness Month. It's also exactly one month out from the trauma anniversary that has, historically, been very challenging for me to cope with. It's with this in mind that I'm writing this blog post. I wanted to bring a little bit of tongue-in-cheek humor to a serious subject and help to inform loved ones of how pending anniversaries can impact the daily lives of our veterans. I also wanted to present how I cope with my PTSD anniversary in a way that would be immediately familiar and identifiable to anyone who has served in a combat zone. So, here goes...
Pre-Deployment Processing (PDP):
When soldiers are getting ready to deploy, they go through an exhaustive review of their readiness from physical fitness to ensuring all shots and vaccinations are updated to drawing weapons and equipment to updating their life-insurance beneficiaries and their wills. It is a focused and direct approach that ensures that each soldier is fully-equipped to confront the challenges they will face when deployed. When I am preparing for the emotional and physical buildup that stems from a pending anniversary, I take stock in much the same way - to ensure that I know the status of my resources and to shore up any weaknesses in my coping mechanism. I take stock of how well I've been sleeping. If I haven't been sleeping well recently, I make a point to go to bed earlier to try to compensate for this. If I haven't been active and exercising, I make a point of increasing my activity levels - it helps you sleep better and it has been proven that exercise improves your mood. I start paying particular attention to events that could potentially trigger my PTSD (the Fourth of July, for example) during the month leading up to and immediately following the anniversary. I do what I can to prepare my family for what could be a bumpy ride. Marshalling and evaluating the readiness of your resources is key to a 'successful deployment', whether into a combat zone or in preparation to confront and cope with your PTSD triggers. In the past, I have tried convincing myself that I don't have to do this and that believing that the anniversary won't impact me would see me through - Epic Fail. Don't fall victim to the Five P's (Piss Poor Proper Prior Planning).
Battle Damage Assessment (BDA):
After a battle, a unit goes through what is called a Battle Damage Assessment to evaluate the readiness of their troops and equipment. This is a critical process - after the BDA is complete, it allows the unit commander to redeploy his resources in the most effective way possible, given the readiness and condition of his assets. It is much the same after something has triggered your PTSD. It is vital that you evaluate how much of your emotional reserve has been depleted by coping with the trigger and fighting to regain control. It is also very important that you evaluate your physical condition. There is almost always a strong adrenalin response when I am triggered and it can disrupt my sleep and my physical energy reserves can become dangerously depleted. After I have re-stabilized, post-trigger, I perform a BDA so that I can redeploy my coping resources more effectively. Sometimes that means taking naps to catch up on lost sleep. Sometimes that means making sure I have time to decompress built into my day. Sometimes it just means staying in for a day to recover. I do whatever I have to do to ensure that my resources last as long as possible.
Make no mistake: Effectively coping with anniversaries is like fighting a campaign with each trigger event being an individual battle. Winning or losing an individual battle may not win or lose you the campaign, but without proper planning and resource allocation, you will lose out to attrition and loss of morale. Don't try to ignore the warning signs - you'll get blindsided. It would be like a convoy not sending out scout vehicles and being surprised when they get decimated by a near ambush with intersecting fields of fire...
Calling in Reinforcements:
Sometimes you will find yourself in a situation where you know you're about to be overrun. In the past, I have let my pride get in the way of asking for help and have paid dearly for it. Reinforcements are not unlimited so it is imperative that you know what reinforcements you have access to and how often.
After-Action Review (AAR):
After every campaign, commanding officers get their officers and their NCO cadres together to evaluate the performance of the unit over the course of the campaign, to better identify recurring weaknesses in strategy or to identify resources that were more rapidly depleted than planned and accounted for. This is a high level review that allows commander to respond and react to lessons learned and properly account for them in future deployments. It's important to do the same with PTSD after the anniversary has passed. Once things have returned to the status-quo, it's important to take a look at what you did right and where there's adjustments that need to be made. It's important to talk to your friends and family and get feedback, should it be necessary. If you don't incorporate lessons learned in preparation of the next anniversary, you're not doing yourself any favors. As a commander, if you knew that deploying your troops differently in response to a threat would save lives, you'd want to know it. Treat coping with your anniversary the same way.
So there you have it. I hope you find this helpful and humorous at the same time. If you have any questions or feedback, don't hesitate to comment on this!!
The Best TV Episode You've Probably Never Seen About Combat-Related PTSD, Suicide, and the Long Road Home.
Have you ever heard of the TV Show, 'Hack'? I hadn't either, but it was available in Netflix and its premise sounded interesting. I cop that made a mistake, lost his badge, and started over as a cabbie or hack in Philadelphia. The show starts Andre Braugher and David Morse so I figured I'd like it.
I'm glad I gave it a chance. The show ran for two seasons in 2003 and 2004. It has excellent lessons in morality and it's massive scale of grey, love, hope, and family. Then I started watching Season 2, Episode 14, named "Fog of War". The main character's godson came home from Iraq after being wounded and they depicted PTSD, raw and unfiltered. They showed how he tried to numb his mind with pain killers and alcohol. They showed how corrosive the effects of survivor's guilt can be on the soul. They illustrated the particular way in which our anger can flare - by raging against inanimate objects and scaring the crap out of our loved ones. It illustrates moral injury and the cost of war upon the human condition. What gave me chills was the manner in which the actor playing the soldier depicted intrusive recollections. The unconscious twitch of the body, the quasi-nauseous shudder and the thousand yard stare.
It also shows how quickly dependency and depression, combined with survivor's guilt, can lead to suicidal ideation.
One thought kept on popping into my head: "This Could've Been Me."
PTSD didn't really reach mainstream awareness and acceptance as the signature wound of this conflict until 2006 and 2007. What really gave me goosebumps was the date that this episode aired: Feburary 7, 2004. Just five days after I returned home from overseas - I was one of the vanguard. One of the first to return home from Iraq. They didn't even have support services in place for the conflict in Iraq. My support group was comprised of veterans of previous conflicts, predominantly Vietnam.
I watched the episode four times in a row, with tears in my eyes every time. Every time I watched it, the more poignant I realized it was - and just how aware the writing team was of the enduring costs of war. I would warn against watching this episode if you are still learning to cope with triggers, but if you are in the right frame of mind - take the time to watch this episode. It will be particularly educational for family members. The show demonstrates just how important fidelity, unconditional support and love are to our returning veterans.
The veteran depicted in the show had a father who was a hard-nosed cop. Old-school. The show no weakness type of man who thought his son should just forget what happened and 'just move on' in his life. The main character, who over the course of one and a half seasons has found his compassion and his own code of morality, lights the way to a positive solution to the show - not with his virtues but with acceptance of his flaws. It is masterfully done and in such a way as to give hope to those who watch it that their loved ones with PTSD can learn to cope and live with their experiences.
I really didn't see this episode coming at all. It even depicted the politics of the time from both sides of the aisle in a way that showed the validity of both standpoints without being argumentative.
Take the time to watch this show if you have Netflix. You won't regret it. It is truly an episode for the ages.
As you may be aware, things have been going really well for me in recent months - new job, balanced work/personal lives, personal fulfillment, and more. I went into Memorial Day weekend and I was as happy as I can remember being in years.
Imagine my surprise when I woke up on Sunday that weekend and I felt like weeping. I weight of my sadness and my guilt for feeling happy was oppressive. It was unbearable. I had resolved, before the weekend started, to honor the memories of those that gave their lives in service by spending quality time with my family.
How I felt on Sunday was a kick in the nuts. I couldn't even enjoy the company of my wife and my daughter I was so morose. The following few weeks have been hard. Despite the fact that my duties at work have been incredibly fulfilling, I have not been motivated to do much of anything else and have had a lot of trouble sleeping.
Talk about feeling exceedingly frustrated. Even when things were going right, what happened over in Iraq stole some of that happiness from me. Unbelievable. I've thought a lot about this over the past few days, trying to figure out why the guilt is persisting. It wasn't until earlier today that I finally made a breakthrough.
After recovering from the burnout that was working in retail, I had taken a break from blogging and from advancing the cause of my non-profit. What I discovered was disconcerting - I was fearful of burning myself out again and had been unintentionally shying away from responding to emails, communicating with my board of directors, and even from blogging.
I should have known better. Working to help veterans had become a central tenant of my ability to cope with my PTSD. I also now know that my new job will not overwork me or keep me from being able to administer my non-profit. So here goes. I am going to start blogging again at least twice per week and am going to start moving the non-profit forward again, despite the government tax-exempt status backlog.
So here's to another fresh start. I hope I can finally find the right balance and stay true to myself.
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
TRIGGER WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT
I have to work tomorrow. Tomorrow, of all days, is the last day I want to be around anyone. It's the 'anniversary' of the incident that changed everything for me. I don't normally write about the actual event that was a major contributing factor to my PTSD, but this anniversary is different.
It still feels like yesterday, but tomorrow makes ten years to the day that 1LT Leif Nott died in a friendly fire incident in Balad Ruz, Iraq. I still struggle with what happened every day. I remember the sounds, the smells, the feel, everything.
This is the first time that I have mentioned the incident specifically. I don't know why I feel compelled to share it now. I just couldn't let another year go by without honoring those that were injured and those that died that day.
I can't bring myself to recount all that happened, but you can read about that night and the cover up HERE.
I tried to 'suck it up' but I landed myself in the Combat Stress Control Clinic at Balad Air Field a week later. Everyone back at the unit I had been attached to was acting like nothing had happened. I felt compelled to make sure the truth was known - so I contact JAG and CID and reported the friendly fire incident and violations of the rules of engagement. I also reported my suspicion of attempts to sweep the whole thing under the rug.
A week later, I was released back to duty by the clinic. My reporting the incident should have remained confidential. Somehow, it made its way back to the commanding officer of the unit I was supporting and I instantly became persona non grata.
Things went downhill fast from there. I was denied R&R and mid-tour leave because I was a 'mission critical asset' - yet the rest of my team and all of the other attached special operations teams we worked with got to rotate home for two weeks. I isolated and shunned by all but my colleagues. The sectarian violence ratcheted up soon after and the trauma continued to build.
Six months later, I found myself being sent home, a danger to myself and others.
The greatest travesty: The unsung heroes that never received the recognition they deserved for jumping into action.
When it became clear that we had shot up our own, the direct support Psy-Ops team, two young medics and myself ran out to conduct triage. It became evident that we needed another vehicle so I ran back to the TOC and ordered some privates to clear out the Psy-ops turtleback so that we could use it as an ambulance. The next few minutes were a blur. I remember SGT Anderson being carried into the medic bay. Same with SPC Devers. I remember returning to the scene to continue to help and things become disturbingly clear in my mind.
I remember the old man, blood and bone chips flowing away from the mangled mess of his leg to pool in the dust on the side of the road. Somehow we managed to stabilize him. When the medevac birds arrived I positioned myself to lift the old man's upper half into the stretcher and discovered that he had a gaping wound on his back. I had put my arm, almost up to the elbow into his chest cavity. I cannot adequately describe the sensation of feeling someone's heart beating from inside their body. Those sensations and smells will stay with me until the day I die.
To this day, I still don't know if those two young medics or the Psy-Ops team were ever recognized for their actions. I know, like me, they ran out there in untied boots, brown t-shirts, no protective gear, and M-16's on their backs. We didn't think, we reacted. And it is with the utmost humility that I need to express my admiration for their actions that day.
I just wish, on tomorrow of all days, that I could remember the medics' names, Or the Psy-Ops teams' names. Maybe this blog will reach them somehow.
Most importantly, I need to express my most sincere condolences to the family of 1LT Leif Nott. Until this year, I couldn't muster up the courage to even do that. The memories were too much to handle. Honestly, they still are, but it's been ten years.
I couldn't be silent, reticent anymore.
Requiescat in pace, Lief. It is in honor of your service and sacrifice that I have finally mustered up the courage to share this. May you and your family find the comfort and peace you deserve.
As I continue my life with PTSD, I will share my challenges and discoveries on this blog.