I know, a shocker, right? Well, the last 24 Hours taught me a thing or two. In the middle of the afternoon yesterday, I started having some chest congestion. I didn't think anything of it. My allergies had given me post nasal drip the day before. It was only logical that some of that would be working its way out. By dinner, I could barely breathe - every breath was labored. I thought, 'just an anxiety attack - it'll pass'. Next thing I know, I'm delirious and on my to the emergency room. The immediate assessment - Reactive Airway Disease...A generalized term that covers all respiratory maladies from bronchitis to COPD. I am sitting here typing this on the hospital bed, thinking about the fact that the doctors are steering away from making a prognosis - that is never a good sign.
When you get a potentially life-threatening physical malady like whatever the hell I have, it makes you take stock of the things that have happened recently in your life: What I realized is that I had been living my life 'in spite of' my PTSD. My life decisions were always made around how my PTSD would handle it - putting the PTSD squarely in my central focus. The outcome: stressing myself out about everything, striving to keep my PTSD under control. The stress levels got so high that I started shutting out my family from how I was feeling. Now you pile all of this stress and worry on top of all that and what do you have? Epiphany.
Epiphany. The realization that stressing out how I was going to react to any given situation based on my past experiences was like creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. All of my worst nightmares with my PTSD were coming true because I walked on eggshells around my PTSD. NO MORE!
-My PTSD no longer controls my strings: If my PTSD has caused me issue in that situation before, it will be duly noted but my fear of my PTSD will not stop me from putting myself out there.
-If life has more unwelcome surprises in store for me I will not spend my precious family time wrapped up in an acronym.
-This health scare has galvanized my will to fight - to be the man I know I am. I will openly recognize my limitations, communicate these limitations to my VA docs, and move forward, confident that the choices I make are the best for my long-term well-being.
I have the energy and emotional fortitude to get one thing right in all of this: ME. If I can figure me out, well...That's all I need to do to be the husband my wife deserves and the father my daughter needs.
This is a subject I still struggle to get right. How do you know when is the best time to share your struggles with family and friends? How much do you share? Are you ready to share at all?
These questions can drive a person nuts when they are still recovering from an episode. It can slow down the recovery or even set it back a little. The way I see it is simple:
Don't share until you are stable if the person you are telling is emotionally invested in your well-being (i.e. - parents, spouses, etc.) This can cause them unnecessary worry and make them feel obliged to offer up unsolicited advice. Find someone you can share with who is outside of your real world support group. Having someone to talk to that will remain clear-headed is a must. So many folks are concerned about being transparent with their loved ones that they forget that this healing process is for them too! Take time out for yourself. Any other approaches to these questions, let me know!
Even without PTSD, every person has these days. You know which ones I mean - the ones where nothing can go right for you or anyone else around you. The kind of day that starts off toxic and ends toxic. It can cause a lot of hard feelings. This kind of day can damage already fragile relationships. That being said, let me tell you about my day yesterday...
For me, Thursday never ended. I was up all night because of sinus pain and an inability to lay down. This translated in to being delirious in the morning. I was useless. Needless to say, this really ticked my wife off. I ended up sleeping the vast majority of the day away once I was able to get my hands on some allergy medication that worked worth a damn. This left her to work, take care of our daughter - take care of everything. One thing leads to another and we are mad at each other over nothing. She's mad because she's afraid it's the PTSD making me useless. I'm mad because I have stated from the very first conversation I had with my wife that day that I feel like someone used me as a punching bag. I'm mad because her attitude toward me changed and it was because of something that was completely out of my control.
So what do you do when you have a day like this? I looked at the clock. 2130. I thought, "Screw it. Tomorrow's a New Day." Some people say that it isn't healthy to go to bed angry. I disagree. It's not healthy to go to bed angry at each other. In this instance, we were mad at the situation. Royally, fucking pissed at the situation. There's a major difference between the two. The first can be resolved through communication. When its the situation, not the people that are causing the problem, talking it out can just make things worse. Just chalk it up as a bad day and start fresh the next.
Today is one of those days where I feel like my PTSD is waiting in the wings like Mr. Hyde. I can visualize it rubbing its palms together in anticipation of me slipping up. It's one of the major reasons I decided to start a new little program for myself on the fridge:
Where am I?
When am I?
Who am I living in the moment for?
When was the last time I did something for me?
What are you grateful for today?
I am going to get into the habit of answering these questions every day to help keep me focused on the here and now and not on what could happen tomorrow. If I allow myself to go down that route, wondering about tomorrow, catastrophic thinking worms its way in and I start stressing out about stuff that hasn't even happened yet. I know that I, like most vets in this situation, need constant reminders to live in the moment. To put the past and future in proper perspective. I will keep you all posted on how this is going. If anyone else has anything that they do to help with this (a process or a mantra you say to yourself). I would love to hear about it!!
If you are interested in putting up what I am now calling my personal Roll Call, the document is embedded below!
Aftermath and Lessons Learned:
Emotionally spent, my wife and I sat down and talked about all that had happened. How I made myself emotionally inaccessible to her and our daughter, the obsessive behavior, the anger coming to a slow boil, everything. We decided I needed to make a list of things to watch out for and a list of reminders to stay in the here and now. I thought about it for a day and then typed it up on the computer. It sits next to the TV in the bedroom and I read it every day. I use it to remind myself of what my real priorities in life really are: My wife and my daughter. One of the things I discovered when I was thinking this all over was that I started really deteriorating at an accelerated pace when I stopped blogging. So, here I am - blogging my heart out.
This next part I hope fosters a lot of comments and discussion, especially in the PTSD community:
One of the major observations that my wife made during all of this was that she had to 'emotionally re-traumatize' me to get through to me. That may sound worse than it is, so let me explain. Dani said she thinks that the emotional trauma I experienced over in Iraq rewired my brain to only take notice of extreme emotions and emotional hurt. She had learned through this experience that the only way she can get through to me when I am submerged in my PTSD is to say something extreme or hurtful to snap me back to the here and now. She hates this more than anything. She can't stand that she has to hurt me to help me and is frustrated that she can't find another way to get through to me. I know we can't be alone in this. If you haven't thought about this before, think it over. Discuss it with your loved ones. Discuss it with each other. Discuss it with your doctors. There has to be some precedent that this has been addressed by someone somewhere. Let's work together to find a better solution to this - for us and our loved ones.
The Wake-Up Call:
When I woke up one day in early February, my wife noticed I was in a bad mood. I proceeded to have a falling out with a close friend over text message and spun into a hot mess. I spent the rest of the day asleep or near catatonic. Dani couldn't get through to me. I slept until the late evening hours. Dani fed Caley and put her to bed. She then woke me up and asked me to come help with the dishes. We finished the dishes in silence. When the kitchen was cleaned up, Dani asked me to come out on the porch. She sat me down with a mug of coffee and asked me if I remembered what we had talked about doing if I ever decided to go sprinting down the rabbit hole again.
That question got my attention. What we had agreed upon was this: If I ever got to the point that my PTSD could emotionally traumatize our daughter, I had to leave until I got my life back together. I asked her how bad it was and she laid it out for me. She said she lost me to my PTSD right after Caley was born. She said that it was about March 2011 that she started to worry that I was headed in the wrong direction. She apparently expressed this concern on multiple occasions but I didn't hear her. She couldn't get through the trauma to reach me. She said the breaking point came with the fallout after a very stressful holiday season. She said it seemed like I was so obsessed about being a good provider that lost sight of everything else, including her and Caley. She said it was heart-breaking watching me work at being a good husband and loving father. She said when I am stable, I am the most amazing father any child could ask for and a very attentive husband. She followed that up with, "That's not who I see standing in front of me now".
*OH SHIT!* The fog lifted and I saw clearly for the first time in months. I looked at the hurt and concern on my wife's face and knew it was worse than she was saying. A little bit of me withered and died inside. It was surreal. I couldn't believe this was happening again. How did I get here? I looked back on the past months and the things I remembered clearly were the angry moments. The only lasting memories I had that gave me daily healing were the memories I had with my daughter. I remembered every little detail. What scared the hell out of me, was the memories felt like I was looking through clear glass, shouting feelings I felt but couldn't express. Caley was trying her best to console her distraught father.
The tears streaked down my face and I sagged in guild and utter anguish. I looked at my wife and I told her that I loved her with all of my heart. The look I got back strangely surprised me. It was one of relief, as if expressing how glad she was to had finally gotten through to me.
Stay Tuned for The Danger of Obsessive Behavior, Pt. 3
OK, so rather than waiting to post all of this as one big entry, I decided to break it up into parts:
Part 1: The Backstory
About year ago I had this wonderful idea to create an outlet for myself and start a webpage. I was successful and I decided to begin plugging it on Facebook. The more I got into learning about Search Engine Optimization and the effect of Facebook on website visibility, something amazing occurred: A support group was born on Facebook that grew into a community of hundreds in a few short months. I spent more and more time online, monitoring my Facebook Page, blogging, and responding to comments on my website. What had started off as an outlet soon absorbed my whole existence, eclipsing my passion for my family and my passion for my job. I was obsessed every second of every day. What I didn't realize was that I had created an environment where I was dependent upon virtual interaction for validation and succor. Addicted wouldn't be too strong a word. As with all obsessive PTSD behavior, it couldn't last. By July, I was exhausted mentally and physically. I had taken on being the personal support for anyone who asked - their gratitude was my heroin. As with any addict, there comes a point where it isn't possible to satisfy the hunger. I soon became frustrated with the 'slow' growth of my page and website (ummm, that should tell you right there how obsessed I was. By any measure, the success I had experienced since the website's inception should have made anyone happy). My frustration and irrational anger soon led to impatience with the people on my page. Rather than lash out at them, I disappeared. I stopped blogging and stopped going on Facebook at all. What was most reprehensible and tragic: I deleted the Facebook Page, violated the fragile trust of the people who had come to depend on the support, and sent myself into a very, very slow spiral into my worst nightmare.
I started feeling more and more depressed and less and less in touch with my emotions, my life, and my family. I work in retail and I hit rock bottom as soon as the holidays were over. I could barely contain disastrous anger at work. My obsession with my online existence bled over into my desire to better provide for my family. My current salary and position at work weren't satisfactory. I wasn't getting promoted fast enough. On the home front I had to 'work' at playing the part of loving husband and devoted father. I alienated almost everyone in my life. Things stayed like this until the middle of February when my wife gave me a wake-up call.
Coming Soon: The Danger of Obsessive Behavior, Pt. 2
I recently had a veteran write me asking how other people cope with PTSD, TBI, and memory loss. I can tell you all how a work to cope with PTSD and memory loss:
PTSD: I keep aware of my emotional state at all times. I have a log of what behavior and environments exacerbate my PTSD. I try to always have an outlet to vent anger and frustration (i.e. - exercise and video gaming). I have created a very strong support network. I know a lot of vets don't have a strong support network. It is really important to surround yourself with people you trust who can support you and validate your feelings.
Memory Loss: My memory loss is short-term. I have a dry-erase board on the fridge. I have a to-do list on my phone. I am constantly asking myself if there is anything I have to get done. It helps with memory retention.
Those are the basics of how I cope. If anyone else has anything they would like to add, I would love for you to share it here!
OK, I'm back and blogging. And my topic today hit with a wallop. Someone I knew died yesterday. He was in his early 20's. I had gotten used to seeing his face every day. Now I never will again. For obvious reasons, it brought right back to the forefront all of my least favorite memories and all of the trauma I experienced over in Iraq. Here's the killer, I had to pretend that everything was normal and that everything was OK. I was at work all day. I made it through most of the day before the anxiety caught up with me. My hands were shaking so badly that I couldn't write, couldn't type. I didn't have my anxiety medication with me either. It was a great feeling. I felt like an eight hundred pound gorilla was kneeling on my chest. It past quickly, but all I could do was stand there like a post and hope no one noticed (which, thankfully, they didn't). My wife had taken our daughter to visit her grandparents and didn't return home until later in the evening. That was a blessing. I was so scared that Caley would be able to sense there was something wrong. She it so aware of the emotional state of the loved ones around her, my intense emotional state would have scared her. So now I am sitting here up late in front of the computer when I have to manage the department in the morning. Woo.
As I said in the last post, I have been struggling to find a way to deal with the loss of my PTSD 'Fallout Shelter'. It has not been easy. I have tried a lot of different things and discussed different options with Dani and we have yet to come up with a solution that works. Here's what we've tried:
It has been an interesting struggle. I still want to get back into the gym, but life always seems to conspire against that happening. I get frustrated that I can't and I get frustrated that I am not losing weight and it causes my PTSD to flare up even worse. Overall, being aware of what is happening to me has been helpful, but it has not been easy. Nor have I been successful all of the time. I will go from loving daddy to apathetic bump on the couch with little to no warning - it tears my heart out sometimes that I don't have the emotional energy to show my daughter every minute of every day that I love her. I am going to continue to plug away at this and see where it goes. Hopefully we will come up with something soon.
As I continue my life with PTSD, I will share my challenges and discoveries on this blog.