June is PTSD Awareness Month. Our Local Partners list mental health support among the top needs of the veterans in their communities. Over the course of the next two blogs, we’ll explore one veteran’s experience living with PTSD and some corresponding considerations for communities serving veterans.
Content warning: PTSD, trauma, suicidal ideation.
The steadying concrete of Broadway, firm beneath my boots. The stinging winter wind that coaxes tears from my eyes. The softness of the scarf catching my warm breath as it shields my face from the December cold.
It’s 2018, a few weeks before Christmas. I’ve just left the holiday party at the Bob Woodruff Foundation offices, and the city streets are buzzing, the way they do—especially this time of year. At least a dozen folks have told me today that the department store windows are spectacular, but during previous trips to the city I’ve never mustered the courage to check them out.
I don’t do well in a crowd. The second I sense a stranger’s body heat, or can no longer see a clear way out, things start to go south. Here’s what normally happens: First, my head swivels faster, scanning for threats and egress routes. My jaw tightens, and my throat tightens with it. My hands curl into taut fists. I walk more quickly and purposefully to anywhere that is not here. Then, I realize that my breath has become shallow, or perhaps I’ve even been holding my breath. My heart races. My palms sweat, and my eyes sting with tears. As the minutes pass, I become overwhelmed by this feeling that I want to jump out of my skin.
If I can’t get somewhere I feel safe in soon, it’ll get worse. My vision will tunnel, and I’ll get dizzy. My stomach will ache and I’ll believe that I’m going to pass out. Suddenly, I’ll feel like I can’t breathe, even though all the evidence shows that I am successfully breathing.
It’s a bunch of things: Getting stuck in traffic or boxed in at the grocery store checkout; running late; someone sneaking up behind me unannounced; making a mistake at work, even if it’s not a showstopper; the plastic curtain clinging to me in the shower; certain smells and sensations; someone yelling at me. Suddenly I’m time-traveling back to my worst moments, feeling stuck, worthless, and like my life is over. If I manage to get unstuck from those memories, I’ll often dissociate—leave my body and go somewhere else in my mind.
And it makes sense. There have been times in my life when my body wasn’t a safe place to be…when the present moment was just too much to bear.
People come by their trauma in all kinds of ways, and mine is “non-combat” trauma. (Some other time we’ll talk about how complicated it is to explain that you’re a veteran who has flown combat sorties but hasn’t been in combat and has PTSD from non-combat trauma.) My “big T” trauma happened before I entered active duty. The people who are closest to me know my story. While I’m not ready to talk about it—and may never be—I’m healed enough to talk about my mental health and recovery. The bottom line is this: What happened is not as important as how it affected my life. I was fearful. I thought my life was over. I came to distrust myself and others, and believed the worst about myself—and my ability to cope.
Following my trauma, I didn’t really cope…not for a long time. I knew something was wrong, that I was different, but I couldn’t connect the dots. So I coped in ways that were easy to access. First, a lot of denial and a little too much to drink; later, a lot of spending and overeating, compartmentalization and workaholism. It’s extremely lucky that none of my failed attempts to cope made my life worse in the long term. These slippery slopes have claimed many lives and livelihoods. With the support of my questionable crutches, I kept my mental health under some semblance of control until my last deployment, when I fell apart.
Our base was safe and comfortable, far away from actual combat. That wasn’t the problem. I won’t go into details, but suffice it to say that several factors conspired to conjure a perfect, terrible storm. The combination of isolation, stress, sleeplessness, and lack of access to my support system and usual coping mechanisms made me anxious and desperately depressed. Triggers abounded, ripping open old wounds daily. It wasn’t long before I was reliving my worst moments pretty much around the clock. Once again, I felt stuck, worthless, and like my life was over.
At first, I was just plain tired.
In a matter of weeks, I was tired of being alive.
One day, I was about to leave work in the squadron ops van when I spotted a colleague who needed a ride. I was glad to see him; he was a friend, but our shifts barely overlapped. I waited for him to put on his seatbelt before pulling out of the lot. Instead of buckling up, he turned to look me in my (sunken) eyes. There was what felt like a long pause. “You don’t need to talk to me,” he said—kind, yet firm. “But you have to talk to someone.”
I was seen.
I’d like to tell you I awakened in that moment, and I marched myself to the mental health office, or the chaplain. But I didn’t. I was scared. What if something is seriously wrong with me—what would it mean for my career? My security clearance? What if nothing was wrong with me and I’m just being a big ol’ baby? If they sent me home, would someone else be deployed with no notice to replace me? And where even is the mental health office?
So I resumed my unhealthy routine, resolving to hide better this time.
Oddly enough, my lifeline came in the form of a lodging quirk. A new airman was deploying to join our unit, and there wasn’t a room available because assignments were based on rank and gender. The Shirt stopped in my office to say I’d be bunking with a fellow officer so we could free up a room. To this day, I hold my bunkmate in the highest regard. She gave me a hug that quite literally saved my life. To be clear, the hug didn’t change my outlook or cure what ailed me…my roommate was a human, not a Care Bear. But that hug was a momentary recognition of my pain and affirmation of my worth. It unlocked a reserve of strength and patience that got me to the next sandwich, the next episode of Gilmore Girls (the show I used to distract myself from my thoughts while I fell asleep), the next email from home.
My husband will tell you that I came home a changed woman. It was a year and a PCS before I let him know how low I’d gotten. He knew something was different—wrong—but didn’t know what. My concentration was awful. I failed a master’s class because of it, then another. I remained jumpy and anxious and either unable to rest or unable to stop resting. When I came home from work, I would fuse with the couch and dissociate, sometimes spacing out for hours without even changing out of my uniform. My husband picked up all the chores around the house.
Other than a stint in grief and loss counseling, I didn’t seek help while on active duty. I remained scared of the stigma and career impacts. To this day, it is one of my greatest sources of shame that I didn’t model better self-care for my Airmen.
I was keenly aware that this wasn’t sustainable. I needed help, and I felt (however wrongly) that getting help and staying in the military were mutually exclusive. So when a voluntary separation opportunity arrived, I took it.
As it turns out, there’s no outrunning the stuff you carry with you. I secretly harbored the hope that the separation process would bear some kind of magic. Maybe, just maybe, the change of pace and scenery would make everything OK.
(Narrator: It wouldn’t.)
Fast forward six months, and I’m living at my parents’ house in Maine while my husband finishes out his employment contract in Florida. At my worst, I was essentially housebound, too anxious to even walk the dog. I devoured books on human resilience, and felt deeper and deeper shame when I looked at my own inability to overcome. I pored over job descriptions and counted myself unworthy of each one. My sweet, worried parents would bring sandwiches upstairs to make sure I ate. In the mornings, I woke up aching from having tensed my body all night in my sleep.
One evening, a loved one shared their story with me. They’d sought counseling before, and it had made a world of difference, and would I like their help researching a therapist and making calls? I shared my concerns: What if there wasn’t something wrong with me? What if there was something very wrong with me? What if they couldn’t do anything to help? My what-ifs were answered with this: “What do you lose if you go once? If it’s terrible, you don’t have to go back there and we’ll call someone new. If it’s OK, go back again. One day at a time.”
“The Talk” worked. The next morning, I left a voicemail at a therapy practice a few minutes from my house. Within a week, I was scheduled for an intake. My counselor was around my age, and didn’t specialize in veterans issues. I was wary, but I decided to give her a chance. After a couple of sessions, she gave me names for what I’d been feeling:
“Major Depressive Disorder.” Ok, that made sense…I’d been so low for so long.
“Generalized Anxiety Disorder.” Yep, that made sense, too (and I’d soon learn that I was predisposed to anxiety).
“Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” Wait, what? No. No, no, no. I had friends who’d had boots on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, who’d seen things. Some of them had PTSD. That couldn’t be what I had.
In my mind, PTSD was so conflated with combat that I rejected the diagnosis, certain that I hadn’t “earned it,” as though it were some awful medal that you wish you could give back.
In a gentle, knowing way, my therapist invited me to be curious about why. She started by reading me the symptoms listed in the DSM. I saw my life in each one. Over the weeks and months that followed, we explored what it meant to have PTSD, and I began to recognize the ways it had shown up in my life.
My nightmares, intrusive thoughts, and flashbacks were called “re-experiencing.”
Staying at home and dissociating were both types of “avoidance.”
My distrust of people, my foreshortened sense of future, the awful things I thought about myself, and the way I recoiled at compliments were all “negative changes in beliefs and feelings.”
Understanding more about trauma, the body’s stress response, and mind-body connection was really empowering. As the saying goes, “if you can name it, you can tame it,” and for me, that was true. The diagnoses weren’t anything for me to fear; they simply gave me a way to understand the patterns playing out in my life, and a vocabulary to talk about what I wanted to improve. What I began to learn was that “taming” is less about controlling emotions and more about noticing thoughts and feelings and consciously deciding how to respond—basically, tripping the circuit breaker on my default stress response.
Please allow me this cliché, because it’s actually pretty apt. Those early conversations with my therapist started me down a path to healing that has been many years long. Recovery, I’ve learned, isn’t linear. The path isn’t miles of open highway out west. It’s confusing, twisty, and sometimes bumpy, like the old streets of Boston.
My path has included a whole alphabet of therapy styles (CBT, DBT, ACT, EMDR) and settings (individual outpatient, intensive outpatient therapy groups, inpatient treatment). It has included meditation and medication, yoga and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction courses, climbing mountains and painting with watercolors. It’s included reading The Body Keeps the Score and listening to loads of podcasts on mental health and neuroplasticity. It’s included self-care days and safety plans. It’s included job accommodations, FMLA, short-term disability, and some compassionate bosses. Importantly, blessedly, it’s also included the support and company of my amazing husband, parents, family, and friends. I know I’ve scared the hell out of each of them at some point, and I’m sure that I never want to do that again.
On this particular day, my path finds me approaching 30 Rock. I’m surrounded by a crush of tourists moving toward the storefront ahead in that unpredictable way that used to make my skin crawl and pulse quicken. I inhale the frosty winter air. I feel my weight in my boots, connecting with the pavement as I walk. There are people around me at all sides; I feel their coats brushing mine as they pass by. I let out a long exhalation, my scarf filling with warm breath. I am safe. Over a sea of bobbing heads, I spy twinkling hints of the light display at Saks Fifth Avenue. Maneuvering to a clear spot on the sidewalk, I take one more deep breath and turn to admire the spectacle of dancing lights before me.
I feel it all. I feel a joy that I couldn’t have fathomed in my darker moments. I feel a peace that seemed impossible for years. I feel safe, and capable, and worthy. Mostly, I feel overwhelming gratitude for the steps on the path that took me here, the people who have traveled with me, and the fact that I get to keep at it tomorrow. It’s not just the lights. It’s what I’ve overcome to see them.