My Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
When I was on active duty I often did my best to be not only a good solider, but a brave, indifferent to stress, get the job done type of solider... And I was good at it. I had got so good at ignoring emotion, thoughts, fears, and natural human responses that I was often praised for being able to stay on task in rough environments. Upon returning home from multiple deployments, I'd often answer questions to medical professionals about the events with confidence they didn't affect me one bit. I went and did what I was trained to do. Every PTSD or depression question I giggled at. "No Doc, not me. I was prepared for everything I saw, and never lost a wink because of it." Although I may have hid behind a false bravado to maintain my reputation, something was definitely going on inside me that I wouldn't realize was there for years.
Self-Diagnosis Gone Wrong
Upon getting Honorably Discharged, I returned home to Hawaii and was genuinely happy to close that chapter in my life. Despite the way I carried myself, inside I was exhausted. I had grown tired of suppressing all of the feelings and thoughts, memories even over the years. Instead of speaking out about it to professionals, I decided to do what I have always done. I pushed it down further inside myself and convinced myself nothing is going to bother me. I read a lot of stories about other soldiers and their experiences, and in a moment of immature denial told myself I am not that guy. I am not weak, I was good at my job, survived it and there is nothing wrong with me. Even though I shared a few symptoms with many of the authors, like a much shorter temper, hyper-vigilance, emotional disconnection, a general negative outlook on society, I remained in denial. Told myself this is temporary, I mean I just got out so I am totally normal. Right at that time I decided I would become a Police Officer. What better occupation than that for a no non-sense, extra alert, and non emotional dude? Turns out I was both right and wrong. I was right in the sense the job was a perfect cover for my new personality. I excelled at my job and quickly became well respected for my ability to not adversely be affected by some of the terrible things Police Officers get themselves into. But I was wrong by thinking nothing was wrong with me, and I'd be okay by suppressing all the negative experiences as I'd find out real soon.
After becoming a successful Policeman, I became a Father of twins. It was awesome, my outlook on life was looking good. I had a good job, no real problems and added a new favorite title to my name, Daddy. My joy was tested immediately, and my daughter was rushed to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit right after birth. I remember feeling torn, between where to spend my time in the hospital. My son was doing well, and it was truly happy moments when I was with him. Then I'd leave him and go to my daughter, who I couldn't touch, couldn't help, as I watched her fight to survive being thrown into this world prematurely. I felt an overwhelming feeling of helplessness sitting next to her while staring at her in a glass box. I closed my eyes to pray for her, and I was in the desert again. People were screaming, soldiers were wounded, I was alone, helpless. I opened my eyes and stood up, started sweating profusely and left the NICU. I got so light headed I sat on a bench in front of the elevator, and cried uncontrollably. At that moment, I knew something inside was wrong, how could I be thinking of war while my child was clinging to life? The feeling hopelessness and imminent death transported me right out of that hospital to a familiar place I've felt before. I couldn't stay broken on that bench, my twins needed me. Once again, I sucked it up and ignored it all to press on and stay focused.
Triggers, Triggers, Triggers
Years after being exposed to certain situations is when I found out what triggered my PTSD. The NICU served as the first experience for me. My daughter made a full recovery and was released 14 days after she was born. I told myself I was in the clear, she was good to go and I'd never feel that way again, meaning I'd never experience being transported back to a negative time again. I followed the hospitals directions to the letter. Got the twins to their follow up appointment, and the clearance to give them regular baths. I felt good, like Daddy got it all together. I bought an infant tub, filled it with water, and put my son in first. As the water covered him up to his belly, my eyes became fixated on his little tummy. Again, like in the NICU, I had left where my child's side and was back in Indonesia pulling children out of the ocean after a massive earthquake and tsunami devastated the country. I let go and stepped back from the tub, as my son cried from my abrupt retreat. I quickly pulled him out of the tub, hugging him tightly and breaking down to tears. I settled for giving him a sponge bath, his sister the same, and kept the issue to myself. I started having dreams that were identical memories of that cursed Humanitarian Mission to Indonesia, Thailand, and Sri Lanka. The vast majority of bodies we pulled from the waters in those regions were children, many infants, no bigger than my twins. Occasionally those kids were replaced with my kids being pulled by out of the water in my dreams. I became angry with myself for not being able to control the thoughts and dreams I was having. It was apparent I had an intense fear of losing my kids in the ways I've seen all those people lose their lives for one of the worse natural disasters in recent history. I began avoiding giving the children baths at all costs, afraid to trigger more of the same. I suppressed those too, detaching myself from emotions that caused me to feel inadequate as a father. The consequences of that decision reached much further than just within myself. I became detached from anything that made me emotionally vulnerable, setting my personal life on a path of destruction. The cost was great, I had lost the respect from family members, caused irreconcilable damage to my marriage, was described as "cold" by those closest to me, and often times did not recognize myself. Again I was alone, only this time not in my head or in flashbacks caused by triggers. The damage I buried deep within myself had wreaked havoc in my life.
I coped with my conditions as best I could on my own. I found some relief in the gym, making myself so tired there was no chance of being angry. I coached high school wrestling, which helped me feel better about myself. At home I kept my mind busy, doing puzzles, artwork, even learned how to tattoo, keeping negative thoughts at bay. Work remained the same, I was moving up and viewed as a strong individual, still capable of blocking out a lot to get the job done. Even with all I had going on, the dreams became more frequent. Sleep patterns thrown off to avoid dreaming. I did more research into PTSD, to no avail. I knew I had triggers, and avoided them, but I did not understand how or why it was happening to me. I began speaking to other veterans, opening up in bits and pieces of my story. I quickly found out there are many like me. Veterans who have not realized the effects of their own PTSD up until 20 years later. Some who have had a good life after service, until a trigger sets things into motion. Some it was sounds, others it was movies, smells, some induced by drinking or drug use, others drank to forget. Of all the different stories, we all had one thing in common by the time we shared our stories with each other. We didn't understand our conditions, or why the effects were delayed, we didn't know about all of our triggers, but we all needed to accept that it was not our place to understand, but it was our job to seek help. With the support of other veterans I was able to accept I was damaged in serving my country, and I needed to swallow my pride, face these issues with professional help to start the road to recovery. I was reluctant still, but began seeking help with the Department of Veteran's Affairs. Through treatment I realized there were many soldiers like me, who thought reporting issues or seeking help was a sign of weakness. I discovered that like me, many veterans do not report things in fear of how society will view them afterward. It took nearly 14 years for me to seek help. I still don't fully understand PTSD, but I do understand it is a real condition, not bound by time or limited by success, and I will no longer feel ashamed of suffering from events I've lived through in the service of our nation. I'd encourage veterans who have noticed a shift in personality or who has discovered a trigger, to seek help. There are others like you, you are not alone, it is not a weakness to feel what you feel, and help is available for you.