The year is 2013. Walking quietly through the dark in step with one of my closest friends, saying nothing. Nothing but the familiar sound of sand and tiny rocks crunching and cracking beneath our boots. We make our way to the USO (United Service Organizations), where you can hangout and have time on the phones to call home. The deafening silence slowly begins to fade as a familiar whistle begins to approach. Subtle, ever so slowly increasing. Then just as your mind reacts and the connections are made in the muscle memory of your brain as to what is happening, it hits.
There we are two young boys not even old enough to drink or rent a car. Staring at the all too familiar silhouette standing upright in the desert. A gleaming sadistic reminder of where we are and why we are here. A dud, or malfunctioned, mortar round landed just 10 feet from us. The kill radius for such a round would be about 15 feet. In that moment time seemed to cease. Why run? We had already technically survived an imminent death. Coming from our trance we both begin to chuckle, look at each other and laugh. This was not my first encounter with mortars. It would be nowhere near my last. However, I did not fear them. My heart didn’t even begin to race at the sound or sight. Some might attribute this to being naïve and not afraid to die. That was not so. What was in fact happening was my mind becoming numb. Numb to fear, to pain, to feeling anything at all. At least, nothing but a general sense of irritation about my circumstances at all times.
The reason I referenced a specific incident with a mortar, is not because this is the most traumatic stressor I endured. But one I endured almost daily. Not once, not even just twice. But day and night, over and over, for more than a year. I began waking up to the sound of mortars and alarms. Soldiers shuffling to bunkers for safety. Not my tent, we eventually would wake up, silently lie still so as not to let anyone else in the tent know we were awake. Even the leadership did this. We all knew by the time we got up, dawned our gear, got to a bunker, sat there waiting for the “all clear”, we would have lost maybe 3-4 hours if not our entire night of sleep. However, if we simply waited 10 seconds, knowingly the probability of it hitting our exact location was slim, we could triangulate the sound of impact and tell whether or not it was worth reacting to, or if it hit anything. This was the point. This is the primary purpose indirect of mortar fire. It does not have to hit anyone, for it to explode every soldier within ear shot’s morale. It was intended to deprive you, the individual soldier on the ground, of your most precious asset in war, sleep. The only time where there is silence. The only time your mind, body, and soul, can ever rest.
Our bodies and minds are designed to react, adapt, and help us overcome all the stresses that the universe may throw at us. As individual beings we are fragile. However, the subconscious, the soul, the billions of living organisms within us are not. They knew that during my time in Afghanistan I was experiencing repeated high levels of stress. In order to protect the fragile mind, the natural response is to tone down my body’s sensitivity. Allowing me to endure the day to day without breaking down mentally, becoming overwhelmed, or panicking. Like turning the volume down to music, the sound is still present, just not as loud or deafening. This is where PTSD is born. Where it takes root into your very core. Will you know it then? No. It will be more than likely months, or even years before you ever even begin to feel its presence in your day to day life. Like cancer, it lies dormant in all of us. Simply requiring just the right biochemical reaction to occur in order for it to unleash its wrath.
This was normal to me. This was day to day life outside of guard duty, patrols, missions, training, classes, debriefs, AAR’s (after action reviews) etc… The power of the mind is an amazing thing if harnessed and utilized correctly. It made it possible for me to physically and mentally survive my time in Afghanistan. It did was it was supposed to do in order to lessen my stress, silence my fear. My mind amplified my senses and ability to not just see but feel the environment around me. A misconception is thinking PTSD may or may not occur depending on the severity of the experience. That is not entirely accurate. If traumatic stress is experienced the body will initiate, in all of us, the process I briefly described above. What differs is that what may be a traumatic stress to some may not be for others. However, once this process is activated in the brain, and our mind attempts to block memories of the senses (sight, smell, taste, sound or touch, and even memories of the experience all together) we are no longer emotionally processing it either. This is where healing begins. This is the important aspect that is required for our bodies to then recover from this superhuman beast mode, that is fight or flight. We must return, and then take initiative to process the emotional experience. Allowing our minds to free itself from this state of being. We must communicate to our bodies that the danger is no longer there, and we can return to business as usual.
It is my opinion that avoiding and pretending, or in some instances actively seeking to not have PTSD, makes the experience worse. The sooner you can address any experiences and symptoms stemming from such a thing, the easier it will be to move through it. It our nature to fight off these emotional responses and subdue them. To push them down into the depths of our mind and pretend they don’t exist or bother us. This will make every single aspect of your mental health worse. I assumed that because I wasn’t having flash backs, panic attacks, or any of the more obvious symptoms that I must not have had it. Looking back, I realize that was just me being ignorant towards the reality of how PTSD is. onset There is no way I could have seen and experienced everything I had, and to some degree not need therapy, or emotional support, or to process what had happened. Everyone needs healing.
I did not begin to notice my symptoms and struggle with mental health until about a year or so after my deployment. I noticed first, after I got out of the army, that I had a more pessimistic view on the world than I originally did. That negativity leaked into my overall manifestation giving me doubt and robbing me of confidence. After experiencing a lot of violence and witnessing death, life seemed so fragile. So I began to rush life. Quickly getting married and having a daughter, only to realize the direction I was taking was not who I wanted to be. As my quality of life lowered so did my emotional state, triggering the same fight or flight response that was deeply programmed into my brain to respond on a moments notice. Since there was nothing to fight (other than my mental health) this caused me to choose flight. So, I started making aggressive moves to change my life. Still however, not recognizing and avoiding the obvious fact in front of my face. That I was dealing with trauma subconsciously and it was exposing itself in my day to day life now at home. I started struggling with a pain killer addiction. As my uncalculated moves began to fail, my mental health would in some way self-sabotage my ability to stay motivated, to be successful. As I slipped deeper and deeper into failure so did my depression, anxiety, stress, anger, frustration, and guilt inched closer and closer to the surface. I would spend two more years fighting, scrambling, refusing to break down, to have PTSD. Refusing to be weak and a failure. This reaction was like quicksand to my emotional health. The harder I fought to simply by-pass it, the more I worsened my situation.
The purpose of this post was the address a part recognizing when you have PTSD. The onset of symptoms can be very gradual. Since these symptoms are (typically) emotionally related at first we don’t view them as a health problem. Instead, we just think we are tired and getting angry, or just having a bad dream not a nightmare. We miss these signs because we are not looking for them. First, you don’t have to be a soldier of war to have or experience PTSD, obviously. Secondly, I would like to reiterate this page is not to specifically target veterans, or just people with PTSD. I hope all who visit my site will maybe find some answers and comfort here. Whether for themselves or to gain insight on someone they care for. I will unveil my story in sections as I see fit, but my main goal is to address the most difficult symptoms I had to overcome from my own battle with mental health and PTSD; Social Anxiety, Self-isolation, and Avoidance.
I would like to encourage you, for reading this, to look deep within yourself. Take a moment in solitude to contemplate all you know yourself to be. Think of the parts of you that have been there since your oldest memory, I’m talking about your core traits. Then start to think about the emotional, social, or physical behavior you have been portraying that you do not like whether it’s a symptom or not. If you find yourself pinpointing behavior you know you have been doing that isn’t quite typical of you or maybe a friend has pointed out to you, start there. This requires the highest level of honesty one can give, which is honesty with yourself. If you are here visiting this blog and you are taking the time to read my post, then you must already have some idea that you or someone you know needs healing. So if you truly want that then I challenge you to analyze yourself. Be honest with yourself about who you are, who you have been, and who you want to be. This is where our journey begins…