Drop me in a combat zone with a rifle and I’ll be just fine. That’s not courageous for me. What’s courageous is facing your feelings after you get home. I’ve only just begun this journey. I’ve confessed some of my deepest darkest secrets on this blog. My character defects and circumstances are a very transparent part of me. Now that I’m in recovery I’ve learned to own them. I’ve learned my story isn’t just for me, it’s for you too.
There’s just this little thing gnawing at me. This little thing is called PTSD.
It’s no coincidence I visit this subject today, it’s my 17th anniversary in the military. I was in OIF 1 from 2003-2004. I’m proud to have served as long as I have. The end goal is to retire in a few years. I never would have imagined the military would be such an integral part of my life. When I was younger, my life was anything but disciplined.
When I joined I was just just 19 years old. I wasn’t athletic, I had never participated in a single sport, or done a push-up for that matter. I was too busy partying. My partying began at the age of 12 when I started drinking and smoking cigarettes. I moved on to weed at 14 years old. By the time I was 19 I had moved on to hydrocodone, ecstasy, and even cold medicine. Ugh. I’m not proud of that one at all.
I was at my bottom when a recruiter called and without hesitation I said yes. I shipped out a month later for basic. The first few weeks of basic terrified me, I was pretty sure I joined a cult. Eventually though, I came to love it. My Drill Sergeants pushed me till my muscles failed.
They saw I had what it takes, and they believed in me, and for the first time ever, I believed in me.
I was unstoppable. I never looked back at drugs after this experience. Alcohol though, is a different story. But that’s not what this is about. This is about the perils of war. This is about what happens to the mind after it’s experienced combat.
PTSD is something I keep locked in the closet, for the most part. Why? I don’t know. I don’t have an answer other than shame and stigma. Unfortunately, in the Army, stigma still exists about mental illness. Often times those who seek treatment are accused of being slackers and are treated as less than. Which makes someone with mental illness feel hopeless. Hence, the staggering suicide rate in the military and amongst veterans.
When I returned from Iraq, I was a different person. I would never be the person I was before, and that was something I had to accept. When you experience the worst humanity has to offer in the harshest of environments, you change. I know things about parts of the human condition that other people don’t know.
I know what it’s like to be surrounded by people that want to kill you, and I know what it’s like to return fire. Not many soccer mom’s and housewives relate to that.
I slept with a M249 (a machine gun for you civilians) and a pistol for a full year. After I was home I found myself reaching for a gun that was no longer there. I drove with my husband for 26 hours straight, home to see my family. I was used to my adrenaline pumping at its max every day for an entire year. I lived in fight or flight survival mode for way too long. Readjustment was hard.
I still clear bridges when I drive under them, to make sure there’s no one on top sniping me. I still hold my breath and expect roadside trash to blow me up. I still have panic attacks in large crowds and I’m always looking for the nearest exit. Of course, I refuse to sit with my back to the door of most places as well. I occasionally have nightmares.
Yet, all I can think about are the ones who didn’t make it home, or didn’t make it home whole. I feel guilty as hell for being such a pansy when others have had it so much worse than me. But, I can’t make it stop.
I tread these constant, deep, waters between guilt and broken. Between sadness and fear. Between I’m ok today, but tomorrow I might lose it. Between survival, and death.
Yet, I will continue to serve my country in spite of myself. I’ll continue to wear these boots with pride until they tell me I can’t anymore. I have earned the privilege of leading Soldiers. But what they don’t know, is more often than not, these Soldiers are leading me.
PTSD by far is one of the most intense experiences I have had. And I’ve been through some shit. I am finally beginning to realize that I just can’t go there, I can’t talk about it, I can’t process it, because it’s just so painful.
I suppose once I forgive myself for surviving, while others died and lost limbs, I might begin to heal.
But it’s so much easier to put PTSD back into the closet and pretend it doesn’t exist.