June 30, 2008
I sat at a concert last night letting the music calm my heart and soothe my soul. Eyes closed, I let it sweep me into a mindless drift. But as much as the music comforted me and try as I might, my mind refused to stay quiet. Back and forth it went, like a tennis ball lobbed across a net, sometimes relaxed in the notes wafting from the stage, sometimes turbulent and anxious as it recounted my workday. Over and over I struggled against the mind games. Listening to the music, I could almost pretend everything was all right, that I really hadn’t heard the things I had heard and spoken the things I had spoken.
The battle was lost on the drive home, as my mind unlatched the tightly closed box and the memories spilled out.
He was a patient in his 50s, in for a minor surgical procedure. As he rolled to a stop in the recovery room he became combative. The OR nurse and the anesthesiologist, quick to leap to either side of the bed, tried to quiet and calm him: “You’re in the hospital in the U.S., you had surgery, you’re safe, you’re all right." My mind pinged “PTSD” at the same moment the OR nurse said, “He’s got PTSD”. Oh...How many times have I heard that? Far, far too many.
Educating one of the new staff members helping me, I told him, "Speak to this patient in a quiet, calm tone of voice, don’t hold him down unless he’s really going to hurt himself, and continually reorient him to where he is, emphasizing that he is safe." The newbie looked at me, eyes wide, and nodded. "Welcome to the world of OIF/OEF," I thought to myself.
As the patient woke from his slumber we began to converse: He was from a small rural Midwest town, had been military since he was 17, had been to Vietnam, Grenada, Iraq. He spoke of his struggles dealing with things he had seen in Iraq, and was confused by the fact that Vietnam hadn’t bothered him to the extreme OIF did. He spoke of one particular incident, of holding one of his squad members, blown up by an IED. The grief shone in his eyes as he told me he held that kid in his arms while he called for his dad. He relived the trauma while he said, “I knew he was gonna die, he was missing half his head, but he still called out for his dad. So for those moments I was his dad, and his dad was holding him in his arms and when he died I didn’t want to let go.”
I laid my hand on his shoulder and asked him if he was talking with anyone.
"Absolutely!” came his quick response. “But ya know, it’s hard. It’s embarrassing for an old guy like me to lose it and bawl like a baby."
“You realize that’s what it takes to heal, don’t you?” I asked him.
“Yeah, I’m learning," he said, "but it’s tough, and some things, most things, I don’t want to remember. I tried to fix it on my own but started drinking too much, not sleeping, having nightmares and waking up screaming, scaring my kids, so I kinda got forced into getting help. But I’m glad I did, for my family."
"The other thing though," he continued, “is I have these pictures in my head and it’s like a video that constantly runs. I can’t get rid of them."
I stood there, looking down at him, seeing the tremendous pain in his eyes, the uneasiness with the emotions that accompany psychological trauma, and I began to speak. In a low voice so no one else could hear I started to share things with this total stranger that I rarely share with even my closest, dearest friends.
“I have PTSD too,” I told him. “I saw the carnage left by September 11th, and I am a survivor of a brutal sexual assault. I know all about the mental pictures engraved on your brain. I know of the videos that take over your mind and hard as you try, you can’t get rid of.” This man looked at me, his gaze fixed on mine and listened while I talked. “I know what it’s like not to sleep, to have nightmares so bad you sleep with the lights on because you’re afraid of the dark. I know what it’s like to try and pretend everything is okay when your life is really falling apart and you don’t know why. I know what it’s like to walk into the grocery to get milk but have to leave before you do because it’s too crowded, or someone looked at you funny and all you felt was rage so strong you wanted to beat the shit out of them. I know what it’s like.
“PTSD sucks, it never goes away and it’s absolute agony to deal with but you can. You’re going to have to hurt like hell and you’re going to have to force yourself to talk about things you never even want to remember much less speak about, and you’re going to have to cry. Put aside every pat crappy cliché about “real men don’t cry, crying is for pussies, etc." It’s all bullshit. Let yourself cry. Go to therapy, go to group, and if you lose it in group, lose it. It’s a safe place; the people you are with are dealing with the same hell as you. It’s absolutely okay to cry, to lose it, because in the end it is the only way to get better. And you will, you’ll heal. With the right help and with time, it does get better. You learn to watch for triggers, you learn different ways to cope, you learn how to heal. You learn how to be a PTSD survivor and not a PTSD victim.”
I quit talking, shocked at myself for sharing what I did. Appalled and embarrassed that I had spoken of such painful pieces of my past, I removed my hand from his shoulder and went to turn away. He grabbed my hand and said, “You do understand, when no one else does, you do.” Nodding, I tried to get my hand free but he wouldn’t let go. He continued, “You’re just as much my battle buddy as any of the guys I deployed with. I appreciate what you told me, it helps to know.”
I agreed with that comment; we are battle buddies, battle buddies in a war just as devastating and debilitating as one fought with IEDs, RPGs and .50 cals. "I'm not sure why I told you all that," I responded, "especially since it’s not a subject I go around sharing with my closest friends much less complete strangers."
“Yeah, kinda figured that," he said. He talked on, telling more about what was going on in his head. Me listening, making suggestions, encouraging or simply nodding silently in agreement as only another survivor can.
Before he headed home, I shared my email address with him and told him to contact me if he wanted. He held out his massive hand and I placed mine in his. “Thank you," he stated simply, then holding up the piece of paper with my email address he spoke again. “This has now become one of my prized possessions.”
“Safe travels,” I said. He nodded in response and we parted ways.
Later, as I talked with the OR nurse, he asked me how this particular patient had done. “He did well, we chatted for a bit. He’s got some heavy shit to deal with.”
“Yeah," the nurse responded. “He tell you about the kid dying in his arms?”
“Sucks, I hope he gets the help he needs. Crap like that can seriously mess with your head. It certainly did mine.”
And for the second time in my shift another horror story unfolded: “I was forward deployed on a medical strike team when a fuckin’ female suicide bomber took out one of our medics. Blast left our medic in five pieces. Took eight months of therapy once I got home to work through all the shit and get my sanity back. It should be mandatory that everyone who goes over there has to spend at least a month in counseling.”
The tale told, he walked away, back to work, and left me standing in heartbreaking silence. A silence filled with commiseration, as I know only too well the pain that walks hand in hand with horror. The horror that comes from seeing carnage so damaging it is forever imprinted on your mind.