If you want to understand PTSD, you could listen to discussions of neurotransmitters and physiology, biochemistry and brain function, coping strategies and adaptive behaviors. But when I worked with combat veterans, PTSD arrived in stories:
CPL Springer* hides in his closet to feel safe, even though it has been seven long years since he returned from Iraq. When he tells me about the closet episodes, he acts like he’s confessing some terrible transgression, he’s helpless in his shame. But it’s the only place he ever feels safe.
SGT Devereaux admits he studies the sides of the road in his neighborhood for hidden enemies; his voice nearly a whisper when he tells me he can’t go over to his friend’s for dinner because it’s just too hard to leave the house. “I go to work, and then I go home. That’s it. That’s all I can manage. Everyone at work thinks I’m fine. They don’t know I can’t leave my house anymore.”
SPC Higgins sobs when he describes spending his combat year in a tiny vehicle looking for IEDs. He felt too isolated from the men who followed behind him, the men who relied on him for their safety. The combination of enormous, relentless pressure and daily isolation has left him feeling broken.
And there was the slight young soldier from Texas who sat across from me in an empty dining facility, talking about his recent stint in Afghanistan (he’d been back a few weeks). We were surrounded by uncomfortable preformed plastic chairs and stained Formica-topped tables. I don’t remember his name, but I remember watching him slip into a kind of trance as he spoke – his grey eyes glazed, his words strained and halting, “We did night missions a lot, so now I don’t sleep. It gets dark, and something inside me switches on, like there’s something I should be doing, something I should be watching for. You get used it that feeling, you know? It feels like everything depends on you staying alert. So, it’s automatic. It gets dark outside, I click into ‘alert.’”
PTSD doesn’t seem like one thing to me. It seems like a wild, ugly carnival that takes each service member on a different horrible ride. The triggers, the reactions, the fears, the overwhelm, all idiosyncratic and slightly varied. However it operates, it can get reality so twisted it’s hard to find the way back to steady ground again and again and again.
The best description of PTSD I’ve ever read was in MAJ Damon Armeni’s very fine New York Times article. His story captures the sudden helplessness and fear that can flood in like a tsunami, pulling a veteran under and tossing them about – and the dedication it takes to find the way through. You can read it here.
* All names, ranks and physical descriptions have been changed to protect privacy.
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Elizabeth Heaney - Author
Clinical Psychologist, teacher, private counselor. She speaks and writes about her work with service members.