Daily Archives: June 30, 2009

The Gifts of PTSD: Insomnia is a Terrible Thing to Waste and the Hidden Value of Hyper-vigilance

068On Board a 53 out near Syria

I’ve been asked by a number of people at work just how I manage to find the time to write the way that I do.  The answer, which I have said to all of them is simple…insomnia, which it turns out is not necessarily a curse, but for me in some ways is a gift.  I find that insomnia really is a terrible thing to waste.  Until I went to Iraq I went to bed at a decent hour every night and seldom did I have problems sleeping.  At the same time my life while busy pursuing work, military and professional education as well as academic degrees was full but not completely fulfilling.  I had always wanted to write on a variety of subjects to include military history, theology, ethics and baseball.  In fact someday I hope to get published.  However back then I was always too distracted to write what I wanted to write.  I could t stay on task for anything other than things that would seemingly directly affect my military career, even my marriage.

081Convoy On Route Michigan

Iraq changed that more than I thought it could.  I got back, fell apart about 90 days after returning home and despite pushing myself harder at work, ministry and academically I was not making it.  Nightmares, dreams, chronic pain and anxiety, stress reactions even in church about crippled me.  About the only place I felt some peace was at the ball park.  Somehow the sight of that great field and the infield diamond settles me. Sleep deprivation became a very real and persistent part of my life.  I guess it was the fact in Iraq that we did most of our travel at night by helicopter, usually CH-46, CH-47 or CH-53’s and had very irregular schedules.  Likewise when we came back to base there was another little issue.  The pad for the Army Medivac Choppers, or “Dustoff” was about 200 yards from my quarters so all night long I was subjected to the constant noise from these aircraft.  If I hear a UH-60 Blackhawk or SH-60 Seahawk at night I still get a startle reaction.  Outgoing artillery fire and occasional fire, explosions and sirens in the adjacent town of Habbinyah were staples of life.  When bored I would stand outside and watch illumination rounds going off the highway just outside our entry control point or wander over near the Shock Surgery Trauma Platoon facility where “Dustoff” was waiting on the pad.  I’m sure that working a number of mass casualty events and seeing our wounded Marines and Soldiers being treated as well as Iraqi civilians including kids had to affect me.  These Americans and Iraqis were out driving the same roads that we would drive on a regular basis and the sight of their shattered bodies went through my mind every time we went on a mission.

As I got deeper into my tour I found that no matter how tired that I was I had great difficulty getting to sleep.   I’m sure this was due to our operational tempo, odd hours, demanding travel, sleeping conditions which varied at every location and occasionally getting shot at.  The most cool of those were when our Army CH-47D talking off from Ramadi , took fire from the ground and proceeded to pop flares, take evasive action while the tail gunner opened fire with his M240 series machine gun.  Since I was sitting two seats from the tail gunner and saw, heard and smelled the gun as it fired I’m pretty sure that it happened.  However, when I called the Army squadron to see what happened they denied that the event happened.  I hear that was not an uncommon occurrence.    So anyway by the mid-point of my tour I was no longer sleeping so I would sit up and play games on my computer, such as chess and Ma-jong.  It is amazing how good you can get at stuff like that through sheer repetition.  It was playing these games that I would wear myself our enough to sleep since I usually did an hour or two of PT during the day or late evening when not on the road.  It is comforting when you are running near the perimeter on a cool Saturday morning and hear explosions and exchanges of automatic weapons fire going off about 2 km to your right.

So now despite my cool concoction of meds I still have difficulty getting to sleep.  In order to sleep I have to wear myself out and when I am done I take my meds and crash.  If I take them before I am exhausted I see little effect and I am not about to start mixing them with the good beer that I enjoy so much.  I do not drink crappy beer thank you.  Maybe it will be time to go back to the doctor when my provider’s relief arrives in August or September.  I probably need to talk to my buddy Elmer the shrink again soon.  Elmer is great but my schedule has not lined up well to see him the past couple of weeks between leave, call schedule and the emergency root canal.  I probably have to go back in on that sooner than my appointment as I still am having some pain and wonder if there is an infection there.

Since I don’t believe in wasting time I have decided to be productive when I can’t sleep.  I started writing as I finished my class requirements for my latest Masters Degree.  I still need to do the comprehensive exams but will wait until September so as not to mess with any home games the Tides have left.  I began writing as a means of both helping me and disciplining myself to write regularly.  I have several book ideas but have never been able to get any off the ground because I could not stay focused.  This website helps me do that and has got me thinking creatively again.  So my answer to how I can find the time to write is simple, if I have 20 or so extra hours in the week late at night that are going to be there no matter what I do, then I shouldn’t waste them.  So my point is that insomnia is a terrible thing to waste.   It could be worse. I know of other vets who can’t sleep either due to war experiences and some have fallen off the deep end with self destructive behaviors at least I am not doing online gambling, porn or other distractions that have helped continue to ravage some of my brothers and sisters who have served in Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam.  I have found in a strange way that the chronic insomnia has been a gift which has enabled me to gain insights on life and experience that I had never been able to put down before.  It has forced me to take advantage of time that I would otherwise waste web or channel surfing until I fell asleep.  It is interesting to see what comes out of your computer when you are trying to write while falling asleep.

Here is an example that I found and saved a few weeks ago:  “Manages not only check their the firduk about what they fell than…”

I have no earthly idea what it means or what a “firduk” is or what “manages would “not only check their the firduk” means and I don’t want to find out.  God only knows what it means but it reminds me where a half-asleep Jerry Seinfeld wrote down something that he saw on TV that he thought was funny.  He spent the show trying to see what he wrote and then finally saw what he actually heard.  He discovered that it was not nearly as funny as he thought.

Another gift I have been given with my PTSD is that of hyper-vigilance.  I am much more alert and observant than I ever was.  This is on the road, in crowds or even as I do my job in the hospital.  I have begun to notice the little odd things that are clues to other possibly more significant issues.  This probably has saved my life on the road on several occasions since I returned as I have a much great “feel” for what is going on around me than I have ever had while driving.  There have been at least three times where I “felt” the danger of another vehicle and took evasive action to avoid a collision before I heard or saw it.  Of course the colorful euphemisms which poured out of me on these occasions were quite memorable, I think the best being “You Oedipal Mother F—-r!” when some asshole almost plowed over me in a grocery store parking lot not far from home.

So, despite the inherent problems that PTSD, insomnia and the other maladies I have incurred have caused me, the Deity Herself has also given them to me as a gift.  For which I am strangely grateful. Even a few months back I saw them as a curse, but now they have become a source of blessing.  Like Commander Spock might say to Captain Kirk after observing a human idiosyncrasy “fascinating Captain, fascinating.”

pub1It’s a Gift…Enjoy

I’m back on duty tomorrow for another overnight.  This will be a long week, 3 duty nights out of 5 work days.  Thankfully I will not have duty again for two weeks after Friday.

Peace, Steve+

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