Daily Archives: August 23, 2012

HD Dreams and Stranger Things: PTSD and Sleep

Those that have followed me on this site for any length of time know that I have been dealing with PTSD since my return from Iraq in 2008. I have written extensively about it including times when I was not doing well at all. Just take a look at some of my articles from 2009 and 2010 and you can see how bad I was doing. I have occasionally likened my dreams to the character of Binkley in Bloom County with his “Closet of Anxieties.”

I am like thousands of other active duty, reserve, retired military personnel or veterans  that suffer from PTSD related to my time at war. When I started treatment in 2008 one of the things that my therapist asked was if I thought that I could talk about my condition. It was a scary thought because there is where we like to admit it there is a stigma attached to PTSD and other psychological conditions. At some point I decided to say “what the hell, I’m going to talk about it.” That was really a big part of why I started writing on this blog. Since then I have been able to share my story in a number of venues and have had a lot of people contact me, many to share their stories and simply to offer either thanks or support. There have been a few knuckleheads but what amazes me is how many people contact me and how many military personnel or family members deal with the same things that I have faced.

I am hyper-vigilant as hell and there are a lot of places that I don’t feel safe. I still have bad days and there are plenty of times that I get in situations, like doing through airports, malls, Wal-Mart and sluggish traffic where I really have to fight anxiety and panic. The sight and smell of smoke and brush fires and sewage send me back to Iraq. The smell of death, which I still occasionally deal with has its own dread quality. Certain types of vehicles, aggressive drivers and debris on the road can send me back to Iraq. I can attribute a number of speeding tickets and an HOV violation to flight or fight responses in traffic.

Loud noises, screams, explosions and numerous other external and unexpected stimuli can trigger one hell of a startle reflex and anxiety. Tonight I was walking Molly down to the beach, a normally peaceful experience when an unexpected loud scream and crashing noise from a beach house startled and scared the hell out of me. That is not normal for my neighborhood. Thankfully Molly was there to protect me and her unflappable reaction was reassuring.

I am also unsettled by the political vitriol in our country, especially that stirred up by preachers because I have seen the results of such vitriol in Iraq and the Balkans. When I read or hear about the killings of US or NATO personnel by supposedly friendly Afghan “partners” I have a hard tome sleeping. I spent my time in Iraq traveling and doing a “circuit riding” type ministry with US Marine Corps and Army Advisors to the Iraqi Army and other security forces.  I look at some of those times and it causes me to think of just how easily I could have fallen victim had any Iraq Soldier or Policeman turned on any of the small groups of Americans that I was out with. But it is night when things get weird.

One of the things that I deal with is chronic insomnia. I used to be a very good sleeper but a few months into my time in Iraq I found that I wasn’t sleeping. So for about five years I have had very few good nights of sleep despite numerous attempts by doctors to help with sleep and anxiety meds. Those help sometimes but have side affects. On duty nights when I might be called in to the hospital I can’t take my meds because I want to be able to drive the 23 miles to work down a rural state highway.

Since Iraq my dreams have become rather HD, or High Definition involving some quite terrifying blends of Iraq and other parts of my life. I know that Judy and our dog Molly have been been awakened by me screaming or fighting the things that I battle in these dreams which are often nightmarish. Even relatively benign dreams have the DH quality now.

When I was in Houston a couple weeks ago and staying in a hotel the dreams were quite disturbing. Somehow not being in a familiar setting is bad for my sleep. But even the least disturbing was a dream was rather startling. In the dream I was sitting between the stands and the left field foul line at a major league game about 50 feet from 3rd base. I woke up when dreaming of diving for a baseball I ended up on the floor. I have to admit that the outfield grass was the lushest and most beautiful that I have ever seen. I don’t think that the left fielder and third baseman appreciated me being in their way when tracking down the pop ups and line drives hit towards me in the dream.

Thankfully though startling that dream was benign.  I find that the dreams of wounded Marines and soldiers in Mass casualty situations, night convoys with small teams of advisors, patrols and getting shot at on occasion that are the ones that really get me. When they are intermingled with current life events or other parts of my life in HD it is quite terrifying.

The dreams are almost like horror movies that you can’t leave. I have woken up from a dream, gone back to sleep and have the same dream resume. Other times I cannot go back to sleep.

I wondered why and a few weeks ago I was able to get evaluated with a QEEG or Qualitative EEG. Basically it is a brain map that tracks responses to various stimuli. Some of that testing is done with your eyes closed to see the differences in how the brain works when there are no visual stimuli. Before I had the test I spent a couple of session telling the doctor what I was going through and he would tell me what part of the brain that was affected. When I took the test it showed in graphic form what was going on and validated what I had been experiencing for these past five years.

Normally when people close their eyes they can relax. I used to be able to do this, but it has been a long time. The results of the test showed that unlike normal people when I close my eyes my brain basically goes into overdrive. The doctor remarked “no wonder you can’t sleep and have such vivid dreams.”

I have another couple of evaluation sessions before I begin EMDR and or Biofeedback therapy. For the first time in a long time I am hopeful that I will get some relief and improvement in my condition that may actually help me get off some of my medications. That would be nice. Normal sleep and a decrease in the HD dreams and nightmares would also be a good thing.

Thank you for your prayers and kind words. It has been a while since I have written about this in any detail and I hope as always that what I share will help encourage others suffering from similar issues and hopefully encourage and educate those that have to live with them. Believe me, it has not been easy for Judy.

There are resources available and one that I recommend for those that are dealing with PTSD is the Real Warriors Campaign http://www.realwarriors.net. I also recommend Doonesbury’s The Sandbox http://gocomics.typepad.com/the_sandbox/  Both sites allow military personnel to share their experiences. There are numerous other resources and if someone asks I will gladly post some others. I do have a link to the National Center on PTSD on the site.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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