“Only happy people have nightmares, from overeating. For those who live a nightmare reality, sleep is a black hole, lost in time, like death.” Guy Sajer, The Forgotten Soldier
Last week I woke up screaming thanks to some nightmare brought to me in high definition by PTSD. It woke Judy and both of the dogs up and well, it wasn’t exactly pleasant. Unfortunately this happens more often than I would like it to. When I was stationed away from home in North Carolina it was only Molly my faithfully dog who was disturbed by this, now I wake up Judy and our younger Papillon Minnie, or Minnie Scule as is her full name.
This afternoon I read a story of a Marine veteran who lost his battle with PTSD, taking his own life. I see a lot of these stories and each one makes me wonder what s going on and gives me pause when I think just how bad I was doing not too long ago.
It is hard for me to believe that nearly six years after I returned from Iraq that I still have a lot of trouble sleeping, though less trouble than a couple of years ago and that my nightmares associated with war still return with more regularity than I would like. Likewise it is hard for me to believe how much my life is impacted by this. I still experience a fair amount of hyper-vigilance, crowds of people are difficult and the craziness of traffic on the local freeways causes me a fair amount of distress.
Despite that I am doing a lot better than I was even a year or so ago when I was still struggling a lot more than I am now and let’s say 4 years ago when there were times I wondered why I was still alive. Of course the time from 2008-2010 was probably the worst time of my life when it seemed that everything that I had believed in had melted away. I didn’t know if God existed, I felt abandoned by my former Church and even by many peers. The only thing that kept me going was a deep sense of call and vocation as a Priest and Chaplain, even though I was for all practical purposes an agnostic who was praying that maybe God still might exist.
Those who have been with me on this blog over the years know how central that struggle has been. I have written about it many times.
Though I am doing much better than I was I still have my times of doubt, times of fear and times of absolute panic. I do what I can to manage but once in a while something will trigger a response. The biggest problem still is sleep and vivid dreams and nightmares. Once I finish the course I am in I am going to get back into therapy a couple of times a month. Thankfully my new job after I complete the school will be more academic with a small chapel where I serve the Students of the Joint Forces Staff College.
Physically I am doing much better, in terms of overall health and physical fitness. I am playing softball again and my PT regimen is much better. Spiritually I can say that being active in having a Chapel where I celebrate Eucharist in a small setting has been good for me. Having to preach again from the lectionary readings is a good thing. Likewise getting a break from five years of hospital ministry, dealing with death, suffering and psychological issues is good. After Iraq I threw myself into the most difficult areas of hospital ministry, the critical care Intensive Care Units hoping that such work would help bring me out of my own issues. Unfortunately, it made it more difficult.
Being at home again is good. I just wish that my nightmares would not cause distress to the rest of my little family. However, it is nice when after they look at me like I am nuts one or both dogs come to me and help calm me down.
I quoted Guy Sajer, the author of the classic book The Forgotten Soldier. If anyone wants to understand something about what war does to a person and see PTSD in non-clinical terms I think it is possibly the best book to read.
Since I have gone to war and experienced fear on a daily basis out in the hinterlands of Al Anbar Province with small groups of American Marines and Soldiers and Iraqi troops I understand a bit of what Sajer writes. My war was different, out with advisors on small Iraqi basis, traveling in dangerous areas far from any big American units, occasionally being shot at and seeing the devastation of war in that unfortunate country, though my experience of war pales in comparison with what Sager describes.
That being said I do understand in ways that I never did before. Sajer makes a comment which I think is incredibly appropriate for those that read of war without having ever experienced it. too often is the case in the United States and Western Europe where very few ever put on a uniform and even fewer experience war. Sager wrote:
“Too many people learn about war with no inconvenience to themselves. They read about Verdun or Stalingrad without comprehension, sitting in a comfortable armchair, with their feet beside the fire, preparing to go about their business the next day, as usual.
One should really read such accounts under compulsion, in discomfort, considering oneself fortunate not to be describing the events in a letter home, writing from a hole in the mud. One should read about war in the worst circumstances, when everything is going badly, remembering that the torments of peace are trivial, and not worth any white hairs. Nothing is really serious in the tranquility of peace; only an idiot could be really disturbed by a question of salary.
One should read about war standing up, late at night, when one is tired, as I am writing about it now, at dawn, while my asthma attack wears off. And even now, in my sleepless exhaustion, how gentle and easy peace seems!”
This weekend I will visit the Gettysburg Battlefield as part of a staff ride. I have been there a good number of times but not since I returned from Iraq. Thus in a sense it will take on new meaning, especially when I walk those hallowed fields of battle where so many died and so many more were maimed in our own terrible Civil War.
That being said I wonder if the solution to my nightmares is to go back to Iraq someday like so many WWII, Korea and Vietnam veterans have done to the places that they served. That has to remain in the future, but hopefully I will get the chance and maybe by then Iraq will at last be at peace.
Tonight I will attempt to sleep and hopefully what dreams I have, though they be high definition will at least not be nightmares that disturb Judy or the dogs.