The Long Strange Trip: Seven Years of PTSD, TBI & Moral Injury

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You’re sick of hangin’ around and you’d like to travel,
Get tired of travelin’ and you want to settle down.
I guess they can’t revoke your soul for tryin’,
Get out of the door and light out and look all around.

Sometimes the light’s all shinin’ on me,
Other times I can barely see.
Lately it occurs to me what a long, strange trip it’s been.

Truckin’, I’m a goin’ home. Whoa whoa baby, back where I belong,
Back home, sit down and patch my bones, and get back truckin’ on.

From Truckin’ by the Grateful Dead

It has been seven full years since I descended into the hell of the abyss that is PTSD. Back in the late spring and early summer of 2008 just a few months after my return from what I still consider my best tour of duty in over 30 years of military service with US advisors and Iraq Army and Security forces in Al Anbar Province in 2007-2008 I was in a state of emotional and spiritual collapse.

I really couldn’t believe then what was happening to me or they way that it would end up shaping my life to the present day. In retrospect my return from Iraq marked a beginning of a personal hell that for a number of years seemed like that it would never end. It was painful, it was isolating and it marked a profound change in the way that I saw God, faith, politics and social justice. It changed me in ways that I never could have imagined when I got on a bus heading for Fort Jackson South Carolina following the July 4th holiday of 2007.

Those brave souls that have followed me on this website as well as those that are still my friends despite occasional disagreements and misunderstandings, those that may not understand me but still are my friends have seen this.

So seven years later what is it like? I kind of feel like T.E. Lawrence when he penned this thought in a letter to a friend:

“You wonder what I am doing? Well, so do I, in truth. Days seem to dawn, suns to shine, evenings to follow, and then I sleep. What I have done, what I am doing, what I am going to do, puzzle and bewilder me. Have you ever been a leaf and fallen from your tree in autumn and been really puzzled about it? That’s the feeling.” T. E. Lawrence, Letter 1935

I still have terrible trouble sleeping. It got worse last summer when I had a complete relapse and major crash.  I don’t take heavy doses of sleep meds anymore, my new doctors are working to see what will work. I now take a mild dosage of an anti-anxiety medication and an anti-depressant, I also have a new medication to help reduce the severity and violence of my nightmares. This is far better of a combination than the heavy doses of medications that made me feel like I was hung over without that benefit of sharing too many drinks with friends at the local watering hole.

As opposed to the years immediately following my time in Iraq I have to say that I am no longer self medicating with alcohol. I remember in 2009 going out for dinner, having a few beers, then going to a ball game and drinking a few more and coming home with Krispy Kreme donuts and drinking more beer on a regular basis and usually taking a couple of shots or Jaegermeister or glasses of a  nice Spanish Brandy just to get to sleep so I could go back to facing life and death situations the next day in the ICUs that I then worked in. I don’t need that anymore, even though sleep can be problematic and dreams and nightmares rivaling anything I can watch on my HD TV. I can understand the words of Union General Gouverneur Warren after the Civil War:

“I wish I did not dream so much. They make me sometimes to dread to go to sleep. Scenes from the war, are so constantly recalled, with bitter feelings I wish never to experience again. Lies, vanity, treachery, and carnage.”

I still love to pony up to the bar and share a couple of steins with friends but I don’t need it to numb myself into feeling no pain. Talking with many other vets who have served in Iraq, Afghanistan or even Vietnam I know that I wasn’t alone in those dark days.

I have become a bit less hyper-vigilant than I was just in May of 2008. However, that being said I do notice that I am more on guard on the roads and that little things, sirens, emergency vehicles. Loud noises and traffic still set me off more than when I lived in rural North Carolina while stationed at Camp LeJeune from 2010 until August of 2013.

I absolutely hate air travel. I don’t like the crowds, the stress of security or the constant delays, changes and overcrowding. Truthfully I felt more comfortable flying the skies of Iraq on Marine, Army and Air Force fixed and rotor wing aircraft and on occasion being shot at in Iraq’s Al Anbar Province than I do on any airline today in this country.

I have become exceptionally sensitive to tragedy, death and suffering. The loss of friends or major incidents where military personnel are killed in combat, training missions or just doing their job hits me hard. The worst times are when friends, or others that I know die by their own hand. When they are veterans who suffer from PTSD, TBI or Moral Injury it is like a dagger plunging into me.

Whereas in 2008 through 2010 and even until 2011 I was exceptionally sensitive to criticism to the changes that were occurring in my life including my move to the “left” both theologically and politically I have gotten to the point that I realize that it is more important to be honest and authentic as to who I am and what I believe.

I have found that those that really matter to me don’t care so much about those things and that relationships maintained with people who don’t always agree with each other where all remain their personal integrity are far more rewarding than relationships that are first and foremost decided by allegiance to political or religious orthodoxy no matter what side of the spectrum it is from. I hate group think. Thus though I have to now consider me to be on the “liberal” side of the political and theological divide I still have to be considered a moderate simply because I refuse to make people my enemy simply because I disagree with them or they with me.

When I began this site in the spring of 2009 I named it Padre Steve’s World…Musings of a Passionate Moderate. I think I did that because it actually described me then, and now, even though I am pretty passionately liberal about some things and that doesn’t bother me in any way because it comes from my wrestling with God and faith and realizing that integrity matters more than about anything else. I changed the title of the site to Musings of a Passionately Progressive Moderate last year. I did this because I am a passionately progressive moderate; a liberal committed to a Christian faith that speaks up for the oppressed. I am willing to confront those that would use faith, political or economic power to oppress the weak or those different from us.

Since I returned from Iraq in 2008 I discovered what it was to really question faith and God. To become for a couple of years a man who was for all practical purposes an agnostic praying that God still existed and cared. I discovered that in doing so that faith returned, different but more real than I had ever experienced in a life spent in the Christian faith and ministry.

My agnostic period gave me an immense empathy and appreciation for those who have lost faith, struggle with faith or reject any concept of God. I value reason as much, maybe if not more than faith now, not that reason is infallible or perfect. However, reason does allow me to evaluate my faith, and appreciate the amazing mysteries of the universe that our science and technology continue to reveal in ever more complex detail.

That brought change because my rediscovered faith brought me into conflict with people in the church denomination and faith community where I had been ordained as a priest. I was asked to leave and found a new home church and denomination that fit my life, faith experience and where I could live and minister in complete integrity. In the church that took me in during the fall of 2010 I can be faithful to the Gospel and care for the lost, the least and the lonely. This is especially the case for those who have been abused by churches and ministries, who often contact me.

I am now in the process of more medical evaluation and testing to discover the extent of the Traumatic Brian Injury and how it is interacting with the PTSD.

It has been a long strange trip and it will probably continue to go on.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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1 Comment

Filed under faith, mental health, PTSD, Tour in Iraq

One response to “The Long Strange Trip: Seven Years of PTSD, TBI & Moral Injury

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