Tag Archives: nightmares

The Poetry of Fear: Nightmares and Moral Wounds

481801_10151367001287059_1003164983_n

Tombstone at the British Cemetery, Habbaniyah Iraq

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Stephen King wrote: “Nightmares exist outside of logic, and there’s little fun to be had in explanations; they’re antithetical to the poetry of fear.”

I prefer physical pain and physical injury to moral, emotional, and spiritual injury. I agree with Alexander Dumas who wrote in the Count of Monte Cristo“Moral wounds have this peculiarity – they may be hidden, but they never close; always painful, always ready to bleed when touched, they remain fresh and open in the heart.”

That is how I feel over ten years after returning from Iraq in 2008. No matter how well I am doing there are times when things going on in the present fill me with terror and evoke the ghosts of my past. As much as I want to put my war and other wars in the past I see American political leaders, propagandists, and religious leaders doing all they can to bring about new wars abroad and divide us at home.

n671902058_1153794_4301

I find this deeply unsettling and it causes great anxiety, especially when I try to sleep. On Saturday night I had terrible nightmares of war with superiors trying to force me to commit war crimes. Four times Judy tried to wake me as I screamed and fought and I couldn’t pull myself out of the dreams. Thankfully I did not end up throwing myself out of bed and causing injury as I have done before. Likewise the Papillons, including our youngest boy, Pierre, now know to move to a different part of the bed when I am so unsettled.

Guy Sajer wrote in his book The Forgotten Soldier, “Only happy people have nightmares, from overeating. For those who live a nightmare reality, sleep is a black hole, lost in time, like death.” United States Army General Gouverneur Warren, a hero of many Civil War battles including Gettysburg wrote to his wife after the 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.”

In my dreams I remember everything about the war like it was yesterday. The images are vivid: wounded Marines, a wounded Iraqi boy with his father, a rocket flying just a few feet above my head, taking small arms fire in Ramadi on the ground and aboard an Army helicopter which returned fire as we took off from Ramadi, destroyed cities and villages, destitute and terrified people, and refugees.

10665323_10154041610267059_5277331492232210946_n

But those dreams and nightmares blend reality with unreality, real places with imaginary places, places that I’ve been to but are not the same as they are in the real world and they frequently show up. You think that I would be used to them; but no matter how often I have them I never get used to them, and I can’t really explain them, I only try to survive them.

IMG_0543

Ramadi, January 2008

One of my favorite actors, James Spader, plays a character named Raymond Reddington on the television show The Blacklist. During one episode he told another character something quite profound, something that if we actually embrace it can be somewhat comforting. “There is nothing that can take the pain away. But eventually, you will find a way to live with it. There will be nightmares. And every day when you wake up, it will be the first thing you think about. Until one day, it’s the second.”

Anyway, I have spent my evening watching the musicals Chicago and Mama Mia in order to take my mind off of all that is going on in the world. Now it is time for bed and the world of dreams and nightmares. Thankfully I will get up in the morning and carry on with life, even joyfully.

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under iraq, life, mental health, Military, PTSD, Tour in Iraq

There Are Still Nightmares: Reliving the Inner Terror of War 


Friends of Padre Steve’s World

It was a good but exhausting weekend and yesterday at work was very busy and challenging. So this I am posting just a note today.

Saturday night, or rather early Sunday morning I had another of my high definition Iraq nightmares. Very realistic and terrifying. Once again I found myself being attacked while in a HUMMV and being thrown out of the vehicle with enemy gunmen closing in. During the nightmare I threw myself out of bed and looked up to see a gunman dressed in black with an AK pointed at me, so I tried to tackle him and when I awoke in a very groggy state I found that I was wrestling my television to the ground. All of this in my sleep. It took about thirty minutes to calm down. Minnie, Izzy and Pierre all came in to check on me and the left. Izzy gave me a short snuggle and I finally got back to sleep in enough time to get back up, go to breakfast and finish my sermon preparation. 

I find it amazing that ten years after I departed for Iraq that I still relive my greatest fears from when I was over there, traveling with small groups of American advisors and Iraqi troops throughout the badlands of Al Anbar. I was always afraid that our tiny convoys, usually just two or three HUMMVs and maybe an Iraqi vehicle or two would get ambushed by an IED and attacked. Being so small and mostly away from big concentrations of American troops with significant firepower we were very vulnerable. We got shot at from a distance a few times, mostly in Ramadi, and couldn’t return fire because we couldn’t see who was shooting at us. 

While we were there I seldom slept, even when we were back at our home base at Ta Qaddum to plan our next mission. That base was relatively secure but it had taken rocket and mortar fire before we got there. Thankfully that had ended but it was always in the back of our minds when we heard gunfire coming from the nearby town of Habbinyah. I remember doing a run around the airfield one day when I heard gunfire coming from the town with me in plain view of it. I ran faster than I think I ever have before to get out of the line of sight. T. E. Lawrence wrote of his time with the Arabs in the First World War “We lived always in the stretch or sag of nerves, either on the crest or in the trough of waves of feeling.” Those words well describe my time in Iraq. 

My nightmares include fragments of what happened as well as my fears that thankfully never materialized. Over the past three years I have ended up in the emergency room twice, once with a broken nose from these episodes. I suppose if I had been sleeping in my own bed, which I am not because my snoring has gotten so loud that Judy, who is profoundly deaf could not sleep even wearing ear plugs that took another 30 decibels off her hearing, that I would have gone to the ER again. In the guest room I didn’t run into my nightstand with my face. Even so it is not fun. 

In the past I have quoted James Spader’s character Raymond Reddington from the television series The Blacklist. Reddington told an FBI agent who had seen his fiancée murdered: “There is nothing that can take the pain away. But eventually, you will find a way to live with it. There will be nightmares. And every day when you wake up, it will be the first thing that you think about. Until one day, it’s the second.” 

That being said I am not depressed or in a funk and life is relative good. I am rather fortunate, despite the often terrifying reality of living with my PTSD and these bloody nightmares, things could be a lot worse. I do have nightmares but at least at the moment they are not dominating my waking hours.

Tonight I plan on watch the Major League Baseball All Star Game. I’ll write about that for tomorrow before moving on to other things. 

Peace

Padre Steve+ 

5 Comments

Filed under iraq, PTSD, Tour in Iraq

Whirlwind Trips

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I’m back from my whirlwind trip to Houston and my denominational chaplain training symposium. It was good to see my bishop and colleagues but the trip was exhausting and my time there too short because of how the trip coincided with my transfer just eight days before my departure and the scheduled Gettysburg Staff Ride this week. Thankfully I only had to deal with one time zone and I had no flight delays or glitches with anything along the way. Even so the schedule of the trip meant that I missed the first day and a half and the last day, in all I was in Houston for forty hours before I came home.

Over the past few days I have had little sleep and some really crazy dreams and nightmares, including one at about 1:30 in the morning on Saturday in which I thought that it was 5:15 Sunday morning and that I was going to miss my flight home. I ran to get packed then realized something was wrong. Looking at the hotel room clock I noticed the time and realized that it was not Sunday but Saturday. The adrenaline was pumping so hard that it took forever to get back to sleep, but I digress.

We discussed issues related to ethics, priestly vocation, grief and loss, as well as issues that we face in our various types of chaplaincy. It was definitely worth going but hopefully knowing the dates of next year’s conference and assuming that I am still in my current job I will be able to succeed in making this a less hectic trip.

Anyway, it has been a whirlwind weekend and the new week has begun.

Pray for me a sinner,

Peace

Padre Steve+

1 Comment

Filed under Travel

Nightmares and Adjusting to PTSD


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Last week I wrote about a very vivid PTSD triggered nightmare which landed me in the emergency room with cuts and contusions to my face and a broken nose. 

After it happened I mentioned that I had decided to get a catcher’s mask to sleep in. Well, I got something else, a street hockey goalie mask. Judy, thought that I should get a bed rail for my side of the bed. Despite the soundness of her advice, I realized that such a contraption would result in even more injuries to me. To say the least I am not very graceful, and I am sure that I would end up tripping over it even when I was not having nightmares causing even more injuries each time I got up to go to the toilet in the middle of the night. When I told her that I had ordered the goalie mask, she told me that I was an idiot. Truthfully, I’m okay with that, as I have been called a lot worse. 

The mask arrived the on Monday and I have been sleeping with it every night since. It is actually relatively comfortable, and if you served in the Army in Europe during the Cold War, and had to live in chemical protective gear and M-17 A1 gas masks for hours on end in field exercises, this is easy. I was actually surprised at how quickly I adapted, as did our two Papillons, Minnie and Izzy who took my new appearance in stride. 

Judy took a picture of me with it on and posted it on Facebook. What can I say?

Peace

Padre Steve+

Leave a comment

Filed under PTSD

There Will be Nightmares: PTSD & Memories of War

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I’m really very tired today so another short post. I haven’t slept well in several weeks, part of this of course was the worry I had regarding my wife Judy and her cancer diagnosis, surgery and recovery. As she has gotten better I have been dealing with stuff from my own closet of anxieties. Those who have been reading my articles here know that I deal with PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injury and moral injury from my time in Iraq, and my return home.

ramadi

Last year I went through a very difficult time dealing with the military mental health system that I never want to repeat again. I hope I don’t have to, but I may. My therapist who I have had since last summer took a new job thousands of miles away and now I am going to have to find another therapist. I am hoping the man I see for my medication management can get me referred to someone good, because I do not want to be thrust back into the system and take the luck of the draw. That scares me to death, and since I found out my therapist was leaving and that I will not see her again I have been trying to keep my anxiety under control and not to panic. Awake I do pretty well with this, but when I try to sleep, all my Iraq stuff, plus all the very real and bad experiences that I had with the military mental health system last year flood my psyche. The night terrors are back, the terrible dreams and fears. It is not fun waking up in the middle of the night in a state of terror. Last year, after dealing with a number of providers and administrators I was nearly suicidal. It took the intervention of a former commanding officer who had been recently selected for promotion to Admiral in the Medical Corps to get me listened to and to get me the help that I sought.

295_26912092058_3949_n

But I know that I am not alone, I will get the professional help that I still need and I do have some friends I can talk to about these issues. Likewise I know many combat who veterans deal with similar issues related to their service, as well what happened to them when they returned home from Iraq or Afghanistan. The return from war is often worse than actually being over there, few people really understand, unless they too have been there.

Guy Sajer wrote in his book The Forgotten Soldier, “Only happy people have nightmares, from overeating. For those who live a nightmare reality, sleep is a black hole, lost in time, like death.” General Gouverneur Warren, a hero of many Civil War battles including Gettysburg wrote to his wife after the 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.”

n671902058_1153794_4301

I am a realist about this. I know that there is no magic wand which will make it all go away and I don’t expect any therapist, or even God to cure me. I can understand why Alexander Dumas in the Count of Monte Cristo wrote, “Moral wounds have this peculiarity – they may be hidden, but they never close; always painful, always ready to bleed when touched, they remain fresh and open in the heart.”

That is true and I know to some people that may sound like I have given up, especially because it runs counter to the snake oil salesmen who write self-help books which promise to heal you in whatever number of steps or exercises; especially the ones written by preachers. But that is not the case, despite everything I still have a love of life and lust for learning. Except that now I just have moved to a new level of understanding concerning my own dark places, and that pain that manifests at night as I try to sleep. Since nothing will take it away I need to live with it and realize that it won’t always be the first thing that I think about when I wake up in the morning. That my friends is the essence of hope. 

n671902058_1219154_8844

One of my favorite actors, James Spader, plays a character named Raymond Reddington on the television show The Blacklist. During one episode he told another character something quite profound, something that if we actually embrace it can be somewhat comforting. “There is nothing that can take the pain away. But eventually, you will find a way to live with it. There will be nightmares. And every day when you wake up, it will be the first thing you think about. Until one day, it’s the second.”

I think that is why I can continue and at the same time seek to be available to those who suffer similar afflictions, and thankfully, I do still have those opportunities and as the late Henri Nouwen wrote, “Ministry means the ongoing attempt to put one’s own search for God, with all the moments of pain and joy, despair and hope, at the disposal of those who want to join this search but do not know how.”

Anyway, have a nice night.

Peace

Padre Steve+

4 Comments

Filed under Loose thoughts and musings

Things that Go Bump in the Night Terrors of PTSD

IMG_0230

Bram Stoker wrote in Hamlet these immortal words in his novel Dracula:

“How blessed are some people, whose lives have no fears, no dreads; to whom sleep is a blessing that comes nightly, and brings nothing but sweet dreams.” 

I am getting ready to go to bed, hopefully a bit early tonight and hopefully without the terror of so many nights, but I dread to sleep. I can understand why the savior of Little Round Top, General Gouverneur Warren wrote his wife after the Civil War:

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

Last night was difficult, the nightmares and night terrors were quite terrifying. Thus I almost dread bedtime tonight. Since the summer my dreams and nightmares have become much more vivid and often so terrifying that I either wake up or am woken up by Judy when she sees me becoming too physically active in them. I have when up several times either screaming or hitting the floor when I fall out of bed trying to attack something in my dream which is threatening me or Judy, or when I am fleeing a threat, usually as I hit the floor or the bookcase that doubled as my nightstand. Judy has woken me up a number of times, once when it appeared that I was shooting at someone. It must be thrilling for her. Of course Minnie our youngest Papillon decided that hanging on to mommy during such times is a good idea, while my unflappable Molly, my Papillon-Dachshund mix who helped get me through many nights after coming home from Iraq now simply looks up and goes back to sleep. Evidently she is used to me now, it is good that someone in our little household is able to not be too bothered by nightmares.

Last night I in a place where Judy and I had been trapped by enemy soldiers of some kind. I was unarmed and to allow Judy to escape up a hill I shut a gate to keep the enemy soldiers from pursuing us. As I struggled to lock the gate, I turned and saw that Judy had reached safety. I turned to join her but found that I could not get up the hill, I struggled and as I did the soldiers broke through the gate and began to shoot at me, I dove to avoid their bullets and was rudely awakened by my chin hitting the edge of the previously mentioned bookcase.

I slammed into it hard, so hard that my teeth cut my upper lip, and that my chin and jaw were swollen and in pain. I got up, walked into our master bathroom where my mouth was full of blood and my chin already swollen from the impact. Because of the hour I did not want to have Judy take me to the emergency room so I rinsed out my mouth, packed it with tissue to soak up the blood and lay back down until my normal time to wake up.

When boring came I got up, unpacked the very bloody tissue from my mouth and lips, showered and got ready for work. As I did so I noticed the damage to the bookcase, my jaw had shattered the pressed wood. I was shocked, evidently I have as hard of head as my dad accused me of as a child. I was surpassed, took a picture of he damage and went to work, where I reported what happened to my dean and went to our branch medical clinic. I spent most of the morning getting my head examined.

Though I hurt from the neck up, and was in a lot of pain nothing was broken so the doctor sent me home. The doctor said that though nothing was broken that I would be in pain for some time, and I am. He compared the impact to being in an auto accident. My neck is sore, the chin, jaw and mouth sore and I do have a pretty good headache.

When I see my new primary care doctor I will get scheduled for a sleep study.

Judy mentioned something that I didn’t think about either last night when this happened or while I was at the doctor. The fact is that had I not crushed the bookcase with my jaw I could have suffered a very severe injury, perhaps even a fractured skull.

I think that most of my current nightmares are triggered by reading about or seeing news reports about what is currently happening in Iraq where I left so much of my heart. But my dreams and nightmares are such surreal mixtures of fact, history, reality and imagination that it is sometime hard to tell where the dream ends and reality begins, or for that matter if there is much difference between the dream and reality, as Edward Allan Poe wrote:

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand-
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep- while I weep!
O God! can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?”

I make no pretense of saying that I can understand or interpret them. Last night may have been triggered by the F-18s from the USS George H.W. Bush flying in to the Naval Air Station following their return from deployment not far from where I work during the day. The noise of their jet engines took me back to Iraq.  When I was in Iraq, any time that I was going west or east and waiting on flights at Al Asad Air Base in Al Anbar, the Marine and Navy F-18s based there would keep me up all hours of the day and night as I tried to sleep in the tents that transients like me stayed. Of course those tents were only a couple hundred yards from the flight line, so sleep was rare and the noise got into my head.

I honestly do hope that my new therapist and medication manager can find the right combination of therapy and medications to manage this. It would be nice to be able to sleep without waking up in terror with dreams of war and of enemies, both real and imagined trying to kill me.

I have posted the photo of the broken bookcase here just to give you an idea of how hard I hit it with my chin. It shocked the hell out of me when I saw it. Yes that is the damaged that I caused, it is about three inches in size.

10423681_10152904072437059_4037095074761467544_n

So anyway, I am going to try to get some sleep. But as Guy Sajer, the author of the classic account of brutal combat wrote: “Only happy people have nightmares, from overeating. For those who live a nightmare reality, sleep is a black hole, lost in time, like death.” Since returning from Iraq, my nights have been nightmarish. I wish that I never had to sleep, for sleep is far worse than being awake, even awake in a combat zone. Like Gouverneur Warren, my dreams sometimes, in  fact most of the time cause me to dread going to sleep.

All that being said I do not want to lose my dreams, the good, the bad or even the terrifying. The somehow are a part of me, though I certainly would wish that they would not be so vivid that I end up physically bruised and sitting in an acute care clinic. That being said, I have to agree with Joseph Heller who wrote: “I want to keep my dreams, even bad ones, because without them, I might have nothing all night long.”

With that, I wish all of us peace and pleasant dreams, even in the midst of real life nightmares.

Padre Steve+

1 Comment

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

Living with Dark Places and Pain

947188_10151670056587059_1172426886_n

“There is nothing that can take the pain away. But eventually, you will find a way to live with it. There will be nightmares. And everyday when you wake up, it will be the first thing you think about. Until one day, it’s the second.” Raymond “Red Reddington (James Spader) The Blacklist

I am haunted by many things, unlike many people who have little self-awareness I might have just a bit too much. I have talked about the nightmares, night terrors and insomnia that I have many times following my return from Iraq. I used to believe, at least back in the first year or so after I returned that I thought that eventually I would get over it. I don’t believe that anymore, now I just believe that I will find a way to live with them.

I guess that is the secret to life. Instead of wishing that something would miraculously take way the pain, I guess that it is better to find a way to live with it because one day something  else will replace it.

Is that an ideal way to deal with life? Probably not, but I know that I am an idealist anymore. I used to be, but that was a while back. It took time, but war and the lies of men that I voted for, men who I trusted because they professed my faith, my love of country, and some who even shared my vocation as a priest and chaplain took that from me.

Experts call this “moral injury.” For me it is connected with my tour in Iraq, PTSD and what I experience when I came home from colleagues, and people in my former church. Betrayal and abandonment is a terrible thing, but I am learning to live with it. It is not pretty but I am learning with every passing night and morning. Alexander Dumas wrote in The Count of Monte Cristo:

“Moral wounds have this peculiarity – they may be hidden, but they never close; always painful, always ready to bleed when touched, they remain fresh and open in the heart.”

My life is full again, there is meaning and purpose, but it is tempered by realism and the expectation that every day I will wake up and still think about those painful memories until finally something else takes their place. 

I guess that the secret to living with darkness and pain is simply to live with it because the saying that “time heals all wounds” is a lie, it is the fabrication of people that don’t want to deal with the real world. God might heal, but then God may not. So I will live with it and in doing so I will continue on and in the process hopefully be there for others that also struggle with pain that does not want to go away and nightmares that never seem to end. As Henri Nouwen wrote:

“Ministry means the ongoing attempt to put one’s own search for God, with all the moments of pain and joy, despair and hope, at the disposal of those who want to join this search but do not know how.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

1 Comment

Filed under christian life, faith, ministry, PTSD