Not understanding your pain will kill you faster than the pain itself.
The most significant four letters that changed my life are PTSD: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
My descent back into civilization felt staged and written out like a Hollywood sensationalized film. We snaked out of Camp Anaconda in the cover of night.
I swore I heard that familiar sound of bullet on metal THAT plink, plink, plinking that clank, clank, clanking. When I didn’t hear any alarms, I fell back asleep; strapped in and leaning on my best friend. Once we landed my company of combat medics was shit out of the ass of that C-130. I glanced at the pilots standing at the head of the plane smoothing their hands over the bullets holes.
The plane from Kuwait was decorated with flight attendants, M16s empty of firepower, a flak vest that had no duty on my body anymore, sitting next to c-bags filled with dusty memories and the fragments of broken idealism.
We landed in Germany. I stepped off the plane onto the peaceful tarmac. The snowflakes began to fall from that dark Christmas Eve sky cascading unto my eyelashes, melting on my cheeks, hiding the joyful tears of coming back to Germany.
At 3a.m., the base opened the PX early so we could get alcohol, nasty sugar filled and processed food. I walked into my new barracks room and on the bedside table was a large bottle of Vodka. A present from the Army wives.
It was Christmas and we gathered in my room, the single soldiers, and celebrated together, finally in safety.
This was my first lesson in PTSD, soothe your pain, confusion, anger and frustration with booze and battle buddies.
Most of us started experiencing symptoms of PTSD in early 2005, but no one discussed it or mentioned that it facilitated the isolation, and alcohol abuse seemed to be the only answer.
We had survived life and death situations but couldn't talk about our feelings and became practically strangers.
Leaving the Army
I was distracted from my pain by the broken promises of the Army. I remember staring down at the letter in disbelief. It stated, "Your student loans are the 'wrong' kind of loans and the Army does not pay them."
I had served in combat for a year in Iraq, fulfilling my duty and now the Army was breaching my contract. So I decided to leave and had no hesitation or fear about becoming a civilian.
Why would I? I knew how to be a civilian, and I had survived a war.
I went back to Pennsylvania and began the legal battle with the Army. I believed everything was going to be ok. I was no longer the girl that left for the military. I had a plan. I would collect unemployment, write a resume and find a job.
One of the first nights home, I was sleeping in my childhood bedroom. I jolted awake at the roar of truck and the smack of a pothole under its wheels going across the bridge by my house.
I had never heard that sound before even though my mother said she has been wishing for years that they would fix that bridge.
That sound, those trucks, meant impending doom for me, an IED waiting to explode, or simply the roar of a truck that would transport me back to the desert of Iraq.
Within days I would wake up swimming in pools of my own sweat, a feeling that my lungs had sealed shut and my heart beating like the drum of war.
I wanted to sleep but feared what was on the other side.
I returned to my high school friends and starting drinking again in the hope of sleep as it was my only coping skill learned in the Army.
I eventually moved out of my parent’s house and went through a slew of jobs that paid well but had no purpose or satisfaction for me. I was trying to navigate something I didn't understand. The sleeplessness, the sleeping too much, the drinking, the nightmares, the flashbacks and the anxiety that lead to panic attacks without knowing what I was dealing with.
Getting a diagnosis
I was diagnosed with PTSD in April of 2007 by Doctor Howard Cohen.
He told me PTSD was my human reaction to extraordinary circumstances. He also said I would need my brain to become a tool box, and the sledgehammer was not always the best tool.
Doc Cohen explained to me later that my brain had physically changed.
This helped me conceptualize that my PTSD was not a weakness or a flaw. It was not my sensitivity as a woman, or inability to be a strong warrior, but more accurately; the events I experienced had physically and emotionally changed me because I am a human that lived through a war.
Extraordinary circumstances change everyone. I'm not saying specifically in a negative or positive way, it just changes you. Most importantly what you do after that change is directly connected to your survival in this world.
The day I started to speak my truth, a tiny flame lit inside me.
Learning to express the pain
The first time I performed a poem about how I felt about my service was a combination of wanting to vomit, my heart exploding with rage and pure adrenaline that I had felt only when the impending doom of death loomed in a convoy or mortar attack.
For those two minutes, I felt alive.
I also thought the audience might burn me at the stake but it didn’t matter. If I continued to keep those words, feelings, and pain inside me their infection would fester with a venom and vigor that the Black Plague would envy.
However, even after I purged those initial words, it was only a candle light in the vast darkness of space.
I continued for years to repeat old behaviors of drinking excessively and poisoning my body with multiple prescriptions from the VA.
That's the duality of PTSD. A never-ending convoy of despair, loneliness, anger, frustration, numbness, fear and struggle and also where I find my understanding, compassion and kindness for others.
My identity is deeply affected by my PTSD but that's also where I derive my resilience and passions for life.
The flame inside me began to grow and ignite as I spoke more and expressed my experiences.
For me, writing and performing my poetry was not enough. I wanted to facilitate healing for others and teach them how to free themselves from the shackles of their PTSD and traumas through writing and performance.
I wanted others to transition more easily than I did with the support of their community through the arts. I started facilitating writing workshops and curating performances and it unlocked another door for me to become the person I truly felt I was meant to be; a healer.
How PTSD has shaped me
For any veterans reading this I want them to know I didn't try just one thing, I tried nearly every type of workshop and therapy that came along for almost 10 years.
Running, yoga, gym memberships, boxing, farming, EMDR, Cognitive therapy, DBT, a plethora of anti-depressants, anti-anxiety meds, chiropractic, acupuncture, equine-psycho-therapy, group therapy, AA, NA, Smart recovery, community based grassroots initiatives, physical acting, interpretive dance, a magnificent service dog, Shakespearean acting, activism, and so many more I can't even remember.
I never stop trying to get better and utilize the skills and gifts that my PTSD has given me.
I am a better poet, writer and performer because of my PTSD. My anxiety transforms into presence on stage. My voice, fueled by rage, snaps the audience to attention.
The potency of my words and descriptions are based in the lizard part of brain that helped me survive the war. Now it facilitates my observations to create analogies as deep as the crater left behind by the twin towers.
My hyper-vigilance gives me the input to create any scene with accuracy and intensity.
I type the images I see while accessing the danger and release the energy it creates onto the paper instead of a response of violence or cruelty.
My sensitivity to profiling, down to the detail of the pace of breath in each person I meet helps me assess others. Navigating my own challenges throughout the years fuels my compassion for other veterans at all different stages of their healing.
Without my PTSD and my military experiences I would not be on this journey.
I am grateful to my PTSD for shining the light on a path I would have never found without the trauma I had experienced.
PTSD helps me to cultivate my ability to relate to, empower and help others.
Most importantly, to begin with myself to practice happiness, accept my flaws and imperfections, to love myself unconditionally and heal my own wounds so I can provide strength and be an example for others to follow on the road home.
This post is part of Spring.St's In Service series. We're looking at military life, and the hard-working families that serve the United States. You can read more here.