Thought Catalog

The Truth About PTSD And Life After The Military

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He awoke suddenly with a gasp and shot straight up out of bed. With one hand on his chest he struggled to even out his breathing as he scanned the pitch black room.

For a moment he didn’t know where he was. His pulse quickened and the hair on the back of his neck stood up. Rubbing his eyes furiously he steadied his breath and took a second look.

All around him familiar shapes came into focus. The dresser in the corner, the sliding glass door, the silhouette of my body next to him, wrapped tightly around and around in the blanket, like always leaving barely any left for him.

Everything was as it should be.

Letting out a sigh of relief, he laid back down and tried to get comfortable again. The weight of his body shifting around next to me as he attempted to settle back to sleep startled me.

With blurry eyes, still heavy from a deep sleep, I began to unravel myself from the cocoon of blankets and reached my arm out to touch him.

Touching him was always a familiar comfort, the feeling of my skin against his. But this time was different, it was if I had reached out and touched a stranger.

His normally warm and inviting skin was cold and clammy, and the sheets around him were drenched in sweat as if someone had dumped buckets of water over top of him while he slept. Suddenly, I was the one who was wide awake.

I quickly snatched my arm back underneath my portion of the warm, dry blanket.

“Are you alright?” I asked, feeling slightly alarmed. Several different things raced through my mind, I wasn’t sure what to think.

“I’m fine,” he replied nonchalantly. Ignoring the fact that the sheets and blanket on his side of the bed were soaked, he reached out and pulled me into him tightly.

The blissful feeling of his embrace immediately calmed my thoughts, I ignored the dampness between us, and nuzzled into his chest.

I never asked him about his experience in Iraq. He chose to share things with me here and there, but for the most part kept that part of his life behind him.

I decided it was probably best to leave it that way, letting him pick and choose when and what he wanted to share with me about his time there. 

I was always careful not to be the first one to bring it up. It wasn’t until the first time I experienced a piece of one of his nightmares that I realized it wasn’t as far behind him as I thought.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a psychological mental disorder that affects survivors of traumatic situations such as combat experience survivors, terrorist attacks, natural disasters, assault or abuse, and major emotional losses.

PTSD is associated with changes in brain function and structure. These changes can sometimes be delayed with only subtle symptoms showing up initially followed by more severe symptoms months or even years after the traumatic event.

Symptoms include panic attacks, being constantly alert or on guard, depression, difficulty maintaining relationships, suicidal thoughts, feelings of mistrust, night terrors, problems with intimacy, and detachment.

The highest percentage of PTSD diagnoses are seen in people who have served in the military. An estimated 1 in every 5 military personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have been diagnosed with PTSD, and in recent years there has been a 50% increase in diagnosed cases in the military overall. Approximately 11% of all combat veterans returning home from Afghanistan and about 20% returning from Iraq are diagnosed with the disorder.

If you do the math, it’s estimated that approximately 31.3 million people in the United States alone are struggling with some form of PTSD.

These are men and women who bravely put their lives aside, to lay them on the line for the sake of our country. They leave behind families and friends, jobs, and hobbies to pick up and ship out to where ever our government decides they need them to be.

If they are lucky, they will make it back home one day to be united with their loved ones. But just because they make it home doesn’t mean they didn’t leave a part of themselves where ever they came back from.

While the Veteran I loved seemed whole when I met him, it became obvious after some time that he was most definitely missing a piece of himself from not only his experience while away but even the events that transpired after he was home.

He was the first person I’d ever dated that had been in the military. Even though I met him several years after he retired, and he had an entirely different life before me, I immediately felt such a sense of pride just being with him.

Someone I loved dearly had bravely fought for my freedom, before he even knew who I was. I had an immense amount of respect for him and felt honored to be apart of his life.

Little by little as we grew closer and he opened up more, I started to notice how he was still so affected by his time in combat. Small things like how he would become anxious at the supermarket, or how his eyes would dart back and forth at a restaurant started to become more obvious.

Sometimes he was perfectly fine, but every now and then his experiences would come back to haunt him. It was then that I became more interested in causes that supported our troops and veterans.

I wanted to help in any way I could, because someone I loved with all my heart had been so deeply affected by PTSD.

While some times were harder than others, for the most part he dealt with things in the best way he could. When issues did arise he took them in stride and continued on with his life.

But the more deeply we intertwined our lives together the more skeptical I became of the ways used to handle PTSD veterans.

We moved in together, and I became more aware of just how often they sent him a plethora of pills with no real way to monitor if and how many he was taking at once. I also started to notice that there were not a lot of alternatives given to him. Their solution to everything was simply more pills, a different combination of pills, or a higher dosage.

The therapist he was appointed to talk with monthly had no combat experience and couldn’t relate to anything he was saying. He admitted that although sometimes she was helpful, mostly he just bullshitted his way through each session to get it over with.

Just by doing my own research I found a wide array of alternative methods to dealing with PTSD. But of course, who wants to hear that from their girlfriend? I had no idea what combat was like or what went through his head on a daily basis, so I was no better than that therapist.

With no experience of my own, and without wanting to sound like I was bossing him around, I was at a loss for what to do or say to make the situation better.

When he was up, he was so high up, like a God whose smile lit up the earth. But when he was low, boy he was as lower than I could ever imagine.

It broke my heart to see such a brave, strong, beautiful man endure the pain and heartache he had inside of him.

Even when he wouldn’t admit it, his eyes told me the truth. Beautiful sparkling pools of gray-blue, one a slightly different color than the other. When he looked at me they sent chills down my spine.

But he couldn’t look at me anymore, and when he did for even a split second, they were dull and flat, like when you let a piece of art collect dust in the attic.

Ultimately, he pushed me away, and I pushed him away right back. Regardless of what happened to us and our love, I only want the best for him.

I saw firsthand what a truly remarkable human being he is, and I hope he finds his way in this world. He is a bright soul who’s light was dimmed due to circumstances beyond his own control, but he is stronger than anyone could ever imagine.

He laid his whole life on the line for our country, and never got the whole thing back.

Our story is one of many, and my perspective is that of someone who only experienced life with him years after he retired, for a short period of time.

After it was over, I became extremely interested in PTSD and wanted to learn everything I could. Reading the stories of others and learning more about the disorder somehow made me feel less alone.

Writing seemed like the most natural thing for me to do to heal, as it has always been an escape of mine, and I am never fully satisfied unless I am learning everything there is to learn about something that interests me.

That’s what led me here. I didn’t just want to get my feelings and my own story out there, I was interested in hearing the stories of others going through the same thing.

I was lucky enough to find some other brave souls who didn’t mind sharing bits and pieces of their experiences with me. A few of their stories were so similar to mine, I couldn’t believe it.

PTSD was more real than it ever had been before in my world, and I knew I had to do whatever I could to help their voices to be heard.

Sitting across from him at the diner, I immediately saw similarities between him and my own veteran. While he kept great eye contact with me, he still couldn’t help but scan the room every so often, especially when someone walked in the front door.

As the wait staff and other patrons walked by our table his eyes darted to them and then back to me. We drank coffee and talked for a few hours about his experiences during, and after the Marines.

Just like me, PTSD had destroyed his relationship. Just like me, his girlfriend did not understand or know how to help. And just like my veteran, he didn’t want any help from her.

A feeling of relief washed over me and a piece of the grief I was carrying around with me seemed to dissipate. I was not alone, and my love was not alone either.

“It was like I was floating under water, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t reach the surface to take a breath.” A single sentence so eloquently described a feeling that is indescribable to many.

I imagined the panic one would feel in that situation, unable to breath, knowing what you needed to do to save yourself was just beyond your reach.

When he returned home from Afghanistan like many other veterans he tried to erase the memory of what he had seen by drinking. He sought help, but got the same answer as a lot of the others with this condition, “take these pills.”

The pills of course did numb the pain, but made him feel like a zombie. He was detached from his loved ones, disinterested in everything he used to enjoy, and slipping further and further away.

After an attempt at taking his own life, he reached his breaking point. Now, he keeps those pills on a shelf in his home as a daily reminder of a life he never wants to return to. Instead of drinking to numb the pain he finds solace at the gym and in spending time with family and friends.

He is taking some time off, and has until next year to decide if he wants to return to the Marines. In his free time, he is putting together a non-profit organization run by veterans, for veterans, to show them there is another way. His focus will be on fitness and staying active in an effort to naturally heal from the emotional distress of life after combat.

Exercise has been proven to naturally increase the production and release of serotonin, the same chemical that is artificially produced through taking Select Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRI’s), a common form of medication given to many veterans suffering with PTSD.

Things like cross fit, jujitsu, yoga, meditation, surfing, and more will be offered. A safe place for vets to come out and talk about what they’ve gone through, with others who have gone through the same thing, all while having fun, no medication required.

I am grateful that such a truly inspiring young man took the time to talk to me about his experiences. No matter how uncomfortable it may have been, he never showed it.

Studies have indicated that prolonged use of SSRI’s will eventually all together cease the body’s ability to naturally produce serotonin. Eventually there is no other choice but to continue to take the drug for life, upping the dosage every so often to achieve the desired effect.

Mixing these pills with any combination of recreational drugs or alcohol is a recipe for disaster. It can reverse their function and completely destroy any positive effect of taking them at all.

Side effects of SSRI’s include decreased libido and other sexual side effects, increased thoughts of suicide, insomnia, restlessness, excitability, sudden increase or loss of appetite, agitation, nervousness, and detachment.

In my time spent dating someone who was on a daily regimen of SSRI’s, I can attest to most of these side effects.

He once told me that in order to feel anything at all, he had to go above and beyond to trick his mind that he was actually more excited than he was. He was always the loudest and brightest person in the room everywhere we went, and it made me so sad to think that it was all an act.

Sure sad things didn’t feel as sad, but happy things didn’t feel as happy, food didn’t taste as good, and experiences that should have been exciting became foggy and dull.

Since experiencing what he went through on a daily basis, I feel very strongly about the overuse of SSRI’s. There are alternative methods and therapies that have been proven to elevate one’s mood and treat PTSD, without altering the receptors and production of chemicals essential for healthy brain function.

Unfortunately for whatever reason these alternatives are mostly overlooked by the one entity that has complete control over the situation. Why mess with a billion dollar business like Big Pharma I guess, right?

“There is a darkness that just lingers, and if you let it, it will destroy your life.”

The next young man I spoke with did two tours in Afghanistan totaling 21 months. He described his second tour as “when things started to get rough” but in spite of that said he would have stayed longer if he could.

He was medically retired with PTSD and given an assortment of medications including SSRI’s and anti anxiety meds. He too described feeling like a zombie while on the pills, and discontinued use, seeking comfort in alcohol and recreational drugs.

Many of the young men he served in the Army with had also turned to drugs and alcohol, and he lost one good friend to an overdose a few years prior.

Much like the Marine I spoke with he is now looking for healthier ways to cope with the darkness. He described the gym as “his savior” and also credited talking and sharing stories with other veterans.

“There is a stigma about being weak and being in the military. Some people are afraid to step forward and admit they have a problem, so they let it go, but you can’t do that, it just gets worse,” he told me.

With slogans in the military about strength, bravery, and pride, its understandable how someone might be ashamed to step forward and admit when they are feeling weak.

In reality, nothing could be more brave than admitting you have a problem and seeking the help you need to fix it.

By doing so you might save not only yourself, but others as well. “It took me a long time to be comfortable talking about it. But talking to people I served with really did help. You have to realize you aren’t alone. There’s a lot of us going through it”.

“When you’re in, you just accept the crazy. It kept us going. You kind of have to turn it into hate instead of sadness.”

From talking with him I got the idea that being deployed was a sort of twenty-four-seven adrenaline rush. There’s down time of course, but you’re always just a little on edge and skeptical of your surroundings.

You can’t slow down to think, until you return home with all the time in the world. You’re free, but you’re not really free. You find yourself in control of your own life again, only you’re not as in control as you might think.

“Coming home to a non regimented lifestyle is the hardest part,” he admitted. “I wound up being more comfortable over there than I was at home”.

“It was the best and worst time of my life at the same time.”

Despite everything that these courageous young men had been through, there was one common ground they all shared. When I asked if they would go back and change anything or perhaps not sign up at all, without hesitation, they each said that they would do it again in a heartbeat.

“If I would’ve known we were going to Syria, I would’ve tried to stay in longer. Sometimes I feel guilty, that I’m home and people I know are still over there fighting.”

How remarkable that even knowing what they know now, everything they sacrificed, and how deeply life altering their experiences were, they would still lay their lives, relationships, and mental health on the line to fight for our freedom.

There is nothing more brave than that. I have a tremendous amount of respect for our military, and am absolutely in awe of the strength and dignity it takes to be a soldier.

If you are a civilian reading this, remember to thank our military members and veterans. They aren’t just traveling the world having a blast, they are sacrificing their lives for the sake of yours.

And if you are a veteran or an active duty service member reading this, remember that it’s okay to speak up if you are hurting. You are not alone. TC mark 

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