This morning on the way to work, I was jamming out to some 80’s rock while I was at a stop light waiting to take a left turn. A really old RV, with the usual yellow, tan, and orange strips so typical of RVs from the 80’s, pulled up next to me. The driver was a scraggly old man with long white hair who looked stoned out of his gourd, which was impressive before 6 am but probably not so impressive for the part of town I live in. As the RV shuttered to a stop, it backfired with a loud “POP”.
My heart-rate instantly spiked, and I felt a sparkly pain travel from my stomach to the bottoms of my feet. The pain lasted for about 30 seconds as I calmed myself.
“It’s just a vehicle that backfired, calm down, breathe, calm down.”
After the initial panic, I had to work to make my body get rid of the intense pain that was radiating throughout it. The “fight or flight” response to a danger is talked about often but I never hear anyone discuss how PAINFUL it is to have to resist the flow of adrenaline as it courses through you.
It took me a long time to realize that I had PTSD from Afghanistan. Of course my anxiety and depression had increased after I came back, but I just chalked it up to how shitty my personal life was and ignored the other signs of PTSD. I tried to rationalize my behavior and made excuses like, “Well, I wasn’t shot at every day.” Well, yeah, not every day, but there were days. And we were mortared constantly. In fact, the Navy Seabees (CBs, aka Construction Battalion) were building an airstrip to replace the giant rock I had landed on referenced in Offer Up Your Best Defense, This is the End of the Innocence. The explosions from their dynamite were so often and so close that we became accustomed to the explosions and eventually stopped taking cover when we were actually mortared because we couldn’t tell the difference.
After awhile, you become numb to the danger you are in. Your guard is constantly up, but it is a guard that stops working because your body can’t live in a constant state of “fight or flight.” Multiple studies have been conducted on constant stress’ harm to the hippocampus in the form of the inability to remodel, or properly react to dangerous situations (see this study on extended stress and the hippocampus). I am not a scientist but after reading about the constant stress of the loss of life that combat veterans experience, it seems clear that is why veterans might become robotic in dangerous situations. Our hippocampus’ are damaged for YEARS, sometimes for life, and we can’t react “properly” to dangerous situations. Sometimes we laugh, sometimes we shutdown and go completely internal, and sometimes we “fight or flight.”
Veterans have to work to regain a sense of normalcy with their damaged brains when they re-enter the civilian lifestyle in America. We are no longer “in danger” but our brains don’t know that and we might overreact to regular events such as a slammed door, or a vehicle backfiring, or a dropped book, or any noise that we aren’t prepared for.
About three months after I got back from Afghanistan, I was driving down a highway in California when I heard a mortar. There was a long whistle that got louder and louder and louder…and I freaked the fuck out, almost losing complete control of the car I was driving 60 miles an hour. In the seconds that I heard the whistle, in the seconds my body had to react, I remember thinking, “What the FUCK, this is impossible, I’m in America, where the fuck is it going to hit, slam on the brakes, get away!”
When the explosion occurred and the car salesman’s voice came over the radio waves exclaiming how “explosive” their savings were this Veteran’s Day weekend, I pulled over and bawled. My hands had gripped the steering wheel so hard that they were sore for a week.
I will ALWAYS doubt that I have a right to be damaged from my experiences in Afghanistan. However, even if other people had it worse, which they did, even if I wasn’t having to dodge bullets daily, I need to learn that my body has reacted and adapted to the dangerous situations that I was in. And if my body feels that way, I can’t ignore it because “someone else has it worse.” I am living with this damaged brain and I need to stop ignoring it.