I’m too scared to go to sleep. It feels like a nightmare night. On some nights, I can tell they are coming and I’ll stay awake until three or four in the morning and only to crash for two hours so I won’t have to reach a proper R.E.M. cycle. The exhaustion is worth it. On the nights that I can’t tell the nightmares are coming, I will go to sleep not knowing that I will wake up screaming in a sweaty panic hours later.
I didn’t have nightmares before Afghanistan. There are theories as to why so many Afghanistan veterans are having such bad nightmares. Besides the typical PTSD experiences, Afghan vets were instructed to take a malaria pill every day while we were in country. The giant white pills caused nightmares for most within a few days.
Those nightmares began when I was on Camp Leatherneck, two weeks after I arrived in country. I woke up screaming, heart racing, and scared out of my fucking mind. I didn’t remember the nightmares enough to know why I was so scared once I woke up, but I remember the colors vividly. It felt like I was suddenly thrust into Technicolor for the first time, where the colors you and I see are dull in comparison to the dream colors. They were so bright that they made your eyes hurt.
Everyone murmured about the dreams. We were all having them. But we were verbally threatened with non-judicial punishment if we didn’t take the meds. I took them, for three months, every day, as was prescribed.
Over the years, more and more people who were given this anti-malaria pill are coming forward with stories of debilitating anxiety and nightmares (just Google malaria pill military). Studies and research have been conducted and released by the American military and Veteran’s Affairs regarding this drug and the side effects that certain people experience. When I read up on this, I discovered that the actual dosage was supposed to be once a week. Yes, once a week, and I took it every day for three months. So a drug that has been known to cause anxiety and nightmares and is suspected of causing brain damage in REGULAR doses was taken by me times seven because I was following an order!
There are arguments on whether we were even prescribed that medicine. It isn’t in our medical record jackets, as the American military sucks at record keeping, but we all took it…every day.
The anxiety is bad too. Really bad. As a known overachiever, it only makes sense that I would have some form of anxiety, but I never did before Afghanistan. And now I have crippling panic attacks because of the nightmares (or sometimes because of people). I don’t want to sleep because of the nightmares, and a lack of sleep makes the anxiety worse. It’s a vicious cycle and I don’t know what to do.
If you have been following the Afghanistan Story, you are about to meet someone who I still talk to today. He called me up last month and told me about how he ended up in the hospital with what he thought was a heart attack. As he told the story, I began to laugh at him.
“You were having a panic attack, weren’t you?”
“Yeah, how the fuck did you know?”
“Because that exact same thing happened to me last year.”
I thought I was dying. My husband was out of town, a friend was over, and my son was asleep. My heart hurt so badly I crumpled to the ground, unable to breathe. It was the seventh time that week that I had experienced it and the pain didn’t let up. My friend urged me to go to the hospital while he watched my son. I drove myself in, and was triaged for chest pain. The EKG showed that my heart was fine.
“But…my chest…hurts so badly.”
Tears were streaming down my cheeks.
“You’re just having a panic attack.”
Just. A. Panic. Attack.
Anyone who has had panic attacks will cringe when they hear “just a panic attack”. I felt like I was dying and the term “panic attack” seemed ludacris compared to how I felt. My friend from Afghanistan felt the same way. As a Purple Heart recipient, he felt that he was entitled to a larger freakout but the doctors laughed at him.
Just a panic attack.
Well, the nightmares and the anxiety make for a very shitty nights for me. Do I try to sleep more and risk the nightmares that make me upset and edgy for days but have only a few panic attacks, or do I stay awake and write long blog entries and walk around clasping at my heart for days? I’ll go through a few weeks of both approaches, bouncing back and forth when an approach fails.
The unremembered nightmares from the early days of Afghanistan have morphed into very remembered nightmares of a “Technicolor in the Wizard of Oz calibre” display that highlight my worst fears and experiences from Afghanistan and beyond. It’s like the nightmares can’t touch anything that happened prior to June 2010 but anything afterwards is free game.
The worst part of a nightmare is when I’m screaming in the dream, screaming so loudly that it causes my physical body to scream through clenched teeth. The physical screaming starts low, like a soft murmur. When my dream self realizes that my physical body has begun to respond, she urges dream and physical self to scream louder, louder, LOUDER to do ANYTHING to get out of the nightmare. The screaming surrounds me internally and externally. Finally breaking free of the dream screams, my physical screams break through my teeth and my eyes fly open; I gasp a breathe of air and lay panicking in a pool of sweat.
Wish me luck tonight!