by Sandra D. Danderson
I remember it like it was yesterday: the day I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I did not want this diagnosis. I was on my way to a job helping to stop human trafficking, a cause I’ve been very passionate about for most of my adult life. With just four words, my dream job of stopping what I still believe is the most offensive crime against humanity in our world today was over. I would not be making a difference.
My career as a soldier had ended when I became aware of a non-curable spine condition brought on by my working too hard. I had always felt that my purpose in life was somehow to make the world a better place, to help people who were unable to help themselves. I wanted to be a saint, I suppose. How vain it is to believe these things are in your power! It seemed that every road to my inner purpose was being blocked. I was devastated.
So what do you do when you are diagnosed with a condition that will get better with time, but never be fully cured? My feelings are mixed. First, I’d want to die rather than be labeled with such a misunderstood condition. The thing most people do not understand about PTSD is, you are not a ticking time bomb waiting to explode.
It’s also not just one identifiable instance or trauma that causes it. The causes include anxiety, sadness, and other triggers.
So another set of reactions to the diagnosis is waking up in the middle of the night crying without knowing the cause. Feeling guilty because you’re still alive. Being situationally aware when there is no danger. Not being able to drive over a dead animal or trash in the road. You know there’s no explosive device, but you still swerve on instinct, instincts that have been taught, instincts that have protected you, instincts that oddly enough comfort you, but make other people believe you’re unstable.
People don’t understand, and often you don’t understand either. The female soldier’s PTSD, I have been told, is different from the male’s. It’s more likely for us to internalize our pain than to project it. So we have our moments of quietness, of avoiding the world, avoiding people, and just wanting to be left alone. When backed into a corner we come out swinging, we take our stances and don’t back down. We appear stubborn and pompous, but what people forget is they asked us to be that way in the first place. We were trained to hold ourselves to a strict set of values from which we cannot now depart if (and let’s face it, especially if) our lives depend upon it.
Our hurts are amplified, and sometimes it is painful just to be touched. We carry wounds that never completely heal, and sometimes people inadvertently rub salt in those wounds.
In the beginning I felt a rage, a feeling of constantly being overwhelmed. But in a relatively short time that passed and was replaced with an odd, calm ability to handle what had once been intolerable, a strength that solders see in each other, a silent bond that conveys who knows and who doesn’t.
In the World According to Garp, this was referred to as the Under Toad. It’s a darkness, an abyss, an emptiness that once visited always remains, just in the shadows. Those of us with it know there should be two different diagnoses for PTSD: the immediate, and then the long-term.
Re-emerging into the civilian world has been a great challenge for me. I find the unstructured world difficult to understand. I am chronically early, even when I try to be late. I adhere to the rules, and become upset when others don’t and their behavior is treated with tolerance. I aim to be honest. I am uptight as hell. I still automatically seek to walk on people’s left side; only the veterans will understand. I am guarded and aware of my surroundings. I go through bouts of insomnia and times of complete fatigue. It can be very difficult for me to sleep with anyone in the home other than immediate family.
Overall I feel like a different person now. The life I led before the War feels like it belonged to someone else. Military movies are completely different to me now. I see different things. I understand on a different level. And I yo-yo between wanting to be acknowledged for what I experienced, and wanting to forget.
I think the hardest thing for me personally is when someone thanks me for my service. A strong mixture of emotions collide inside me: a deep soulful hurt, then genuine appreciation, with shame for being the one who is here to get thanked instead of the comrade who didn’t come home. This doesn’t make sense to me, but this is how I feel. I have PTSD. That does not mean I’m broken. It just means my eyes see a very different world.
Sandra D. Danderson
For more information on PTSD programs goto United States Veterans Affairs