27 October 2012

Thank you, Mr. Ebert

Written 4 October 2012 while in treatment in Salt Lake City. Some names have been adjusted (or omitted) to respect the privacy of those with whom I have spent my life, my deployment, or my time in treatment

Paging my Inner Critic. Maybe that's all I've done (or even all I've known) for ages. Ages sounds vague. It's all I've known for the past 25 years, give or take. It was originally some type of covenant I entered into with myself..."good enough", "smart enough", skinny enough." None of them had definite solutions to solve the equation...and perhaps that was on purpose. It was never "all 'As' plus valedictorian of my high school equals smart enough." It, I, was all about leaving enough room to deem myself a complete failure due to lack of proper goal-setting (without knowing that was in fact what I was doing). My definite "valedictorian" thought would fit too nicely into a box where it was possible to either succeed or fail. Black or white. But quickly I discovered I would fail repeatedly if I agreed to live in the grey...where there were no feelings of failure or inadequacy...just a tiny bit of sadness for not being "perfect." Tiny. That even looks funny. I was (and maybe partially still am) too strong to have emotions. And I still live in the grey, judging myself in the black and white...my own personal prison.

That's the critic. If I show emotions, I'm a failure. It's my fault if people get annoyed with me, and I'll take it personally every single time. The critic is also the person who points out the problems (the obvious problems) in ugly situations...and then points them out again and again until I think someone is getting the message. They (the "people") never seem to get "it," whatever "it" is. Then I become critical of myself for not communicating "it" properly. "Is it just me who thinks 14 mental health patients wandering a zoo full of people and animals under the supervision of one, single (inexperienced) therapist is unsafe?"

The answer is no, it's not just me. That is actually unsafe. Stupidly unsafe and scary, when I was one of those patients, prone to an anxiety attack at any time with no access to either a therapist or proper medication. And when I have a thought like that ("This is irresponsible"), I won't let it go (whatever the thought is) go unless someone else (who I trust...which leaves the list unbearably short) validates it. I am my own worst critic. I made decisions in Afghanistan for which I still punish myself. Every day. Even though I know the decisions were made with honest intentions and led to positive outcomes that were impossible through any other means (or anyone else's decision making). I thought I would die in combat. Some days I wished for that. So I figured doing what felt like the right thing was worth the risk 100% of the time. I see now that was a bit extreme, though quite suiting.

That Inner Critic is a strong, willful son-of-a-bitch. And taming that thing will take...is taking...significant effort (and will also, perhaps, require some type of miracle).

Only 1% of the United States population has served in our nation's Armed Forces. Of those, far fewer have ever seen combat up-close-and-personal (on the ground, looking into the eyes of family members whose families and friends have been killed by NATO bombs dropping from fighter aircraft in the sky). Not many people, particularly those of a female persuasion, have been outside-the-wire regularly, hanging out around landmines and human bombs. Of those significantly limiting factors, so many fewer are in the United States Air Force. Now that we're down to a tiny, almost impossible to capture under any circumstances, kind of number, it's time for me to admit that not a single anyone lived in my exact same circumstances in either training or Afghanistan itself, had an identical past and could possibly understand why I chose to make (m)any of the decisions I did while I was there. Forming the closest team on the camp. Running humanitarian missions on our days off. Hosting Hell's Kitchen nights. Creating team dinners. Working with Julia, my interpreter (and her family). Meeting with local families, especially the widowed women managing households of up to 30 young children where running water, electricity and even furniture didn't exist.

I'm the only (or perhaps my worst) critic over the implosion of my (second) marriage. Those who know and love me best understand (somewhat) how I got to this place (admittedly not entirely through "good" and "traditional" decisions) and understand that I'm here because that's what I needed to do for myself...not because I wanted to hurt someone who cared for me deeply. There are some people (okay, many people) to whom I have not told the full story (and perhaps I never will), because I fear their criticism (or rejection) when in fact the truth is that if those people chose to leave me based on my decision (or my recent string of decisions) to make myself happy, they probably should not have been an intimate part of my life in the first place. And I need to be able to say that and mean it. With absolute certainty. Full confidence, as Julia called it. I'm not there yet. I'm hiding behind a protective veil of silence. And that may continue for some time.

It still feels like I always need to be the smartest. Like that's the only way I will "matter." Or maybe it's that I need to be the most clever...that's a bit more likely. I found the funniest book about a guy who tried to read the Encyclopedia Britannica page-to-page from volumes A - Z. While I commend him for making the choice to read the written, verified version (vice relying on Wikipedia) it was through that book I could recognize that being a "know it all" is a show without a star. I know a little bit about a lot of things. I wish I knew more about a few things. There are tons of people who are less intelligent than I...and likewise there are plenty of people whose intelligence I could never dream to match. I know that. My brain knows that. But when I find myself in a bad situation, feeling powerless and helpless, I suddenly define myself as the stupidest ("why don't I know what to do here?"), fattest ("I look terrible in this outfit and no one is saying anything because they don't want to hurt me") and meanest ("I bet her life is worse than mine.") I hate those natural reactions.

I have plenty of flaws, and it's easy for me to overlook the reality that other people have flaws (and are allowed and expected to have flaws), too. I criticize myself for my "imperfections" rather than embracing them. ("What's to embrace about imperfection?") I think any personal failure is marked with big red and white target so that everyone can see the ugly flaw just as clear as day. It's not like that for real (is it?) But to me, it's as real as real can be. I need to get over that. I want to get over that.

I also need (and want) my Inner Critic to learn how to see (and to embrace) the good things in other people and situations. Before I came to Salt Lake City, I could see the good in people for a fleeting moment. During my stay, I've learned to see the good for a few minutes at a time. In the future, I hope to be able to find the good before I find (and get stuck on) the bad. Or to hold on to the good for more than a fleeting moment.

So that's the Inner Critic. The one who sees the fleeting moment and lets it go. And what I want more than most things in the world is to turn the volume down on the Inner Critic and to embrace the positive, fleeting moments so that they're a little less fleeting. Okay, so they're a lot less fleeting.

I want to understand that it's okay to accept things (any kind of things) the way they are in the moment. To accept that my unrelenting standards need not apply to every (or really any) situation or person in my life. Actually, I should probably also stop applying then to myself. I really love a line I came across at some point during my treatment: "What if I accepted that the 80% solution provided me with more time to pursue the things I love?" It just never occurred to me that such imperfection was possible, acceptable, and (God forbid) productive.

It also never occurred to me that my truest, closest friends don't need to know every single detail about me or my life. Even if I think they're my closest friends in the universe. I don't need their affirmation that pursuing a second divorce was the right (albeit painful) decision to make for myself. I love him. I will always love him for his determination to give me the life he wanted to give me (and that I thought I wanted). A life full of beautiful things. Beautiful experiences and marvelous adventures. I love him for trying to figure out how to make me happy (when I refused to tell him what would truly make me happy because I didn't know how to express such "normal" feelings). How to buy me the happiness I couldn't seem to find on my own. I love him for trying as hard as he knew how to be a good companion. He's a good person who married and lived with a partner he could and would not ever be able to understand (in retrospect, because I wasn't able or willing to be understood by him). The critic in me wants to blame the whole collapse on him. But it's not just him. It might not be any bit his fault. It's not fair for me, the ultimate critic, to assign blame and fault here or ever.

The critic in me calls that a failed marriage. The critic in me assumes that everyone, any stranger on the street, will judge me for failing. And sure, maybe it was failure. But it's only failure if I let it be, and if I let the feeling of failure define me. The details will only be known (and potentially criticized) if I talk about them. And really, there's no reason to judge my past decisions unless I want to keep paying for them forever. Yes, I've made bad decisions. I'm human. And I don't want (or deserve) to keep paying for them. I say that now, after being  on the outside of reality for six weeks, isolated from the "regular" critical traps of Facebook, email, work, and separated from those critics in my life who tend to make me feel like my life is a movie written and produced for their enjoyment.

I have held onto the Inner (and outer) Critic since that dinner around age, maybe, seven. Then I felt powerless, hurt and weak. Feelings I didn't know how to explain at the time. Someone who was suppose to love me and take care of me didn't know how to show or feel emotion, and had no idea what a huge impact criticism had on me. I look like me father. I think like my father. And to my father, I was an invisible child. I feel hints of the same now. The Inner Critic developed to protect me from feeling even more hurt. To fill a void that no one would ever be able to fill because I would never allow such a thing to happen.

That critic constantly reminds me that I am not good enough. Encourages me to point out the gaps in my knowledge about the world. Reminds me of how, even though I have disliked Air Force culture since the first year I joined, I've still never worked hard enough. Never achieved enough. Scolds me for being 33, twice divorced and childless...all by choice. Punishes me for not knowing how to express emotion. Blocks out feelings of longing, sadness, frustration and disappointment for the things I haven't done as well as I should have. As I could have. As other people have done.

I've held onto the critic for 30 something conscious years to give myself an excuse to avoid pursuing my dreams. For giving up my dream of photographing the world. For giving up my dream of writing. For giving up my dream of practicing yoga regularly or going to cooking school. For surrendering my dream to empower women who live in situations I could never fathom...at least before Afghanistan. Hard to imagine that in about eight months, I may be able ("allowed") to do all those things...and more...in my post-Air Force life.

I've criticized myself for years. Decades. For trying to please other people. For giving up on my own hopes and dreams and relying instead on others...most of whom I've never met...to draw the road map to my future. For making my decisions. For monitoring me as I toe the line.

For years, I've handed my power over to whoever wanted to take it. To my parents. To my friends. Or "friends." To the Air Force. Sometimes to perfect strangers. Those aren't toasts...they're lamentations. When I didn't want to commit to making my own decisions, plenty of others were standing by ready to pounce like lions, roaring in my face (though maybe just in my head) about how every decision I made (or was making)  was "wrong"...and I let them be correct. I couldn't defend my decisions because I'd never consciously made them. So I took the criticism. And I gave it back to the world through anger.

I can't wait to leave here. To leave Salt Lake City. I can't wait to drive through the streets, up the mountains, sprinkling the ashes of the cremated inner critic and trying to learn how to live past that person. That negative energy. That overwhelming, heartbreakingly heavy sadness. And to abandon it here, so that I can hope to fill that empty, lonely space with the happiness and worthiness I had always imagined but could never really comprehend.

It won't appear tomorrow...that happiness. But not there's an empty space (available, even). A framework. Into which happiness has a place (and the permission) to grow.

I don't miss (or I should say I won't miss) the Inner Critic. I won't miss the feeling of my heart being ripped out of my chest over each "wrong" decision. Instead, I look forward to the warmth, the passion, the contentment I can feel when I make decisions that feel "right." At least right by me. And in the end, now that I'm 33 and finally ready, my own "right" decisions are what are most important to me.

12 October 2012

The Road to Somewhere

I'm really struggling to positively summarize the past six weeks of my life (spent in an inpatient treatment facility for PTSD in Salt Lake City) after gaining a reputation of being overly negative. I'm not so sure that's actually the problem. I'm far more confident that the reason I'm struggling for words is that I'm absolutely heartbroken that I used every chip in my power to come to a center that became (or that I allowed to become) a disappointment. Or maybe it wasn't. I'm hurting in ways I've never hurt before, I've excavated deep-seeded emotions I'd buried for years and years, and most significantly I fear I've let myself, my command and even Tricare down for costing them such a huge fortune (over $2,200 a day) for me to receive care over the past few weeks.

Unlike the girls whose final statements (their parting words before leaving the treatment program) I heard a week or two after I arrived here, mine is incredibly unsupportive and untrustworthy of "the process" of treatment (how me) and much more determined that the only way I survived in a flawed institution was to rely on my own internal strength and to allow myself push like crazy.

To force myself not to give up. In this all-female military unit, I dug into my reservoir of internal strength to ignore the "teenage drama queens," constantly passing notes during the 8 daily hours of classes. I wish I could have learned from them. Instead I learned that when military women are wounded early in their careers, they respond by acting out like children, and it breaks my heart to be an audience to such sadness.

I watched an over-tasked program director take the same feedback from us, her patients, for the past five weeks (the treadmill's broken, we can't call Germany, and how much is this "treatment" actually costing my government, plus about 20 more...) and not solve or follow-up on a single one of them. The person in whose care the Department of Defense has placed me in my most vulnerable state did not make any visible effort to show that she genuinely cared about what we, the girls who brought in almost $40,000 a day to her program, begged her to address. Another round of heartbreak.

That's a tough cookie to swallow for me, a girl wounded by war, sexual trauma, and finally willing to face some long-lingering abandonment issues. To feel forgotten in a hospital with absolutely no way to leave was scary and isolating to an extreme I'd never envisioned. Or felt. To be dumped by my best friend while I've been here (by email, of course, saying that our 18 year friendship interfered with his marriage) and to sign final divorce papers after a very tumultuous past few months. And to be willing to rip my heart open every day in class only to re-discover each day that the program didn't have (or want to have) the resources I so desperately wanted to put myself back together into anything resembling an organized fashion.

I can now recognize that good things have happened here, and I truly believe they happened as a result of the Cognitive Processing Therapy (the fancy name for teaching PTSD patients to change their thinking patterns) and because of Amy, my therapist's, unrelenting determination to push me past every limit I thought I had. How I never ran out of tears blows my mind. That goodness happened in spite of the broken system in which she works. It's all out on the table now. I know. I believe my trauma is no better (or worse) than any one else's. But it is mine. And I guess now it's wrapped in a package with a nicer bow.

I came here feeling like a failure, and there are certainly still hints of that. But just hints. Looking back, there are times in the past when I wish I would have been stronger. Or weaker. Or cried. Or just let it go. I started doing that here. There have been times (even here) when I've felt defective, like every patient (all 17 of them) was "getting it" (whatever "it" was, anyway) and I was stuck alone in a dark, empty place. Perhaps by choice.

There were times here when I slept for hours, somehow allowing the burden of the past 10 years or so slide through my toes and out from under my thin, white institutional bed sheets. Or when I've been in yoga, holding downward facing dog or shavasana, tears streaming down my face, knowing that it's not strength that's kept these feelings of hurt, betrayal, sadness and frustration buried so deep. It's been fear. Fear of not knowing how to deal with feelings in a constructive way. Fear of allowing...maybe even inviting...someone to love me unconditionally. Fear that when I admitted to signing divorce paperwork served to me by a man I may always love for his good intentions, I would be viewed as a failure (a two time failure) in everyone's eyes. Thinking. Always thinking that the opinions of other are more important than my own.

I've let that go. That stays in Salt Lake City, a place that after this Friday (today), I never plan to re-visit. I want my hurt and sadness to stay here. I'm done being chased by sadness.

I didn't come here to change my life. I came here to match the me I felt in Afghanistan, living simply and loving every second of my job, to the me I want to feel every day in the future. I'm leaving here confirming what I knew when  had my first post-Afghanistan panic attack...that going to Afghanistan was the best thing that ever happened to me...and also the scariest. ("It won't ever feel worse than this" Amy said to me over and over...and I hope she's right).

It is in this moment that I've reached (rather, allowed myself to reach) a turning point in my life. Learning to live with the scars, the emotions, the regrets and the fear I accumulated both pre-and post-Afghanistan. Making that connection was my goal in Salt Lake City. I wasn't here to make friends or help others. Because I feared if I took that approach, I'd stay here for years and never talk about myself. I came here to challenge the unhealthy beliefs I've clung to for months, years and even decades...I came here with a dream to live a healthier life. To put even a two inch gap in the door jam (therapy-speak for slowing down my immediate response to an outside stimulant). To at least take a brief mental pause when my brain tells me "I don't deserve to receive benefits from the military" merely because my war scars are internal and others had it far worse. If I can think to myself at least 1% of the time that "I deserve compensation for the unique and dangerous service I performed in Afghanistan and my resulting PTSD" than maybe six weeks of fighting my own guttural reaction was worth my time. No, it was surely worth it. I have to learn not to resent the system for trying to help me after it's failed me in so many ways.

If I can accept "Medication will help me through this rough patch and then my life has the potential to be so much happier" or "If I forgive myself for past mistakes, those who care about me are apt to do the same." If I believe those statements can ever be true (whereas when I arrived here, I believed they were always false), then I've made progress. And even an inch is progress.

I found my voice again. I never, ever thought it could be so cathartic to drag and actual pencil across an actual piece of paper, cut off from the internet for six weeks. I cry when I write, not out of fear of the description and circumstances of the situation, but because I've learned to attach emotion and feeling to  situations. On paper. The true test...the next step...is to give myself permission to speak the way I now allow myself to write.

Physically, I judge myself and think I've had an atrocious and infuriating stay here. With no access to physical activity, I've gained weight, I've eaten a lifetime's worth of fried institutional cafeteria food, and I've felt the wrath of condescending nurse technicians threaten me if I didn't behave in their directed way. I'll leave all that crap here. And hopefully I can leave most of these 10 new pounds here as well. Or somewhere.

But again physically, this institution, this tall building, locked doors, void of any aerobic exercise capacity, has taught me more about how to survive in the "real" world than perhaps I even learned in Afghanistan. I've literally lived like a snared wild animal learning to survive in captivity. Each night, I sat at my desk either reading or watching the sun set over the glorious Rocky Mountains. Trapped in a cage with up to 17 other overly-restless-pseudo-prisoners with little to no official programming from the time we returned from dinner at 5.45pm until we started to drift into a highly-medicated slumber around 9pm. There was no avoiding noise. Or crowds. Or stray hairs all over the floor. Shoes strewn across the living room. Class books tucked frantically into every nook and cranny on the ward.

Physically, there is no safe, quiet place for me here. There is no escape. I've felt trapped, overwhelmed and anxious to all new levels, generously reflected in the new medications I've been prescribed and the new symptoms I've developed in treatment. And the difference, the magical difference now, is my extremely well-honed ability to mentally slip out from the walls of hell to find myself performing the 12-count cleansing breaths that begin every Bikram Yoga practice in any language in any country in the world.

I'll spend the next three-and-a-half days driving through Salt Lake City, with 25 notecards listing my most troubling stuck points (again, therapy-speak for negative patterns of thinking that magnify my PTSD and depression) tucked into my purse. The big ones. The thoughts that haunt me the most and that have haunted me here. The ones that seem to force me to feel isolated, frustrated, ashamed, scared and confused. And I'll do my best to leave my evil stuck point cards all over the city. In coffee shops. Yoga studios. Restaurants, Hiking trails. National Parks. Churches. Temples. I won't litter them...I'll mindfully place them in locations best suited for such a purpose...garbage cans.

I'm giving myself time to do that, and I used many of my remaining chips to transition back to work in such a unique way. To continue healing myself now that I think the hospital itself has given me all it's capable of giving. And maybe I'm not sad about that after all. I'm sad that getting a mental institution to do the right thing (focus on patient care) felt like a huge struggle. It was an extra brick on my already overbearing load. But even that was a great lesson to me. I picked fewer battles than I usually do.

I've admitted before to expecting this hospital to "fix" me one delicious bite at a time. Such a thing...a dream...is completely unreasonable for any institution. But there were also a few people here (and at home) who cared so deeply that I now feel an overwhelming desire to make my best attempt to go live an amazing, happy life because I've been so inspired. Their joy was contagious. They know who they are.

Six weeks is not enough to alone change the trajectory of my future. But six weeks, ugliness and all, has been enough to awaken me from my self-loathing pity party and to get me marching in the direction of a happier future. And for the first time in as long as I can remember, I believe in the idea of a happier future. I have a backup plan. And a backup to the backup plan. And I guess in the end if I lose my compass, I'll just try to remember ow the old version of me would have responded, and I'll run like hell in the opposite direction.

** This is the first entry in a retrospective series of life in a mental health institution. A special thanks to Keith Hudson Photography for perfectly capturing my post-Afghanistan self.

25 April 2012

Silent Lucidity

I'm in the middle of week seven of an eight week treatment program, and while the progress I've made over the past few weeks in particular is tremendous, my brain continues to focus on my personal failures rather than my many successes. I guess the difference now is that I recognize this character flaw as it's happening, and my negative way of thinking is evolving. Slowly, sure, but evolving.

Every day here, I've walked into a classroom that feels like a minefield, and I've constantly feared the one misstep that would detonate the first in a series of daisy-chained bombs. Moreover, I was a thousand percent confident that my body wouldn't be able to withstand the blast. Except, well, those "bombs" are actually real-life events, and they're daisy-chained because the impact of one event radically distorted my response to the next similar event, which would unfold at some future unknown period time. I lived my life in fear of how my "body" might respond to the next traumatic impact, conveniently disregarding the fact that most impacts would be emotional (not physical) and that I actually had the power and ability to control my own reactions.

The greatest opportunity the Air Force has provided me is the chance to lead people in all kinds of situations. Once I discovered my fondness for leadership, I looked for other opportunities to lead. I found the perfect opportunity when in 2006 the local high school sent a base-wide email asking for a volunteer cross country coach. I'd been a runner for more than a dozen years, I love teaching, and I genuinely enjoyed sharing my passion for running with others. The head coach of the program was the most popular teacher in school, Mr. Turner, and though he had significant experience coaching basketball, he knew little to nothing about running. My experience and his personality were the perfect fit, and for an entire season, we watched a group of non-athletes develop into inspirational young runners.

In September of 2007, I returned to the high school to coach again with Mr. Turner. I'd spent the previous nine months studying coaching techniques, developing training plans to help our talented runners meet their potential, and testing ways to inspire our runners to become lifelong athletes. Mr. Turner had returned to school that year determined to change his own life, and asked me to also coach him into better physical condition. I was thrilled.

During our first practice of the season, Mr. Turner headed out on a run with the team for the very first time. He died of a heart attack about one mile into a three mile run. Two of our youngest runners heard him gasp "Oh God," grab his heart, and watched as he collapsed to the ground. He fell directly outside the school's perimeter fence, which was locked for security and angled with barbed wire at the top to prevent intruders. The only problem was that this time, the so-called intruders were the people running on the school's track who watched Mr. Turner fall and were unable to help him because of the fence, instead watching in aggravated horror.

We arrived at the track following our run, and I collected the kids in our gazebo, telling them that I didn't know what happened to Mr. Turner, but that as soon as I knew, I would tell them. By now, the school's administration was buzzing with activity, chasing the 150 or so students (football players, cheerleaders, runners) into the cafeteria because they couldn't figure out a way to shield them from the sight of their favorite teacher laying on the pavement 400 meters away. Mr. Turner, an American, had collapsed in downtown Germany, outside of the base, and it took the American and German authorities almost four hours to determine jurisdictional authority. In the meantime, Mr. Turner rested peacefully on the sidewalk, covered in a black sheet, his wife kneeling by his side.

The school principal walked into the cafeteria, nonchalantly declared "Mr. Turner is dead" into the microphone, and started to walk away. The cafeteria erupted into absolute chaos. My runners were in complete shock, as were each one of the students in that room. And every adult in the room.

I watched, in baffled silence, and took it all in. "This is my fault," I kept telling myself. "All last season, I teased Mr. Turner for not running with the team. And on his first day of running with us, he dropped dead."

The kids were all picked up by their families. I sat on the track in complete silence, tears streaming down my face, and watched for three hours, apologizing to Mr. Turner as his body remained in the exact position as it had been when he fell. By maybe 8:30pm his body was taken away, and I no longer felt obligated to stand watch. I walked to my car, hopeless and shaking while the clouds opened up and delivered a tremendous rainstorm. I got into the car and thought about the 45 minute drive home. I couldn't do it. So I called the Chaplain and begged for them to send someone to the chapel on this base to help me.

I never really talked about how I felt about what happened that day to anyone until this week. At the time, it was obvious to me that the kids needed a coach and leader, and I was proud to have such an incredible opportunity to help them transform adversity into strength. That season, I watched my runners, who named themselves Turner's Burners in honor of their fallen coach, take on the world. The girls were recognized as the fastest team in Europe. One of our boys finished in the top five fastest in Europe despite being weighed down by the flu on the day of the biggest race of his high school career. How could I possibly need help when the kids I was coaching were so talented and strong?

Turner's Burners were then and are now truly inspiring, and so many of them and their parents still touch base with me four years later. I've been thinking about them in particular this week as I've watched one of the senior girls from that season graduate from college, another senior boy (and his wife) have their first baby, two of the younger runners join the Air Force and Navy respectively, and my lone eighth grader from that year apply to and be accepted into college.

That ten week season was, until Afghanistan, both the most challenging and the most rewarding professional experience in my career...and it had nothing to do with the Air Force except a majority of my runners have Air Force parents. It leveraged everything I love about the Air Force into a series of some my very favorite memories.

And now I look back four years later, amazed at the strength those incredible kids demonstrated during such a challenging time, and draw from their strength as I continue reassemble my own life into some version of manageable. Each day of these eight weeks feels like a Saturday morning cross country race...I know I've trained properly, I know that my body is prepared for the task, but when the horn sounds the beginning of the race, my brain seems to respond in a shock-filled paralysis instead of with a graceful stride.

At the end of each race, regardless of my performance, I imagine my teammates commending me for making a solid effort, which then inspires me to train harder...which is exactly what I watched the kids do for each other instinctively that season. And at the end of the season, I hope that I, like Turner's Burners in 2007, will have the personal courage to set and achieve magnificent personal goals in the face of daunting adversity.

10 April 2012

Every Girl Like Me

My life is colored by so many of the incredible people and experiences I've encountered in my 32 years of globetrotting adventures. But sometimes, and yes I am admitting this, I have a knack for looking all over the world for inspiration when in fact the most mesmerizing events are unfolding right under my nose. And such has certainly been the case as three unbelievably strong women have made brief (yet dramatic) appearances in my life over the past few weeks. My therapist likes to tell me that we have friends for a reason, a season or a lifetime. Below are the stories of three women who walked into my life for a reason...and whose stories will always be a reminder of inner strength and resiliency.

1. Jenny. She was a nursing school student in Iowa in 2004 when her young husband, an Army Specialist, was hit in Iraq. And by hit, I mean his body was torn apart in his unarmored HMMWV, burning 80% of his skin and changing every minute of the future they had imagined together. Unphased, she visited him at the Brooks Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas every month for two years using frequent flier miles donated by community members from her hometown. Jenny stood by his side as other wives, overwhelmed by grief, left their battle-scarred husbands to fend for themselves in the maze of an underprepared military medicine beaurocracy. She shared her story as we overlooked a beautifully green golf course in Germany, the trees swaying in the gentle March breeze, and the sun bouncing off of her Ray-Ban rockstar sunglasses. Jenny glowed as she told me about her husband, bragging that he still "spoils me rotten" more than eight years later, and just that morning he'd woken up early to make her coffee. He left her a travel mug with a quick note wishing her a great weekend, which she was spending out of town on a work project. She's stunningly beautiful in a way that exudes confidence and inner peace. I had to coerce the story out of her...she just didn't think it was a big deal that she'd stood by the man she loved through his traumatic journey from the battlefields of Iraq, through the medical system, and then back into life as an Army transition expert still on active duty today. "I can't believe how lucky I am," she told me, with her genuine smile. "I appreciate him more now than I ever did before. He might look different now to other people, but to me, he's just as attractive as he ever was." I sat there, across the wooden picnic table from her, staring at my lunch and trying to put my own life into a perspective even one bit as healthy as the one that seemed to come so naturally to Jenny.

2. Charlotte. On our second week in the program, we participated in a retreat called Project Odyssey, a tribute to Homer's epic play in which Odysseus takes ten years to return to Ithaca after fighting in the Trojan War (and no, the irony of the city name is not lost on me). The retreat is sponsored by an organization called the Wounded Warrior Project, arguably the best kept secret for war veterans of the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Charlotte, a social worker based in Florida, organized our retreat (which is sponsored entirely by public donations to the Wounded Warrior Project) with the primary intent of exposing us to healthy, new, adrenaline inducing activities at a lake not far from Landstuhl. We spent three days and two nights learning to golf, climb, scuba dive, shoot a bow and arrow and fly fish in classes all taught by local veterans, and she watched me like a hawk as I resisted every new activity. The thought of putting a mask on my face, jumping into the water and breathing through a tank was absolutely overwhelming...until, well, I stopped thinking about the worst thing that could possibly happen ("only fish breathe under water," I repeated over and over to myself) and just jumped in. As it turned out, scuba diving at the bottom of a dirty pool in Germany wasn't so bad after all (though next time I'd prefer to see colorful fish instead of human hairballs), and I had a knack for fly fishing, which I found to be both unexpectedly relaxing and incredibly thrilling at once. Charlotte and I didn't really talk much during the weekend...she just observed from the sidelines...but at the end of the weekend, she came up to me, looked directly at me and said "I'm so proud of you. You can do this, girl!" And in that moment, and after those excruciating first two weeks of treatment, she gave me the push I needed to buckle down and get serious.

3. Emily. Until the past year or so, I'd never found a way to incorporate yoga into my life. I'd tried a bunch of classes (and DVDs and Podcasts and everything else under the sun), but nothing had really stuck. When Jane and her best friend were in Europe over Christmas about 18 months ago, they dragged me, terrified, into a Bikram Yoga studio in Berlin where we practiced 26 poses in 105 degree heat for 90 minutes. Now we're talking! When I start to feel things spiraling into chaos, I drive the 90 or so minutes to Frankfurt and sweat myself silly, feel cleansed, and walk away beaming. I just figured that once I knew Bikram, nothing else would do. Then I met Emily...and she introduced me to Power Yoga. Like me, she's an Air Force veteran, and was a young cop when she was raped by a fellow Airman in her squadron. It was our final day of the retreat and she sat on her yoga mat in front of a room of 30 or so perfect strangers and told her story. She hadn't reported the rape at the time, and for 12 years the haunting memory of that day drove her every life decision. It was yoga that in her words "brought me back to life" so many years later. Connecting the mind, body and breath gave her control over 60 or so minutes of her life at a time, and as I sat there, I thought to myself "that's her equivalent of learning to breathe underwater," a skill I'd acquired just one day prior. I watched, transfixed, as she continued to talk, and eventually her words bled into my own internal monologue. I knew in that moment why I'd been "stuck" for so long, and for the first time I recognized that my journey back to being myself needed to start with a public admission of my own experience, and the impact I've allowed one bad night to have on every minute of my subsequent life in (and out of) the Air Force.

I never imagined myself in an eight-week mental health program...it just didn't make sense. But tucked under the public shroud of self confidence and determination were some very painful and emotionally charged memories acting like a demagnitized compass and driving my every day into total unrest. So here I am, finding calm from the storm, and preparing at the same time to navigate my way safely through the changing weather when I leave the program in a few short weeks.

02 April 2012

There's a Better Life for Me and You

It's been a tricky past few days, which is to say I've invested a huge amount of emotional energy trying to render my black and white perception of reality into a full color tour de force. And in classic fashion, it only made sense to me that such an undertaking would consume no longer than one weekend, or perhaps three weeks of my life at the absolute most. It's now been three weeks and one day and I'm nowhere close to done...in fact, it feels like I've hardly started. Luckily I'm here five more weeks (and unluckily patience is my weakest virtue).

Deciphering the monochrome is daunting because the shapes are perplexingly intertwined, making my task of injecting a bit of color into particular sections feel much like a game of Jenga. Under routine circumstances, it may be possible to inspect each individual block, determine the structural significance and act accordingly. But under the current conditions (and given the perceived time constraints), my game of Jenga has been repositioned from the stable dining room table to the San Andreas Fault, the 54 wooden blocks infested with termites, and the object of the game is now to remove the most critical rotting pieces before time runs out. Along the way, I need to start some type of extermination regimen, prevent future decay by laquering the newly freed blocks with a brightly colored waterproof paint, and gingerly re-insert them into the tower.

The purpose of group therapy is to play this impractical game as a member of a team. As I look at the tower and start to consider which block to pull next, there are ideally five other players ready to help me see the three blind sides of the tower. But lately, I think I'm all alone (by choice or by chance), and the more isolated I let myself feel, the more willing I am to start tugging on one of the weight-bearing blocks just to see who (if anyone) will stop me, hardly considering the traumatic impact of such a choice.

I pulled one of those critical pieces out last Thursday, and told a story to five near-strangers that before that day was known to less than five people in the world, if I include the Air Force Colonel who taught me early in my career that such things would be normal (and therefore acceptable). What I didn't consider was my audience...at least my in-person audience...that morning. I had dropped a grenade, pulled the pin, and ducked for cover. It took about five hours before detonation, and by the time it hit that afternoon, I was extracting shrapnel from unmentionable places...a process I continued throughout the weekend.

The decisions leading to my personal disclosure last week were a profound lesson on why my journey through Landstuhl, triggered by post-traumatic stress, applies in every aspect of my life. It's taken me 32 years to sketch this picture, and I've relied primarily on a thick-lined black Sharpie. I now see how perhaps drafting first in pencil may have been more, well, practical, and how shading would have also been appropriate.

Last week, I trusted five people with one of my most haunting memories, which could have been okay, except I'd distanced myself from said audience since the day I arrived here. I came into the program with the flawed notion that our group table is a community landfill, where organic and non-organic trash would decompose at the same rate. It's not that I tossed in a plastic bottle and everyone else has been dumping banana peels. The flawed quantum leap I made was thinking the mere act of sitting six people in a room automatically builds a community under these circumstances, knowing full well (through hard-earned experience) that such is not the case in the real, non-treatment world.

Somehow, and I'm still not sure how, I decided that I deserved access to the landfill without paying the requisite taxes. And that, right there, is the perfect metaphor to explain the combustion of so many things in my own little reality since my return from Afghanistan.

I came to Landstuhl three weeks ago, proud of myself for claiming eight weeks of "me" time. In truth, what I'd signed up for is an eight week exercise in laying the foundation then framing my dream house...and helping five other people do the same. I assumed, and wrongfully so, that I could contract out the difficult parts, watching from the sidelines as the "experts" did all of the heavy lifting. What I know now is the very thing that makes my new house so special is the investment of blood, sweat and tears. Not only my own, but also those shared by five fellow warriors who have also been to hell and back, each in his own way, and each returning with his unique perspective.

It's taken three weeks to see the three blind sides of the Jenga tower. Just now I'm starting to see similarities between the blocks erroding in my tower and those in the towers of the guys on my left and on my right. So maybe...no definitely...the best way for us to start to transform these termite-infested time-bombs into liveable homes is to take it one small step at a time.

28 March 2012

Somebody that I used to know

I've never been in a position to analyze every aspect of my life for eight hours a day, five days a week for eight weeks in a row. And now, after 10 years of complaining how I gave my soul to the Air Force and got very little in return, I must admit that the support I've received from across the Air Force (including, for the first time in my career, from my chain of command) has been overwhelming in a positive way.

Picture standing in an enclosed room and kicking a hornet's nest while wearing the sweetest perfume imagineable. There's nowhere to hide from the angry critters newly (and unexpectedly) unleashed from their comfortable nest. At first, there's a sense of shock..."oh my God what have I done," followed by "this is gonna hurt," and then finally a realization (at least in my case) that "I kicked that nest on purpose, so this is clearly happening for a reason."

Those hornets are memories (some quite traumatic), spanning some 30-odd years, 16 household moves on three continents, and a tour in Afghanistan. When I say it that way, it's daunting to think that I survived this long without a mental break. I did, and that's good. But a little more than two weeks ago, I recognized that the level of help I needed return to the world as a productive member of society was well beyond what one hour of therapy one day a week could provide.

My therapy assignment for this week is much more challenging than anything I've tackled before, and is possible only because of the incredible treatment I've received since arriving at Landstuhl's Evolution Program...write a letter to someone you lost. And the person I've lost who I've missed the most for the past 13 or so years is...myself.

Dear Lisa,

It's been too long since we made time to talk, and I've missed the joy and passion you shared with everyone around you for so many years. Sometimes I think you forget what an incredible person you were before you headed to college, and I think it's time to remind you of the you I remember so fondly.

You were always an athlete, playing softball, basketball, gymnastics, swimming, riding your bike, and leading other neighborhood kids in outdoor games. Remember the schoolhouse you built for Maria in our basement, where you patiently taught your little sister everything you knew, sitting her at the desk, and drawing lessons on the chalkboard? I knew then that you'd pick a career where you felt like you could make a difference...and you have.

I know that growing up in a Navy family was hard, and I'm sure that if we all had it to do over again, we'd make more time to spend together as a family admidst Dad going out to sea for six months at a time and Mom managing the house as the Navy moved us from place to place.

What I admire about you is ever since you were a teenager, you've always kept a tight-knit circle of friends by your side, and many of them remain your closest friends today...a true testament to your ability to reach out and connect with others.

But it's in high school, particularly your junior and senior years, when you blossomed and were the happiest I've seen you. Pieces of your art and photography hung in museums in Washington DC and you were recognized for your exceptional talent by teachers and later college admissions officers who lured you to their universities by offering you scholarships to study at their institutions. Teachers praised your writing skills, and you took great pride in everything you created. That same year, Loren challenged you to run on the high school's distance track team. You'd never run further than down the street, and by the end of the season, you were running 7 and 8 miles a day. You left for college glowing and confident...determined to face whatever the world had to offer.

And just as clearly as I can recall those great joys, I also remember exactly when we lost touch. It was your second year in college. There was no way to predict that your first serious romantic relationship, and one with a fellow Air Force ROTC cadet, would end in a date rape in your dorm room early that spring. Though your military leadership said over and over that it was your fault, and I think you recognize now, 13 years later, that nothing you ever said, did or wore made you deserving of such a crime.

As you entered active duty, I watched as you found solace in helping the Air Force establish their Sexual Assault Prevention program, meeting with more than 2,000 military women, hearing their stories, and filling a void by building a support community where there was previously nothing. But then I watched as you gave up on the things that brought you the greatest joy...art, photography, writing, sports...instead, drowning yourself in work you found unfulfilling, in relationships with no future potential, and in your personal quest to be "the best" at everything you attempted at all cost. You ran, just as you did in high school, this time not for enjoyment, but rather as a way to escape the pain and remind yourself of happier times.

For some reason, and maybe I'll never understand exactly why, Afghanistan brought back the you I'd missed for so long...the one who finds joy in little things jumping on trampolines, who isn't afraid to say what she means, and who makes choices that lead to personal happiness, instead of basing so many decisions on what others may think and feel.

You know who you are, and you've known that person for as long as anyone who loves you can remember...but now the challenge is to embrace that true, gleeful, intelligent and passionate version of yourself. Don't lose sight of your ultimate goal...to live a happy and fulfilling life. One with no regrets being surrounded by people who love and appreciate you for who you are and not who they wish you could be.

Watching you come back to life is like discovering the volume switch on the radio. A beautiful song has been playing quietly for years and years, and just recently did the crescendo begin. Use these next five weeks, then five months, then five years...and then a lifetime...living in the way that keeps you the happiest, making choices that keep you happy, and dreaming of all the great things to come.

It's a tough world out there, but you've taken the first step. You see what you've been missing. Now just get out there and do what you do best...make it happen.

I'll be watching. And cheering.

-- me

14 March 2012

You Can Ring My Bell

Post traumatic stress for me has looked and felt a whole lot more like post deployment paralysis. The only way to describe it is to imagine a dunk tank at a carnival...the one where people pay a few dollars to throw a series of round softball-like objects at a target, and a successful hit lands someone into a tank of dirty water right after a distinct gasp and splash. Every day I'm balancing on the edge of a triggered seat, swaddled like a mummy but in a dark, soft blanket. Below me is an aquarium as large as an Olympic swimming pool with clear glass walls, populated by a few schools of friendly fish and a small group of sharks.

As I balance on my wobbly perch, an endless line of people slowly walk past, each lobbing a round object at a tiny little bullseye a few feet away from me. Some of the objects are small enough that I feel the seat slightly quiver when they hit the target, and though I hold my breath anticipating the worst, I don't fall. Some objects make a whistling sound as they approach the target. I have no idea how many hit equals a dunk into the pool, so before each pitch I inhale and every muscle in my body contracts, bracing for impact.

Plunging into the water should be a relief, but I'm swaddled. Above water the swaddle was perfect...I felt safe and warm. But under water, my arms and legs are tangled and I think my only hope for survival is for a vicious shark to gently nip at the cloth, releasing me to swim to safety.

The spash of my body smacking into the water causes everyone in line, hundreds of people, to congregate around the tank, each one yelling what they think is helpful advice, but their voices all blend together through the glass and water, and I hear the words only as a roar of chaotic noise.

Post traumatic stress disorder is a body's normal response to an abnormal sequence of events. My brain has learned to associate what were formerly normal objects and circumstances with my most vivid emotional memory of those objects and circumstances. A ringing cell phone puts me right back on the main road leading to our base in Afghanistan. We watched someone throw a cell phone out of a car window about 100 meters in front of us, and heard a dull thud as it failed to set off what we assumed was the intended IED underneath our vehicle. The metallic clank of doxens of pieces of newly cleaned silverware being dried and sorted in a restaurant brings me right back to the Afghan dining facility where I pulled my weapon, later second and third guessing myself into hysterics wondering if I had responded in the "right"way.

The most interesting analogy I've heard is that PTSD responses are much like the responses conditioned into Pavlov's infamous dogs. The dogs learned to associate a ringing bell with food. Suddenly, the ringing bell no longer meant food, and at first their mouths, still thinking "bell equals food," salivated in eager anticipation. And only over time did they unlearn that association, now recognizing that a ringing bell is indeed just a bell.

It's been more than three months since I returned from Afghanistan, and the ringing bell still indicates food to me. The first few weeks, I hid from the bell, asleep in bed, hardly ever leaving the house. Then I tried to avoid the bell as Melissa and I travelled a few thousand miles across two continents. First, I tried to hide in my office, drowning the noise in work. When that failed, Rob tried to protect me from the ringing bell for the past few weeks as we flew from Germany to New York to San Francisco and back again. But at the end of each day, the ringing bell still made me salivate, thinking food was just a few seconds away.

The stand-off ended three days ago, when I entered an intensive PTSD program at the military hospital about 20 minutes from home. I came here voluntarily, and through the encouragement of those closest to me both professionally and personally. So for the next eight weeks, I hope to find some peace through methods I would have never associated with military counseling...art therapy, yoga, and classes on brain function, spirituality, relationships, addiction, and on and on, plus more (and higher quality) individual talk therapy than I would have received under any other set of circumstances.

Eight weeks will likely not be enough to make the bell stop ringing completely, but since my full time right now is to heal, I am determined to turn down the volume. Or at least to begin to regain control of who and what can ring my bell. 

21 February 2012

The Calculus of Coming Home

This week's homework assignment for my therapist was deceivingly simple...answer the question "Why me?" with an answer more insightful than "Why not?"

I've said it before and I could say it a hundred more times. When I was 19, I volunteered to serve my country, not really understanding what I had gotten into. Seeing the military in it's most pure form (at war) made me feel like an upside down snowglobe, waiting for the fog of plastic snowflakes to settle to reveal some magnificent landscape. Reality is a total white-out right now, and I feel like someone spun me like a top and now I'm stumbling to walk in a straight line to the exit door.

Why me? Because it took drastic measures...the three days of notice, the 9 weeks of pre-deployment training, the adrenaline of being in a warzone for 6 months, the amazing people I met along the way, and the shock of reintegration into reality...for my stubborn brain to finally face some harsh realities. Realities that have been hiding for years under the treads of my Nikes, at the end of 16 digits imprinted on a piece of plastic, or at the bottom of a tall Starbuck's latte. This is happening because until last April, I maintained absolute control over nearly every detail of my life. Then suddenly I didn't...and instead of that making me furious (my own anticipated outcome), my loss of control was the most liberating thing that ever happened to me. And that made assimilating myself right into my former life not only painful but downright impossible.

It's no secret to those who know me best that I have this underlying urge to be a people-pleaser, all the while scorning such behavior in others. I guess my own act was so convincing that over the years I managed to fool myself into thinking it was genuine. Or something. I needed to be everyone's "person," their best friend and confidante. In my Air Force life, I am guilty of some covert political wrangling, carefully aligning myself with the "right people" at the "right times" without appearing (to myself) to be manipulative. It's a dirty game we all seem to play in this warped game of reality that is life as a military officer.

But at the end of the day, advice from a near stranger after four weeks at Fort Polk still makes the most sense, and has unlocked my answer to the question of "why me?" Before I met this Army officer, no one was ever brave enough to tell me that I was trying too hard, but I'm sure they noticed. Maybe it was just glaringly obvious right then, an experienced Army infrantryman watching an outsider struggling to assimilate into his world in a few short weeks. That was far beyond anything resembling my comfort zone. So I overcompensated. And he called me on it during a four hour conversation which began around midnight.

"Lisa, you have got to stop trying to prove yourself and just be yourself," he'd said to me in an exasperated voice I would only tolerate from a bonafide badass, cigarette in one hand, beer in the other, sitting on the corner of the dirt road that led to our laundry trailer. It was probably three in the morning and his words buzzed around me like mosquitoes, lingering in the humidity, their wings quivering in the otherwise noiseless night.

In my mind I was tough as nails, but in reality I was uncomfortable in my own skin, a paradox that was not lost on me in the least as I sat in my Afghan connex some six months later, where for the first time in my adult life I gave myself permission to get lost in my own head. For ten years I had been successful in the Air Force  in spite of myself, somehow convinced that the only way to stand out was if I was willing to work harder than anyone else...and I was. Every day it felt like I, the English major, was trying to solve the quadratic equation with no idea of the values of a, b or c, where x equaled happiness and, well, the calculus of life just became too overwhelming...so instead I deferred to basic math. Five miles (by foot) plus eight ounces (by mug) plus 20 milligrams (by pill) equaled a version of happy that would just have to suffice at the moment.

Why me? Because Afghanistan was somehow the math professor who spoke English instead of Russian. The equations were no longer written in the Cyrillic alphabet. And the values of a, b, and c seemed like things I would possibly understand if I could just have a little more time to study. And if I made a conscious decision to apprentice under Issac Newton or John von Neumann instead of studying with a Teacher's Assistant.

So why me? Because why not? I'm ready. I can say without a shadow of a doubt that I've lived the most honest version of my own life, but in my mind, that was only possible in Afghanistan and isn't yet attainable in reality. I can also say that in my eyes, anything that gets me just one step closer to understanding the quadratic equation for happiness is worth every bit of the struggle. And solving for x is a journey I'm ready to take.

07 February 2012

To Support and Defend

There are a lot of new people in my life lately. It's certainly no secret that for years and years I've used my closest friends as sounding boards, but lately it's been glaringly obvious that professional sounding boards are much better equipped to help me sort through the rainbow of emotions that followed me home from Afghanistan.

Over the past month, I've averaged roughly 90 minutes of professional counseling a week, derived from various sources. Before Afghanistan, the social and career stigmas of therapy were unwanted blemishes on the perfect (though rather disingenuous) life I was living. I'm an excellent talker. I'd also like to think of myself as an excellent writer. But as it turns out, writing about my personal struggles (at the command of my therapist) has been overwhelming.

For a week I've been staring at my "homework," a white 3 x 5 index card on which my assignment was painstakingly scribbled, not by me, but by the person to whom I have to answer tomorrow afternoon. I've carried my assignment in my pocket everywhere I've gone, and though it's now tattered, it's no less daunting.

"I have a homework assignment for you," he said at the end of my last session. "Write about the most traumatic event, and note how the event impacted on your views of yourself, other people and the world. Talk about why you think this event happened to you, and how the event has changed your views about yourself, other people and the world."

Yeah, that's easy. Just sift through nine months of memories, each mildly traumatic in a unique way, some positive...some negative, and pick the most significant one. And I'm back to old habits. My "homework" is due tomorrow at 11am, and it's taken me until now to piece together my thoughts...the pressure of a deadline never fails.

And what it came down to is that it's one thing to prepare for war, shooting rubber bullets and paintballs, and pretending the various pests (both human and otherwise) in Louisiana were the enemy. But for me, nothing stirred more authentic trepidation than knowing I was flying into a country where the enemy could be anyone, anywhere, anytime.

I boarded the United States Air Force aircraft headed into Afghanistan with 15 guys who had spent an extraordinary amount of time over the past 60 training days teaching me everything they knew. I admit to nerd-like qualities, which were immeasurably beneficial as I basically sought to become fluent in my personal equivalent of Swahili in 9 weeks. I felt safe on that airplane...flanked on either side by my favorites of the young mentors.

"Ladies and gentlemen, we have entered the combat zone," declared the Loadmaster, who was all of maybe 22. And then, it was real. Just eight months earlier my father put his United States Navy uniform back on and swore me back in as a Major in the U. S. Air Force, and in my oath I had sworn to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic." I'd taken that same oath each time I was promoted, but somehow those words seemed hollow for a personnel officer, sitting in a comfortable, safe office, away from any real danger, living an Air Force life governed by email, Power Point slides and staff meetings, where my job was to "support and defend" the Almighty Dell.

I entered the combat zone on the 2nd of July, and even now on my toughest nights, that Loadmaster's declaration of danger still reverberates in my ears. And as I sat in my tiny little airplane seat that afternoon, I had no idea of the true meaning of "support and defend." I know now, and returning to that same Dell-driven monotony I left behind months ago has proven a significant undertaking.

Exiting the combat zone was anti-climatic by comparison, and it lacked the closure I now think may have been helpful in returning to my former life. This time I was alone, hidden among a large Air National Guard unit redeploying to somewhere in the central United States, holding in my lap the same black bookbag with the same pink and white polka dotted ribbon tied on top I'd clutched some 160 days earlier, heart racing, ears ringing. This time there was no Loadmaster declaring that we had "exited the combat zone." We landed. It was cold and snowy. I was exhausted. We dragged our bags full of combat gear in circles like an army of ants. We slept. We woke up again, dragged more bags in circles, returned our protective equipment to the United States Army, and then waited. And waited. And waited.

Before I was sent to Afghanistan, I couldn't fathom "real" danger. The best way to describe wartime danger is to imagine a wooden rollercoaster at an old amusement park, and listening to the soothing sound of the gears grinding as the car slowly chugs up the hill. That's the training. And then there's a moment of utter silence. The arrival. Your stomach muscles tighten. You draw a quick inhale, and your stomach drops as you're physically shaken all the way down the hill. Except there aren't restraints. And the hill never ends. And it feels like you're secured with dental floss, wrapped around your lap a thousand times, and every so often another strand snaps free and you feel one step closer to flying uncontrollably out of the car.

That's what it feels like to be outside-the-wire, to "support and defend," and to know that the only way to arrive safely the bottom of the hill is through patience, vigilance and a whole lot of Groundhog Days.

And getting off that outside-the-wire rollercoaster feels a lot like walking on flat ground after spending an afternoon on rollerskates. Every step feels awkward at first, but then a brain that has walked on flat ground for 32-odd years remembers the sensation of picking up one foot after the other and moving forward. That mind is willing to talk about every single step, and about why establishing closure to those memories is so important.

That's why I went to war. I had always sworn to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic." Ten months ago, I had no idea what that meant to me. I know now.

It changed me. I've braver now, and my confidence feels earned. I'm brave enough to write my own advice for myself, and not to worry about what anyone else might think.

Be yourself...the rest will work itself out. Through patience, vigilance and a whole lot of Groundhog Days.

02 February 2012

It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah

I have been home for 51 days, and in that period of time I've written one blog. I said I thought it would be hard to reintegrate into my old life, and as I suspected, I've experienced those 1,200 something hours across the most broad spectrum of emotions you can imagine. The first three weeks were spent in hibernation at home, sleeping, unpacking, and reacquainting myself with real-world responsibilities (like grocery shopping and putting gas in the car). The next two weeks were spent with my best friend of 18-odd years, Melissa, globetrotting from Germany to Portugal to Paris to Morocco to Luxembourg, which has in the past brought me great joy, so it wasn't a stretch that I assumed the same would be true this time. The past week as been spent trying to adjust to being back at work and to having Rob home with me again.

To the rest of the world, the face of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder probably looks like an Army soldier whose limbs have been torn from his body during an improvised explosive device explosion. Or maybe it looks like Jessica Lynch, who was held in captivity for several days and underwent more than 30 surgeries to put her body back together. I always imagined that people who suffered from PTSD had been blown up, physically scarred, or watched insurgents fall as a result of a well placed round. I never in a million years imagined that I would come back from Afghanistan and experience a mental break that doctors now tell me was a clear indication of PTSD.

It happened aboard a Ryanair airplane. Melissa was visiting, and it was very important to me to have her experience the closest accessible place that resembles where I (and her boyfriend, who is also in the Air Force), have spent a significant amount of time. When I booked the tickets back in November, I didn't really think about how insane it was for me to fly to a (relatively safe) Muslim country (unarmed) just after leaving another (extremely dangerous) Muslim country (where I had weapons and protective gear everywhere I went).

It's a three and a half hour flight from Frankfurt-Hahn to Marrakech. I've been to Marrakech two other times - it's a magical city, it's beautiful, the weather is great, and it's cheap and easy to access. I was excited. We got onto the airplane, sat in our seats, and got settled for the flight. The airplane took off, we reached a cruising altitude, the seatbelt sign went off, and I started feeling sick. I've never been sick on an airplane in my life. I ran to the bathroom. I could feel my heart pounding in my ears. My hands were clammy and gray. I was shaking. And nauseous. And terrified.

I told the flight attendant that I would be in the bathroom indefinitely, just so that someone knew where I was. I crouched down into the dirtiest one foot by two foot space you can imagine between the door and the toilet. I raised the toilet seat, looked up at the ceiling, and started playing a game to distract myself.

"Musicians by alphabet," I remember thinking to myself. "If I can just stop focusing on how sick I feel, maybe I'll be okay."

ABBA, Beatles, Collective Soul, Dead Kennedys, Earth Wind and Fire, Frank Sinatra, Grateful Dead...

Then I did it again with girl singers...Adele, Beyonce, Carly Simon, Diana Krall...

It didn't help. The flight attendant tapped on the door every thirty minutes or so (I guess, since I wasn't wearing a watch) to make sure I was okay. After maybe two and a half hours, she brought me a Pepsi, and in broken English explained that "sometimes it helps...just try."

It helped. I drank a 4 ounce Pepsi in about 30 minutes and wandered back to my seat, somehow managing to stumble my way through exiting the aircraft, navigating customs, stepping into the pre-booked transportation to the hotel, and getting Melissa settled at the hotel before I almost lost it again.

I begged the owner of the hotel to walk with me to a Moroccan pharmacy to buy medication for what I decided at the time was either a parasite or food poisoning (both of which were feasible given my living conditions in Afghanistan). Armed with dime-sized antibiotic pills and some type of anti-nausea medication, both of which were to be taken three times a day, I made sure Melissa had an incredible time in Morocco...and I had one, too. It was probably one of my favorite trips of all time...minus the "incident."

But the night before we left, the nausea returned. This time I bought a Coke, took two Dramamine, two Tylenol and a Benadryl before we boarded the airplane. I slept the entire way home.

As we started driving home, I was back to my cheerful, non-carsick self, wondering quietly whether my "nausea" was really a panic attack, since it had mysteriously now disappeared once I'd re-entered familiar territory. We went to sleep and I showed up in the Mental Health Clinic on base the following morning.

The psychiatrist there confirmed my premonition. I was exhibiting many more PTSD behaviors than I was willing to admit at the time. Being in confined spaces was a problem. Traveling in un-armored vehicles was a problem. Not having a weapon was a problem. Seeing people in uniform, even a physical fitness uniforms, was a problem, nevermind head scarves, call to prayer and everything else I associated with Afghanistan that I experienced in Marrakech. Having my back to the door was a problem. I had problems.

The airplane incident had indeed been an anxiety attack, and he prescribed anti-anxiety medication to take as-needed to slow me down when that happened in the future. There were a series of days when I took the maximum three doses just to be able to function, though right now I am fine without them.

And then, well, the floodgates opened. PTSD was the key that unlocked Pandora's Box of conflicted emotions which the experts explained to me were streaming out as a result of my brain trying to merge two worlds (Afghanistan and my real life) into my new reality.

This is the part no one talks about. Coming back from war is difficult, and shocking. And humbling. And for me, it's also been embarrassing...because my PTSD stereotype was indeed the blown-to-bits Army dude. It surely wasn't me.

Rob told me a joke this afternoon, and it's somehow the perfect description of what I think many people assume about combat veterans of wars without a clearly defined enemy and little public support.

"How many Vietnam vets does it take to change a light bulb?" he asked.

He paused and looked at me, wondering if I would be able to answer. I couldn't.

"You wouldn't know," he said, "because you weren't there."