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. 

No comments:

Post a Comment