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."