Iraq Is Such a House of Trauma, It Doesn't Take Much to Get PTSD
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Somehow, we went even flatter. All I could do was lie there and hope that the next one wouldn't get us, hope that there weren't people out there right now with twisted metal driven into their flesh.
We lay there, waiting... waiting... and then... nothing.
No screams. That was good, right? And then, in the distance, the horn spoke:ALL CLEAR. ALL CLEAR.
Long seconds passed. Doors creaked open on neighboring trailers, while we rolled out from under our beds, muscles cramping. I pulled on a shirt and stepped into the light. All along the row of containers, men in shorts or underwear were peeking out. Despite their tans and youth and professional toughness, they looked pale, drained, scared.
Little was said. That was close. That sucked. Eyes followed eyes to the end of our little trailer park. Just past a row of trees a black plume of smoke mushroomed into the sky. Someone said there was a generator over there, maybe 25 yards away, musta got hit.
That’s when my jitters started.
Fast forward to December. I’m back home, talking to a colleague in his office. For some reason I've decided he's the one I'll tell about my dreams. I need to share. They’re haunting me. Incredibly violent dreams. Night after night.
They aren't even remotely similar to anything in my normal experience. Sure, I had had the occasional violent nightmare, but usually I was on the receiving end, running in fear to escape some cruel threat. In these I’m the one doing violence.
In one, I’m a terrorist. I hijack a commercial airplane, strangle a female flight attendant with my bare hands. My own hands. I wake up frightened of myself, for myself.
My friend is a psychologist and statistician. "You know I'm studying PTSD?" he says. He’s been working on a big research project on post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries in veterans back from Iraq and Afghanistan.
He pulls a huge textbook off the shelf above his computer, lets it fall open on his desk and starts flipping pages. It's the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-IV, published by the American Psychiatric Association. "Recurrent distressing dreams," he reads aloud.
I walk around the desk, look over his shoulder. There’s a long checklist of symptoms. Suffer enough of them and you're diagnosable with PTSD.
The person experienced, witnessed, or was confronted with an event or events that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of self or others.
The person's response involved intense fear, helplessness, or horror.
We keep looking at the symptoms. There are many. You don't have to have all of them to get diagnosed. A few jump out at me.
Persistent avoidance of stimuli associated with the trauma and numbing of general responsiveness (not present before the trauma)… [Shown by:] Efforts to avoid thoughts, feelings, or conversations associated with the trauma.
Efforts to avoid activities, places, or people that arouse recollections of the trauma.
Feeling of detachment or estrangement from others.
All are familiar.
In the past month, I had come to a sudden appreciation of the war veteran’s reticence. Everyone wanted to ask me about my experiences in Iraq: What was it like there? Something kept me from talking. That bad morning, the pain and displacement of the war on everyone involved, the constant tension. I couldn’t bring myself to speak about it. It was too much to face, too much to explain. And I had seen next to nothing.