In 2008 I became intimately familiar with PTSD. As the then fiance’ of a soldier who had just returned from Iraq, I was unknowingly thrust into the life of a caregiver to someone with PTSD and TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury). The thing is, even on the very day he returned home, I wasn’t immediately aware of my new role. The bus full of soldiers arrived to fanfare and welcome home signs. Then he got off of the bus and hopped in my car. He looked the same — just a little thinner, a little more tan, and cleanly shaven. But he was him — I thought. No limbs missing, home “in one piece”, I thought we had escaped all that war tried to throw at us. Boy was I wrong.
“Caregiver” was the term I used to describe myself in the opening paragraph, right? Funny thing is, I didn’t really consider myself that until recently — over 10 years later. Even through the nightmares and depression, the mood swings and the flashbacks. Even though he would startle easily and jump when he heard loud sounds. Even through the memory loss and the cold withdrawn behavior — I never thought of myself as his caregiver. I thought that with help and with time and with medication and therapy that much like the 394 days he spent deployed, this too would pass — perhaps slowly, but it would pass. What I didn’t realize was that the man I met and fell in love with on a cold November night was deceased.
My first encounter with death was as a teenager in the Young Marines. One of the guys in our platoon drowned. On the day of his services, we all got dressed in our crisp uniforms, arrived at the services, and marched to the front of the church to pay our final respects. Upon seeing him lying lifeless in the casket, I doubled over in anxiety and tears. I had of course heard of people dying before, but this was my first personal experience with the finality of a person’s time on earth ending. After that day, I don’t recall hearing about many people dying during my childhood. As a teenager I remember the passing of my Great Uncles Lou and Major. Each death was painful and left a void in our close family unit, but it was the death of my grandmother in 1998 that forever changed me. 2 weeks into my freshman year in college I received the call that she passed away. Within the hour I was packed and flying back home to Virginia — sitting for hours on a plane alone with my thoughts, my fear, and my hurt. I don’t think I ever fully recovered from my grandmother passing. I didn’t really have much time to mourn before I was on a plane back to school, back to classes, back to homework and exams. In essence, I was the soldier, unloaded from the bus, and thrust back into “normal” life, not realizing that normal was now….different…and the old me was gone.
Several more years went by before death struck my inner circle yet again. My 26 year old nephew took his own life. I arrived at the scene to see his body covered in a sheet as the blood leaking from his head spilled onto the concrete — his mother screaming in horror in the background. Five years later, my sister Renee lost her battle with Cancer – we visited with her just 2 months prior to her passing. A month later, I lost my ride-or-die, my partner for life….my brother at the age of 49. After receiving the call from my mother that he wasn’t doing well, I rushed to the hospital just in time to hear the long, deafening beep….to hear my niece cry uncontrollably…to hear my mom cry out. Sounds you never forget. The feeling of knowing that you were seconds too late to say goodbye.
While each of these losses took pieces of my spirit that I’m not sure can ever be replaced, the day I lost one of my closest friends just months before her 37th birthday was probably the hardest. A heart attack took her life just one night after she was sent home from the E.R. because “they couldn’t find anything wrong”. She left behind a husband and two children — close in age to my own children — and a pain that, to this day, I still can’t shake.
Whew….well, if you’re still reading after all of THAT, allow me to tie it all together for you. You see, as a military wife, I could probably recite to you and for you, numerous facts and statistics about PTSD in the military and PTSD in our Veterans; but it wasn’t until January 26th, 2020 that I realized that I, too, am living with PTSD. January 26th, 2020 was the day that the world learned that Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and 7 other people died in a helicopter crash. I was never a basketball fan, let alone a Kobe Bryant fan. In fact, if you asked me on January 25th, I probably would have said that I didn’t like him. All I “knew” of him was his arrogance, his issues with Shaq, his selfishness on the court, and the rape allegations. I knew nothing of the man he had become. Yet upon hearing of his passing I found myself kneeling on the floor of my room, bawling. For several nights after the passengers on that helicopter died so tragically, I didn’t sleep worth a damn. I woke up in tears. Maybe it was the pain of knowing a woman lost her husband and child. Maybe it was the pain of knowing that 3 children lost their father….or the pain of seeing a life taken at only 41 years and 11 years…or maybe it was a combination of all of the above, but Kobe’s passing stirred up something in me and the loss felt as painful as if I knew him personally. His death brought forth Regina, and my brother and sister, and my Uncles, and the Young Marine rushing to the forefront of my psyche and for
days weeks I couldn’t shake it. It brought forth the “death” of my husband as I knew him and the loss of youthful foolhardy feelings of immortality. I felt the pain of the trauma — all of it — and I am was not okay.
If you asked me about PTSD at any point before now, I would have associated it most heavily with soldiers and military warfare. I would have talked about people who had been violently raped or assaulted. I may have even mentioned people who survived natural disasters or escaped death. What I can almost guarantee is that I would not have associated it with the sometimes frequent trauma of everyday life. We experience the death of relationships, the death of hopes and dreams. We watch clips and sound bites of people being gunned down by the police or children running, screaming, from gun men shooting up their school. We watch the stock market rise and fall, we face life-threatening illnesses (ahem – corona virus), and we listen to stories of women being snatched off of the streets for human trafficking. We lay to rest the idea of how we thought things would look in our lives…. Hell, it’s a miracle if we aren’t ALL walking around suffering from PTSD.
On January 26th I realized that I suffer from PTSD resulting from all of the people I’ve lost. I realized that I live most days in fear that it will be my last. With every kiss or hug goodbye, I linger just a minute longer not sure if it will be our last embrace. I answer the phone every time my mom calls, fearing the day that I will no longer be able to hear her voice on the other end. Lord knows I never thought the last time I spoke to my brother would be the last time. People take pictures for the ‘gram. I take pictures wondering if it will go in my obituary. Every conversation with my children ends in a life lesson because I want to make sure I teach them all I can, while I can. As a self-certified control freak, the not knowing how or when I will be called home blankets my life with a layer of anxiety that always hovers close by like a shadow. It’s not okay. In truth, many of us likely walk around suffering from PTSD due to tragic events in our life or just because of life itself — hell, it’s tough — but we likely don’t label it as PTSD…just like we often don’t label anxiety or depression. Our own dysfunction becomes our norm — so much so that we can’t imagine doing it or living any other way. We subscribe to dysfunction so often that “normal” feels wrong.
Whatever your trauma, whatever your “dysfunction” , whatever your fear, I pray that you find the strength to work through it and release it. Much like the soldiers who return from war, the old us might be “dead”, but that doesn’t mean that the newest version of you can’t be even better. We all have work to do and traumas to overcome. Let’s get to it.