The Unwanted Guest: Dealing with Anxiety, Depression, TBI, PTSD
It all started during deployment to Iraq in 2008. I was sitting in my Stryker and pulling security with our truck’s .50 caliber machine gun when I became very dizzy and disoriented. While the feeling was hard to describe, I had never felt that way before in my life - that was sure. I couldn’t focus, and it seemed difficult to breathe. It only lasted maybe half an hour, and I soon forgot all about the incident. Fast forward to the fall of 2009 and I was being transported to the hospital on Fort Wainwright by an ambulance after a night of heavy drinking.
I was sitting in the kitchen nursing a hangover after our redeployment party at the local VFW the night prior. All of a sudden my neck had a sharp pain, my hands became sweaty, and my heart rate increased to an uncomfortable level. It kept beating harder and harder, it was hard to breathe, and my vision became tunneled and dizzy. I called 911 for the first time in my life, fearing I was having a heart attack or some other sort of serious condition. After a few minutes in the ER and a Xanax, I was told that nothing was wrong with me, and it was merely a panic attack.
“That can’t be right,” I thought. I had never had a panic attack in my life, and anxiety was a word that dramatic people used to describe stress. The process of adjusting to a newborn baby, moving to a new duty location, and learning about this new affliction that plagued my life was stressful, to say the least. I continued the discovery of anxiety at Fort Benning during two years of post-deployment counseling and medical appointments. I had received traumatic brain injury (TBI) from at least one of the several IED blasts that had hit my vehicles. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a popular and spicy term often thrown around during the last twenty years of war. While I am not sure if I fall into the category, and have chosen to keep that term off of my medical record, I most definitely meet a lot of the criteria.
I went through many different types of medicines to help prevent these anxiety attacks, that would seem to strike at the most inopportune times - grocery shopping, classrooms, the store, hell about anything involving people. I couldn’t even go anywhere with my family for very long because I would feel like I was going to pass out trying to walk and act normal. Everything I took made me feel like a zombie. The only good thing about the pills was the fact that I wasn’t miserable, simply because I couldn’t feel anything. However, the side effects made it hard to do well during physical training, and always having to keep track of your pill stash was a real pain in the ass. I finally settled on one specific medicine that had the least amount of side effects, and let me feel the most “normal”. I took it for years until 2015 when I was finally able to wean myself off completely.
The hassle of taking medication several times a day and always having to have it with me had become a living nightmare. I became so dependent on the notion of having my pills with me that I began to panic the minute I realized I was out or left them somewhere. Those years were the most terrible years of my life. Not because of any specific events that happened, but because I felt enslaved and defeated by an issue that seemed to just appear in my life, without invitation or just cause.
I continued my journey through my Army career, doing the best I could and not turning down any challenge or using my medication as an excuse. Since getting off of the medication, I have felt a lot better and, although I still have the occasional anxiety attack, I am so used to them now that I know what to expect and how to react to mitigate the disaster.
It is so exhausting and frightening that I often wonder what is real. What is actually wrong with me? Am I dying? Will this ever end? There are still certain days that are bad for me, and certain situations I avoid as a precaution. There have been times where I would have certainly welcomed death as a relief from the constant torment. I don’t know if it will ever go away completely, but I do know what helps, and what doesn’t help. It’s convenient and tempting to get so drunk that I can’t think or feel anything sometimes, but that isn’t a permanent solution and usually makes things worse.
The things in my life that bring me peace and make me calm can’t be found in a liquor store. Being outside in nature, exercising daily, hiking, fishing, and friends that you can relate with are what helps me. There is also no substitute for having a partner who tries to understand and comforts you and loves you. The trick is not becoming dependent on others for support or happiness. You will not always have that crutch, and you need to work towards improving yourself continually. Find what brings you peace and don’t be afraid to reach out to others. Let us not use these wounds as an excuse, but decide that the obstacle is the way.
Update - after writing this several years ago, I have since encountered much more diversity in my life, both mental and physical. Relationships fell apart and new ones developed. I am engaged to a wonderful woman and are getting married this fall. I had major issues with my brain the last year or two. I had ridiculous brain fog, mood swings, anger issues and lack of concentration. After being off of any type of medication since 2015, I was hesitant to go back to behavioral health. I had all sorts of tests done on me to rule out any type of disorders, low blood sugar (what my symptoms felt like), etc. Everything came back perfect except I was miserable. I was suffering so much every single day that I just wanted it to end. I never fully wanted to take my life, but knew it was an option and the thought of not suffering anymore was very tempting. I can see what drives others to kill themselves. Finally, after working with behavioral health and experimenting with a few different medications and doses, I found a mix that really helped me a lot. It basically got rid of all of my issues I was having, and only a few minor side effects - which I was more than happy to trade for. I guess the moral is dont give up and dont think you are too good for help or medication. It doesnt make you a shitty person or a bad Soldier.