On this Veterans Day, I’m offering up a prayer for the men and women who have served in our country’s armed forces. I hope they are celebrated by those near and dear. I hope that they sleep well tonight.
Having survived 20 years of sleepwalking, night terrors (also called sleep terrors), and insomnia, I often ponder life through the point of view of sleep. I am a sleep activist, advocating for healthy sleep as a basic human right. And I am saddened that many of our veterans will not sleep well tonight due to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and resultant night terrors.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that PTSD afflicts almost 31% of Vietnam veterans, as many as 10% of Gulf War (Desert Storm) veterans, 11% of veterans of the war in Afghanistan, and 20% of Iraqi war veterans.
Many who suffer with PTSD sleep poorly because of worry and hypervigilance that can lead to insomnia and arousal disorders such as night terrors. Frequent nightmares also cause insomnia, restless sleep, and dread of falling asleep. Sometimes victims of PTSD use drugs or alcohol in an effort to cope with their symptoms. But these substances adversely affect our sleep quality. Additionally, medical issues and chronic pain are common for people with PTSD and can also make it difficult to fall asleep and/or sleep comfortably throughout the night.
Over the years PTSD has been called, among other things, soldier's heart, battle fatigue, shell shock, and combat exhaustion. My father was a sergeant in the army during World War II. He survived D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge. Like many of his comrades, he grappled with undiagnosed PTSD. He never spoke about the debilitating symptoms. He was up most nights with insomnia, smoking cigars in our living room and piecing together puzzles. Yet fitting the fragments into a cohesive picture could not restore his mind and afford him rest.
My father’s insomnia was so bad that a doctor at the V.A. prescribed sleeping pills. This was in the 1970s and he became addicted. Dad was a delivery man for Schaefer beer and the pills made him so groggy that he let the truck door slam shut on his hand, almost severing his thumb. Thank goodness a family friend, who was a physician, helped him kick the habit.
My night terror episodes were like waking up inside of a horror movie. I hate to think of our veterans being startled from sound sleep by such panicked, waking nightmares. The good news is there is hope on the horizon.
Tyler Skluzacek was in sixth grade when his dad, Sgt. First Class Patrick Skluzacek, spent a year in Iraq. His father returned with PTSD and chronic night terrors. In 2015, when he was a senior in college, Tyler and his team, "The Cure," won a contest to create a mobile app to ease the effects of PTSD. They wrote code and invented a smart watch app called myBivy, short for bivouac — a military term for temporary camp or shelter. The app tracks heart rate and movement with the goal to predict and eradicate night terrors.
In an interview with USA Today, Tyler said, "After a couple weeks of tracking the soldier we can find ... the exact symptoms of the onset of the panic attack and try to use the watch or use the Android phone to disrupt that or take them out of the deep sleep but keep them asleep, the app will use sound or vibration to prevent night terrors.”
Tyler’s father was patient zero. He is now sleeping soundly on a regular basis.
"I am very proud of him, yeah," Tyler's father said.
Tyler has been working with the Department of Veterans Affairs and sleep experts and clinical trials are underway.
"My team and I kind of have a saying right now that my team and I won't sleep until the veterans can," he said.
What a hopeful gift to our country’s veterans, Tyler. Thanks to you and to your team for brightening this Veterans Day (and night too).