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Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

My Experience With Foggy PTSD Brain

Trying to navigate life with PTSD.

Key points

  • At the worst of my PTSD, it felt like I was a body without a soul.
  • It felt as if there was a countdown clock ticking down my self-destruction.
  • There is a fog that clouds rational judgment for a service member dealing with PTSD.

I served in the Army as a Cavalry Scout from September 17th, 2005 to June 28th, 2010. When I was 20 years old, a sniper shot me in my left leg, eventually causing my medical retirement. I ultimately was removed from my unit and placed in a unit for injured soldiers called the WTU (Warrior Transition Unit) at Ft. Carson, in Colorado Springs. I had developed severe PTSD from the injury and was stationed with other soldiers that were dealing with PTSD as well.

While in this unit, I lost touch with my emotions. It felt like I was a body without a soul. I had no feelings of love or, for that matter, hate toward anyone. I didn't even love myself. Was this lack of emotion a result of the PTSD?

In his 2016 book, Why Icebergs Float: Exploring Science in Everyday Life, Andrew Morris writes, "It is now understood that the right hemisphere is involved in spatial tasks and with emotions such as empathy, humor, and depression, while the left is more dominant in verbal tasks such as speaking and writing and for scientific and mathematical skills." I went to war at 19, technically a teenager with a brain that was still developing. For my brain, bombs, blasts, gunfire, and combat were part of its development.

Not knowing exactly what was going on, my primary coping mechanism was what nearly every other soldier at Ft. Carson's was: alcohol. Many of the other injured soldiers relied on prescription pills and alcohol to cope with the physical and mental scars of the war. This was at a time when, in the military, you could go to the doctor for a headache and leave with a prescription for Vicodin.

I retired and moved home to Rochester, N.Y. in the spring of 2010. Adjusting to civilian life, combined with alcohol and opioid abuse, made things very foggy for me. I had access to alcohol, opioids, and my .45 caliber Glock that I bought while on active duty. It felt as if there were a countdown clock ticking down my self-destruction. Since I was 18, I had eaten, slept, and drank military culture. All of a sudden, it was gone. And so was my sanity.

Without the military, I had no identity. I was the only one in my family that had served, so they didn't know how to support my transition back to civilian life. On top of that, I received a letter that year stating that since I was disabled in the war, I didn't qualify for unemployment. This drove me to the edge, and, along with the other factors of PTSD, I became irrational in all of my decisions.

I was now even more desensitized than ever. Suddenly, nothing mattered and I didn't care about the consequences of my actions. Driving drunk was a good idea, unprotected sex was a good idea, and hurting other people was a good idea. I had so much anger: about my friends dying in Afghanistan, not getting unemployment, my dad pressuring me to forget about the Army and move on with my life. I wanted everyone else to feel the pain I felt.

One thing that kept me grounded during this time was going to the barbershop. Since I wasn't working and had no friends, I would hang out with the guys there for hours. Since I wasn't going to therapy, this was its stand-in. It was also a safe space for me to avoid all of the triggers associated with my condition. Rochester has a very high Muslim population, and going into a corner store and hearing Arabic spoken could be triggering to me.

"PTSD is conceptualized as an anxiety disorder that involves avoidance symptoms, including active avoidance of thoughts and situations that are reminders of the trauma, as well as social withdrawal and numbing of emotional responses," wrote Edna Foa, et al., in a 2013 research paper in Psychological Science In The Public Interest. For me, the barber shop is where I'd run when my symptoms peaked. It kept me from doing many stupid things during this unpredictable and erratic time in my life.

While dealing with PTSD, I experienced a fog that clouded rational judgment. Many of my fellow veterans didn't make it through this fog, and ended up losing their lives to suicide. In that fog, it's hard to clearly see our own trauma, anxiety, opioid/alcohol addiction, and stress from personal or professional relationships. It's not obvious at all how to clear the fog. While I was in this fog, I started to hear other people who were calling out for help. Voices that sounded just like mine. The voices were my fellow veterans calling out for help.

In 2010, after living on and off the streets, I was enrolled in the Warrior Salute Program in Webster, N.Y. In this program, I sat in group therapy sessions with veterans who were stuck in their own fog. It helped. I understood their language, I recognized the signs of substance abuse, and saw the physical and mental scars of suicide. In this program, I started my professional speaking career. On stage, I'm able to help pull veterans all around the country out of the fog. Being on stage is like yelling at the end of the forest leading veterans out of their own fog.

References

Foa, E. B., Gillihan, S. J., & Bryant, R. A. (2013). Challenges and Successes in Dissemination of Evidence-Based Treatments for Posttraumatic Stress: Lessons Learned From Prolonged Exposure Therapy for PTSD. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(2), 65–111. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23484658

Morris, A. (2016). The Brain. In Why Icebergs Float: Exploring Science in Everyday Life (1st ed., pp. 72–85). UCL Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt1gxxpgr.13

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