This past Saturday, I was on the road again-- this time to Greenville SC.
I woke up out of a dream (or a nightmare, I'm not sure which) at around 0800 to the sound of heavy machinery outside my window. There was some random guy operating an industrial front end loader, clearing out the kudzu that's taken over the hill on that side of the house. I found out later that this had been a planned event, that sister's ex had hired the guy and his equipment to do this, but no one had mentioned it to the guy with post traumatic stress disorder that lives here (meaning of course, me).
My reaction to hearing the noise of both the tracks moving and the shovel doing its thing was something very close to what would happen if someone had entered my locked room, shook me awake, and yelled "INCOMING SCUDS!!! GAS GAS GAS!!!". It took a few minutes to register what was going on, but it didn't really matter (or really register), because I went from zero to GTFO in exactly zero seconds. Heart racing, can't breathe, running around the room in circles grabbing gear, the whole bit. I was wearing earplugs, and the window was closed, and it still sounded like the machine was inside my head.
I grabbed my laptop, a tablet, my backpack, and headed downstairs and hopped in my truck-- followed by laying a patch (or as close as my old truck comes to laying a patch) as I pulled out. I didn't know, and didn't care, if anyone saw me leave. I didn't pass by anyone else in the house on the way out. I just hauled ass.
The problem with noise, any noise, is that at minimum it's a distraction because if there's a noise it must mean something and I have to think about what it means. Is it a threat? An alarm? What do I need to do because this noise was made? This is why I have so much trouble in classes and in offices at work, because there's always so much noise that my brain has to process. Sudden noise is even worse, because my brain goes straight from zero to full on PTSD mode.
Noise made by machines, especially the kinds of machines that are used in industry to move shit around, is a special case above all of that. In the Desert, the unit I was 'tactical', which means a lot of different things but in this context means that all of our stuff was mobile. It had, or could have, wheels attached, and if the wheels weren't attached it got moved by forklift or crane or something similar. All of our equipment also required electricity, both for the electronics inside and for air conditioning to cool those electronics-- so there were also a lot of generators and climate control units running all the time in addition to shit often being moved around.
This is why now, I'm completely irritated by things like leaf blowers, lawn mowers, snow blowers, generators, heavy construction equipment, and absolutely anything that has a backup/movement beeper. Anything that sounds like it did in the Desert takes me back there, and so waking up in the middle of a weird dream to that kind of noise just completely set me off.
Normally, one of the ways I cope with noise is keeping ear plugs close at hand. I have a set of Decibullz custom molded earplugs that I wear much of the time when I'm working or moving about the house, and I also wear them in places like restaurants and stores to cut down the level of noise. (I don't really "endorse" products here, so no link, but Amazon has them.) For keeping my world quiet, this is often a good solution, but the noise from the front end loader blew right through them.
I realized a couple of things after pulling out of the driveway; first, I couldn't hear the radio very well, and this turned out to be because I still had my earplugs in. Second, I hadn't had any coffee or any breakfast. So, first fix was easy, second fix was I stopped at random convenience store for soda and one of those pickled sausages that I've developed a taste for. I headed east from there, towards Athens GA, and once past that promptly got lost.
For a minute or so, I considered visiting the base where I'd been stationed in South Carolina-- it was from there that I deployed to the Desert. It likely would have been pretty strange being there, since I hadn't been there since I'd ETS'd. It was a fair distance away. The deciding factor was that my unit no longer exists, so there really wasn't much to visit anyway. Instead I looked at the map, saw Greenville SC was the next nearest city that I'd never really been to, and told Google Maps to take me there.
Not long after reaching I-85 (which among other places runs between Atlanta GA and Greenville SC), I realized that all I'd had to eat or drink in the hour and a half since waking up didn't amount to breakfast. I stopped at the first truck stop I came to, a Petro. I don't have a particular favorite truck stop chain, but I mention this because when I'm driving I need to be able to find the thing I'm stopping at that matches the log on the sign on the interstate. If I can't see the place I'm stopping at before the exit, I get a little panicky and don't stop, so since this was easy to see and find that's where I ended up.
Truck stops-- the real ones, not the gas stations that just happen to have diesel-- are one of my safe zones in the world. One of the things about them is there's comfort food of some kind, it's not outrageously priced, and it's often available on a buffet. The other is that they're populated by people who drive trucks for a living, rather than families with screaming kids like you'd find at a lot of normal restaurants.
Anyway, next stop was at the South Carolina welcome center at the state border-- sometime soon after breakfast I'd remembered that such a place has a lot of brochures of things that a tourist or traveler would be interested in visiting. I figured I'd find at least one interesting thing to go check out in Greenville, and I was right; the American Legion has a military museum there. So I entered the address in Google Maps, and headed towards that. (The actual full name is the American Legion Post 3 Cecil B Buchanan War Museum.)
I found the block that the museum was supposed to be on, and in looking for the entrance I found a small area containing several Confederate monuments next to a cemetery that also apparently contained a number of Confederate soldiers, so I spent some time looking at the monuments and such. I'm not a "Civil War buff", I'm not nearly invested enough to wear that title, but I am very interested in both the war and the politics-- I've been to a number of Civil War battlefields, historic sites, museums and even a few reenactments-- so when I see things like this, I actually read what's printed or engraved on them.
I'm going to go off on a slight tangent here, and it might be a little politically sensitive, so fair warning.
The Civil War, the reasons it began, the battles, the politics, the aftermath, everything, is a really ugly business. As a country, the United States still hasn't completely resolved all of the issues it raised (or in some cases caused). I know this to be true but I don't have answers for these questions. I've met people who fly Confederate flags because they think it represents one thing, and I've also met people who fly the same flag because they think it represents something else.
When I come across a monument or a marker that says something about the Civil War or about the Confederacy, I read what it says. I try, in my somewhat limited knowledge, to put it into perspective-- what was the world like that someone put up a monument to an idea that led to a rebellion after the war was lost? What lessons are there to learn from all of the things that happened? When these monuments and markers are removed, the opportunity to ask those questions is (at least partially) removed with them.
I'm not trying to pick a fight here, I know that people will disagree and I respect your opinion if you're one of those people, but hear me out (or not).
Any given war is started by politicians, it's run by politicians, it's ended by politicians. It's fought, however, by people like me and if you're military or a veteran, you. Most of us are just everyday people. We come from every possible background, but many of us are people whose parents worked hard and often struggled for what they provided us. Many of us came from broken homes or worse. Many of us joined up because it was a chance to do defend our country, to do something bigger than ourselves, to do something with our lives.
The kids-- and many of them really were kids-- that signed up to fight for either the Union or the Confederacy weren't any different than either me, or the kids (I don't mean this in a bad way, I was still a kid when I signed up) that join the military today. We don't always get to decide why we fight, we don't always get to decide when or where. The philosophy of right and wrong in most cases is above our pay grade. A soldier's a soldier. A grunt's a grunt.
I never did find the entrance to that museum in Greenville. After about 20 minutes of looking at the monuments and markers, I started to feel a panic attack getting going, so I punched the address of the house into Google Maps and got back in my truck. As I was headed back toward I-85, I saw the sign for the entrance, just around the corner from where I was. I'll likely make a return trip another time to actually see what's in it.:)
The entire trip, there and back, breakfast at the truck stop, the welcome center, the museum, even the thinking about the soldiers that fought the Civil War-- was all avoidance. It was me reacting to noise that I didn't expect, that was too loud, that was a trigger that reminded me of the Desert. (It was also me getting away from all of the drama and bullshit and noise that having more people in the house I'm staying in brought with it, but that was more of a side effect.)
Had I not got up, got dressed, and left, what would have happened? I'd have become more and more anxious, more and more agitated. Eventually I'd have stormed out of my room, thrown around a few what the fucks and motherfuck this and motherfuck thats. Anything that got in my way that could have been picked up and thrown at a wall probably would have been. Maybe I'd have broken something, maybe not. A heavy equipment operator who had no idea what was coming would have suddenly had a pissed off vet yelling at him above the noise, and either defending himself or calling the cops would have been entirely reasonable things to do. My sister's ex probably would have reacted equally and oppositely badly, and I might have ended up being told to pack up my shit and GTFO.
This is what I mean when I say there's a line that I don't want to cross, or even approach-- other than perhaps spending a little more money that I planned on this month, there were no real repercussions from me leaving. No one, in fact, noticed I was even gone until hours later. I was able to make the decision to just get up and leave and not make things worse, even though it probably wasn't a decision that my brain did a whole lot of logical analysis on. Leaving was just my first reaction. My fear is that at some point, if the PTSD keeps getting worse, if my brain keeps developing reactions based on the PTSD and not on the right things, that instead of making good or even passable decisions I'll start making really bad ones.
The line is where that change happens, and I can't tell if I'm close to the line, far away from the line, or walking right on the damn thing.
I have heard from a couple of readers over the past few years who have said that one of the reasons they visit is to get a feel for being around their own veterans-- it's said that a picture is worth a thousand words, and it's also true that one comment or email is worth many more, so those comments do mean a lot. I have also heard people say that being around a veteran (or really anyone with PTSD) can feel like walking on eggshells; it's often impossible to know that what you do or say will turn out to be a trigger for us.
On the other hand, I as the veteran with PTSD can't fathom how no one would not know that the noise a front end loader on tracks makes would make me feel like I was back in the Desert and therefore I'd be totally triggered. Seriously, people, what the fuck? This is exactly how I felt on Saturday. Not saying it was right, or even justified, but it's how I felt.
It's taken me a long time-- years, and lots of therapy-- to be able to calmly and politely ask someone to stop doing something that's triggering me. It is still difficult most of the time, because the response is often indifference or in some cases, openly hostile. In the case of indifference, asking again or asking in a stronger way can sometimes escalate the situation into something more than it should be. In every case, having to ask more than once makes the situation more anxious for me. When the response is hostile (or let's just say, less than polite) things ramp up very quickly because now in addition to the initial trigger I'm also threatened and ready to defend myself.
How do I know that the noise from a front end loader is a trigger, or that the sound a truck makes when it backs up is a trigger? I really didn't until 2012, when every street around my apartment as well as the campus physical plant a block away were all under construction at once. Every day, all summer, at 0500 the trucks and jackhammers and shovels and all the other heavy equipment would start up and run all day. It wasn't until I found myself thinking that it felt like being in a war zone to realize that yes, it did feel exactly like being in a war zone.
If you read my blog, especially a post like this, you probably know more about what triggers me than anyone-- even more than the therapists I've had. Much of the therapy I've had didn't deal directly with triggers, instead focusing on other things. Mindfulness especially, the "leaves on a stream" bit, has a lot to say about just accepting thoughts as they come; this is perhaps all right when the intrusive thought is about the baked chicken and rice a roni that the family cooked this week and how it reminds you of when you had baked chicken and rice a roni for several weeks at a time in the Desert.
There's a story behind this. When Iran held 52 Americans hostage at the embassy in Tehran for 444 days, the Americans were often fed chicken and rice. At one point in the Desert, it was said-- I'm not sure by who-- that the reason we were getting chicken and rice so often was that based on what the hostages said after leaving Iran it was commonly believed that that's what Americans liked to eat. MREs suddenly tasted a lot better after hearing that.
Unless I told you the story, and unless there's a reason for it to come up (i.e you cooked me chicken and rice for supper) you'd never know it's a trigger. I have at times just sucked up the emotion and ate the damn chicken and rice because it's either all the food I'm going to get (I have no money and it was free), or I'm in a situation where it would just be really too complicated to have to explain.
It is the rest of the triggers that are the problem. Many times I don't know something is a trigger until I encounter it. Still other times I don't think about it because I'm not anywhere that I expect it-- in a toy store, sure I expect to hear at least one kid screaming. In the middle of nowhere on Saturday morning I don't expect to hear a front end loader when there's no reason that I can think of for one to be outside my window.
I can tell you, as I've told my family that's here visiting, that I don't like and need to avoid loud noises and that I don't handle surprises well. It will still take someone walking up behind me in the kitchen and my turning around and yelling "DON'T FUCKING WALK UP BEHIND ME" for you to understand. It will still take me disappearing for several hours for no apparent reason, and you still won't get that by loud noise I mean exactly things like a front end loader doing its thing outside my window.
The hard part is that I still don't completely understand everything that's going on in my head, and probably never completely will. People are normally rather flaky animals, and someone with PTSD is even more so. The really hard part is that as a person's environment changes, as the world changes, so too PTSD changes. What wasn't a trigger before, might be tomorrow. What is now, might not be so much a year from now.
Sometimes, getting in the truck and driving to the next state over for a few hours is just the best that I can do. S'all I got.