It took me seven months after returning from my second combat tour to realize that I had Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Initially my constant anxiety, persistent insomnia, and difficulty concentrating I chalked up to the stress of abandoning my friends and fellow combat Marines and moving across the country to assume new duties in Washington State. Alone and in transition, I reasoned that things would get better as soon as I “adjusted.”
I was wrong.
My symptoms persisted and grew worse. In front of the Marines I was able to hide behind rank, experience, and the iron discipline of a military culture that encouraged officer aloofness; I doubt any of them knew that I was struggling with crushing depression and anxiety.
Away from work I fought daily battles against myself. Gaping psychological wounds were anesthetized with alcohol; casual relationships became the collateral damage in my own personal war. A drowning man will clamber onto the shoulders of his dearest friend to win one last gasp of air – and then drown them both. I was drowning. I just didn’t know it.
On September 3, 2007 – a particularly difficult anniversary of an awful event from the previous year in Iraq – I left my house by the Hood Canal and drove a few miles to my favorite beach on the Puget Sound. It was there at sunset that I finally realized I was drowning. It would take me nearly four more years to cry for help.
This is what I wrote.
I went to the beach tonight because I wanted to forget the pain and to feel. I needed to forget a past that clawed at my mind like a demon. I needed to feel alive.
Cool, salty breezes brushed past my face as I picked my way through crooked driftwood to the shore. A faint golden glow reached up from the western horizon and hung suspended between earth and sky, before darkening into deep, bluish night. Long, dark swells angled towards me from the silent Sound and then fell with a sucking rush against the cobbled shore. Gray clouds scudded across the sky like smoke from a thousand burning fires. Like smoke from 3 September 2006…
“Where is that medevac? It’s been twenty minutes and I haven’t heard anything on the radio! Tell them to follow the smoke in!” Marc’s voice was tight with fury and fear.
The smoke. Painfully, I unclenched my sweating hand from the radio handset and walked heavily to the Command Post door. Peering out towards the west, I could see a thick column of black smoke coiling into the dusty sky. Later, the recovery vehicle would follow the smoke in and find only pieces of the Humvee. The medevac would find only pieces of the two dead Marines.
Wearily returning to the radio, I continued to coordinate the company maneuver elements as dusk deepened into night. But that was the day the headaches started… and the choking…
Now, standing between day and night, sea and shore, I threw my hood up and shivered against the wind and the world. A year is a year… the choking is still here, like invisible fingers grasping hard against my throat. The headaches start in the middle of my brain and move forward, until their throbbing, insistent pressure drums against the front of my skull. They are still here. But somehow… somehow, a slow feeling of peace settles in me. I stand silently and breathe in rhythm with the curling waves… gaze at the red-amber-white lights twinkling from a thousand points across the darkened water. Alive. This is what it means to be alive. To feel the crisp September air, to hear the purling surf, to see the glittering lights against a dark expanse…