Well, I apologize for not finishing this sooner. I have been grappling with the best way to communicate how I convey the details of my experiences without actually describing my experiences. It was a bit more of an internal debate than I anticipated.
I kept asking myself: Can I describe in a meaningful way my experience if I do not let you in as a reader? Do I just dive into the details I said I wouldn’t share? If I do, how deep and graphic? Unfortunately, as I tried to think about these questions, I came smack in the face with those gory details. I revisited my old friends which I had spent the better part of Prolonged Exposure Therapy working through. The specific gory details have slowed me down a bit, and I have been trying to stay out of that place in my own head to prevent a spiral. I resorted to some avoidance (a post for another day) but I am back in the saddle. Ultimately, I have decided to share in the best, most concise but vaguest way I know how: bullet points. (Anyone who has made a pointless powerpoint can sympathize with this approach)
Prolonged Exposure Therapy Imaginal Exposure is pretty simple in it’s core objectives: address the images, take note of their emotional reaction, whittle away the areas that do not bring much baggage, and focus on the points that evoke the greatest emotions. I got to pick a day (12 hours actually) where a mass of crap was laid on me. I explored in greater and greater detail (using all five senses and my feelings) the events of that night into morning. I recorded my account of that day and listened to it each day. With each iteration of listening to myself I remembered more. I reflected more about what happened, and what has happened since. I stared at those gory details without blinking. It was the hardest therapy I have ever done and one of the harder things I have ever had to do in my life.
The Bullet List
Without further ado, here is the chronological event list:
- in my unit for two weeks, get a radio call in the middle of the night to go pick up dead Iraqi’s shot by my unit
- drive through some treacherous terrain at 1AM to reach the bodies
- start loading dead guys onto the truck when one of the “dead” guys starts screaming, suddenly not dead
- treat the screaming guy and take him to the Aid Station where he later died
- get back in time to get up for pre-dawn Raid for a weapons smuggler
- get to the Raid site and drive up to Iraqi’s forming an ambush near Raid house
- suppress and kill the Iraqi’s setting up the ambush
- don’t find any extra weapons other than the ones on the ambushers
- stay until daybreak to notify the family
- notify the family only to have the women of the ambushed ambushers start screaming, crying, scratching and throwing dirt on them
- drive away exhausted and conflicted
The Gory Details
So, that story was recounted and recorded in a first person description with the gory details. Each day I listened to my own story, and each week I recorded an updated recount. As I progressed, I was able to really focus on the feelings, and eventually, to distinguish between the types of feelings that overlapped.
The bullet list happened in my first deployment. I carried it around for a while in silence before I even thought about talking about it. Guilt, fear, adrenaline rushes, sadness, anger, frustration; they were all bundled into an intense twelve hours. By the time I started PET the day I recounted had happened so long ago that I had to really think about it to get my facts straight. I explored every detail I could remember. I described every sight, sound, smell, and touch in the first person.
I left therapy every week exhausted. I would close my eyes and just talk about that day like I was actually back there. My therapist would take count of my self described stress level. With every passing week as I talked and listened my stress level went down. It did not go away. Not by a long shot. But I feel like with preparation and the right environment, I can talk about that day with more people now than I ever could before. The ability to talk about my experience in Iraq without a complete meltdown was one of my goals going into treatment. I consider it a success that I can at least talk about it a little now and I will continue to work on it.
Prolonged Exposure Therapy is hard. It gets harder before it gets easier, but I recommend it because it works. I’m pretty sure most things worth doing are not easy.
A quick admin point, I am now on a self-hosted site: http://www.ptsdsurvivordaily.com, please update your browser as necessary. I ported all the old posts, and you can still find the archives at the old site for now. The feedback has been more than I could have ever hoped for! Please continue to share! Thanks again!