Memorial Day, 2011
I am battling with PTSD with no relief or hope of any kind in sight. The symptoms of PTSD definitely have the upper hand, putting myself and everyone around me in a living hell. Nothing will ever be the same from this day on. As I sit in my jeep I can hear “Taps” playing over the loudspeakers two blocks away.
165 days later.
It’s Veterans Day and I wake up to a text from my mother: “Dear son. Thank you for serving our country and I am so proud of what you are doing for others who have served. This day is for all of you.” I am parked in a clearing just off Route 66 near Lebanon, Missouri. I didn’t get much sleep last night. First of all, I was in a sleeping bag sleeping in the jeep, and it was 26 degrees outside. I also had some real concerns about what Veteran’s Day would do to me. Would I have a problem? I spent over an hour just focusing on my coping techniques and how I will handle it if I do start to have a problem.
It’s Veterans Day and the windows in the jeep all have ice on them from the condensation from my breath. I am ready, I think. I bust out the Coleman stove and get a quick cup of coffee and we are off to talk to a UCC church in Lebanon, and then another in Springfield, Missouri, about my upcoming bike trip and presentation.
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That’s all of this blog I could get out without crying and crying, so I just skipped my Veterans Day blog. It’s now November 22, and I need to finish this.
I will not lie. I was scared to death, but I just did it. Just like I went to Florida and talked to hundreds of people about PTSD and in southern California at Fuller Theological Seminary and up in the north at a wonderful 112 year-old church, Peace United Church of Christ in Fall Creek, Wisconsin. It is nerve-wracking, exhausting, overwhelming, and scary. But I manage for the most part to keep it together. But afterwards, I just feel so tired and usually very sad. So avoiding those situations would be the easy way out. Not reliving it in a blog another way to avoid and take the easy way. Avoidance and shutting down are huge symptoms of PTSD.
However, my blog is not just about what I am up to. I want, no I need, to keep telling people in hopes of letting you understand, really understand, the way PTSD can affect someone. I struggle trying to describe to my coach how it feels sometimes to deal with the symptoms of PTSD. The closest I have come is “a hungry parasite on my soul.”
Exposure therapy, talking, blogging, and my presentation are all part of my recovery, and it is working. Recovery is not in any way easy, but the things I have learned, the soul searching, the confronting of demons, the rekindling of old relationships have all left me feeling very vulnerable. No one likes to feel that way, but the reward is a happier place to be. We need to keep raising awareness about PTSD and help our heroes and their families, their churches, and their communities better understand the effects and treatment of PTSD.
There. I have managed to avoid talking about my Veterans Day for two full paragraphs. Lebanon, Missouri was my first stop. I went into a print shop and made up some flyers for my sponsors and some copies of my introduction letter. Well, Scrubs bumped my coffee, so now I was left with just the sponsor letters. Not such a great start to my day.
I drove through town and I saw the flags and the guys from the local VFW getting ready for the Veterans Day program at the Coliseum. We parked, and Scrubs and I headed up to the seating. When the flags were presented and the salute was over, I was so overwhelmed with emotion I had to leave. I can’t really put my finger on the exact emotions that took over that morning. The national anthem, the flag, the uniforms are all triggers that I still, to this day, have trouble with. The sadness from my dissolving marriage, the guilt, and the military funerals I have been involved in all bring memories and feelings that flood my mind. Once again, I find myself crying and running away. I spent the next three hours thinking about my mission and its importance to me and my recovery. Off to our next stop, thinking about my support group and the progress I have made.
In Springfield, Missouri, I went to the Bass Pro Shop. I know, it’s such a crowded place, but I made myself go in to inquire about sponsorship. The anxiety that builds up while I am parking and getting myself ready to walk into such a crowded place is powerfully overwhelming. I just want to put the Jeep in drive and get as far from the anxiety as possible. “Tom run, run, run! Get out of here now! What the hell are you waiting for?” When I do run and I don’t face my anxieties I feel like I have let myself down, and I let my PTSD win yet again. But this mission is not about me and my anxiety; it’s about helping others. Keeping that in mind means I will not stop trying. Just when I started to think this was a waste of time and I should leave because it was too much to handle, I ended up finding the mayor of Springfield there and talking to him about PTSD and my bicycle ride through his town. The day started to get better.
I stopped for dinner in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Applebee’s was serving free meals to veterans. The first Applebee’s was really crowded — a line out the door. No, thank you. The second one I went to was just as bad, but I was starving. There was a seat open at the bar in the middle of all the guys talking about their days in the military. I ended up staying about 90 minutes, just talking. It was a good night. After dinner, I headed out of town and slept in the parking lot of the highway patrol. It seemed safe enough. I spent a long time talking to a friend that night. I slept okay; I just really wanted to get the night over with.
The next morning we were back on the road again, stopping at the Route 66 museum and heading toward Arizona and New Mexico, where there were more UCC churches to talk to.
There. That wasn’t so hard to talk about, but at the time it was hard to write about while I was still dealing with the emotions of the day. I remember feeling very alone when I woke up, but knowing I was part of a nationwide club called “American Veterans” when I went to bed. That was my Veterans Day.
To all my fellow veterans, and the men and the women who serve our country I say, “Thank you for your service.”