As soon as the insurgent pulled the trigger on his AK-47 and the first rounds hit me in the chest and side, I woke up. I immediately felt the adrenaline rushing through my body as I grabbed my chest in pain. I sat up in bed, drenched in sweat and hyperventilating.
Trying to focus my eyes in the dimly lit bedroom, I caught the soft blue light from the alarm clock shining like a lighthouse in a major storm. Three-thirty in the morning. It happened at the same time every night. I would always wake up from the nightmares between 03:00 and 03:30 am.
The Mosul nightmare was the most frequent and the most disconcerting, as it always ended in the same way, death. I never knew why, but it often reminded me of the dark tale by Edgar Allen Poe, The Raven. After researching the meaning behind this poem, I came across an interesting bit of analysis about how the narrator of the story was believed to be experiencing “a perverse conflict between a desire to forget and a desire to remember.” The third through the fifth verses stood out to me when I brought the dusty book out of retirement to see why this poem kept invading my sleep:
And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me- filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating,
“‘Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door-
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;-
This it is, and nothing more.”
Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
“Sir,” said I, “or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you”- here I opened wide the door;-
Darkness there, and nothing more.
Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
I wanted to slow my breathing down and tell myself that the pain in my chest was not a heart attack. I methodically removed the blankets and stepped out of the now sweat-covered bed to get my Springfield XD .45 pistol. This was the only thing that made me feel safe at night when I was torn from sleep in a nightmarish redux of my time in Iraq. The pistol on the night stand was like a Deus Ex Machina always there to save me when needed.
As I slowly walked towards the bedroom door, guided by the blue nightlight that I had insisted be plugged in at all times, I felt every pile of fiber from the carpet under my feet. They felt large and intrusive with my senses on full alert from the fight-or-flight response now in charge of my body. I listened intently, still not sure if it was a dream or if I would hear more Arabic being yelled, and more gunfire.
I made my way to the stairs and began to go up and down, as was my routine. I had learned this trick from reading a book about depression and anxiety. Routinely, PTSD was comorbid with depression and other forms of anxiety and phobias. After my PTSD began to manifest itself physically, I began suffering from random pains all over my body, shortness of breath, lightheadedness, tingling in the arms and worst of all, chest pains that mimicked cardiac events.
The book had explained that, in order to overcome irrational fears, one had to prove to the body and the mind that if a serious health threat was actually occurring, then the patient would not be able to engage in physical exercise without some sort of side effect such as more chest pain, more shortness of breath or even passing out. So, up and down I walked, some 100 times, until eventually I had fully awakened from my somnambulist stupor and finally convinced myself that I didn’t need to call an ambulance, only to spend another six hours in an emergency room for nothing.
Nocturnal panic attacks are evil. The feeling of helplessness when one wakes from a sound sleep and is disoriented is indescribable. I had been suffering from this affliction for almost two years. Sometimes I wouldn’t remember my nightmares, only to wake up in a state of sheer panic and dread. This lack of a precursor was even more damaging to my psyche as I relentlessly tried to identify my triggers and engage in avoidance behavior so as not to exacerbate the attacks. When one is sleeping, though, this is obviously impossible. After my anxiety-calming stair session, I proceeded to disarm the house alarm and quietly open the back door so as not to disturb my girlfriend.
We had met almost three years prior at a gym. She was patient and very kind. When we first met, my PTSD was only manifesting itself in nightmares. As time went on, it got worse and worse and the relationship began to suffer. My nightmares and lack of sleep put me on edge. I was constantly in a bad mood unless I was drinking. At one point early in our relationship, the situation had become so untenable for her that she painfully admitted her resentment of me for my meanness and the harsh things I would say.
She knew I was having another nightmare and panic attack that night. She had learned to simply lay still and say nothing to me for fear of spooking and perhaps risking my ire when I was in the half-sleep, half-panic state. As I exited the back door into the cool stillness of the late spring air I wasn’t thinking about sleep. I intensely focused on calming my mind in the hopes that it would have a reciprocating effect on my body.
How much can one person take, I thought to myself. The light wind swam elegantly through the tree tops and the sound of crickets continued to slowly bring me back to reality. No more gun shots, no masked insurgents, no searing chest pain… I sat down on the wooden deck with crossed legs and closed eyes. In an instant, I was returned to the Toyota and the images of death, the sounds of gunfire and chest pain.
I decided to try meditating with open eyes. Sleep had become yet another thing I feared, for in sleep I never knew what awaited me around every corner. Would it be another replay of Mosul? Or would it be the plane crash dream? Sometimes my dreams even changed completely and would contain disturbing events, like my brothers or girlfriend conspiring to have me killed, or my Army friends refusing to acknowledge me anymore. This parallel world of suffering had taken its toll and was slowly wearing me down to the point of no return. PTSD almost beat me again…
To this day, I still await the night when I can awake in my bedroom to the “ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling” telling me “nevermore,” hoping it will be that night that I shall forever be released from my suffering; from these Faustian dreams that haunt me…
(Featured Image Courtesy: UPI)
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