As someone who has PTSD, I still had a hard time relating to what my Veteran was feeling or dealing with. My PTSD was mostly related to my almost 20 years in EMS. I never blamed it on any childhood trauma. I just knew there were certain sights, sounds and places that bothered me from calls I had run in the past.
The other night all of that changed. We went to bed and I was feeling just the same as I was most nights. I was not anxious about anything. There was no specific date that came to mind. My Veteran was not triggered. We just went to bed. As I laid there things became quieter and quieter. We always have a fan on in our room to help my Veteran drown out the noise. That sound usually lulls me to sleep within a few minutes. Not that particular night. Things got eerily quiet.
As I started to fall asleep or at least I thought I was sleeping images started appearing in my mind. They were bright images, almost like a flash. I saw a door open and there was the gold chain from the slide lock on the other side. The sound of the door opening only to be stopped by the chain got louder and louder. The light from the stairwell shown brightly off the gold chain. The entire room was dark behind the locked door. No sounds, just darkness. Then everything went dark. The images began to flash in my head brighter and louder each time over and over again. It was like they came crashing into my mind just as I was falling asleep again. I laid there paralyzed by the images. I could not get up. I could not wake myself up. Then they stopped.
It was not long before another image appeared in my head. This time the room was dimly lit. I was in my Mema’s bedroom. She was laying half in and out of the bed. I knew she was breathing but not moving. My focus quickly went from her laying there to her dentures next to her. In all the years I had known her I had never seen her without her teeth. This image played over and over in my mind. No noise this time just slow motion over and over again. The silence was finally interrupted by the paramedics that came into the room to save her.
The next image was me standing in her dark living room with the reflection of the red and blue lights flashing on the walls of her apartment. Repeatedly I went into the darkness to see the reflection of the lights on her living room walls. I stood there in complete silence oblivious to what was going on in the other room it was just me in the darkness and the lights. That scene ended with me following them down the stairs and watching them put my Mema into the ambulance and drive away. I was hoping that the flashes would end there. They did not.
The next image that came crashing into my mind was the sound of running water in her bathroom. This time my movie came with smells. There was the smell of the soiled sheets from her bed that now laid in the tub. The strong smell of vomit that covered her dentures and the freshness of mint from the toothpaste that I was using to clean her dentures. The sound of my heart beating out of my chest sounded like a massive drum. The running water got louder and louder until it was replaced with the sound of the toothbrush cleaning her dentures. There was a slaty taste from the tears that were streaming down my face. This scene must have played out a dozen times. Each time there was a new scene it was this bright flash of light that pierced the darkness. It was just like I was there, 30 plus years ago. I felt myself in her house. I heard her floors squeak. I saw her furniture exactly like it always was. It was real, playing in my mind many times that night.
My Mema had a massive stroke over 30 years ago and I was the one who found her. I never had nightmares about it. I had talked about it a few times but never like I saw the images play over and over in my mind. I had always felt guilty for not going over there sooner to check on her. I felt guilty for not following the ambulance and stripping the sheets from her bed and brushing her dentures to take to her in the hospital. I felt guilty for not helping her, even though I was not a paramedic at that time. The images brought back some of the worst, most painful memories that I pushed back for over 30 years. Where did they come from? Why that night? There was nothing that I can think of that triggered them.
As a finally laid there in the darkness my heart rate slowed and the sound of the fan grew louder. I was finally thinking things were getting back to normal. I was wrong. Just as the first image of the chain on the door appeared from nowhere, so did the next image. It was a man laying on the road in the rain. I did not really see his body just his hand and the gold wedding ring that was on it. Each rain drop that hit that ring made a loud drip sound and the water ran off again and again. This image played out on a continual loop. Each time the drip got louder and louder. It was from the first motorcycle fatality that I responded to.
The rest of the night more bright flashes came into my mind, some with sound, some with smells. All disrupting my sleep. All of them very real, as real as the day I witnessed them firsthand. The screams of a baby that had been dipped in boiling water with his skin peeling off. The smell of iron rich blood pooled on the floor following a shooting. The sounds and feel of ribs cracking while performing CPR. The sparks flying from the cutting tools while sitting in a mangled car trying to get someone to breathe. The smell of burnt flesh of a victim following a house fire. The loud explosion of a car bursting into flames and watching the occupants burn to death in front of my eyes. The smell of gasoline pouring from a vehicle. The blue face of a baby not breathing. The click of a gun as a round was chambered and the gun pointed towards me, because I could not save his mother. The smell of the homeless who had not had a bath in weeks.
All of this while laying there paralyzed, unable to wake myself up. It was like being tied down and facing all the worst images in my life right before me. When the daylight finally entered the room, the images stopped. I awoke, more tired than I was when I went to bed. Something stole my sleep and rest as it took away the peace of my mind.
My Veteran noticed something was off and asked me about it. I, like him, responded I was fine. I was far from it. I finally told him about my night of painful images and no rest. I told him how paralyzed I felt. He held me and said he understood. I asked him if this is what it is like for him. He responded, “Yes. Almost every night.” He told me that when this happens, he tries to focus on the noise from the fan to keep the images at bay.
My events spanned 30 years. Most of theirs are for a brief period. The concentration of the terror that they experienced may have been over months or a few years and mine were spread out. I cannot begin to imagine how they deal with the constant terror. The fear of being shot. The sights and smells day after day. Looking into the eyes of their buddies as their life slips from their bodies. It was at that moment that I finally understood a little. I had just one night of that terror, just a small glimpse into what our Veterans go through. I walked in their shoes if only for a moment and I never want to walk there again.