The Startle Reflex

by ginmar—liberal pinko commie hippie feminist female combat veteran who loves zombies and werewolves and hates trolls, twits, and MRAs.

I got back from Iraq in February of 05. I'd been in combat, gotten used to sleeping through the sound of small arms fire and mortars, and had done so many convoys that the thought never crossed my brain that just driving those highways---sometimes in canvas-sided humvees----was one of the most dangerous things you could do. I marveled at a gunfire- and mortar-free future. I was amazed at the notion of roads that were free of IEDs. I had all sorts of electric outlets at my disposal! Instead of sharing a hangar with hundreds of other women and men, I had my own room! Hell, I had a house! I was Paris Hilton, for pete's sake. It was too much to take in.

The profound startle reflex I'd had since our cool-off period in Kuwait was just something that would fade, I thought. After all, I'd had an easy time of it. One battle, a whole lot of convoys, getting bombed every day, getting injured in one humvee incident, hearing lots of gunfire, seeing a couple up close explosions, that time those Poles died practically in front of us because they were on time leaving and we weren't, the Iraqi friends who'd died, the slow and accumulating knowledge that our presence in Iraq was getting Iraqis killed---this was nothing. It wasn't WWII, after all. I had nothing to worry about. I was sure of it.

In Iraq, after all, you could be faced on one day with the photos of people Muqtada al-Sadr had tortured to death while hearing that a mass grave had been found near where you were stationed. And then the US media would inflate the size of the mass grave, leaving you to wonder...."How come four thousand dead Iraqis aren't enough?" Wasn't that who we were fighting for? How come they weren't real enough back home? In Iraq, they were what made the job do-able. If you didn't speak Arabic, you could at least speak Wave like a moron. I remember, to this day, every one of those faces. I wondered how many of them were now dead. I wondered if my blind acceptance of the war had anything to do with that. But I compared myself to veterans of previous wars, found my experience negligible compared to theirs, and decided that because I'd had such an easy time of it, I myself would be fine in comparison. I was certain of it.

For a while I was giddily happy. I was also the cockiest thing you ever saw. The VA would term this "Bravado" and I never did receive an answer to my question: did they call male veterans this? Even without an M-16 at my side, surviving death just about every day seemed to do something to my confidence level. I was a combat veteran and a liberal. I was the dreaded answer to every wingnut who proclaimed that women didn't belong in combat because men would try and protect them. (In my case, that protection amounted to asking me to carry the extra ammo---about ten extra pounds.) More than that, I was someone that didn't appear often in the public consciousness: a liberal pinko commie hippie feminazi combat veteran with a mouth and a blog and a tendency to interrupt conversations just because. For a few months after I got home, life (for me) was heaven. I frankly enjoyed being part of a small and select group that fucked up demographics and confounded characterization. Bite me, Rush. I'm your worst nightmare.

I got a job working in a bank and found a newfound ability to go toe-to-toe with obnoxious customers (usually male) while shutting them down verbally. The manager liked me so much she wanted me to work seven days a week, but I needed time off. She granted me unheard-of privileges, such as the option of sitting at her desk and reading when things got slow. While doing this one day, a walking advertisement for Nonwhite-Supremacy came in. He was over six feet tall (I'm five three), wearing a Harley Davidson tee shirt, and didn't appear to have washed in the recent past. He observed me reading and said loudly, "Lookit that there security guard reading. That's disgusting!"

It was so passive aggressive I was amused. Of course, I'd gotten aggressive. I stepped up to him, put the toe of my jump boot (left over from my time at Ft. Bragg) and looked up into his eyes. "Do I know you, sir?"

"No, I just don't think you should be readin'. You might miss somethin'."

"Sir, I just spent thirteen months in Iraq. I've been in combat. I guarantee you there is nothing I will ever miss ever again."

"Well, I'm entitled to my opinion."

"You certainly are, sir. But if you do not have all the available facts when you form that opinion it's worth about as much as you are."

I looked forward to a humble if happy life that resembled my old happy life: riding the bus to work because I could only drive humvees; spending my newly-freed-from-debt paycheck; going to bookstores; cruising the internet; writing books; writing books about zombies that had female protagonists; and finally, talking nice long walks for exercise as I intended to eat lots of steak and mashed potatoes.

One night I got on the bus and my vision had abruptly changed. It was blurry and too sharp, and my ears were ringing. I could barely breathe and my chest felt like it had a belt around it. My chest hurt. My stomach felt so bad I was afraid I'd throw up or worse. I finally got off the bus at a stop sign near a fast food restaurant and threw up in their restroom. I caught the next bus and hung on with white knuckles till I got to my stop in downtown, near a gas station. I threw up there, too. I had just had my first panic attack, and I wouldn't know that was what it was for a month.

The next morning, in the sunshine, I was much better. At night, though, with the skies getting darker and darker by the day, the symptoms got so bad that I finally gave up taking the bus and took a cab home one night. "Just once, I told myself." In the morning, I found a much shorter bus route. It took me seven minutes to get to the transfer point, and for a couple of weeks I managed to survive that seven minutes and the ten minutes that followed. Then I couldn't stand the longer bus ride that I transferred to. I started taking one bus and one cab in the morning. Then I just gave up and started taking cabs. I clutched at the door handles as if I was drowning, but that was it. Finally, I went to the VA. They said I was having panic attacks and they put me on Celexa, a drug which can cause anxiety. After a week or two on it, I found myself with a racing heart and a ringing in my ears. My eyes were blacking out and I headed for the bathroom and one of the stalls. I woke up in it some time later, having passed out. I was so dizzy and it was so hard to believe I could only come to one conclusion: I'd had a heart attack. I called 911. The paramedics couldn't find anything physically wrong with me.

The job at the bank turned out to be temporary, and my boss stopped answering my phone calls. Left alone with the panic attacks---it was weeks before the VA took me off Celexa----I stayed home, finding my perimeters shrinking by the day as the panic attacks now occurred even while I was walking. Eventually I stopped leaving the house at all. An NCO started giving me rides to the VA for therapy, which consisted of half-hour sessions while the psychiatric nurse asked brief questions. Somehow the fact that I was having nightmares and drinking to make myself sleep never seemed to be serious problems. The NCO also took me to the Disabled American Veterans, who filed a request for benefits for me. The NCO, another Iraq vet, learned to pull over to the side of the road when I started having a panic attack so I could get out. One time we tried to go somewhere at night. That was the last time we tried this. By then it was a year after I'd come back, and I was still fighting my panic attacks with Celexa.

The VA decided I was 20% disabled, even though without the ability to ride the bus or do anything without having a panic attack I was effectively shut in my house. I appealed, and this time I attached something I'd held back, partially because I hadn't watched the whole thing myself: a video of the battle I was in, 38 minutes out of a 22-hour ordeal, shot by one of the civilians we had been guarding. During one section of the battle he'd had his camera pointed right at me, right as a mortar landed maybe ten or twenty meters in front of my position. That was the last thing I remember for twenty minutes. Judging by the video what happened next was that we got over-run, bombed, and subjected to a truly stunning barrage. You could even see my red tracers in the darkness. I just couldn't remember it. After that video, the VA said I was 50% disabled, and with that I got a therapist and an anti-anxiety drug, plus a change in anti-depressant. I thought therapy would help me. It turns out that only works for good therapy.

One of the most frightening symptoms of panic attacks is how you feel you might lose total control of your body. You're terrified beyond anything you've ever felt before, especially what you feel during war, when you just sort of bury it for some later time. You feel like you might throw up, pee your pants, or worse. When I told the therapist about this, she said, "Get Depends."

With the therapist came a new anti-depressant: Prozac. I'd heard of that name, so I had high hopes, and with the two new drugs I found I could make brief forays out of the house for the first time in months. I was still having nightmares but it wasn't till later that I got to read the screening notes the VA did on me, which noted my inability to remember most of my nightmares: this, the doctor felt, meant that I really wasn't having them. They were also skeptical about my claim of suffering anxiety; while observed in the waiting room, noted one doctor, I had not "looked anxious". In fact, I had such a profound startle reflex that I woke up at the slightest noise during the night, and then found it hard to get back to sleep because then I would be certain I heard things in the darkness. The Fourth of July was hell for me. In my neighborhood it started in late June and lasted till the end of July. The anti-anxiety drugs only took the edge off. I would try to go for a walk and find myself gritting my teeth at every step, looking for snipers on every roof, before finally giving up and running home. Even in the house, I was at the mercy of any loud noise or sudden movement. The therapist just sighed and ignored it. She explained how in order to combat my panic attacks---the worst of which occurred in vehicles---I would have to forgo the anti-anxiety medication and just get on a bus and ride out a panic attack till my anxiety 'decreased.' Exactly how I was supposed to reach that point was left to the imagination and to some deep breathing exercises.

By now it was August of 06, and I could feel myself sinking. I had no words for the way I felt. My mother had died a month before I left for Iraq, and it was a year since I had started showing symptoms. My reserve unit's response to my illness had been to demand that I stop whining. "I went to Iraq," said one desk-sitter. "I don't have PTSD. How could she?" They didn't take the trouble to hide this from me, either. A military doctor wrote a profile restricting me from carrying or firing a weapon or riding in a vehicle in a convoy, but my commander tried to guilt me into doing exactly that, with the doctor's note on her desk. The doctor outranked her, but I didn't have her phone number, and I was a lot more vulnerable than I'd been a year earlier. When she finally had me in tears, she gave up, but the damage was done. Being attacked constantly got rid of the confidence Iraq had given me. Along with the nightmares that grew steadily worse--in frequency and content---came memories that I hadn't originally had, as the initial trauma receded. With the nightmares---which always featured innocent people dying while I was frozen, unable to help---came a steadily-increasing guilt, made more vivid by every minor memory that came back, every moment I'd spent chatting with some ordinary Iraq on the street.

"Missus, hey, Missus? You have children?"

"No, I have cats. Meow, meow?"

Iraqis crack up. Are they dead now?

In late October I began to crash. The depression got so bad I couldn't leave the house, go to the VA, bathe, or do much beyond lie on the floor and cry. The faces came to me in my dreams, and then I stopped sleeping. The therapist offered platitudes and little else: "Well," she said perkily. "We need to get you in here!" I was in tears, crying myself to sleep at odd hours, unable to sleep in the dark, and having uncontrollable nightmares and she acted like it was a matter of me not getting a cab. The faces of the Iraqis I had known---especially of the ones who had died---rose before my eyes when I did sleep. If George Bush's mission was accomplished, I had helped, and innocent people had died. There had to be some way to pay for it. Sometime in late October the solution came to me: I had to punish myself for what I had done. I got a knife and started cutting myself, repeatedly. I told the VA I wanted to die. They asked me if I had a plan to kill myself and I said, not yet. Then they twiddled their thumbs, dithered, and finally found me a place in an outpatient therapy program.

I was the only woman in the program. They didn't take me off the Prozac, just added Ziprasadone after a week or so to help me sleep and even my moods out. I slept in a building on the VA campus at night, and during the day I received 'therapy' that was taken from books like "Better Self Esteem in Ten Days." The sole attention my panic attacks got one day was when they informed me I had to go do some community service. I had a panic attack in the vehicle on the way there. They never tried it again.

We had art therapy, crafts therapy, and group therapy. In group therapy, with the exception of a couple of Korean and Viet Nam vets, I was the sole woman---and none of them knew I'd fought off a sexual assault in Iraq. The guys my own age were a mix of shoplifters and wife-beaters, the latter including one cop. One guy, a colonel, whined that he didn't see anything wrong with admiring 'a nice tushy walking down the hallway.' The Therapist---a guy this time----didn't say anything. It fell to me to call them on their sexism, and for my pains I got called a man hater, in a group where I was outnumbered. It was interesting, though---all the older combat vets sided with me and egged me on. "Go get 'em, gin, get 'em!" They told me, before and after therapy. One shoplifter stole stuff because he wanted new and better toys than anyone had, and he was even then designing his ideal, 5000-square foot house. When we got another female in the group, she turned out to be a male appeaser and joined them in calling me a man hater. I had been recommended to the program through the VA's women's center. Evidently it never occurred to anyone that putting a woman amongst a group of sexists was not the best way to mental health.

The program ended and I went back to the same loud neighborhood that exacerbated my symptoms, my coping mechanisms limited to art therapy and best sellers. The DAV filed an appeal on my case, indicating that a suicidal incident ought to be enough to reconsider my case. My therapist opined that I should consider which one made me feel better, the therapy or the fight against the VA---for benefits. When I told her about the sexist men and their behavior, she shrugged, "There's all different kinds of jerks in the world." I fired her on the spot. She didn't even seem to realize it.

The suicidal feelings didn't leave; they just took some time to build up again. The VA found in my case that because I sleeping 'up to ten hours a night' (well, somebody was, even if it wasn't me), that because I was going to take part in intensive therapy that summer, and that because I would undoubtedly get better as a result of this future therapy, they were denying my overall claim while granting me an increase of ten percent. They said I had moderate symptoms with mild impediments to work or school. After a few weeks of reading the decision and realizing how powerless I really was, my brain also came to the conclusion that if I were gone, I would be doing a lot of people a big favor. Six weeks ago, I drank a lot of booze, took a lot of pills, and waited for it to all go away. Instead, I got very sick, and received a trip to a local (non-VA) hospital. There I was astonished to find that doctors did not treat patients as if they were lying sluts who'd asked to get raped. I found myself in tears because after two years it was the first time medical professionals had treated me with consideration and kindness. I don't have enough space for all the things they didn't do, the things to which I'd gotten accustomed from the VA. Instead, they jumped to get me options, asked me questions, and listened to my answers. They didn't argue with me. They were sympathetic. They were nice to me. They actually seemed to think they shouldn't injure me further. Worse yet, it never dawned on me that this was not unusual in medical professionals. I thought I'd found Heaven.

Most importantly, they put me on some new meds. I'm not as suicidal as I once was, but it's there, as are the nightmares. The VA finally listened to my complaints about insomnia (sleeps ten hours a night) and gave me sleeping pills, which had such disastrous side effects that I stopped taking them. I have a lawyer now who believes in pushing the VA rather than letting them amble along. I've found a civilian therapist I like, even if I can't afford to go to him. I call the suicide-prevention hotline now and then but at least I know it's there. I haven't cut myself in.....about ten days. I've clawed my way around the block and to the post office, even if I did have a full-fledged panic attack because of the line.

I'm going to the VA tomorrow, and once again I am going to tell them to get their act together. One of these days, someone will listen. I won't stop asking till they do.

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