Living with PTSD
by Sarah McNeel, Army Veteran
The military has always been part of my life growing up. I was never an Army brat nor did I move from base to base growing up, but my father and grandfather were both in the military. I knew I wanted to go into the military after high school, but my father refused to give me his blessing until I tried college for at least two years. Five years later I was graduating from college with a bachelor’s degree.
I wanted to follow the family tradition, so I became the first female in my family to join the ranks of the United States Army.
I truly enjoyed military life and the structure it provided me. The genuine comradeship I had with complete strangers who turned into my closest family. A friendship that continues strong today, even after I left the military. Leaving the military was not my choice but I could not continue with the injuries I suffered during my deployment in Iraq. I will not bore you with the details but I can tell you that returning to civilian life was the hardest transition I have faced.
The civilian world did not have the structure I was accustomed to, and from what I could see it was nothing but chaos. What really threw me off was the lack of respect and discipline many civilians had towards others. Even more upsetting was the lack of teamwork that I was so used to in the military.
I did not realize how much my yearlong deployment to Iraq truly affected me. I currently suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD, which includes panic attacks and memory loss. Even to this day, loud noises like fire crackers or a car backfiring has me diving to the ground for cover thinking it is weapon fire or a bomb going off. I still have anxiety walking into Walmart, though from what I hear, that is normal for most people. Walmart itself does not scare me, it’s being in a building with only a few noticeable exits and lots of people. If anything happens, I will essentially be trapped in the building with people that will panic. If I visit any place with lots of people, it’s the feeling of being trapped with no exit and having no control. Even being in a room with the door closed can cause my anxiety levels to skyrocket.
Returning to the workforce was also difficult on so many levels. The structure was different, no real clear chain of command and no fear of getting smoked (punished through burpees) by my superior. Well, I guess that could be considered a plus. It was even more difficult for me to return to the classroom for my Master’s degree.
Going back to college wasn’t necessarily difficult; it was the closed space of the classroom and being trapped with only one exit. Granted, the classroom may have a window but, at least for me, I had to be near the door. I hate having my back face the door and having to explain to other students why I needed to be by the door. It also made me uncomfortable having someone sit behind me. I needed to see the entire room and its occupants before I felt safe or at least somewhat in control. I have now learned to sit in the far corner of the classroom opposite of the door so I can see everyone and the door. It still makes me nervous when the instructor closes the door. When I feel myself beginning to have a panic attack, I have to ground myself and breathe. By grounding, I mean telling myself that I am safe, imagining my toes are like tree roots digging into the earth for support, taking large but slow breaths and thinking about something that calms me. Usually it’s an open field with flowers and a waterfall. I even carry around a squishy stress ball, helping me stay in the moment.
The one thing I like to remind my colleagues here at Doane University is that I am not the only one on campus suffering from PTSD. PTSD does not only affect those in the military but anyone who has suffered or witnessed a traumatic event. Slamming a book on the desk, closing the classroom door without student’s permission, or watching a movie that has gruesome scenes or weapon fire can all trigger a panic attack. Triggers can be anything that reminds that person of the traumatic event, even sounds or smells can cause a panic attack.
One thing that I have learned from my experience in the military is that no one is ever alone and not all injuries can be seen. Everyone handles a traumatic experience a little differently but I do know that it does get better as long as you keep fighting. I have been fighting my PTSD for 11 years now and though I am not anywhere near being “cured,” I will continue to hold my head high and move forward.
I share my experience with you to explain what I have gone through and what some students, faculty or staff may be going through in similar experiences. I do not want sympathy but I value your empathy. During Women’s History Month, I wanted to especially recognize all of the women who may have or are currently facing their own traumatic experience. I want to say, “Keep moving forward and believe in yourself because I believe in you.”
The blog posts in Forward. Together. are intended to foster an inclusive community of empathy and curiosity at Doane University by providing a glimpse into various individual identities and worldviews. These are community members’ unique stories and should not be presumed to be the experience of all who share the same identity.