My journey back to normal

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Between August 2009 and March 2010, I lost myself during my deployment to Afghanistan. The night I came home, my world came apart, and I've been picking the pieces up ever since.

My family and co-workers greeted me coming out of the secure area of the airport and as I went to hug my son, I looked into his eyes and could tell he no longer had any idea who I was, as he ran from me to his father. My heart was broken!

Right then things were different - I had returned home to a failing marriage, a son who no longer recognized me, and orders to a new duty assignment.

Everyday activities became overwhelmingly difficult. About a week after I came home, I made my first commissary trip and about 10 minutes into my trip had a panic attack. In Afghanistan, the day was planned out for me; meals were planned and prepared for me. Here, there were so many choices, so many decisions to make - it was overwhelming. I didn't know what my son liked anymore, or even what I liked anymore.

Life at home with my husband went from bad to worse. I slept on the couch for the first several weeks of being home; all while struggling to fit back into my family. We constantly argued and fought over everything. One instance was over something petty and I couldn't calm myself down. I begged him to stop; I felt out of control and filled with rage. Unable to resolve things, we soon divorced.

In July 2010, I took my son to visit my mother. While we were there, I was quiet and withdrawn and I longed to sleep and unwind, but I couldn't settle down long enough to have a quiet thought.

When we visited extended family, I felt socially awkward and no longer knew how to have small talk. I didn't open up to anyone because I knew they wouldn't understand where I was coming from. I sat there watching everyone else play catch-up and be happy while I longed to be back in Afghanistan, where I would fit in and be around people who could understand.

Before Afghanistan, I used to pride myself on not being an angry person. It used to take a lot for me to get mad, but here I was now, fighting and getting angry all the time. I didn't know how to handle it, how to stop the anger from consuming me.

I lost sight of who I was while deployed. The harsh environment and combat conditions of Afghanistan had become my new 'normal,' and I failed to balance my home life with my work. While I was deployed, I didn't feel connected to home or anything happening back in the U.S.

As a public affairs photographer, it is my job to document everything ranging from change-of-command and promotion ceremonies, to 'feel-good' events happening on base like an Earth Day flower-planting or Asian-Pacific Heritage Month luncheon; but in a deployed location, like the one I was in, it's a different story. In Afghanistan, I photographed the very extremes of human suffering: abused children, death and injury, and the harshness of life there.

On my first mission, our convoy struck an improvised explosive device. As I dismounted to document the damage, with every step I thought, "If there is one IED, there are most certainly two."

On Oct. 16, 2009, I lost two friends when their HUMVEE rolled over an IED. Two members of the team were killed in action, and two others were wounded. One of the team members killed was an Army specialist with two young children. He was my security detail on missions. The other was an Army sergeant, who was driving the HUMVEE at the time of the incident.

As soon as I heard the news, I collapsed.

I photographed the dignified transfer of their remains. I actually knew these guys; had gone on missions with them. I was supposed to have gone on that mission, and felt guilty in some measure that I wasn't there. Some people would call that lucky, I guess - not me.

I often think of the loss of my two friends and hope their families know how much they loved them, and pray they'll find peace. Documenting their dignified transfers and capturing their memorial service are still the saddest and most tragic events of my deployment.

When I arrived at my home station at Lajes Field, Azores, everything seemed so trivial, mundane and unimportant, compared to what I did in the desert. I felt I did not belong here anymore, I belonged back in Afghanistan. I couldn't help but feel useless and struggled to find purpose in my job.

So much had changed... Life had moved on without me. I didn't fit in at home or work; I didn't recognize the music on the radio, shows on TV or movies in the theater. I struggled to find my place in the world to which I had returned.

I knew I needed help and made an appointment with my primary care manager. Prescribed an anti-depressant, I was told it would help with my feelings of rage, sadness, and hopelessness. But I had no idea what I was supposed to do after that.

About a month from my permanent change of station, I felt that going to the mental health clinic at that point would be useless--I would have to leave and start over again when I got to my new duty station anyway.

I PCS'd to my new duty station and put on a happy face, looking forward to a new beginning. Pretending I was not bothered, yet inside I was overwhelmed and still filled with rage and sadness.

The facade didn't last long; I began to have angry outbursts at work. My Airmen would see me crying in my office and when they would ask why, I would just explain how I felt so sad and angry all the time, and apologize. Recognizing that this was not normal, I sought therapy at the base mental health clinic, and shortly thereafter, I was given the preliminary diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder.

My therapist offered me a choice between intense counseling or the trauma recovery program at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

With Christmas a few weeks away and my son coming to visit me, I didn't want to chance not seeing him and opted for intense counseling. My therapy was emotionally charged, and there were uncomfortable conversations about my deployment and the feelings that came along with it.

Shortly before my son's visit, I confided to my therapist that I understood the mentality of why people kill themselves over this condition. I spent the rest of the visit reassuring him that I was not suicidal.

My therapist met with me every week for four weeks until my son arrived. My son is my world, and like any non-custodial parent, looked forward to this visit with all my heart. While I enjoyed our time together, inside there was guilt and sadness that I could not see him every day and the visit made me more regretful for not being totally engaged with him.

I had overcome other obstacles in life, just like anyone else. Why was this time so different, why couldn't I make myself right? I never wanted to go out and I found happiness in nothing. I spent most nights talking myself out of drinking the bottle of liquor in my kitchen and when that became too much, I slept.

I wanted to feel something different, anything but this. Thoughts of the deployment and the feelings of sadness, anger, depression and pain never ended. I was desperate to feel something different.

After I dropped my son off to his father, a thought entered my mind... I would drive my car into a guardrail along I-295 - not to kill myself, but to feel something different. I cried all night once I got home and called my therapist first thing in the morning. I was no longer functioning - I had hit rock bottom.

I made it to my therapist's office the next morning, and right away he could see I was in trouble. It didn't take much coaxing to decide I needed to be admitted to the in-patient psychiatric ward.

PTSD is not this dramatic symptom-driven state of being as it is portrayed in movies and on television. In general, people with PTSD do not show symptoms all the time. We have become masters at appearing normal and, for the most part, are highly functioning members of society. It is only when we can no longer operate under "normal" that we reveal ourselves and seek help. Even at my worst I was not exhibiting symptoms all the time.

My first sergeant was called and I was escorted home to pack a bag and be taken to Walter Reed's Ward 54. I remember feeling very tired when I arrived. Everything had hit me at once, and sapped all my energy. My first day in Ward 54, I met my treatment team and was asked a multitude of questions about my past and my deployment before being put on additional medication to go along with my anti-depressant.

Three-and-a-half days in-patient allowed for decompressing and opening up about what I had been feeling since coming home. For the first time in a long time, I didn't feel alone, and relished being around other Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines with similar experiences.

There was a certain comfort in being there. The staff treated us with respect and compassion and didn't make us feel "crazy." It's in that kind of atmosphere that you feel free to open up, and let go of some of the anger, rage and sadness. Along with PTSD, I was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder. Apparently, depression is common with people diagnosed with PTSD. My medication was adjusted and felt I was beginning my journey to feeling normal again.

I was soon released to the out-patient trauma recovery program - a four-week program designed to help members deal with and handle their post-deployment issues. I was constantly asked what kind of thoughts I was having. Initially, I couldn't put into words what my thoughts were because there were so many.

Finally, I began personifying my thoughts, referring to them as "she" or "her." There were days when 'she' would behave and let me be an active part of my day - those were my good days. 'She' was there, but quiet and behaving 'herself.' On bad days, 'she' would run around in my head and wreak havoc on my concentration, anger control and my overall mood. 'She' was like a tornado running through my mind and I was there in the middle trying to hang on to whatever I could until I could get 'her' under control, which was mentally and physically exhausting.

I could no longer hide my feelings and had to confront them head-on, which was challenging for me, to say the least. I had to open up to people I didn't know and trust that no one would gossip or judge. I was quiet in the beginning and didn't speak much, but listened and soaked up everything.

In therapy, patients are taught coping skills to deal with whatever issues they may have. Many of us had anger issues, and struggled with ways to deal with them. Of all the coping skills I learned about, what seemed to work best for me was positive self-talk, which allows me to replace all the negative thoughts with positive ones. This was not easy and took a lot of practice and determination. When something triggers me to feel anxious, I stop myself and take a minute to gain perspective. I try to stay in the moment and talk myself through whatever it is I am feeling.

Toward the end of my four-week stay at Walter Reed, I realized that I hadn't prepared myself to go back to work. I'd been so focused on healing my past, I hadn't thought about how to deal with the present.

I hadn't left work on the best terms. My supervisor and I hadn't gotten along, and I was not a good supervisor when I left. I was going to have to deal with going back to fix the mess left behind.

My leadership stood behind me through the entire process and when I returned. I was welcomed back and allowed to take my time easing back into things. I still see my therapist and am still on medications, but feel better and stronger every week. There are still bad days, and that's okay. My long-term goal is to be off all my medications and see my therapist less.

My short term goals: To not jump out of my skin when the Honor Guard practices firing outside my office building, and to be able to run the tunnel between the base exchange and shoppette during a workout without feeling trapped or fearing an explosion.
Today, I am happy and have reintegrated back into my life. I have found purpose and feel hopeful about my future, personally and professionally. The struggle was worth it and made me the person I am today, and for that I am thankful.

I have bonded with my child and realize how truly blessed I am that he is growing up on U.S. soil. He will never know poverty, hunger, cold or war. I can give him a childhood that Afghan children will never know. I see him smile and play and can't recall ever seeing an Afghan child smile or play during my time there.

For anyone struggling, I beseech you to get help. Tell your supervisor, first sergeant, chaplain or someone in the mental health profession. Help is there and asking for it is not a sign of weakness - it's a sign of strength.

For family members of someone coming home from deployment or struggling now - don't rush them. Be an ear and a shoulder, when they're ready to talk, listen, and when they need help, be by their side.

I feel no shame and don't want people to feel sorry for me or treat me any differently. I am still a valuable and proud member of this Air Force and I believe in our mission.

If you need to talk to someone, there are resources that can offer help. Visit your base mental health clinic; call the Defense Centers of Excellence Outreach Center at 1-866-966-1020 for psychological health and traumatic brain injury information and resources; call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and press "1" for crisis intervention; or log on to https://realwarriors.net or www.afterdeployment.org for wellness resources for the military community.