When I began this journey of my diagnosis of PTS(D), I knew nothing about the subject at all. As many veteran’s do, I too did not want to admit that there may be something wrong with me. In fact, it took almost 10 years for me to consider even looking for “help”. Along the way, I have heard many terms, or “symptoms” related to my “PTSD” diagnosis, both from the medical community and the public. Today’s blog is going to touch on the symptom of hypervigilance or over-active mind.
Finding COMFORT in CHAOS…
I’ve wanted to write on this subject for some time now. One of the major things that I struggle with daily is that my mind never seems to stop. I cannot remember the last time that my mind was completely clear and not going 100mph. The terms that the medical “experts” have branded this symptom is HYPERVIGILANCE or over-active mind.
According to Wikipedia -Hypervigilance is an enhanced state of sensory sensitivity accompanied by an exaggerated intensity of behaviors whose purpose is to detect activity. Hypervigilance may bring about a state of increased anxiety which can cause exhaustion.
You too may be able to relate to this, ask yourself these questions:
1. Do you ever feel on edge in crowds?
2. Become overwhelmed by an unexplainable sense of panic?
3. Do you find it hard to stop thinking about your personal safety, or the safety of those you are with?
4. Do you ever feel as though you could “snap”, or are you on a short fuse?
For me the answer was a very loud YES to all those questions.
How did I learn about my hypervigilance? After receiving my diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress, I was ordered by the VA to attend a Cognitive Therapy 6-week session. This was to be set for every Friday for six weeks.
After arriving at the VA Outpatient Clinic in Sherman Texas, I decided to park my Harley on the sidewalk in front of the clinic. I opened the door, checked in with the ladies at the desk, and took my seat along with the room full of veterans awaiting their appointments. Of course, I always catch some looks, but especially when I am all decked out in my riding attire which consist of my vest, boots, and my wallet chain. I am asked “what are you riding?”, or “kind of hot today isn’t it?” by some of the vets inside the lobby and that never fails to happen. After a brief wait in the lobby, a small very chipper older lady, opens the lobby door and asks for “Brown”. I stand up, shake her hand and follow her to her office. She introduces herself to me as the head psychiatrist in charge of the Cognitive Therapy Program that I have been assigned to.
She leads me down the hallway to her dimly lit office where I am met with the soothing sounds of a babbling brook and the overwhelming scent of essential oils. She offers me a seat and slowly closes the door behind us. She immediately hits me with “So, Mr. Brown….I see you ride motorcycles?” Taking every ounce of military bearing I have in my body to not be rude and say “nope, I don’t even ride motorcycles”, a reply with a simple “yes ma’am.” I immediately can sense her disdain for my answer because of her snarled lip and raised eyebrows. She immediately reacts by saying “I can’t stand motorcycles, they are too dangerous!” She then proceeds to tell me “I tell everyone of my veterans that ride that they need to stop doing so before they are killed.” I looked at her, and without hesitation told her “well ma’am then you are part of the problem!”
You would have thought I just threatened her with taking her life with the expression that soaked her face. “Whatever do you mean by that Mr. Brown?”, she asked very sternly. I then asked her the very question that brought my perspective of hypervigilance into clear focus. I asked, “Ma’am do you understand why I ride my motorcycle?” With the same puzzled look on her face I told her “It’s the closest thing we have to combat when we get home.” She asked me to explain so I obliged:
When I am on my Harley, I feel calm and at peace. When my kick stand goes up and I roll back on the accelerator, my mind slows down and I begin to relax. You see, riding motorcycles is very dangerous. I explained to her that “someone is always trying to kill me when I ride.” I am constantly on alert, scanning my mirrors for threats rolling up behind me. Watching vehicles through the windshield of the vehicle in front of me, calculating their next direction of travel. Watching the young teen-aged girl texting in the fast lane that does not even know I am behind her as she drifts back and forth across the line. Timing every lane change perfect to avoid the distractions of everyone on their commute around me. All this happening in a split second at 75 plus miles per hour, surrounded by vehicles that outweigh me by 2 tons. Scanning the next quarter mile of pavement for debris that may be hiding in my lane of travel. Always looking for an escape route in case I get ambushed… you know, just like in combat. I then started to explain that feeling related to combat. While in combat, you are constantly scanning your surroundings. Watching behind you to make sure that orange and white Toyota coupe doesn’t get too close to your convoy. Making sure that there is no one walking across the overpass ahead and if there is making sure to switch lanes to avoid being a target from above. Constantly scanning the roadway for a carcass or debris that maybe laced with explosives just waiting for you and your brothers to drive over.
Watching the vehicles ahead of you to make sure that they do not slam on their brakes to try and trap you in a rolling ambush. All of this happening in a split second on the highway leading into or out of Baghdad…everyday…for months…or years.
She then said to me, “wow, I had never thought of hypervigilance in that way.” I can say honestly, I had never thought of my chaotic mind being a result of that scenario either. She then assured me she would not ever tell another veteran to stop riding because she realized it is a form of therapy for us. Then she scolded me heavily for not wearing a helmet.
That day we both learned that the feeling of being on edge is also called hypervigilance. It’s a symptom experienced by some Veterans who have returned from war or experienced traumatic events during their time in the military. Hypervigilance is a state of being on very high alert — constantly “on guard” — to possible risks or threats. It may be the result of an experience in a combat zone, a noncombat training exercise, or another type of traumatizing event in our military or even civilian life.
My military training taught me the importance of being observant and alert when I needed to be. I have learned that Hypervigilance goes beyond that ….it can, and will interfere with your ability to enjoy life or even just get through the day. This explains why I have trouble concentrating, feel irritable, become easily upset, or react strongly to sounds and sights around me.
This over-active mind was very much contributing to my sleep problems and my avoidance of places that made me feel uncomfortable, like busy grocery stores, social gatherings, or sports events. But, some of the biggest changes it caused in me; it led me to distrust other people or try to control their actions, putting a strain on my personal relationships.
These things, I am still working on in myself. I just wanted those who read this to know you are not alone or weird when you go to a restaurant and demand to sit with your back to a wall. Or when you avoid going out at all because your mind “just won’t stop.” I also shared this so maybe you have a significant other that just might not understand what you are going through, and maybe my words can help them see just what is going on.
Now people may have a better understanding when I tell them…
I find my COMFORT in CHAOS.
Zack W. Brown
Casualties of War