My phone went off at 11:12 last night- just as I was drifting into REM sleep. I looked at the screen and Nick’s name and number staring back at me. In the one-second that it took me to pick up the phone and hit the answer button, my heart raced and every terrible thought that could squeeze into that time frame, did so.
I hit answer, heard a strange echo noise, and instantly I was thrown back in time to satellite phone calls and sometimes mortars in the background, a 2-5 second delay. Nick? Nick? Nick? No answer…fear racing though my veins like ice water. Time stopping.
Wait. He’s not in Iraq anymore. He’s been home for 5 years.
This is my self-diagnosed Secondary or “Parental” Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Five years later, I still have heart palpitations when I get a late night call. Anxiety attacks when I haven’t heard from him for more that a week. Even though I know he was getting off work around 11PM and even though I know, he is not in Iraq... I sort of live with this constant underlying fear.
I stayed on the phone repeating his name longer than I should have. Listening, making sure he wasn’t being mugged. It was a butt dial. He didn’t mean to call me. I text’d him just to make sure. “I think you butt dialed me.” “I did, sorry.” “No prob. xox nite.”
“Goodnight mom, Xo”.
It took me 2 hours to go back to sleep.
I know all parents have this to some extent. We all fear that middle of the night call. It can never be good news. An accident, jail, sick… it’s never a call at 3 AM to just say I love you.
If I were the only Marine parent that had this disorder, I would probably keep it to myself. The truth is though-- I started seeing this pattern amongst us during their deployments five years ago. Our inability to turn the car that last corner to our block, for fear the US Marines were parked out in front, delivering the news. Bad news. Months of sleeplessness, night after night lying awake, waiting for a call, an email or instant message. Killing ourselves with good karma, buying brownie points with God, bartering our souls. I swear to you God, I will never ask another thing of you. Never.
Mood swings, depression, anger, confusion, memory loss, are all part of the deal. And when it didn’t go away after one year, or two years, I knew we had ourselves an issue. It’s a bona fide disorder, which almost no one knows about.
Five years later-- the symptoms remain the same. Everything is magnified. I remember that first few weeks when Nick got back from Iraq and I wrote “Please Tie Your Shoes” an essay about how even though he was home I was still going to worry. Little did I know. So little.
I’m sure I drive my son crazy. I study him as if he’s the statue of David by Michelangelo. Like he is this amazing work of art and I am looking for flaws, the pieces chipped away by time or vandalism. Like a mother gorilla, sometimes, I want to groom him. Make sure he’s clean and presentable. And maybe smack him a little in the process – for good measure. I always ask “How are you doing?” He knows what I mean. Sometimes I get a straight answer. Sometimes he just walks away from me. I abhor smother mothers and yet, I have become one.
I took anti anxiety pills for a short time, but I don’t like to take drugs so I toughed it out as much as I could. Still, I have days when my heart races and I feel sick to my stomach. I have to reel myself in and understand what is going on so I can function. Many of my Marine parent friends have these same symptoms.
I remember when Nick was actually in Iraq, I went to the doctor for some stress related thing. She asked me what was going on and I burst into tears and told her. She put down her chart, stood up and gave me a hug. A good hug, the kind a mom gives her kid when they really, really need a hug. Then she wrote a prescription for sleeping pills and Xanax. If only hugs worked.
I wish a hug could fix PTSD and P-PTSD. I wish I could hug my kid every day before he walks out his door- but he’s all grown up- and while he still gets a good hug from me when I see him, an everyday hug from mom is no longer an option. I wonder if he has noticed, when I do get a hug from him, I hang on a second longer than I ever did before.
Intellectually, I know that PTSD is the direct result of a traumatic experience. And we parents, while traumatized by months on end of worry and fear, do not witness our buddies being blown up, or have sniper bullets whizzing past our heads, or mortars going off 30 feet from where we are sleeping. For us it’s a direct result of knowing that your child is in harms way for months on end and you can’t help. You can’t do anything about it. All the praying in the world barely makes a dent in the fear. Pride is not enough to sustain bravery. We run on fear.
I feel bound to understand this because I want to help bring recognition to it whatever “it” is - and because I would like to help other people who think they have lost their mind-all due to fear.
I need to tell myself the next time the phone rings after 11PM- while I am still in partial slumber, It’s probably a butt dial. Take a deep breath. Because even if it’s bad news, I’ll need to take action. Being paralyzed with fear won’t help a soul.