Well, the nightmares have returned. Something nobody tells you about trauma – about PTSD – is that it will come back when you least expect it. The nightmares are never about the events, but always about the feelings felt during them. The smallest thing can trigger it. Something you might not even be consciously aware of. And when it comes, it comes suddenly. It strikes painfully, deeply, swiftly. When I left my relationship, I was experiencing trauma nightmares every single night leading up to my last day. Nightmares where I was murdered, where I was raped, where I was chased down and trapped. My body was in survival mode and I had no control over it anymore. The last year of my relationship had been constant stress, constant worry and constant fight or flight. It was a cycle of hope, disappointment, and fear. Coming to UofM quite literally saved my life. It saved my mental health. It saved my future. And it put me on the path to repairing my past.
August was a blur. I moved back to my parents’ house in Michigan. Away from the home I handpicked for a future that – to take from my favorite poem – ‘fell down in mid-flight.’ Away from my sweet little dog, Lemonade. Away from the familiarity and comfort of a military family. Saying goodbye to not only your personal life, but an entire way of life – an entire culture – is something I strive to put into words. There is something so incredibly special about the military culture. About being placed into a new location, a new base, and instantly finding home. Instantly finding companionship among spouses, familiarity among the uniform and a deep understanding that doesn’t exist outside the community. Finding meaningful relationships is something I have deeply struggled with since leaving the comfort of being a military spouse. There isn’t the instant recognition in others on the civilian side. There isn’t the common shared experience of moving across country to a station you hope is halfway decent; all while packing a house by yourself and navigating the glory that is government PCS websites which hail from prehistoric times. There isn’t the routine of heading to the commissary and NEX, taking a deep breath and smelling the sweet, stale, government air, taking a gaze around, and knowing you’re home, even if the location isn’t the same. Military families have traditions when they move. Things that orient them to new places, things that immediately bring comfort. And that was one of mine. I embarrassingly even clung to that tradition when I moved here. I drove over an hour to the nearest Air Force base north of Detroit, had a breakdown in the chip aisle of the commissary and savored each moment driving through the historic officer housing. I knew it would be my last. I knew with each day I was becoming more and more of an outsider to this way of life. And I needed to rip the band aid off.
Leaving our ‘la familia’ fam in Great Lakes was hard. Leaving the Dam Neck fam was hard. Leaving the Stennis fam was even harder. And leaving the navy family was, what I can only describe as, pulling a knife from your heart. Because as a spouse, you are a civilian through and through. You wear no badge. You have no honor. You are not recognized as the hero your spouse is. If you leave one, you leave it all. There is no place in veteran’s groups where “ex-military spouse” is welcomed. No nostalgia, no storytelling, just glaring loneliness of a life you used to live.
Setting my dorm up was the first time in nine years I hadn’t kept my receipts. I hadn’t gone to staples and scanned everything into the PCS website. I hadn’t sifted painstakingly through all my household goods to remove those little blue stamps that you still find years later (even though you swore you took them all off). I brought nothing in from my old life. Nothing was familiar anymore and I had to face that head on. I had to come to terms with the emptiness and the lack of hope associated with that. The gaping hole where sea trial and deployment hope once stood. Knowing he’d be back. Knowing that when you see that ship leave port, it’s going to come back. It has to come back. That safety blanket was gone. There was no ship. There was no Congress to blame for the distance this time. I was the one who left. I chose this loneliness, it did not choose me.
I sat on my twin sized bed, something I hadn’t experienced since childhood, and put on headspace. It was the night before classes began and everything was settled in my space. I closed my eyes to start my meditation and the first thing that came to me was ‘safe.’ I was finally safe. I. Was. Safe. Free from the cycles. Free from the sadness. Free from never knowing when the pain would come again. Free from having to see another woman’s body where it didn’t belong. Free from the lies. Free from the health issues brought on by stress. I never had to experience pain again from the one person who gave it for so many years. I could lay in my bed, back against the wall, and nobody would touch me. I could lock my door, string my chain lock and nobody could come in. I would never have to barricade anything again as long as I lived. That moment was the first time I felt truly safe in such an incredibly long time. That moment, my body let go of survival mode. Over the course of the next two months, I lost over thirty pounds. Weight that my body kept building to try and keep my bones safe. Weight that came off without any effort. Weight that defined my self-worth and failure for so long.
I wish I could go back to my past self when I opened my acceptance and tell her to take it and never look back. The opportunities I’ve had in the last year alone are worth any pain I’ve felt. I will be forever grateful to the lifestyle the University of Michigan has afforded me. They have given me so much more than an education. So much more than experience. They gave me safety. Over time the nightmares subsided. Over time, I was eventually able to sleep through the night here and there. I still have issues with this, but I know over time, it will get better. I know that even though my triggers are still there, even though I still have difficulty sitting with my own thoughts, these nightmares are nothing but a haunting of my past life, trying to have a place in my new one. The thing with PTSD is you can’t let it win. It doesn’t get to define you. It doesn’t get a seat at the table. It doesn’t get to make the decisions. You do. And the only way to defeat it, is to get up everyday and face whatever comes your way. Because it might not be today, but eventually happiness will come. Eventually relationships will build. Eventually you will wake up with an entire life you chose, with people who not only love you – but respect you, and the memories of the past will be just that, the past.