PTSD: crawling in the dark
It’s dark, so dark. I feel the cold, damp underneath my knee pads as I crawl with a dimming light. “what can you see? What do you hear?” the voice next to me and off to the side asks. “I see cement slabs, gravel, dirt, leaves and I think I see an opening ahead about a person’s length ahead.” I stop and breathe, listen to my surroundings. I ask myself if I can hear anything besides the sound of my heart beating. What do I smell? What can I hear?
“Remember what you’ve been taught. Don’t rush, rushing can get you killed.” I hear the voice again. “Time to switch off your light, my turn now.” We switch places slowly. I turn on my side to allow my instructor to move ahead our bodies crowding the small space. In the dark I feel safe, no fear until I hear the cries ahead after this long period of silence. My adrenaline kicks in and I want to push past him to get to the victims.
“wait, breathe, THINK”
He calls out and reassures them we are coming. His confidence is contagious as I feel I can do this. We decide a plan together and I use the radio to call for who and what we need. The need to overcome the instinct to hurry or worse to back out fast and get out! Is driving me to listen to it’s plea. I push it down with controlled breathing and wait for our partners to show up.
The lessons are never ending as we work in the dark taking turns using our headlamps. Conserving our batteries in case we need them. As we wait I squint in the low light and take note of jagged edges of cement, I take note of dips in the ground we are crawling over. I use my visual memory to take short snap shots of each thing and file it away to remember for when we come back out.
As the others get closer with the additional equipment I’m aware of how I’ve only been looking ahead. I’d forgotten to take note of the area we’d been crawling through for the past hour. In my mind I could see the turns we’d taken but nothing else. I kick myself inside for being not paying attention. What had I learned in class?
If you are not aware of the area in front of you AND behind you before you switch positions you will miss important pieces of information which can save you and your partner’s life. Safety is key to your survival at all times.
In my mind I remember him standing in front of us. Think of your space as a clock. 12-12 one entire revolution. 9-3 is YOUR front 6 and 3-9 is your back 6. If you are not paying attention to all of the ‘clock’ you get tunnel vision and only focus on one of your ‘6’. As a partner your job (he has a student come forward and stand behind him about 3 feet) is to keep track of what is between the both of you AND what's behind you! Down in the dark, in the tunnels your safety depends on your partner. It is an EQUAL responsibility. Do you understand this?
Equality. Down in the dark male or female it didn’t matter. What mattered was if you were holding not just your own but your partner’s too. Teams had preferences on who they preferred to work with. Often this was based on long time affiliation and ease of partnership with one another. To mix it up these partnership were broken so they could work with others. Trust.
I got it. Those long time partners had earned each other’s trust over time. Someone new? Trust level was zero. My own trust level was nigh to whatever was negative to zero. I was used to not being trusted where it counted most. I was used to having to constantly earn trust in a very short amount of time. I was used to holding my tongue when someone did something wrong or worse chose to put my life in danger down in the dark.
The guys get close enough I can hear them talking back and forth now. I see their light dimly in the darkness as they get closer and finally see the smiles as they get close. It’s time to let go of my space and allow them to move forward and keep an eye on their backs. “We’ve got it now” one whispers as he crawls over my body to get past me. “I’m staying back here with you and I’m counting on you to watch my back” the other says as he crawls over me.
We lay in the dark and listen to the others ahead of us just past the hole. My body feels the vibrations in the ground before I actually hear the jackhammers and my new partner reaches back and taps my helmet to get me to look his way. We sign to each other it’s OK. Then we cover hard as gravel starts falling down on us. I hear the screams of victims ahead of of us and then see the others crawling back to us. It’s our turn now to lead the way.
We’ve held the back 6 for long enough and slowly twist our bodies to turn back and be on the move again. It’s our turn to trust the ones behind us. We keep the victim between the front and the back as we crawl forward making sure all is still safe. As we reach the end and approach the daylight I realize we all did well this time. We are all safe.
Safety. The vigilance of keeping myself safe all the time is wearing me down. Safety in life is like those moments in the dark. We take turns watching the front 6 and the back 6, we watch each other’s back ‘six’ to keep each other safe. It’s a constant ballet of movement designed to keep each partner safe. In a perfect world this is orchestrated beautifully.
Yet, life isn’t orchestrated beautifully. It throws me down in the mud nearly choking me out. Life sometimes seems like the unseen enemy. Where is the partner who’s watching my 6? Am I even watching my own front 6 and just ignoring the back 6? Am I paying attention to any of it at all? Therapy has been like these questions. 10 months into it I finally have given over earned trust. I have finally shared the most horrible of things in safety. I walked in this door of the office the first day intending to be able to get it all out, deal with it and move on in my life. I’d be “fixed”. I had no clue it would come back to this moment in the dark.
Am I watching my own front and back? Am I willing to allow anyone else to watch my back, trust them to keep my back safe?
When did I stop trusting anyone with my back 6? The smallest of increments of trust have happened to allow this level of trust back into my life. It’s not been easy. Not one bit. I’ve wanted to stop and just hide myself away in the dark, alone trusting only myself.
What I know today, this day is this. I will not grow using this method of non trust. I want to grow, I want to understand what was previously not understood. In order to grow I have to trust and trust doesn’t come easily to me anymore. I’be become like the man I knew who’d lost his long time trusted partner to suicide. He was incapable of trusting anyone to protect him, to keep him safe. He became a ‘hot dogger’ who took all the risks and would risk your life too by not keeping you safe.
We were assigned to each other one weekend. To say I was not thrilled was an understatement. Neither was he. It was obvious to both of us we didn’t want to work with each other. Our assignment was to check all the tunnels for training. I focused on going slow which only served to piss him off. He yelled underground until my ears rang constantly. We crawled through the debris until we hit a space lit by the outside light. He moved ahead through the leaves and found beer cans. He was laughing until he pulled one can out and suddenly stopped mid laugh. I’d moved up and saw his face start to crumble. “this was his favorite beer” and he just started bawling like a frightened child. “I can’t do this anymore! I don’t want to do this work, I can’t. God help me I want to quit.” He pulled his long body into the fetal position as I just listened, watched. He talked and talked about their partnership, the women they’d loved, how much it hurt, how he’d betrayed him by taking his life. “how could he do that to ME!”
Tears made their way out of my eyes down my face to my chin. His words echoed my own life. My own loss. I moved so gently forward until my body was parallel to his and stroked his arm. He leaned in and cried more softly until his breathing became calm. “let’s finish this work”.
We moved on and did our work as if nothing had happened. Yet after this moment underground he always chose me to be his partner given a choice of one. No one understood why. They all certainly groused ugly words with their ideas as to why. They were all wrong. I’d earned in that moment the right to watch his 6 and he’d earned the right to watch mine.
PTSD is an insidious creature which causes me to always question whether I will ever trust anyone at all. This is the darkest aspect of it to me. Not the fear of remembering horrible things. Not the panic of not being able to breathe. It’s the lack of trust. I don’t trust myself to keep myself safe so how could I keep anyone else safe?
PTSD creates an environment of no trust. It sucks me down into the abyss of nothingness.PTSD doesn’t get to win by making me lose the ability to trust. I take that ability back. Slowly but surely I will wait, breathe, THINK