I apologize in advance if this post seems overly personal and the thoughts extremely scattered. They are and it is. This is merely MY experience coming home. From deployment. From a combat zone. From a trauma hospital. Back to my life that has completely changed in the time since I've returned. I'm not the same person who left over a year ago. That girl is gone...
I've been home almost four months now. Four months since I set foot on US soil again. Yet some days it feels like I left yesterday. I've struggled to put this all into words... but I'm going to try because I feel like it may be a form of therapy, and trust me, I could probably use that about now.
People constantly ask me questions..." How was it?" "How are you?". Such well intentioned, innocent questions. And yet the answers still allude me. It's not that I don't try to answer, but in all honesty I don't think I can. So usually I just give the same answer, "life changing." It was...
They prepared us so well to go there. Every element of trauma, combat, and life covered in excruciating detail. Of course they glossed over the things we could expect upon return... and then again as we processed out in Germany. But we barely listened. We were tired. Really tired. Bone deep kinda tired. Seven months in Afghan land will do that to a person I guess.
We were given lists of symptoms we might experience as we returned to our "normal" lives. And I truly think if life occurred in list form I may have understood the signs. But that's not the way it works. Life isn't organized like that. Life is messy. Sticky fingers, kids yelling, people shouting, world changing kinda messy. It was easy to miss the signs. I missed the signs.
Put me in a small space with crowds and you'll find me pressed against a wall on the verge of tears. Normal. Perfectly normal.
Sleep... or the lack of it. Waking up every few hours from the nightmares not always of things I'd seen... but of being trapped, unable to get home. Of course sometimes there were bombs and broken bodies, but that isn't always the case. Normal.
Racking sobs at a commercial or a movie trailer that vaguely reminds me of life there. Tears running down my face dragging my mascara with it. Normal.
But it's not normal, is it? I'm not "normal" anymore. WE aren't normal. Those of us who have lived in that place aren't normal. We have to adjust to our new normal, but we aren't the same.
But why? I wasn't beyond the wire constantly on guard and fearing for my life with every step. I wasn't wearing my body armor knowing it was the only line of defense between me and an IED. I wasn't the one rolling into the trauma bay on a gurney and full of blood. That wasn't me.
I've been a nurse for a while now. I've worked in a trauma center since day one. I've seen death on every level. The expected, the senseless, the hopeless. I've seen it all. I've held hands as life has slipped away. I've been the only witness to last breaths and final prayers. Why was life and death in this place so different?
I've figured out a small piece of that difference. A small string in the unraveling of this post-Afghan life. It was about walls. Those high, almost insurmountable walls I had built around my heart. In the states we all know that every patient has a story. But I don't know it. I don't live it. I can keep them at arms length and not let it get to me. Those walls came down there. The patients there were not merely patients. Many were friends, comrades, brothers and sisters in arms.
The boy in trauma bay one had sat at the next table at the DFAC that morning. The girl in bay four had passed me on the street on her way to the motor pool to head out on her mission. The Major standing at the foot of the bed had been in front of me at church last Sunday. The boys milling about the trauma bay had been here before, many times. Some so often they'd earned nicknames.
I'd stood beside them at countless Purple Heart ceremonies. Seen their faces in too many crowds. Knew their names. They were fighting for me, with me, next to me, in front of me. They were so familiar to me that every time my pager went off it came with the fear that I would know the face in front of me on the gurney. These patients were personal. They were not nameless. I knew their stories. Even if I didn't know them directly, I lived the same life they did. I wore the same uniform. There were no walls. Only us against them.
While I still don't entirely understand the why of it all, this is a start to figuring out why a piece of me will always be at the base of those mountains in Southern Afghanistan. A piece of all of us will be... and in that we have an everlasting camaraderie and kinship that will last a lifetime.
I know this is only the beginning of putting these pieces back together. It's a long road and I'll always be a bit different now. But I'm not broken, just bruised. Fixable.