Until I read this article, I was sure I hadn’t suffered from PTSD. Turns out I was wrong. In fact, I’ve long remembered the last night I had a good sleep. I just never associated with Vietnam or PTSD.
Before I went to Vietnam I was a notoriously deep sleeper, often managing to sleep right through alarms when I’d stayed up unusually late. In fact that tendency to sleep right through alarms got me into trouble more than a few times in the army. The only real mark on my military record came while taking Officer Training at Fort Knox. Somehow I managed to sleep right through the alarms and noise of everyone else heading out the door and missed a morning formation. I got to meet a colonel over that. Not something I ever wanted to repeat, but even that didn’t cure my tendency to sleep in.
After a week-long training exercise in the Mojave Desert I managed to sleep right through my turn to lead PT the next morning, even though I went to bed right after getting back from the field around 4:00 PM. I slept right through two different alarms I’d set the next morning. Worst of all, we had a rule that if you missed your turn to lead PT, you had to lead the next TWO days. I was so tired, that I eventually ended up personally leading PT for nearly two weeks before I managed to get caught up on my sleep and get up on time.
All that ended one of my first nights in Vietnam. I was awakened around 1:00 AM when the cot I was sleeping on fell over, and I awoke to the ground trembling to the sounds of guns going off all around me. Disoriented, I tried to figure out what was going on. Everyone else had long since crawled up next to the sandbags lining the walls of our tent. Luckily, as it turned out, there really weren’t any incoming rounds. The artillery unit next to us was firing at the enemy, and it was the recoil of their weapons that had shaken us awake. Still, I was shocked that I could sleep through that artillery barrage. Apparently the deepest part of my brain felt the same way, because since that night I’ve always woken up quite easily.
That’s the last time I slept soundly in Vietnam. In fact, I was so tired near the end of my tour of duty that I can distinctly remember dozing off as we headed out in my jeep to run down a sniper shooting at the engineers we were guarding. That terrified me so much that I began to take naps in the middle of the day so I could manage to stay awake at night when we were much more apt to be shot at. Still, it took me nearly three months after I returned stateside before I caught up on my sleep and managed to establish any kind of normal sleeping pattern. If the truth be known nearly 50 years later I have never managed to sleep that soundly again, and I didn’t understand why until I read:
After a traumatic experience, the body gets locked into a state of permanent alert, hypersensitive to any stimuli that might constitute a threat. In this state of chronic arousal, which is one of the principal symptoms of post-traumatic stress, the victim startles easily, is constantly irritable, and sleeps poorly. In fact, during World War I, some of the first psychiatrists who looked into the origins of war trauma believed the entire basis for postwar mental health disorders lay in this chronic mobilization of the autonomic nervous system, a system triggered by our watchdog, the amygdala (which you could almost imagine here as an aggressive pit bull barking wildly at every passerby). A number of recent studies examining the sleep patterns of combat veterans confirm this early impression. Simply put, people who have been exposed to traumatic events sleep differently than those who have not. As psychiatrist Judith Herman explains in “Trauma and Recovery,” “People with post-traumatic stress disorder take longer to fall asleep, are more sensitive to noise, and awaken more often during the night than ordinary people. Thus traumatic events appear to recondition the human nervous system.”
I didn’t realize something like this could happen to your brain, though I knew when I returned I had been conditioned to react to unusual sounds. In Vietnam it was preferable to overreact than to end up dead. Despite all the jokes and stereotypes, it never bothered me that I jumped at unexpected sounds when I first returned. It wasn’t fear; it was fine tuning as far as I was concerned.
I never tied those reactions to my sensitivity to sound and light while sleeping to my war experiences, perhaps because all the “conscious” reactions long ago disappeared. If they hadn’t, I would never have survived as a teacher for 30 years. Being a “light sleeper” has been going on so long that I accepted it as “normal.” In fact, I wonder why Leslie doesn’t wake up in the middle of the night when a Coast Guard helicopter flies over, when distant fireworks resonate through our bedroom, or when a sudden light shines through the window.
Luckily, I’ve somehow learned to adapt, to fall back to sleep quickly after I’ve figured out what woke me up or figured out that whatever it was isn’t there anymore and poses no further threat. Considering the importance doctors now place on getting a “good night’s sleep,” though, you have to wonder if these sleep patterns haven’t exacted a price over the years.
Just imagine what this blog might have been if my brain hadn’t been compromised by 50 years of sleep deprivation!?!