Not All Wounds Are Visible

By Allie Proff

During my time in the service, I experienced an attitude that “If you’re not bleeding, you’re not hurt.” As much as we know that’s not the case, it’s still hard for some people to admit they need help. They either struggle along broken or finally snap and hurt those around them.

One of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal is awareness and advocacy, if not for ourselves then for others. Getting help for yourself or your shipmate is not a sign of weakness, even if there are no physical wounds.

Before I reported to my ship, I knew life had been easy. Sure, there had been super-stressful times in college balancing my schoolwork, ROTC duties, and social life. I had pulled all-nighters before. But nothing compared to the lack of sleep and irregular sleep that was the way of life for weeks or months on end anytime we were out to sea.

For starters, there was the watch schedule. We were divided into three sections, meaning you stood every third watch. Our watch shifts were what was called “nickel and dime”, and went from 0700-1200, 1200-1800, 1800-2000, 2000-0200, and 0200-0700. So a typical scenario would be stand watch from 7am to noon, then again from 10pm to 2am, then noon to 6pm, next 2am to 7am, then from 6pm to 10pm. Rinse and repeat.

As a junior officer or JO, when you’re not standing watch, you have to do your job, take care of your division, put out any “fires” that happened to pop up, and work on your basic qualifications. You finally think you’re going to get a little sleep when there’s some sort of special event like a man overboard maneuver or a general quarters drill that interferes.

In a 24 hour period, we only got about 4-5 hours of sleep. And you were lucky if that was all at one time. Usually it was 45 minutes here, 2 hours there, kind of sleep. Lack of sleep (and food) became bragging rights and a source of one-upmanship. “In the last three days, I’ve only gotten 10 hours of sleep,” one sailor would say. “Oh yeah,” another would respond, “my life is worse…I only got eight.”

At first, it was funny stuff like hallucinating sights and voices. You think you heard or saw something but then you realize you didn’t. Tempers frayed, mistakes were made, but we kept on doing it because no one wanted to be seen as lazy or a quitter. Some people broke early, and instead of helping them we prided ourselves on how strong we were and how weak they were.

Note: Not all ships are like this. Our ship just happened to have a full-bird captain going for his admiral’s star and Norfolk’s proximity to Washington D.C. made everyone a little more likely to turn coal into diamonds than people on ships in other places. This made the atmosphere more cutthroat . We got a new Commanding Officer (CO) halfway through the deployment and what a difference it made!!!!!!

For me, I started to feel overwhelming thoughts of failure and feelings that things were horrible and would never get better. It got eventually where even though a small rational part of me could stand aside and realize how irrational those thoughts and feelings were, the negative feelings overpowered everything else. The only thing preventing me from committing suicide with the loaded weapon I had on watch in port was the fact that I’d be scarring some poor young petty officer for life and he or she would have to clean up the mess. I cared more about others than I did for myself. That was the only thing that kept me going.

The day I got help was when I had a moment alone in the crypto vault (no one was allowed in there except me, my chief, and our first class petty officer) and started crying and couldn’t stop. Or even make it to a chair. Two hours later, I made it to the phone and called my chief to come in the vault. His wife was an RP (Religious Personnel, assisting Chaplains) and got me hooked up with counseling through Family Services. Although I resisted at first, I eventually went on anti-depressants. It helped, but I’d still have fits of crying where I’d have to pull over if I was driving, or turn off the stove if I was cooking because the fit would overwhelm everything I was doing at that moment and I would be unable to make it even to the closest chair.

After watch, after regular work, there is training and drills. When are sailors supposed to sleep?

I managed to get through the rest of my service commitment and then got out. One of the basic things I did for myself was get regular sleep. I used the anti-depressants for a year, and then took two more years weaning off of them. Even now, I’m very careful to give sleep a priority. When my baby was born, I napped when he napped just as advised; housework and all else fell to the wayside. My husband is an awesome guy who picked up the slack. Once or twice, I tried not napping (OMG dishes and vacuuming and laundry and baby announcements!) but I noticed when the irrational feelings started coming, knew why they were there, and fixed it before it could become a problem again.

Did you know sleep deprivation is one of the ways we use to break prisoners? A sleep doctor a family member recently saw for apnea told us that medicine still don’t understand exactly what happens during sleep or why it’s biologically necessary but going without sleep at all can kill a person just as surely as going without oxygen, food, or water. For me, the lack of sleep and irregular sleep created an imbalance of chemicals in my brain that affected the way I thought and felt. No more lack of sleep, no more problems. Case closed.

Back to the point, though, of why I’m telling you this in the first place. PTSD is real. Suicides in the military are high. Stress, concussions and head injuries, in addition to lack of sleep, can also cause brain imbalances, which can affect professional performance as well as personal relationships. The macho culture that disregards mental injuries and illnesses because they can’t be seen or measured are doing a disservice to all of us.

There’s a difference between people who are lazy, complain about everything, and generally lack self-control, and those who legitimately cannot overcome overwhelming feelings of terror, paranoia, depression, anxiety, etc. If this is you, you deserve help and are not weak for getting it. If it is not you, look out for your shipmates. Getting help for them could save their life just as much as deflecting a bullet from an enemy’s rifle.

Have you known anyone who suffered from a mental injury? What happened?

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