When the Walls Come Down
July 11, 2018 | 4-minute read
Amber spent a decade in the U.S. Army as a public affairs officer — “kind of like the Army journalist,” as she says. And like all good journalists, she felt it was important to be where the story was.
“I loved being out. I loved traveling,” Amber says. “I preferred to be on a mountaintop somewhere. I preferred to be, you know, on a tiny control or combat outpost, with our troops.”
As part of that work, she covered memorials in Afghanistan, collecting information on Service members who had lost their lives. She remembers watching as members of a platoon would mourn the loss of a comrade.
“After 16 months of watching them clutch each other and cry and ask each other why, and see[ing] the confusion … the way it wore them down — that had an effect,” she says. “War has to do with death on a grand scale, and you don’t realize how desensitized you become. You don’t realize the walls that you build to keep yourself from being hurt by what you’re a part of.”
When Amber first returned home from Afghanistan, she found herself drinking too much, or drinking on top of the pain medication she took for her neck and back. “We were not aware of the fact that we were salving our wounds with alcohol,” she says. Later, she began to experience panic attacks. She faced depression. She started to withdraw from others.
“Everybody talks about the drinking and depression and anxiety,” she says. “But the things that people don’t talk about are … forgetfulness, flightiness, just kind of zoning out. I was constantly … leaving my keys on top of my car, leaving my keys locked in my car, forgetting my keys in the refrigerator.”
About three and a half years after she left the service, she began to see that she was facing the effects of posttraumatic stress.
You don’t realize the walls that you build to keep yourself from being hurt by what you’re a part of.Amber
There was the time after she’d been out of the service for a while when she participated in an interview about women in combat. She answered all the questions fine and without breaking down — tough questions like “What does a bullet sound like when it whizzes past your head?” and “What does an explosion sound like when it’s close you?” But after the interview, when she was back at work, she spent the rest of the day in a storeroom crying. “I wasn’t really sure why,” she says. “But I just put it behind me.”
Since leaving the service, Amber has worked with women who have faced military sexual trauma, helping them address their PTSD and navigate the process of filing disability claims.
It was these women who helped Amber realize that she was dealing with something herself — that she, too, needed help. “Listen, Amber, you’ve got PTSD,” they told her. “You’re a mess.”
With the help of a therapist, she began to take action. They pinpointed her triggers, like loud noises or being stuck in traffic without any control over the situation. They built a plan for dealing with a panic attack. They began to address the ways in which war was still affecting her.
“As a soldier, you constantly have this need to want to be tough,” Amber says. “You have the desire to want to be an example, a leader. You know, soldiers can’t break down. … So, I had to learn that it was OK to fall apart, and I had to learn that it was OK to break, and I had to learn that it was OK to be broken.”
I had to learn that it was okay to be broken.Amber
Amber experienced her first panic attack at VA. She had felt it coming all day. There she was in a pharmacy waiting room, and the talk all around her was about war — specifically, she remembers, about jumping out of airplanes. Suddenly, she couldn’t breathe; she couldn’t speak.
The man next to Amber was trying to strike up a conversation, and finally she was able to muster enough breath to tell him: “I’m usually much friendlier than this. I’m sorry I’m not talking to you, but I’m having an anxiety attack right now. I’m not really sure what it’s from.”
Right away, he realized she was dealing with PTSD. “Do you have an outlet?” he asked her. “Do you have any way that you are … letting this out?”
She told him no. Then she began to cry.
“I couldn’t stop,” Amber says. “And I felt so embarrassed because everybody turned around and looked at me. And the gentleman just reached out and took my hand. And he said, ‘You have to find a way to let it out.’ And then he just held my hand, and he told me it was going to be OK.”
As the other Veterans in the room turned their attention to her, the man told them: “She’s just having her moment. She’s just having her come-to-Jesus moment.” And then, slowly, some of them walked over to hold her hand too.
“When it comes to treating yourself for military-specific mental illness, it’s very important that you find your tribe,” Amber says now. “Get to the VA and talk to somebody. Get into a support group. Don’t be afraid. Don’t think that you are too good to go out there and get help.”
She’s seen the power of that help.
“It’s a lot better. And it will get better, it’ll get even better — I know it will,” she says. “But yes, I’m able to see things in a more honest light. I’m able to see myself in a more honest light. And even though there’s things within me that I’m not sure about, at least I’m aware of them now. And that means that I can start to take care of them.”