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Mental Health

Dissociation

Sometimes, you can no longer deny that there’s a problem.

I found him sitting on our front steps wearing his weighted vest and boonie hat.  He was getting ready to mow the lawn.  Our yard is already a chore to mow, but he likes to make it more challenging by doing it in a weighted vest. When I found him, his body was racked with sobs as he sat with his head in his hands, hyperventilating.  He had his fists clenched and his muscles were rigid as I tried to console him.  “I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die”, he kept repeating, seemingly unaware of my presence.  I tried to calm him down, to ground him, telling him he was safe and urging him to focus on breathing.  He was too far gone for any of this to be effective.  I sat with him and held him, but it wasn’t enough.  I went inside to get him a hydroxyzine, the antihistamine prescribed for his anxiety.  Maybe it would be enough to bring him back to the present.  

With the little geen and white capsule pinched between my thumb and forefinger, I hurried down the stairs and out the front door.  Mark was no longer there.  In the minute it took me to run inside and get his pill, he’d disappeared.  The nursing instructor in my head scolded me, “You’re never supposed to leave a patient alone when they’re in a state of panic.”

But this wasn’t a patient.  It’s my husband.  I’m not at work.  I’m at home, off duty. Feeling unnerved, I crept around the side of the garage to look for Mark in the backyard.  I spotted him, kneeling on the grass behind the shed.  When he looked up and saw me, he yelled, “get down” and threw himself facedown in the grass.  I was scared.  I’d never seen him like this.  He’d been back from Afghanistan for nine years and only now was I realizing how deeply he’d been affected.  I was afraid of what he’d do next.  He’s never been physically violent toward me, but he wasn’t himself at that moment.  He looked up and gestured for me to get down.  I wished that I was at work, in the controlled environment of the psychiatric hospital.  I could call for help, get some stronger medication, not feel so helpless and vulnerable. I found myself also on the verge of panic. 

As luck would have it, there was a police car parked across the street.  Our neighbor is friends with a local police officer who had stopped by to visit. I’d noticed the car earlier, when I first found Mark sobbing on the front steps. A simple panic attack didn’t call for police intervention; my brain had registered the police car because it was unusual. My husband was dissociating and his brain placed him back in a war zone. I was afraid.  I ran across the street, barefoot and in a panic. Part of me observed the scene and considered how crazy I looked. A critical voice in my head told me I was overreacting and being overly dramatic.  I agreed with the voice that I appeared a little crazed.  Still, I wasn’t taking any chances.    

I grew up with a mentally ill father. Rather, I lived with a mentally ill father until he ended his life when I was seven.  One of my last memories of him was the night the police came to take him to the hospital.  He had been yelling and acting crazy for days.   He was up in the middle of the night acting angry and didn’t seem to notice anyone around him.  As a child, this behavior wasn’t as terrifying as you’d think.  Since I had no frame of reference, it all seemed fairly normal. As an adult with years of mental health experience, however, it was terrifying.

Our neighbor and the young police officer were standing in the driveway chatting. They looked up with surprise as I sprinted across the road toward them.  

“Can you help my husband?”, I pleaded, feeling panicked.  I explained what was going on and the officer followed me over to our backyard as he radioed in the call to a dispatcher. We found Mark sitting on the grass, his back against the side of the shed.  

Recognition registered across the young police officer’s face as we approached.  “I know you,” the police officer exclaimed, “from the gym.”  Mark looked up, bewildered.  ‘“What’s going on?,” he asked.   

The officer asked Mark the same thing as I filled in the details.  Mark had no recollection of what had happened.  He didn’t remember sitting on the steps, sobbing and hyperventilating.  He didn’t know why he was in the backyard or how he had gotten there.  Mark and the police officer chatted like old friends, talking about the gym, the lawn, and fatherhood, while we waited for the ambulance the officer had summoned.  “I’ve got to get you checked out.  It’s protocol,” the officer explained.  I briefly went inside to explain to our seventeen-year-old daughter why there was a police car and ambulance in front of our house.  Our neighbors came over to see what was going on.  I felt a little foolish, like maybe I had overreacted.  

I realize now that, not only was my husband reliving a past trauma, but I was doing the same.

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