Waiting to Exhale . . .
Author: Amy Dozier
January 9, 2008: The knock . . . the shock . . .
They came around 8:30 on a Wednesday night. I had just put Emma in her crib and sat down to watch TV. There were three of them and I thought they were there to kill us. Why else would these official-looking men be at my house so late at night during an active war time? I didn't believe them when they "regretted" to inform me. I wouldn't even let them in my house. I remember shaking almost uncontrollably as something in my gut told me to let them come inside and sit down. But I made them pull their chairs up next to the front door while I kept it wide open. If I needed to yell for help, someone would hear me. I scanned my surroundings like I never had before. Their voices started running together, as did the thoughts in my head. Within minutes, my parents and sister walked through the already open door. My mom's face was red from the amount of crying she had done on the 10-minute drive over, and my dad just wrapped his arms around me. Oh my God. This is real. Jon's dead. Never fully exhaling, I crumbled to the floor.
The next few days were a complete blur. My Casualty Assistance Officer made trips back and forth from Fayetteville, NC to bring us information and to drive us to appointments. I learned very quickly that closing out the chapter of one's life is a full-time job; and a job I absolutely resented, but couldn't quit. The first year was simply survival for me. There are bits and pieces, however, that stick out more than others; like the day my CAO told me about how IEDs operate and what they did to Jon. I remember the graphic details I received about his death. I remember going through all of his personal effects, including his computer, full of documentation of his "work". He was a sniper. I won't say any more about that. I vaguely remember his funeral at Arlington. At odds with his family during this tragic time, I went between feeling angry at them and sick to my stomach that I was laying to rest only pieces of what was left of my husband. The days ahead brought more grief, more tears, more confusion, and the beginning of my own personal war.
I would sit in my bed night after night replaying the events in my mind. I would close my eyes and the images would engulf my senses to the point that I would become physically ill. I'd have flashbacks of the night I received the knock on my door. I would jump when I heard loud sounds, as if I knew exactly what a bomb sounded like. I'd hold my breath and cringe every time Emma would get on even a small kiddie ride at the fair. I would assume the worst would always happen. Ultimately, I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
I appear very put together, and for the most part, I am. I am highly functioning and incredibly organized. My friends and family are my life. I'm so blessed to be surrounded by such greatness! My social life is in full bloom, and I have a daughter who excels at so much! We are healthy and well on our way to living a very fulfilled life! But then the sun goes down and all is quiet. Anxiety rears its ugly head. For years I've had this fear that everyone I love will die a hideous, untimely death and I'll be there to witness it. Then I'll be all alone. I hope you don't mind, but I'm about to be incredibly honest with you, but I'll do so without being too graphic. When Jon died, the story I was told about the events from that day is the story I've replayed in my mind a thousand times. My curious mind has only been partially satisfied by these images I create about what it might have looked like that day, based on the things I've been told. In six years, I bet you can imagine some of the things I've come up with. What I see when I close my eyes is so horrible and sometimes so debilitating, I wouldn't wish it even on those who are responsible for killing Jon. The worst part of this anxiety comes when I see my daughter Emma who looks exactly like her dad. Sometimes these ugly thoughts spill over into my nightmares and are projected as images of my tiny 7-year-old; it's as if what I think happened to Jon is now going to happen to Emma. I've heard and seen entirely too much and quite frankly, it scares the hell out of me.
Love and hate-although polar opposites-are feelings driven by passion. I know each of them well. Give me something in-between and I have a really difficult time processing it.
I believe we all have an inherent desire of absolutes; we thrive on what we know and what will be. How am I supposed to make sense of all of this when there are so many blanks to fill in? Recently, with the support from my therapist and my parents, I requested the full autopsy report from the medical examiner in Dover. My hope was that someone could explain to me exactly what happened that day in a way that was not too damaging to my psyche, but would satisfy my curiosity; I've always heard that truth will set us free. So when it came in the mail, I immediately gave the report and photos to a good friend who is a pathologist. He and my dad spent a long time reviewing the evidence and decided it was best that I not look at the photos. However, they were able to explain to me-in the best terms possible-exactly what happened. With the most truthful information finally given to me, I am now on a new path of reformulating those images in my head. My hope is that by filling in the blanks with pieces of truth rather than bits of imagination, I will be able to reverse my way of thinking. Post traumatic stress is very real. It has the propensity to invade one's mind in a way that renders them completely helpless. Trauma, itself, heightens one's sensitivities. Victims of trauma see things darker; feel things much stronger. But given the correct tools and resources, trauma can also make them the most compassionate, empathetic people on the planet.
With the help from my family, friends, my therapists and a couple of big non-profit organizations, I have been able to continue picking up pieces and moving forward. Having had trouble finding my "place" in my newer circumstance over the past six years, it has become a little easier! The more I open up, the more others seem to appreciate who I am. I've received several emails over the years from people who feel connected to my story in such a profound way, that they no longer fear talking about their own personal demons. Our need for affiliation is simply too deep to go unnoticed; when we are faced with something as life-changing as the traumatic death of a loved one, it's so much easier to begin the process of healing when facing it with those who bear the same burden.
Once I started to let go a little bit, I began covering ground I never thought possible! Continuing my education, overcoming fears and checking things off my bucket list weren't just random things on my radar anymore. They were dreams that were coming true and setting me up for future success! Being asked to sing The National Anthem in DC was a huge boost to my confidence- something I desperately needed. Writing and sharing thoughts weren't simply cathartic for me, but inspiring to others as some of my words have already touched many. There's something very empowering about reflecting on past challenges knowing that they are now part of a much stronger personal foundation. Each year that passes brings a little more hope that this "affliction" of mine won't last forever. I find myself wanting to do more, wanting to try new things, and yearning to experience everything life has to offer, no matter how scary it may seem! Every obstacle I overcome reminds me that I'm strong. But perhaps the greatest lesson I've learned so far is that bearing my still-fragile heart to the world may be my biggest strength of all; for it draws people in and reminds us all that we are only human. Together.
"We are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided."
― J.K. Rowling