I recently had the privilege of interviewing Iraqi War veteran and friend-in-recovery, Rob Ziarnick. He spoke candidly about his experience with PTSD. What follows is a condensed version of our conversation.
During your time as a sniper in the Marines, what kinds of incidents contributed to your PTSD?
The first serious combat I saw was in a city called Nasiriyah. Everybody went basically “weapons free,” which meant shoot anything that moves. A lot of marines took that literally. They shot at chickens, goats, little kids and old women – anything that moved. It was violence in the extreme.
Later, we stopped south of a city called Al Kut. An Iraqi field truck was driving toward us at a traffic control point. After I eliminated the threat, an entire company of Marines on the line started shooting. I’d say a hundred guys with light machine guns, heavy machine guns – pretty much anything you can think of – all of it unloading on the truck and on a family that was at the traffic control point.
A big part of my PTSD was the guilt I felt for a lot of years that I had caused the death of that family.
When did you first start developing symptoms of PTSD?
I started having problems after that first tour, shortly after I came back to the States.
What were your symptoms?
I started having nightmares frequently, often every night, and drinking heavily, which was not normal for me. Also, night sweats and just really jumpy. I became extremely paranoid. I had intense flashbacks, especially from smells that would remind me of Iraq. I would get angry just like that. Not a normal angry, not as if I’m just going to yell at somebody, but like I could just kill somebody.
During my second tour, I started not sleeping to the point where I was kind of on autopilot. Like sleepwalking, I guess. I had a deep depression at some points, feeling that I was just done, and thinking, What’s the point of living?
What kinds of problems has PTSD caused for you?
An Unauthorized Absence and a court martial when I was in the Marines. Afterwards, serious domestic violence, serious suicide attempts and a big ordeal that landed me in a state mental health institution for five years. I decided I was going to kill this other guy who was cheating with my wife at the time. Anyway, I wound up trying to get the police to shoot me and got charged with first degree attempted murder and a bunch of other stuff. My screws weren’t even loose – they had just plain fallen out.
Which treatments have been particularly helpful in your recovery?
Hearing from other veterans who are doing well now – hearing they had gone through the same things I had gone through. It gave me hope. After that, EMDR [Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing] was a huge help. It was like a switch, Dude. The bad dreams went away like Bam! I didn’t have nightmares for years.
After that, I think that DBT [Dialectical Behavioral Therapy], the breathing stuff, is tremendous. I’ve learned how to calm down with breathing. As far as having something that somebody can do on their own, that’s probably the best thing.
After I had a relapse, the Prolonged Exposure Therapy was great; but I don’t think it’s 100 percent.
What do you do for your recovery maintenance program?
I have a lot of friends with PTSD who have gone through similar situations. We’re all struggling, and we talk to each other a lot about symptoms and what you do to get over it.
Some days I’m really depressed and think about suicide. It’s like, all right, what are you doing? Get up and do something. I have support persons who will tell me, “Hey, you need to get off your ass.” Work in the garage, go for a run, go to work, whatever. You have to have something to look forward to.
When I think about suicide, I think about how everybody would be affected if I did that. Kind of talk myself out of it sort of thing. And I think having a significant other helps tremendously – somebody who understands what you’re going through; someone who is compassionate and can comfort you through hard times.
Does a relationship with a Higher Power help you make it through the day?
Absolutely, and prayer seems to help. One time I was getting ready to kill myself in jail. I felt like I was terrible because of the domestic violence crimes. It made me really depressed. I was in my cell, and I was thinking, This is it. I’m going to tear this sheet up. I’m going to tie it to the bunk bed. I’m going to wait for the guard to go by, and then I’m going to hang myself.
I was getting ready to do it when I stopped and prayed, “Lord, please just put somebody in this room with me because I will not make it through the night.” Then, no shit, the door opens up; and they put some drunk dude in there; and he talked all frickin’ night long.
I still have prayers answered pretty often. Prayer is a powerful tool.
Do you have any final words for those veterans out there struggling with PTSD?
Anybody who has gone through the military has a different level of discipline than the average person. A veteran needs to realize that we vets are in our own category. We know how to get stuff done and have perseverance to go through crappy stuff. If you really think about it, there’s nothing worse than war. If you can survive that, you can survive PTSD, even though at times it doesn’t seem like it.
Bill W. brings his life experience to print in a series of articles dealing with the many aspects of recovery. In a sequence of personal reflections, interviews and round table discussions, he shares with the reader, peer to peer, his effective and helpful insights into the world of addiction and mental illness recovery.