Fireworks as an Emotional (PTSD) Trigger (originally posted on 4 Aug 2018)

September 8, 2022

*originally posted on Shawna’s blog on 4 August 2018.

Fireworks and PTSD

This is one of those posts that has been on my list to write for a while now. But something else always came up. I think I have an important perspective and it’s one not commonly voiced.  So bare with me today as I talk about some non artsy stuff.

A Little Backstory

To give you an idea about where I’m coming from, I am an OIF (Operation Iraqi Freedom) Veteran.  I did about 7 months in Iraq in a little FOB (Forward Operating Base) called Kalsu. When we first got there, it was pretty quiet. But after Christmas activity picked up and we were getting mortared on a regular basis.  It had gotten to the point that we were all pretty non challant about the rocket attacks – my roommate and I had “mortar bags” that we kept filled with snacks, a music player (mp3 player), etc.

That is until the attacks started resulting in casualties. Now mortars meant I had work to do – I was a medic.

The very first mortar I ever saw coming in, I was standing outside looking up at the stars. I was on night shift at the clinic. I saw it before I heard the tell tale whistling sound. I thought it was a shooting star at first. And then I heard the whistle closely followed by the explosion when it hit one of our concrete barriers. Just one of things you’ll never forget.

Fast forward a month or two.. I had begun having “spells” (which were later diagnosed as seizures). I had fallen down and cut above my eye. I was in being evaluated when we got hit.  We had casualties, and 1 was really bad.  I had been ordered not to help because I was injured. When one of the patients came in and had nearly every limb blown off – just hanging on by sinew and skin… I jumped in.

At the very least, I felt I could hold his head and neck stable while someone else could attend to the other injuries.  There were medics and docs working from every direction. While the patient and I held a conversation, and I kept a finger plugged in his carotid artery until the docs could stop the bleeding with Quick Clot. I kept him lucid. We talked about getting our boys together to play football when we got back stateside.

The smell of burnt flesh is another one of those things you never forget. Either is the look in the eyes of a man who is dying… whose face is literally just inches from yours.

Shortly after that last attack I was sent home due to my own health decline – a story for another day. But these are the images I see, smell, and feel when there are fireworks. They say that the sense of smell is one of the biggest memory triggers/recalls we have.

My Views on Fireworks

Immediately after my return I found myself affected by loud noises, thunderstorms, and ESPECIALLY mortar style fireworks. I was once on the bandwagon of “be kind and thoughtful of your neighbor who’s a combat Veteran”.  You know what I’m talking about – those signs that get posted. And I used to voice my distaste of fireworks.

But then something inside me switched.  I was tired of feeling like – and acting like – a victim. I chose to take things into my own hands.  With the help of an amazing counselor (who has since retired – booo ), we worked on exposure therapy. Always with my husband around since he is able to help bring me down when things like that get to be too much.

Instead of asking people not to shoot off fireworks, I began staying inside with the windows closed. Instead of muting scenes with fireworks in movies or tv shows, my husband would just turn the volume down. Once I was able to be around these muted sounds without experiencing a physical reaction, we increased the volume.  Over a period of two years we did this.

My husband is a patient man and I am thankful every day that he found me. I still don’t like regular fireworks, but they don’t send me into a tailspin of anxiety and flashbacks anymore. I can tolerate them AND I can tolerate sudden loud noises better than I once could. Still have a lot of work to do with the mortars. The iconic whistling sound is one that still gets me.

Instead of asking friends and neighbors and my community to alter THEIR way of life and celebration because I have issues… I’ve altered MINE. I didn’t feel like it was a fair trade-off that everyone else suffer because I was suffering. To me, that’s part of the victim mentality.

So I invested in some decent ear buds and during the month of July and any other celebratory time of year, I put my headphones on and listen to happy music. I work in my studio and use the time to be productive.  I realize this view is unpopular, or at least I perceive it as unpopular in my social circles.

There are many other demographics of people and animals who are also affected by loud noises and smells. Combat Veterans are not alone in their dislike for fireworks.  And some of my fellow Veterans LOVE fireworks. Each of our experiences and reactions to those experiences are so incredibly different. Not better or worse, just different.

I’d like to encourage you to try what I’ve done if fireworks bother you. See if it helps. Work towards finding a solution rather than holding onto the problem. Life can be sooo much better if you are willing to put in the work. It takes time. Dedication. Commitment. Perseverance. And it sure as hell isn’t easy. But it’s SO WORTH IT. Take back control of your life.

You can do it! I believe in you!

Written By Shawna B.

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