Updated: Jun 29
When I entered the room, he sat on the floor with his head against the wall. He'd spent over 30 hours in panic, afraid of himself and his feelings.
While paramedics and police officers stood outside the door after verifying he was unarmed, I sat on the other side of the room.
"How long have you been experiencing these feelings?"
"As long as I can remember."
I could barely hear his voice. He was sober but completely exhausted, covered in tears and sweat.
"I'm here for you and want to help you in every way possible."
He lifted his head, turned around, and I could see his distant sight of palpable pain.
"God doesn't exist."
I could identify his tone coming from a place paved with trauma and despair.
"I might not understand exactly what you're feeling and how you feel, but I want you to know that you are not alone."
"After everything I saw, how can I believe He exists? If He does, I don't think He cares."
I will call him "Jay." Jay was one of the many military members deployed to Afghanistan within weeks of the September 11, 2001, attacks to fight against organized terrorism. He saw many of his companions go down until he returned in 2004. He saw things that he never spoke about. He deployed again being in charge of some troops a couple more times to Iraq between 2006 and 2009, and later again to Syria, "where it felt like a trip to hell itself," according to his words, until his return in 2015, when he was injured internally due to explosions that happened close to him. Throughout the years, besides dealing with so many health challenges, Jay struggled to adjust to civilian life, as many of his company also battled an alarming amount of suicides, making him 'feel guilty' to be alive.
The conversation continued until he almost fainted a couple of hours later, agreeing to let the paramedics take him to the hospital.
I visited Jay in the hospital and followed up with him for a couple of years until a few months into the COVID-19 pandemic when everything shut down. Although we kept communicating with different groups, many were struggling in silence and stopped attending the virtual check-ins.
On the 4th of July, 2020, I received a call. Jay had taken his life.
That night, I was called to support his mom.
As much as I love the patriotic celebrations, I also knew that the noise and fireworks were a challenge to my lab, Ice, for over 12 years. I'd drive him far away from the noise into the canyon, playing classical music or singing rock ballads to calm him down until the frenzy stopped. That night I didn't. I fed him and closed his kennel gate so he could be safe inside his insulated, cool house and soft bed. He rested his head over his paws and looked me in the eye. I had a two-hour drive to meet Jay's mom.
After spending the evening consoling her, I saw I had to stay. The following day I helped her with the funeral and other arrangements and drove home. I found Ice lying with his eyes closed and his head over his paws, the same way I had left him the night before.
He was dead.
It took me a few years until today, days before another 4th of July, when I felt that I should talk about these events.
We all know fireworks are bad for pets. They feel trapped because of the noise, unpredictability, anxious because it triggers their fight-or-flight response. Ice was approaching a tender age, but I felt horrible not being there for him. He was the sweetest dog and a loving being I want to see again.
I also felt horrible not being there for Jay. And for other veterans, even in my own family, at a time they couldn't feel hope any longer. No words can describe everything I know I could have done. I know I am just one, but still.
We don't talk enough about how fireworks affect those who served in combat or went through a fire, explosion, or gun violence. If we haven't experienced this specific type of trauma or war, we can't understand how the booming sounds, dazzling bursts of light, and the distinctive aroma of burning substances can affect someone so intensely.
We may think these are fun displays that usually draw large crowds, accompanied by lively music and kids having fun with their families and friends. However, these sensory elements can trigger distressing memories for individuals who have experienced trauma. Veterans, in particular, may associate fireworks with combat situations and explosions, while military-themed events can also evoke distress. Likewise, for some individuals, fireworks serve as reminders of devastating fires or incidents of gun violence.
Whether expected or not, fireworks can trigger distressing reactions, even in safe settings. Some of these that you sometimes don't notice in others include:
Intense reactions to fireworks sounds
Strong responses to flashing lights
Feeling on edge, jittery, or jumpy from loud noises
Experiencing flashbacks, reliving the traumatic event
Feeling emotionally numb or detached during celebrations
The sensation of losing control or being caught off guard
Resorting to alcohol or drugs to suppress unwanted thoughts.
The National Center for PTSD brings some tips to help those with PTSD to deal with Fireworks.
Consider attending the event instead of avoiding it, as avoidance may worsen the issue in the long run.
Remind yourself to focus on the present moment rather than dwelling on past experiences.
Veterans find meaning in military-related holidays if these support their self-care.
Read about the event or ask the host to learn if fireworks will be part of the celebration and the timing of the display.
Talk to someone close to you about your concerns and invite them to accompany you.
Prioritize self-care before the event by getting enough sleep, practicing breathing techniques, journaling, mindfulness, and limiting alcohol consumption to be in your best state.
Engage in activities that are healthy and safe for you.
Consider bringing earplugs or headphones to help minimize the noise impact.
Download a free mobile app like PTSD Coach to have as a resource.
Tips to Manage Unexpected Fireworks (or In-the-Moment Cues):
Pause and remind yourself that you are safe, even if the memories create a sense of danger.
Utilize grounding techniques to stay present, such as box breathing (4 counts inhale, 4 counts hold, 4 counts exhale, 4 counts carry, repeat).
Practice mindfulness by noticing your feelings without judgment or reaction, like focusing on the sensation while eating a sour candy or spicy food.
Use the Mindfulness Coach mobile app for additional support.
Remind yourself that the current moment is temporary.
Veterans: Please remember that it takes time to retrain your alertness to distinguish real threats from non-threatening situations.
Consider working with a mental health provider to identify trauma cues and learn skills to manage symptoms.
Learn about the specific sights, sounds, smells, or settings that trigger trauma reminders for you.
Practice coping skills such as reframing thoughts about trauma cues and employing breathing techniques.
Collaborate with your provider to create a list of gradually challenging but safe situations.
Focus on finding ways to remind yourself that the trauma is in the past and that you are safe.
If you experience - or know anyone that suffers from - trauma and might get triggered by fireworks, please don't be alone. Talk to someone. Here are some other resources:
Active Duty and Veterans Help Resources
The Wounded Warrior Project Resource Center can provide information regarding WWP programs and services to meet your needs. Email the WWP Resource Center at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 888.WWP.ALUM (888.997.2586).
Call the VA Health Benefits Service Center toll-free at 1-877-222-VETS or explore My HealtheVet, which provides veterans help with VA health care information, services, and locations.
Call the Vet Center's national number at 1-800-905-4675 or visit online for more information or to find the nearest location.
Take a look at Sidran Institute. They offer a referral list of therapists and a fact sheet on how to choose a therapist for PTSD.
Veteran Crisis Line: If you are in crisis, please call 911, go to your nearest emergency room, or call 1-800-273-8255 (Para Español llame 1-888-628-9454). Veterans needing help: Press "1" after you call, or go to Veterans Crisis Line to chat live with a crisis counselor anytime. You can call, chat online, or text 838255.
If you are a civilian and experience PTSD crises, you can review these resources from the ADAA – Anxiety & Depression Association of America.
If you are in crisis mode and live in the United States, call 988 – Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.
If you are anywhere else, here is a list of hotline numbers to help you.
The numbers are heart-wrenching. We lose twenty-two veterans a day to suicide. One is already too many. We can all remember that not all wounds are visible, so let's be kind to one another. We never know which battles those around us are dealing with. We also know we cannot fix all the problems, and sometimes, unfortunately, many of us will suffer a loss. Or many. The pain will never go away, but we need to keep moving forward, one day at a time.
You are not alone.
I have written about PTSD, grief, loneliness, or suicide before, as you can read in past blog posts. It takes a while until I'm able to translate these feelings into words. This is the way I have to deal with it, but many don't know how to deal with these life events. Each of us will go through these at some point and feel completely impotent. It's important to talk about these and learn to be aware of what we are all experiencing.
We are here to take care of each other. Sometimes hope is harder than despair, but without hope, we fail to exist.