by an anonymous combat veteran
I worked in Phoenix last week, away from my home, like I’ve been doing off and on for years. My day job involves some stress, but not life-and-death stress like we had in the military. But I always dread driving around Phoenix because it makes me feel like I’m back in Afghanistan. The rest of Arizona and other big cities are usually no problem. Although there was one time on a four-lane through Denver when a big bag of toys fell from a truck, was smashed by the car behind it, and blew up in a giant harmless kaleidoscoping cascade of colors. I had to pull off the next exit and take a moment. Something about Phoenix always puts me right back in Kandahar. It might be the heat, the big bare rock mountains around town, the traffic, or the “sorta familiar, sorta foreign” feel of working out-of-town, I have no idea.
I’m too embarrassed to say how long it’s been since I was medevaced out of Afghanistan… so long that even my first Phoenix trip experience 11 years ago surprised me. But every trip since has been similar. My blood pressure spikes. I have to concentrate to make a point not to scan every car, rock, shoulder trash, overpass, ditch, driver, taking all of it in through rapid-eye-movement-while-awake that those of us who’ve driven in combat zones know. Then, after arriving, it takes time, sometimes hours, to come down off being so spun up. It isn’t crippling but certainly does not help accomplish my white-collar workday nor avoid the hotel bar at night.
I sometimes compensate by renting sporty cars. It’s always fun to drive something you’d never buy. Sometimes I get an Uber and try to immerse myself in my phone rather than the urban desert scenery. But none of it is a silver bullet that keeps my adrenal glands and blood pressure anywhere close to their usual settings.
That is until yesterday when I scheduled an early morning Uber ride to the airport. Frances, a kind little old lady, picked me up for our 40-minute trip just as the sun was just peeking over the horizon. We chatted through our masks about all manner of subjects from traffic, work, family, covid, you name it.
About halfway there, I admired the sunrise now cresting into the Superstition Mountains and it hit me… I was relaxed and calm. Regular breathing, calm heart rate, no compulsive visual scanning, no rubbing my fingers and thumbs so hard they squeak. I was as calm as if driving a country backroad without any breathing techniques or mental gymnastic coping routines. And this, my friends, was a first for me.
Maybe it was the several-month lull since my last trip there. Maybe I was really tired. Maybe I’m getting old. Maybe it was because Frances had the same name as a family loved one who recently passed. Or maybe some of “that feeling” between my own ears is finally just going away. I’m glad I was sitting in the back because I squeaked out a tear and wore a moronic grin the rest of the way to the airport. I wanted to hug her when we got there but figured a big tip and 5-star rating would have to do.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy gets a lot of press in clinical psychology. It seems to mean something different to every practitioner. I think there might just be room in all the CBT definitions for my layman’s take: “Put yourself in a chronic triggering situation but then share pleasant stories from home with a kindly old grandma-type.”
I won’t know until my next trip, but I’m declaring a milestone. “Driving while amped” might strike me again in Phoenix, but I doubt it. I write this to give a little hope to other vets that some of our quirks may not be permanent. Even after many years, when you least expect it, it can get better.
But you still won’t catch me driving anywhere near my own downtown during spring cleanup with all its curbside trash piles. Baby steps…