This week our church First Baptist Church of New Braunfels, Texas; suffered a tragedy as one of our church buses was involved in a fatal crash.
The bus carried 14 passengers who were returning from a senior citizen’s retreat. A pick-up truck crossed into the lane of the bus and crashed into it head on; of the 14 people aboard 13 were killed. There were only two survivors of this horrific crash the driver of the pick-up truck and the one person on the bus. I had seen news alerts throughout the day about this crash, but was unaware the church bus was from our church. Around 6:oo p.m. another news alert come over my phone and this time it mentioned the name of our church. My response was like so many from our church and throughout the community… one of shock.
Throughout the night, I was struggling with many different emotions, some emotions changed fast while others lingered. Then it happened, the unwanted intrusive thoughts that are so common to those of us who suffer from PTSD. These thoughts crept into my mind and begin taking me down a path I did not want to go. All of a sudden, I was remembering all the death notification I had made over my chaplain career. I was reminded of our own tragedy in 2001 at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii when two Army Helicopters crashed into each other and six Soldiers were killed. I remember going to the chapel and spending hours with family members as we waited for notification of the casualties. I remember when we were finally given permission to start making the death notifications, which was around midnight. This after an entire day of our families watching CNN every half-hour hearing news of the crash and hoping to get some message that their loved one was ok. I was reminded of the memorial services we held for multiple soldiers killed in action in Iraq. As I went to bed that night, the struggles of my faith return for a time. I had thoughts of just giving up and saying I’m done with this whole faith in God.
The following days, I struggled with a sense of guilt, a sense of uselessness, a sense of insignificants. I fought thoughts that I had no value and that any help I could provide would be rejected and cast away. I dealt with a sense of guilt for feeling the way I did. I felt selfish for thinking about myself and struggling with so many unwanted thoughts and feelings. How could I focus on my own insignificant experience when other people were hurting so bad? I struggled with guilt because I did not immediately get up and go to the church to provide spiritual guidance and comfort to the hurting families. It is now Friday morning and as I write this, my struggle turns to what I am going to do on Sunday. There is a large part of me that screams out, don’t go to church it will not be healthy for you, it will only bring out more emotional aguish and unwanted memories. The other part tells me I need to be there, I am a member of this church, these wonderful people who died I saw every week. I think about our Sunday school class and for some members they have known the deceased for many years. I am reminded that facing this type of tragedy is not new to me, it is something I have experienced many time during my chaplain career. I am reminded that I have something to offer if I am willing to put myself out there. I am also reminded of the fear I face if I go on Sunday, I’m afraid of the memories, of feelings, I am fearful of feeling hopeless and of being overwhelmed by circumstances larger than myself.
I write this simply to help people understand what it is like to deal with the symptoms of PTSD. These struggles are what makes having PTSD such a painful and life controlling issue. When we mention that we would never wish PTSD on anyone. We do not specifically refer to the trauma, but rather the mental, emotional, physical and spiritual struggles we fight within ourselves each day. It is what we struggle with, guilt that we experience, fear that we never want to express or even admit to anyone. It is the assault of unwanted memories, intrusive thoughts, anger, flashbacks and nightmares that in most cases we struggle with alone. Either because we do not want to share what is going on in our thoughts, or because people don’t understand or may even dismiss our feelings and emotions. Sometime it is because we have learned to self-medicate when faced with these overwhelming thoughts and emotions. We chose to hide from them in substances or actions that are harmful to us. Other times, it is simply a desire to avoid these feeling altogether. Having PTSD is a daily struggle; it raises its ugly head when we least expect it and torments us. The symptoms of PTSD will jump out at us at any time and will turn what was a pleasant day into an unimaginable agony that can last for days.