Combat Veterans and Fireworks

33-1196545384The neighborhood where I live has its own Facebook page where people post announcements and searches for lost cats. Last year, about this time, a post appeared from a neighbor who said he was an Iraq War veteran. Fireworks triggered his PTSD, he said, so could we please refrain from shooting them off?

By the time I saw this request, many had already commented, saying thank you for your service and, no, of course they wouldn’t shoot off fireworks if it bothered him so much. I wasn’t planning on shooting off fireworks anyway, so I had no problem complying with his request, but I did want to write into the comment section and ask if he had competent mental health care. I was concerned he didn’t.

If he were my client, I would have strongly tried to dissuade him from posting that request. It wasn’t going to work, for starters. There are plenty of neighbors who aren’t on Facebook. He was still going to have to hear fireworks anyway and, if he did so after making the request, he’d be adding frustration with his neighbors to an experience that’s already fraught.

However, there is another reason I would have tried to deter him from posting that request. Fireworks are not his enemy. If he really wants to recover from PTSD acquired from wartime exposure to explosions, then hearing fireworks is actually the best thing that could happen to him. He should be asking people to set off more fireworks, so he could more quickly reappropriate the sights and sounds for his life stateside.

The reason he’s finding fireworks problematic is probably because they sound like an IED going off, or gunfire, or artillery, or bombs dropped, or mortars landing. For a second, he isn’t sure whether he’s here, in Rochester, New York, or back in Bagdad. His anxiety spikes. He’s flooded with emotions. Then a second wave of problems arrive when he realizes he’s not in Bagdad and feels helpless and ashamed of his reaction. Then, maybe there’s a third wave of problems if he deals with all this by snapping at someone, getting drunk, or doing something else that feels better in the short-term, but creates long-term problems.

If something is making you anxious, there are basically two things you can do about it. You can avoid it or face it. If it’s possible to avoid the thing making you anxious, then that’s most often the right choice. I get anxious when I’m around snakes, for instance; but, snakes for me are easy to avoid. If I was going to have to be around the slithery creatures, I’d have to do something about my snake phobia; I would do so by exposing myself to snakes.

If you can’t avoid the thing that makes you anxious, then you’re going to have to face it. That’s the case for my neighbor, the veteran. He’s kidding himself if he thinks he can stop people from setting off fireworks.

Admittedly, he would do better at getting used to fireworks if he went with his family to some Fourth of July event where the town sets them off. He would be around loved ones, they could hold his hand, the explosions be going off at predictable times, and he’d see all the pretty colors. If he has any bad reaction to fireworks in that setting, he could do some deep breathing and settle himself down pretty quickly. I think it would just take one or two sessions like that and he’d be as good as new.

The unpredictable fireworks that neighbors will set off are more likely to cause a reaction than the planned ones. If I encounter a snake in my path when I walk through the woods, I would have more anxiety than if I saw a snake in a pet store, even if that snake was well out of striking distance. However, whenever I go for a hike, I know I might see a snake. I can intentionally prepare myself and not be surprised. In the same way, the Veteran can look at his calendar, see that it’s the end of June, and figure he’s going to hear some fireworks soon. The more he hears, the better; the more quickly he can get over his experiences in Iraq.

I don’t think it’s any accident that, for centuries, people all over the world have set off fireworks to celebrate victory. There must be a reason for it. I think the custom started by some war veteran who wanted to create an association between a loud noise and joy, rather than horror. I think other war veterans flocked to watch those fireworks, so they could appreciate the sounds and the sight of bombs without having to worry about being blown up. This was a way of restoring themselves to the sanity of peacetime by re-programming the sights and sounds of war.

The absolute best thing my neighbor the Veteran could do is to get some fireworks of his own and set them off. Then he would feel more in control. But he should do so out in the country somewhere and not in our neighborhood. It’s just rude to set off fireworks in the suburbs. They’re loud and people could be trying to nap.