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Crazy, Angry, Tired - Why?

By Dr. Mike Colson

Other than normal behavior patterns tend to be the rule for returnees who have experienced things that are hard to talk about and even more difficult to forget. Death, sexual assault and harassment, prolonged deployment, limited scope of operations, loss of security, alienation from friends and family, and other factors force the normal body to react. Feeling crazy – like we are turned inside out – is the result of the brain and body trying to overcome the stimulation of those experiences. Breathing and thought processes change, sleep is disordered and interrupted, weight fluctuates, chemicals like testosterone are released at the slightest provocation, and the personality becomes almost manic/depressive.

Note: This is not crazy. Crazy is a diagnosable mental illness in most cases and we only expect to loss less than 1% of GWOT to this type of diagnosis. Readjustment – even the many symptoms of PTSD – is the body reacting to abnormal circumstances rather than being a systemic mental problem.

So…understanding what is happening is a major first step in finding how to make it better…faster.
Angry comes from, in most cases, the inability to rest and relax. Lack of sleep, disordered and episodic rest patterns, and the inability to dream or enter REM (www.sleeping-disorders.org/rem-sleep.html) all contribute to people waking in the morning angry and irritable. It only takes about two weeks for the body to make the shift to perpetually angry if the behavior pattern is left unchecked. What that means is that early into your tour overseas or in theater, you have already laid the “angry person” framework. Getting control of that anger is important if you are going to retain within your inner circle your hero status. As I tell soldiers every week, everyone returning from the global war on terrorism is a hero until your tell your oldest child to &%^$ off at the dinner table. Anger can set a different table where loved ones are afraid or frustrated with “the new you.”

Of course, anger can get a pretty good boost from depression. And one of the most common ways for veterans to compensate for the changes caused by deployment and war without a prescription is to drink. Alcohol has always been a cheap bus ticket to get someplace…anyplace. If I ask you to complete the sentence; “Alcohol is a ___________”, you probably would answer; “a depressant.” Alcohol is, of course, not a depressant until you stop drinking. For those who self-medicate with booze, the rush of alcohol acts as a social accelerant. When one stops drinking, or awakes from a binge of alcohol, the chemical-based body starts looking for the accelerant. When it cannot find it depression – or low functioning – sets in. This can become a chronic cycle with a very short period of time – especially for younger drinkers. I am not saying that all drinking is bad, but if veterans drink to medicate against readjustment symptoms, they become their own doctors – with limited choice on treatment plans. By that I mean the problem can only get worse when one adds in the associated issues like DUI/DWI, alcohol-attributed domestic violence, poor health and performance on and off the job.

We loose good men and women every year who are released from military service because of alcohol-related incidents – some with other than honorable discharges and the corresponding loss of benefits. What’s up? Better health knowing the challenges of getting all the way home.