Chapter 3 – Nightmare and Unwanted Thoughts

Note – This post about a nightmare and unwanted thoughts discusses a part of my mental health story from 2018 to 2020 and may trigger unwanted thoughts or emotions in those that have suffered traumas. This post is part of a story told chronologically.

Work was colorless. I had a good boss, was on a good team, but something was missing. I was restless. I can’t pinpoint the exact moment, but this restlessness began in Baghdad during the summer of 2007. I resolved to leave the military, but I didn’t know when I would separate.

I considered applying to Texas A&M for graduate school or using a recruiter to find a job. I didn’t receive follow-up interviews after attending a job fair in Houston, possibly because I was uncomfortable at each booth. I wriggled and scratched my back—I’m sure not a positive first impression. The night before the fair, I slept in the bed of my truck in an RV park because no hotel rooms were available. I assumed mosquitoes weren’t a problem in October, but I was wrong. I woke up the following morning with tens of bites on my back.

When the recession hit, I assumed I couldn’t sell my house. I stopped the application process for Texas A&M and moved from Ft. Hood to Seymour Johnson AFB, NC. After another deployment to Iraq, I prepared to separate from active-duty military.

This restlessness didn’t disappear after separating from the military. Rather, it relocated. I stuffed it in the recesses of my heart as I studied full-time for an MBA and worked part-time at Caterpillar. After I graduated, I buried the restlessness further and focused on excelling at my full-time job.

At a church small group in early 2017, we reviewed our goals for the year. I remember sharing this feeling of deep restlessness. I didn’t know when it would happen, but I needed a change and would leave Caterpillar for something else in the future. Maybe to write a book.

I looked for comparable jobs elsewhere, but none pulled me in the desired direction. Why would I leave a good company for another possibly good company and make roughly the same amount of money? I was aware of the tendency for people to promote by changing companies and roles every couple of years. This didn’t appeal to me, but the writing did. During breaks at work, I daydreamed about the life of an author. I looked forward to the hour or two after work to continue writing the novel. I didn’t see a future at Caterpillar, but I didn’t want to go elsewhere or be jarred out of my job. I felt stuck.

The nightmare seemingly came out of nowhere. Moreover, the unwanted thoughts came without prior warnings. I had been sleeping fine, despite waking up occasionally with a sore jaw. I wasn’t analyzing the root causes of my pain. Instead, I sought to soften or remove the symptoms. The pains had lessened, I comforted myself. I was being proactive. When the pains returned, I knew how to remedy them.

Like most days, I left work around 4, went home, took a break, ate dinner, then wrote for an hour or two. I relaxed beginning around 9 by reading a book or watching television. I prayed, then went to sleep between 10 and 1030. One night in early October 2018, I fell asleep around 10. About three hours later, I shot up from bed, sweating. I had survived.

Some of the details remain blurry as I didn’t journal my experiences until months after this nightmare, but I remember being in the woods. It was dark, cold, and raining. Friends without distinguishable faces had been murdered with an ax or a knife by a butcher, and I was next. I woke up as the knife inched towards my throat.

As I tossed in bed for several hours, I must have grounded my teeth because my jaw completely locked at work. I couldn’t open it for the eternity of a minute. However, the unwanted thoughts were worse. The nightmare triggered something, and evil thoughts bombarded my mind. I had never experienced anything like it. Bad thoughts had crossed my mind in life before, but the thoughts didn’t linger, didn’t stay, and didn’t attack. My mind was sticky.

Rather than tell anyone about the thoughts, I withdrew. I wanted to flee. I didn’t tell the stranger beside me at church the pen in my pocket was a weapon. I didn’t tell the stranger beside me in the coffee shop the mug was a weapon. In fact, nearly everything became a weapon. Most objects could be used to hurt someone, thoughts warned. At this stage, voices tempted me to hurt others. One of the most devilish aspects of this initially was that I knew this wasn’t normal. The wise voice told me to ignore it, but I fixated on the negative.

After the nightmare, I paused from writing the Cornerstone manuscript. I didn’t sleep more than three hours a night. No matter what I did or didn’t do, I fell asleep and woke up three hours later with sweats or shivers. The stomach pains returned for another round, and with the added anxiety, my breathing became shallower throughout the day.

Physically, I didn’t look different, but a dark cloud covered my mind. My dentist ordered a customized nightguard, and my doctor prescribed muscle relaxers. As most medications would do, these helped me sleep an additional hour. Nevertheless, nightmares came, and unwanted thoughts remained. By late October, my mind hardened like crust. When night terrors triggered stinging headaches, I imagined my dentist using a scraper tool to remove plaque.

At least I could leave town for a while and flee the terror of my bed. I flew to China for work in early December. Upon return, I drove to Ohio for military duty. I had another blow coming in late February 2019, and I’ll share more about that experience in the next post.