Safe, Safe, Not Safe Anymore

Today, we’re going to the Ministry of Health and our convoy is going into the Red Zone through the Assassins Gate. It’s 2005. My future husband Jon, the Embassy Health Attaché, is the guy in charge. Even though I’ve been to this ministry a couple of times, I couldn’t get there on my own. Baghdad doesn’t have street signs and we’re always going too fast.

Besides, it’s hard to pay attention when you’re certain someone or something is going to kill you.

The leader of our convoy gives the go ahead and we’re off. My skin starts itching, and even though I’ve filed my nails down they still leave rake marks on my arms.

Our exodus is coming up, I can feel it. Wait for it. Wait for it. We’re still in the Green Zone, still in the Green Zone, but we’re getting closer to the gate, closer, CLOSER. We’re safe… safe… safe and then whoosh we’re through the gate and my entire being screams, we’re not safe anymore.

Despite being surrounded by burly men and women with weapons, and at one point being one of the burly people with a weapon myself, going out into the Red Zone always made me feel like I was on display. I was the target in a carnival game. The game where you pay three dollars and someone gives you five baseballs, and you try to smash that target, which, in this case, would be me.

It’s a very uncomfortable feeling: trying to act normal while the four-year-old in my head has crawled under the bed.

I never lost that feeling. It’s the one that grabs me every time I have to leave my house. The one that grabs me every time I have to face a new challenge. My skin starts to itch—with the same someone’s-going-to-get-me sensation. It gets in the way of everything.

At one point, like thousands of other PTSD sufferers, I couldn’t leave my house. I couldn’t get it together enough to make it okay, to make me feel safe enough to go out into the unknown world.

My darling husband got me my service dog Timothy four years ago, and Timothy instantly gave me a reason and the freedom to leave the house. He would alert me when he could sense one of my panic attacks coming on, and he helped me deal with them once they hit. But for a long time, even with his help, more often than not I lost the battle. I would spend the day watching Top Chef on TV, in between bouts of listlessness and fear, counting the seconds until I could go to bed.

This is the anxiety part of PTSD. The part that just won’t let you feel safe in the world. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, as many as 20% of veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan have PTSD, and I am one of them. How many other members of Chico society go through this every day?

Things are better now. I can get up, put on make-up, and psych myself into believing that everything is going to be okay. That no one is going to hurt me today.

But sometimes I just don’t believe it.

Sylvia Bowersox first went to Iraq in 2003 as a US Army broadcast journalist. She was stationed in Mosul and Baghdad, but reported from Coalition outposts around the country. A year in Iraq wasn’t enough, so she returned to Baghdad as a civilian, spending almost two years working in the US Embassy as a State Department press officer. Bowersox received her BA in English literature from San Francisco State University, and is currently completing her MA in creative writing at California State University, Chico. She was recently honored by a Pushcart nomination for her nonfiction essay, “This War Can’t be All Bad.” Her nonfiction essay, “The Importance of a Dollar Bill,” has been submitted to the National Associate Writing Program Awards competition. She lives in Chico with her husband Jon, her son Holden, and her service dog Timothy.