Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Sleep: My Interview With Captain Ken LeBlanc

I want to tell you about my old and dear friend, Ken LeBlanc, a Captain in the United States Army. Ken and I went to high school together and have watched our lives and careers evolve in recent years.  He lives in and is stationed in Wiesbaden, Germany, near Frankfurt, and he works at US Army Headquarters for the G-34 Force Protection Directorate at Wiesbaden Army Airfield.  He is an Operations Officer.  His responsibilities include the entire Black Sea region of eastern Europe. He assesses and mitigates risk by developing site-specific guidelines for force protection and personnel safety, including counter-surveillance, stand-offs, and personnel access.  He develops travel guidelines, working with the DIA and Department of State for any individual and group travel to foreign lands. He has been deployed several times.  I consider Captain LeBlanc a hero, not only because of what he’s done for the benefit of our country, but also how he has handled the many intense experiences he has had as part of his military duties over the years.

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Ken tells me that he has had some genuine difficulties with his sleep since relocating to Germany.  Troubled by vivid dreams, he suffers from disrupted sleep, frequently awakening with a sensation of anxiety and in a cold sweat.

Ken has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  He tells me that he’s not alone:  many of his colleagues have had similar symptoms upon returning from their deployment and have been diagnosed with PTSD, reflecting recent Veterans Administration reports that indicate that nearly 30% of VA patients who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have been diagnosed with this disorder.  He also believes that PTSD is still under-recognized and under-treated in the military.

PTSD is commonly associated with sleep problems, often stemming from a combination of factors:  the self-protective mode of constantly being “on alert,” worry, physical symptoms (such as chronic pain) associated with previous trauma, and frequent nightmares which may or may not be directly related to previous traumatic experiences.  Chronic sleep-onset and sleep-maintenance insomnia and daytime fatigue are commonly observed in those suffering from PTSD.

Captain LeBlanc was kind enough to agree to describe some of his experiences with Sleep Help Desk from his home in Wiesbaden.

MC:  You’ve been in the military for many years, Ken; you’ve visited many countries and you’ve seen many things most Americans never will see. How does a soldier process all of the intense experiences such as the ones you’ve had?

KL:  If possible, by processing the good and bad with groups of others. The Army has many specific programs to help deal with and process activities and experiences. As an Officer I have a duty to help younger Soldiers with any issues that might arise from their combat- and noncombat-related experiences. Sometimes being far away from your family causes things to happen such as divorce and bankruptcy, and this can be as difficult to process as combat. As Soldiers one hopes that the foundation they have morally and psychologically helps them to diffuse critical events but being with like-minded others brings a support system unlike any other I have been involved with.

MC:  How do you perceive your experiences have affected your sleep?

KL:  Sleep is a critical and performance-altering behavior. I am an older Soldier who has witnessed many things younger Soldiers have not experienced and I’ve thought from the very beginning that this would be my personal asset. They aren’t, however, like good experiences (like the birth of a child or success at work), which do not replay in your head during times of attempted sleep. It might be thunder or loud noises or strange noises, but they all bring me back to unfavorable experiences. Dreams become more vivid and after awakening one goes through a litany of questions concerning that event. After a few months it gets a little better but when one least expects it one might dream of something as innocuous as a large crowd and begin to feel the anxiety that accompanies it. My military experiences cause many sleepless nights because after waking up (usually in a sweat) it becomes hard, if not impossible, to regain drowsiness and fall back to sleep.

MC:  So let’s talk more about your dreams, Ken.  How often and how intensely do your dreams relate to your current work or previous military experiences?

KL:  After returning stateside I had incredibly vivid dreams every night. I would wake up and go through them repeatedly. I would feel foolish for having them. Most of the time they relate directly to military experiences but after a while they lose that flavor and start to relate to difficult periods in my life. It feels as if it becomes a habit:  waking up to dredge over bad experiences no matter what the setting. I would normally not associate one with the other except that in prior times this never happened. The causality of combat and dream behavior is in my opinion directly linked.

MC:  What helps?

KL:  The honest truth is that alcohol and I have self-medicated many a night in order to fall asleep. This is not a good sleep, but it is the ability to get to sleep that one desires more than any other thing. Once in the habit it is very hard to break (thankfully I have recognized this as a direction I did not want to go and have stopped drinking as a habit). It affects performance at work and weight and psychological issues so this is not something I would recommend to anyone. I have also tried prescription medications. This is not a good alternative for me either as I still wake up, unknowingly, and re-medicate. I remember one night in particular, in which I woke up the next day to find that out of 30 prescription pills, some time during the night I had ingested 20 (and lived). This was my wake-up call and I stopped all medication thereafter. Now I read as long as I can before trying to sleep. It gets me to sleep but not for very long. I awaken again, usually in a sweat, and either get up for the day or lie in bed all night until a reasonable hour and then get up. I have tried many nights to stay awake for several days and then “reset” my body clock only to find I experience the same outcome as if I had gone to bed every night. It truly makes me wonder why I can function on such little sleep.

MC:  Is there anything that happens in your current work life that triggers a worsening of your sleep, other than jet lag from travel?

KL:  As a Soldier I always have different report times as the events I manage don’t stop to allow me to get some rest. At the risk of sounding cavalier, they are life-and-death situations and as a result I never really know when I will be able to shut work out completely and rest. This is true for all Soldiers, not just me. In what other career can something happening 10,000 miles away affect your daily life? Sometimes it’s just the Army philosophy of early to rise. My days have started as early as 0345 to 0900 and there usually isn’t a cut-and-dry schedule as to when that will be.

MC:  Ken, tell me about how your colleagues handle their own problems with sleep.

KL:  Honestly, alcohol is pretty prevalent. Some medicate with sleep aids; some try relaxation techniques. Most Soldiers diagnosed with any form of PTSD is prescribed some form of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). This helps many deal with what I would refer to as “sleep anxiety.” I can only speak for myself when I say going to bed is one of the hardest events of my day. I know I’m not going to sleep, or the sleep will be lousy, but I also know if I don’t try I’ll be worthless the next day.

My deepest thanks go to Captain LeBlanc for bringing attention to this important problem, and for his honorable and courageous work in securing and protecting our country.

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“Speed and Sleep:” My Interview With Kristin Hersh

The early nineties were a turbulent period for me: uneasy, scary, and fascinating, one of huge new responsibilities and intense personal and geographic exploration. And through it all, as has always been the case, music was there, providing stimulation, comfort, and light during an uncertain and often dark time.

My home state of Kansas has always been a classic rock, Zeppelin-n-Stones kind of place, but I was always able to find music not heard on Wichita radio. For years, alternative rock to me was electronic (Depeche Mode, Kraftwerk), gothic (The Mission U.K., Sisters of Mercy), or flannel (Pearl Jam, Nirvana). Then one day—I forget where or how—I came upon “Not Too Soon” by a Rhode Island band called Throwing Muses. I found their music totally different and completely compelling: dreamlike lyrics, edgy, unconventional guitar chord structures, tempo changes out of nowhere. Later, in 1994, when Throwing Muses’ cofounder, guitarist and singer, Kristin Hersh, released her first solo album, Hips and Makers, I was smitten. Even now, “Beestung” and “Your Ghost” transport me instantly back to my training days in New England, their delicate, dark acoustic melodies beautifully reflecting the shadows and quiet chaos I lived in at the time.

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So it is with some delight that I can say that in recent years I have become friends with Kristin Hersh. She is as lovely and intriguing as her music. Self-described as shy, she absolutely tears it up onstage. She lives and records music in New Orleans. She is a wife, mom, bandleader, touring artist, and author. She is also an insomniac of long standing.

Kristin’s difficulties with sleep are thoroughly chronicled in her excellent memoir, Rat Girl. On the very first page, introducing her 1985 self to us and upon finding a place to crash for the night: “So I park myself under a sad crucifix and watch tiny blue, green, red and orange bulbs blink on and off. Insomniacs like to waste time.”

Rat Girl‘s depiction of Kristin’s concept of musical creation demonstrates an altogether higher plane of creativity.  She has the gift of synesthesia, in which senses interplay and stimulate one another.  She sees music and melodies in colors; songs are born, and she is their pained, sometimes even reluctant, conduit. Her description of the sensation of sleeplessness is in many ways similar to that of her perception of music: colorful, raw, graphic, desperate, vivid almost to the point of shocking. “Sleep stopped coming, days stopped ending—now sleep doesn’t come and days don’t end. Sleeping pills slow my thinking, but they can’t shut down my red-hot brain. If I do manage to drop off, wild dreams wake me up. So I’m different now; my thinking is liquid and quick, I can function at all hours. My songs are different, too, and when I play them, I become them: evil, charged.”

People with psychophysiologic insomnia (a clinical form of insomnia, associated with excessive worry and frustration from not sleeping well) can easily relate to this portrayal of the sleepless mind. The urgency of her music further exacerbates her problems when birthed at night: “If I fall asleep, the song wakes me up, whispering, chanting and shouting, suggesting bass lines and backing vocals, piano parts and guitar solos. It’s that—the clattering noise of the thing, louder and louder, first whispering, then gasping with its own impact—that’s so upsetting, so overwhelming. A sickening frenzy.” Finally, conjoined with her insomnia, Kristin’s diagnosed bipolar disorder is also an important, recurring theme in her book; compromised sleep, particularly in the “manic” phase, is in fact a hallmark clinical feature of bipolar affective disorder and a primary contributor to the “red-hot brain.”

I checked in with Kristin recently and asked her some questions regarding her long struggle with insomnia.

MC: How long have you had your insomnia, Kristin? How has it changed or evolved over the years?

KH: I stopped being able to sleep reliably when I was a teenager and experienced my first manic episode. I could no longer fall asleep at night and songs came to me at 4 a.m., so I was only sleeping about fifteen minutes at a time. After that, life on the road, sandwiched between four pregnancies and subsequent sleep disruption due to nursing babies, was difficult to distinguish from that caused by manic and depressive episodes or even blood sugar imbalances.

MC: How has your insomnia affected your life? Like your thoughts, your songwriting, your relationships with others?

KH: It is the number one problem in my life (and in my husband’s life, though he has never experienced it himself!). Not only is it caused by bipolar imbalances, it also can trigger them. It reduces immune function and is so isolating that it imbues my worldview with a sharp loneliness that is very difficult for me to shake. I think my songs would be a lot less melancholy if I were healthier.

MC: How does the insomnia change, if at all, when you’re on tour?

KH: Crossing time zones shakes up any healthy pattern I’ve been able to implement but it also offers a handy scapegoat when I’m already out of balance! Sometimes it actually allows me to start over and clean up my sleep act. Additionally, playing music every night is such a release, there is very little tension or mind chatter left to keep me awake. That said, living without a schedule is difficult. The availability of meals and beds and showers and exercise is unpredictable at best.

MC: Have you found anything specific that has reliably helped you?

KH: Acupuncture helps immensely, but sleep medication doesn’t seem to work; it makes my brain more buzzy. Exercise helps and adhering to a strict schedule and diet help. 5-HTP and melatonin when I’m crossing time zones help temporarily.

A huge thank-you goes to Kristin for helping raise the awareness of insomnia and the effect it has on people’s lives.

I’ll conclude with Kristin’s perfect description of Throwing Muses music from Rat Girl, a book I recommend without reservation for its wit, honesty, and importance in the world of modern music. “Some music is healthy, anyway. I know a lot of bands who’re candy. Or beer. Fun and bad for you in a way that makes you feel good. For a minute. My band is . . . spinach, I guess. We’re ragged and bitter. But I swear to god, we’re good for you.”