A Service of brainline.org
Finding Some Semblance of Healing
After a long and arduous quest for care, Andrea Sawyer and her husband, US Army Sgt. Loyd Sawyer – who lives with physical pain, a TBI, and severe PTSD – are finding that sharing their story is a way to heal layer by layer.
It was the three-letter word “yet” that truly terrified Andrea Sawyer.
Her husband, US Army Sgt. Loyd Sawyer, had returned from deployment February 2007 with a yet-to-be official diagnosis of severe PTSD as well as many symptoms indicative of traumatic brain injury. Once a very easy-going and lovable guy, Loyd was a different man from the one Andrea had fallen in love with when she was 16. He yelled and raged. He paced the house unable to sleep. His heart raced and his hands were often squeezed into angry, white fists. He spent hours crying on the floor with his dog, Sophie. A broad man of 6’5, he was disappearing into the darkness of himself.
Nine months later at Thanksgiving things were getting worse rather than better. Andrea told Loyd that at his next appointment, she wanted him to tell the doctor everything, no sugar coating. “What’s the point?” Loyd had said. “They don’t care! They won’t do anything unless I’m ready to kill myself or someone else. And I’m not there yet.”
That three-letter word gut-punched Andrea. “Hearing him say ‘yet’ in that context made me realize we were way past the point of caring about how his medical records might affect his career in the military. This was death shuffling closer,” she says. As his wife and caregiver, she shifted into overdrive. But it would take her 11 frustrating and agonizing months to get him the help he needed.
Tangle of faces
Before Loyd enlisted in the wake of 9/11, he had been a civilian funeral home director and embalmer for 13 years. “Okay, so it wasn’t your usual dinnertime conversation, but we’d talk about the bodies; it’s what he did after all,” says Andrea. After he’d deal with a body — the circumstances and family and everything that goes along with a death — he’d work through his own emotional process and then he’d be able to move on. But once Loyd was home from Iraq — and from Dover Port Mortuary before that — and despite hoping that he was working through his usual grieving process, Andrea knew this was different.
Loyd couldn’t stop the images. He’d see the dead faces. He’d see the body parts — an arm or part of a torso — some with tattoos that seemed to taunt him in his nightmares. He’d remember the smell of the vehicles he’d have to clear after an explosion, skin and brains and liquid flesh rank on the walls and seats. He became so sensitized to the smell of decay that he could tell if a vehicle was not perfectly clean without even looking. He’d remember what he’d find in the pockets of the bodies he processed — photographs of girlfriends or parents, letters wrinkled from being read so many times, a rabbit’s foot, a St. Christopher medal.
After a Turkish aircraft crashed outside the walls of Balad where they were stationed, Loyd and his team processed 26 bodies. The bodies were so hot they melted through the body bags. The sight of that long row of steaming black bags, the smell … none of it would go away even when he was home, thousands of miles from Iraq.
From anger to depression
It’s no wonder that Loyd felt tortured when he came home. He couldn’t sleep, his short-term memory was all but shot, his head pounded incessantly, and he was incredibly angry all the time. “For the first several months he was home, he made everyone miserable,” says Andrea. “He would say cruel things and rage over trivial stuff like forgetting directions he’d printed out. As a funeral director’s wife, I understood that he was fighting against the fact that there had been no manual for not being able to put a body back together again. But I thought, naively, that he would grieve what had happened in Iraq and move on. And he refused to get help, insisting there was nothing wrong with him.”
No longer able to tolerate what was happening to her family, she told Loyd she was going to phone his command; he needed help and reaching out for it was going to be non-negotiable from that minute on. The next morning when Loyd went to check in at Fort Lee — he was still reporting for duty — he was taken to the mental health clinic only to be told that they couldn’t fit him in for an appointment until May, three months from then. As a stop-gap, they enrolled him in anger management training. “I learned that he was kicked out of anger management training for being too angry when the front door slammed against the house upon his arrival home,” says Andrea. They told him to go to the mental health clinic. The mental health clinic reminded him that they couldn’t see him until May. Loyd told her he’d stood in that corridor of closed doors and just shook.
“That afternoon, he broke down,” says Andrea. He put his head in his wife’s lap and sobbed. “We lost a lot of anger that day, but then came his spiral into depression. We both spiraled down as we waited for May to arrive.”
When the appointment finally arrived, Loyd was diagnosed with “readjustment disorder,” given several prescriptions, and told to come back in 30 days. It was like a slap in the face. Some of the pills caused confusion and violent behavior. At one point, Loyd beat on the computer table causing the keyboard to fly across the room. Another time he was told he was an alcoholic because he had started drinking to sleep since the meds weren’t working. He stopped immediately.
“He’d go to his appointments and come home dejected. He clearly didn’t feel as if he was being listened to at all. If anything, they’d just give him new or different meds,” says Andrea.