August 6, 2008

Dissociative Spectrum Disorders and the Combat Veteran

Image Via Wikipedia
For two years or so after Desert Storm I had severe forms of dissociative fugues, a deeper level on the dissociative spectrum, where a total separation of identity consumes the individual. I remember one time when I was working in a sheet metal shop, I was running a CNC machine that cuts and punches angle iron. I was entering data into the computer on the machine when I started to lose track of the numbers. Numbers, reading and rapid eye movement back and forth along with highly "busy" areas will trigger a dissociative amnesia episode. So, I was entering the data, I started to get confused and kept having to reenter the data. Then I was staring at the screen and realized that I had no idea what I was doing. I looked around at the shop and knew that it was familiar, but could not identify what it was or why I was there. It was like I was dropped off on a alien planet and I could see some things that looked similar to what I know but yet was totally alien in form. Then I tried to access information about me and was denied the information. I tried to think of my name and could not, my identity was foreign to me. I did not know who I was or what I was doing in this place, but I do remember that the place was familiar. I do not know how long this episode lasted, but all of a sudden all everything came back to me in a rush.

I had several more types of fugues, I would be walking down the isle of the grocery store and experience a fugue. I do not know why, but a grocery store would send me into a crying fit of guilt and grief with only one thought in my mind and nothing else. I would cry for hours and could not be moved, lying in the isle of the store just crying with my wife holding me thinking only of the one singular thought. The Iraqi soldiers we killed that were trying to surrender.

Other times in a store I would walk aimlessly around not knowing why I was there and wondering what it was that I was supposed to do. My wife would have to come to the store and get me after having been in the store for hours. The episodes were triggered by areas with an abundance of numbers, letters, colors, areas of high visual traffic. This went on for about two years after the war.

The incident that solidified the mental wound of PTSD results in a mind numbing, or psychic shift. In response to the trauma of combat, the person needs to make a mental detachment to do what needs to be done. The survival mode of operation forgoes the higher levels of functioning and depends on the primitive reactionary portion of the brain (Cercone, 296). When this unconscious detachment has been activated to frequently or for extended amounts of time it becomes part of conscious processing and interferes with everyday interactions.

I remember in the Gulf War when that cognitive fracture, or dissociative reorganization happened for me. It was at night, I was watching our long range rockets and artillery barrage launching to rain down on the enemy. It was surreal, beautiful, terrifying, the most intense fireworks I had ever seen filling the entire sky illuminating the battlefield, I was in awe. It felt like I was one with the universe, out among the everything, feeling all and knowing all. I heard over the distance of what seemed like eternity, "Move out".

I realized that I was no longer inside of my body, the instant that I heard that order and made that connection I was paralyzed as I slammed back into my body. In that same moment, I had this switch that went off or turned on. This mode of operation was no longer a thinking thing, it was a reacting thing. My field of vision opened up completely, it was like my central focus point had widened to include my whole field of vision. I was aware of everything without having to look at it. I was more alive than I had ever been, except that there was no conscious processing of information and a total lack of emotion, absolute detachment. Time had suspended itself for me, I was eternal, I had accessed a part of me that was omnipresent.


  1. Scott, I've been reading through your blog and I'd like to offer you a little more exposure. Would you be willing to write about PTSD on a regular basis for A Soldier's Perspective ( We get about 700 unique visitors per day with hundreds more by way of RSS feeds and direct email. Please send me an email if you're interested and I'll give you details.

  2. I had the same issues Scott. Glad to know that I wasn't imagining things. I would get to the point of tears after doing a task for the 10th time, because I forgot how to do it!


  3. Aya,

    This is one of my most moving and powerful posts, many read it but so far only two have commented. The first time I had some amazing results in sparking my creativity...which is this?

  4. Hello Scott, your story isn't unlike mine in a way. I wasn't in combat, but was in the military for four years. You wrote the above article in 2008 and I am responding in 2013. My VA disability is %100. I have the same fugue states and disassociating feelings. It is hard for me to go into a grocery store. I almost hyperventilate to the point of wanting to scream and run out. I stay up most nights. I divorced my Vietnam veteran husband who has PTSD. I felt I couldn't be myself and help him at the same time. But, I hope since you've written this years ago, that you have gotten better. I have. Thank you.

  5. Hello Anony,

    I still have dissociative episodes, but not as intense as when I first returned home from war. It was about two years where I had these extreme fugue states. I'm glad to hear that they have subsided for you also. Go seek help for the insomnia, I take Prazosin for nightmares (extinguishs them) and trazodone to help me get to sleep and stay asleep.

  6. Scott I have ptsd and I have only experienced a fugue once but nobody was around to witness it. I was curious to know if you look or act different during one of these fugues. It scared me to death. Please.

  7. I have ptsd as well and have experienced an episode once. Can I ask you how long these episodes lasted for you? Was it minutes or a hour or 2? Has anyone ever told you what you looked like during one? Please I have small children and it scares me to death.


Please share your comments, stories and information. Thank you. ~ Scott Lee