By Liesel Kershul
There was the happy-go-lucky man I knew who laughed at everything, and then there was the man who tried to break my neck in his sleep. Tom wasn’t the same when he came home from his second combat tour. Not in any obvious way—you couldn’t tell by looking at him; it wasn’t tattooed on his forehead.
It was not a disorder. It was a normal reaction to his experiences in Afghanistan. At first, even I couldn’t tell there was anything wrong. He went to work, hung out with friends, went to the gym, made me carne asada and served it outside in the San Clemente sunshine with a couple of Mexican lagers and limes.
We went for runs on the beach. He told funny stories about the Afghan soldiers he’d trained, and one in particular that still makes me laugh about a pet monkey he couldn’t get to quit humping his arm. Tom has the enviable ability to always see the sunny side of life, to laugh rather than worry. He wasn’t actively attempting to suppress his symptoms; he simply isn’t the type to dwell on the bad, so they trickled out slowly over time.
The first time we noticed, we were on the freeway. He’d been home for about a week and we were taking a day trip to San Diego. The traffic was horrendous, and we were stuck in that heavy, congested, multiple-hour-delaying gridlock that you rarely see outside of Southern California or the D.C. Beltway. It didn’t bother me, though; we had the windows down, the radio was on, and Tom was home. I could have idled happily in that car for hours. But as we slowed from a crawl to a stop, I looked over and saw Tom’s hands were gripping the steering wheel so hard his knuckles were white. His face had drained of color, and he was sweating profusely even though the day was mild.
I clicked off the radio and asked him what was wrong. I’d never seen him like that. He didn’t answer at first, and it scared me. He was agitated and kept glancing at the mirrors, looking for a way out of our lane and onto the shoulder—anything to get moving again. He looked like a cornered animal. He wasn’t saying anything, so I put my hand on his shoulder and gently asked him if I needed to drive. I tried to make it a joke and told him we could do a Chinese fire drill like a couple of goofy teenagers in our parents’ minivan. He didn’t even crack a smile. Finally, he looked at me and said that just a few days ago, being trapped and unmoving in traffic like that in Afghanistan could have gotten him killed.
Talking about it, however briefly, seemed to break the spell. He took some deep breaths, shook his head, and laughed at himself for being the cliché veteran home from “the war” with PTSD. He mellowed, but he also rolled up the windows and didn’t turn the radio back on.
Weeks passed without another episode, and I didn’t think much more about his reaction to the traffic—until one night when he tried to kill me in his sleep. I woke up to him halfway on top of me, one of his arms was wrapped around the back of my head, the other pressing against my chin. I don’t remember being jolted awake by the violence, but rather that my eyes fluttered open almost tranquilly as he tried to break my neck. The room was dark as pitch and I couldn’t tell who was hurting me until I recognized Tom’s scent, and then his voice as he repeatedly mumbled something unintelligible in his sleep. To this day neither one of us knows what it was.
It was nothing less than surreal to have my best friend—the happiest, cruisiest person I know—try to kill me in his sleep. It still feels more a dream than reality, and I have a hard time reconciling what he was doing to me with who he was and who he is. Tom didn’t (and doesn’t) have anger issues. This is a man who laughs nearly as often as he breathes. Who holds doors for strangers. Who routinely rescues baby birds and even once a baby bunny. Who has literally given a friend the shirt off his back. At the time, he wasn’t even hypervigilant, although he would become more so over the next year before his symptoms would simply disappear as abruptly as they’d arrived. Beyond that brief incident in the traffic, there were no signs that he would become violent, and when he did, I didn’t know how to respond; the military doesn’t hand out manuals for that sort of thing.
So, as I lay trapped beneath a nearly 200-pound Marine having a post-traumatic stress episode in his sleep, I did the only thing I could think of: I tried to kick him in the balls. Then I beat him as hard as I could with my closed fists and yelled, “Tom! Wake up! It’s me! It’s just me!” His eyes flew open, and he looked at my face and at his arms wrapped around my neck. He realized almost instantaneously what was happening, so he dropped me, sat bolt upright, and apologized over and over. He had this look on his face of utter disbelief, and, to me, it seemed as though he didn’t know himself in that moment. I told him it was okay. I wasn’t hurt, just scared, and everything was going to be fine. He enveloped me in a bear hug and held me until we finally fell back asleep. He’s never once laughed about it.
He was violent only one other time after that, again in his sleep, but instead of trying to break my neck, he catapulted me out of the bed. As my head hit the nightstand and I landed painfully on the floor, I remember thinking, Well, better bruised than broken.
The thud I made didn’t even wake Tom. I was scared to get back in bed with someone who was being violent in his sleep, so I shuffled over to our futon on my knees and timidly shook him by the shoulder. I didn’t know if he was going to lash out, and I considered sleeping on the couch and simply letting him be, but when I touched him, he opened his eyes sleepily, smiled at me, and said, “Hey sweets.” He had no idea what had just happened, and at that moment I didn’t have the heart to tell him. I crawled back under the covers, curled up against him with my head on his chest, and didn’t sleep a wink.
Liesel Kershul is a writer and a lifelong student of philosophy, politics, and human behavior. She holds a B.A. in philosophy from the University of California, Irvine, and an M.S. in applied psychology from Sacred Heart University.