Cigars and Post-Traumatic Stress

I’ve been a bit under the radar the last couple of weeks and so I thought I’d share some thoughts about why that may happen now and again and prevent me from doing my weekly post.  So here’s a little of my history and how I came to smoke cigars!

I have never been a cigarette smoker.  Sure I had my bout with them in my very early 20’s when I wanted to see what all the fuss was about but I eventually decided I just didn’t like it and quit on the spot.  However, my grandfather was a lifelong pipe smoker who mesmerized me with his meticulous packing of his tobacco, methodical choosing of his pipe and peaceful smoking.  I loved the smell of his tobacco and would watch him in silent awe.  My first foray into pipe smoking started with a ride home from the central jersey shore with my best friend at the time.  We stopped and bought a corncob pipe, a cheap little tool and some Captain Black tobacco.  I can still recall opening the tobacco pouch and shoving my nose into it to take in the sweet smell.  Of course my first pipe smoke might have lasted ten minutes since I didn’t really know how to properly pack a pipe but the enjoyment was immense!  From that time forward I was an on again off again pipe smoker and to this day still keep a nice selection of pipes and tobacco on hand when the mood strikes me.

I never thought to smoke cigars.  I had that vision in my head of “stogies” that smelled stale and old men chewing the ends of an unlit cigar while making inappropriate comments to young ladies half their age.  Yes, I’m a 50’s child so cigars, however magical they are, didn’t have the romanticism they now have.  I went about the business of living life and eventually made the choice to go back to college and get my nursing degree.  When I became an RN at 42 years of age I knew I was going to go into the Army Nurse Corps.  The military was a life long dream and being an Emergency Nurse was a leg-up to getting into the military because of the shortage of nurses both in and out of the service. September 11th occurred in the midst of my planning so coincidentally I entered the Army just two months after the 2001 attacks.  At 43 years old, and in great shape at the time, I became a United States Army Soldier.  To this day it is the proudest moment of my life!

I served in various missions to Guatemala and did field hospital training during my first few years.  I became the Compay Commander of my hospital unit and came into my own as a leader.  The beauty of the military is that one does many jobs that are not within your given job title.  You are a Soldier first and a nurse second.  So when the call came to deploy overseas I was more than ready.  No, I didn’t go into theatre (Iraq at the time) but I did get sent to Germany to man the Army Hospital in Wurzburg.  I worked in the ER and was also trained as a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner.  I was busy and felt useful but little did I know the experience that was coming.  In November of 2004 the “Second Battle of Fallujah” aka “Operation Phantom Fury” aka “The Bloodiest Battle of Iraq” began.  I was a member of an on-call team that received notice to go to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Kaiserslautern to help care for the wounded coming in from that battle.  There were about 12 of us and we anxiously gathered to make the two hour drive to our assignment.  What I was about to encounter would be a major factor in changing my life forever.  I’ll spare you the details but suffice it to say that we took in over 650 wounded Soldiers and Marines our first week there.  It was a perpetual cycle of aircraft flying into adjoining Ramstein Air Base from Iraq, wounded being transported across base to our hospital, unloading, assessing, caring for and shipping out these brave men around the clock.  Twelve hour shifts became 14 and 16 hours.  I worked, ate and slept like it was only the blink of an eye and then would start all over again.  The wounds were a mix of gunshot, explosives and shrapnel and destroyed otherwise healthy and athletic young men.  In the little time that we had to gather and “debrief” there was no time for asking “therapeutic” questions such as “how did that make you feel?”  So we did the next best thing; we would gather and some NCO (Non-Commissioned Officer) type would hand out cigars.  We’d light up, take a deep breath and then “shoot the shit” as a way to relax and unwind without buckling under the weight of our emotions and physical exhaustion.  There it was my first cigar.  There was no “Cigars for Warriors” back then so we smoked what we could get our hands on and my first cigar and subsequent others was a Chateau Fuente. It helped us stay bonded and sane during those terrible days and I never forgot that.

Fast forward to getting out of the military in 2010.  At 52 years old I was tired and broken.  I loved my time in the Army but knew it was time to transition to Veteran status in my community.  I smoked cigars now and again but they weren’t the priority that they now are.  I smoked whatever was available and mostly with the military and veteran friends that I chose to hang out with.  Since my time at Landstuhl I served on other missions and had both good and bad experiences moving forward, but the Post-Traumatic Stress that was boiling inside me had not yet burst.  I was different that’s for sure and my friends knew it but I had no idea what to do with all the emotions so I kept myself in a perpetual state of numbness.  That was much easier than dealing with what I felt.  People became something I needed to avoid.  It was much easier to isolate than it was to either deal with people who didn’t understand my world or people that seemed to just piss me off.  I lost long-term friends who just didn’t like the person I had become.  I was a robot who gave them the superficial person they wanted but had this blank stare that didn’t register much emotion.  Than came the fateful day that the pressure cooker blew up.  August of 2010 my dad had open heart surgery and experienced some complications.  I was forced to be in the hospital day in and day out and spending time with family that I didn’t have a great history with surely didn’t help matters.  One more issue and I exploded inside.  The rage and emotions that I had bottled and built upon since 2004 came bubbling over.  I paced the hospital hallways and couldn’t get the crawling of my skin to stop.  I wanted to find someone, anyone, to beat the crap out of, to scream at and to destroy.  I hated the civilian world and mindset and I just wanted to go back to the military where at least I knew my buddies had my back and I was understood.  Life crashed in a profound way that day and it is also the impetus for cigars becoming part of my healing.

I was referred to the VA for evaluation and treatment and formally diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress in October of 2010.  Since that time I have improved with the help of medication and therapy but like most chronic illnesses and injuries I had to also find ways to maintain my functionality in this every day world.  My new service dog, Gunnar, helped me with the isolation that I so desperately clung to and watched my back out in public.  I talked to him incessantly and was finally able to go out and enjoy the world a bit with him by my side.  I started spending a lot of time outside in my backyard and cigars became a part of that ritual.  I could get to work and get through the day knowing that I had this peaceful paradise of me, my dog and my cigars waiting for me when I got home.  I frequented my local B&M to pick up smokes and then by chance one day, the owner mentioned a cigar tasting event to me.  I decided to venture out and attend.  To my amazement and delight, the greater majority of attendees were veterans!  I had found my new niche and safe place.  We talked, we smoked, and we shared.  For the first time in a very, very long time I “belonged” again and I could be myself again without fear of judgment or misunderstanding. (Please note, I do believe there are many “civilian types” who are empathetic and understanding of PTSD but it is the Veteran’s perception many times that they don’t.  We don’t share often because we don’t want to paint a picture for you that we struggle with each day and we want to protect you from our pain.  BUT we THANK YOU for your support and kindness to us!).

Let me point out an interesting fact about my therapy.  My therapist is aware that I smoke cigars on a regular basis and the first time I divulged that information to her I braced myself for the “quit smoking” and “smoking is bad for your health” speeches.  They didn’t come.  She simply stated, “if it helps then do it!”  Music to my ears!  So in a quick sidebar regarding the FDA and their infiltration into my rights let me share a few excerpts from a research article regarding PTSD and nicotine.

“There is evidence that individuals with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may smoke in part to regulate negative affect.”

“A hallmark phenotype of individuals with PTSD is increased psychophysiological responsivity and negative affect to idiopathic trauma related stimuli.”

“…..individuals with PTSD exhibit biased attention to negative emotional information……..deregulated emotional information processing in PTSD (may) be due to to hyper responsiveness of the amygdala – a region (of the brain) sub serving negative emotional information processes.”

“Laboratory studies show that smoking and nicotine reduces distraction caused by negative stimuli……”

“….neuroimaging studies show that nicotine acts on limbic (e.g., amygdala) and prefrontal brain areas that subserve emotional information processing.”

“Smokers with PTSD report greater NA (negative affect) immediately prior to smoking and greater decreases in NA following smoking.”

(Froeliger, B., Crowell Beckham, J.L., Feldman Dennis, M., Kozink, R.V., &       McClernon, F.J., 2012)

So take that FDA!  For a quick soapbox moment:  I’m much rather smoke cigars while understanding the health risks and having a clear mind than to get a prescription for marijuana and have the same health risks plus a mind altering drug!  But, who am I…….certainly not the end all, be all FDA!  (SIGN those petitions BOTLs and SOTLs)

My life today is filled with great friends who I consider family.  I still have my back yard rituals of hanging out with my service dog Gunnar, smoking cigars and relaxing the evening or day away, but my world has expanded exponentially.  I love the cigar world and the cigar lifestyle.  My palette has matured and although I feel tremendous nostalgia whenever I smoke a Chateau Fuente, I have graduated to a very diverse ad expansive collection of cigars that I smoke.  My friends are fantastic and have my six when we attend cigar events that have crowds.  I’m blessed, I’m loved and I’m able to be the veteran that I truly am now.  The cigar world has helped me heal and helps me keep myself on tract when things get rough.

So there you have it!  My cigar story.  I still get rough patches sometimes and that’s when I’ll go “under the radar” for a bit but I am never far from all of you in my thoughts.  I’m out on my deck or in my Gal Cave having a few cigars and letting the healing happen.  When I re-emerge I am renewed, refreshed and ready to go forth and live the public cigar life that I love!  As I always tell my audiences when I am a guest presenter; “Don’t read my story and feel sorry for me but hear my story and understand.”

If my story can help another person who is struggling with PTSD to shed any shame they may feel then my mission is accomplished.  If my story helps someone understand and gain education and empathy towards our brave men and women who have served in the military then I am happy to oblige.  In the meantime I think I’m gonna go smoke a few more cigars today because as it says on my t-shirt “I smoke cigars because therapy is expensive”!  

Until next time,

“Stay Smokey and Be Blessed, I know I am”

Diana ~aka Queen of Cigars
References

Froeliger, B., Crowell Beckham, J.L., Feldman Dennis, M., Kozink, R.V., & McClernon, F.J. (20120). Effects of nicotine on emotional reactivity in PTSD and non-PTSD smoker: results of a pilot fMRI study. Advances in Pharmacological Sciences, 2012. 265724th ser. Doi:http://do.doi.org/10.1155/2012/265724.

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One thought on “Cigars and Post-Traumatic Stress

  1. Hang Ten Diana! I love the pic! On that note, thank you for your article. PTSD is real. It’s really just been recent that I have noticed my own “demons” coming out and I thank you for your understanding and being there for me. Cigars and the many B/SOTL’s have definitely eased my journey.

    Like

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