Veterans Day Gift: Relief from PTSD's Night Terrors

As nighttime falls this Veterans Day in New York City, I’m offering up a prayer for the men and women who have served in our country’s armed forces. I hope they were celebrated today by those near and dear. I hope that they sleep well tonight.

Having survived 20 years of sleepwalking, sleep terrors (also called night terrors), and insomnia, I often ponder life through the point of view of sleep. I am asleep activist. I believe that healthy sleep is a basic human right. And I am saddened that many of our veterans will not sleep well tonight due to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that PTSD afflicts: Almost 31 percent of Vietnam veterans. As many as 10 percent of Gulf War (Desert Storm) veterans. 11 percent of veterans of the war in Afghanistan.

Many who suffer with PTSD sleep poorly because of worry and hypervigilance that can lead to insomnia and arousal disorders such as sleep terrors. Frequent nightmares also cause insomnia, restless sleep, and dread of falling asleep. Sometimes victims of PTSD use drugs or alcohol in an effort to cope with their symptoms. But alcohol adversely affects the quality of our sleep as do many drugs. Additionally, medical issues and chronic pain are common for people with PTSD and can also make it difficult to fall asleep or sleep comfortably throughout the night.

Over the years PTSD has been called, among other things: soldiers heart, battle fatigue, shell shock and combat exhaustion. My father was a sergeant in the army during World War II. He survived D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge. Like many of his comrades, he grappled with undiagnosed PTSD. He never spoke about the war or his debilitating symptoms. He was up most nights with insomnia, smoking cigars in our living room and piecing together puzzles. Maybe fitting the fragments into a cohesive picture would restore order to his mind and afford him rest.

My father’s insomnia was so bad that a doctor at the V.A. prescribed sleeping pills. This was in the 1970s and he became addicted. Dad was a delivery man for Schaefer beer and the pills made him so groggy that he let the truck door slam shut on his hand, almost severing his thumb. Thank goodness a family friend and physician helped him kick the habit.

The worst aspect of my own sleep disorders were the night terrors. I hate to think of our veterans being woke out of a sound sleep by such intense, panicked, waking nightmares. The episodes are like waking up inside of a horror movie. The good news is there is hope on the horizon.

Tyler Skluzacek, was in sixth grade when his dad, Sgt. First Class Patrick Skluzacek, spent a year in Iraq.  His father returned with PTSD and chronic night terrors. Tyler is now a senior in college. He and his team, "The Cure," recently won a contest to create a mobile app for PTSD. They wrote code and invented a smart watch app called myBivy, short for bivouac — a temporary camp or shelter; a place to find rest. The app tracks heart rate and movement with the goal to predict and eradicate night terrors.

In an interview with USA Today, Tyler said, "After a couple weeks of tracking the soldier we can find ... the exact symptoms of the onset of the panic attack and try to use the watch or use the Android phone to disrupt that or take them out of the deep sleep but keep them asleep, the app will use sound or vibration to prevent night terrors.”

"I am very proud of him, yeah," his father said.

Tyler has been working with the Department of Veterans Affairs and sleep experts. They hope to start clinical testing of the app in the spring.

"My team and I kind of have a saying right now that my team and I won't sleep until the veterans can," he said.

What a hopeful gift to our country’s veterans, Tyler! Thanks to you and your team for brightening this Veterans Day (and night too)!