The tremors come quietly, uninvited. They come when he’s stressed. They come when he’s still. They overwhelm him on the bus, at parties, at the grocery store. They crawl through him while he drives and jangle his dog tags.
Sometimes they hit Maccabee Griffin during his classes at IU, and wrench his right arm so violently that he struggles to take notes. Other students shoot nervous glances at the shaking man. He ignores them and uses his left hand to grip his right wrist until the writing stops wobbling. While the professor lectures on, Maccabee closes his eyes and cradles his right arm in his left as he waits for the assault to stop.
Maccabee served two tours in Iraq with the Army nearly a decade ago. But the war is still inside him. The spasms rattle his muscles and send shivers through his body. They knock him back and forth. They ripple across his face. Once, at his son’s Boy Scouts award ceremony, the tremors made his eyelids flicker so fast he couldn’t see. His wife, Angela, had to lead him like a blind man to the car outside.
If he were still in the desert, driving in another convoy under attack, he’d revert into his military training. He’d shoot. He’d know how to fight back.
But this enemy hides inside him.
Even without the tremors, Maccabee is unlike other IU students. He left the Army on a medical discharge last year after a decade of service. He moved his family to Indiana to be closer to relatives. He had some college credit prior to his military service, but he is finishing his first year at IU at age 35.
“This is a whole different beast,” Maccabee says. “The Army was one thing. This is a whole different kind of stress.”
Building on his military experience, Maccabee is studying supply chain management and said he hopes to enter the Kelley School of Business. But he isn’t sure what he wants to do after graduation. He isn’t sure what his body will let him do.
The first instance of the tremors came after his second deployment ended when he was stationed at Fort Polk, Louisiana. His sergeant called Angela at home.
“Maccabee’s in the emergency room,” he said.
When Angela arrived, her husband was writhing on a bed. His abs were contracting so fast it looked like he was doing rapidfire sit-ups, she recalls.
His sergeant told Angela at first he had thought Maccabee might have been faking to get out of a workout. But no one could do sit-ups that long. That’s not faking, Angela remembers thinking. Something else is going on.
Ultimately, the Army decided he was too battered, both physically and emotionally, and returned him to civilian life. Maccabee has battled memory problems and mood swings ever since. But the tremors plague him most.
The Veterans Affairs doctors call it a conversion disorder, a condition that takes the anxieties and fears in his mind and converts them to tremors throughout his body.
Source: Indiana Unversity
From 2001 to 2011, almost one million veterans were diagnosed with PTSD and other mental disorders, according to a Congressional Research Service study. Considerable stigma surrounds mental health issues in the military, and many don’t report their symptoms at all.
Conversion disorders are more rare.
“There isn’t much data in veterans,” Dr. Jon Stone wrote in an email. “But they certainly occur.”
Stone is based in Edinburgh, Scotland, and specializes in conversion disorders and other functional neurological and psychiatric disorders. He said he sees patients with both PTSD and conversion disorders.
Maccabee’s first psychologist at Fort Polk told him he just needed to find a way to relax. She encouraged him to talk about his experiences and find the underlying reason for the anxiety.
“But here I am, a year plus of talking, and we still haven’t figured it out,” Maccabee says.
When the tremors first hit him, he’d try to fight them and control what was happening. It never worked. Now, when his body shakes, he breathes deeply. He tries to relax. If he feels another attack coming on when he’s in a crowd, he looks for a quiet space. Angela tries to reassure curious onlookers.
“It’ll go away in a minute,” she tells them.
IU’s Veterans Support Services and Counseling and Psychological Services don’t have the resources to work with cases like Maccabee’s. There is no trained combat PTSD counselor on campus.
Instead, Maccabee sees a psychologist off-campus at the VA Outpatient Clinic in Bloomington and goes to the VA Medical Center in Indianapolis for medical and psychiatric treatment.
The time he served in Iraq slips further away. Now his life is spent in therapists’ offices and in classes with students half his age.
He tries to explain the reality of combat to the doctors. He solves algebra equations and stresses over German vocabulary words.
Maccabee and Angela have a busy 9-year-old son, Jaxon, the Boy Scout in the family. Jaxon plays Yu-Gi-Oh! with his father and is quick to give hugs.
Last summer, Angela, 34, found out she was expecting their second son. Now she worries about how her husband will handle having a new baby around. When Jaxon was an infant, Maccabee was in Iraq.
“It’ll be new for him, being around such a small one,” Angela says. “It’s hard for him to figure out how he’ll balance school, work and family life.”
Maccabee worries, too. He worries about passing his classes and still having time to help Angela with the baby. He worries about making the mortgage payment on their new house. He worries about the fact that sometimes he can’t remember what he was doing an hour ago.
He is trying to make a new life, a whole life. But parts are missing. His memory, the tremors, the flashes of anger that have him snapping at Jaxon for no reason. He would pick up the pieces and put them back together if only his bones would stop shaking.
Maccabee believes the roots of his PTSD began in 2006, seven months into his first tour in Iraq.
He was driving a Humvee through the desert to Mosul to pick up supplies. He steered the two-and-a-half-ton vehicle around potholes in the road, many of them the size of couches and cars. The potholes were remnants of war, Maccabee knew. IEDs had carved them into graves.
He drove past the mangled cabins of trucks on the side of the road, their interiors spilling into the sand. Later, he spotted a minivan, blackened and twisted. He hoped a family hadn’t been inside when the bomb went off.
Iraqi children stood at the edge of the road watching the convoy chug past. They held empty gas canisters, and waited for a fuel truck to come. Others held AK-47 assault rifles in their small arms. Maccabee thought about how they should be in school, how children that young should be learning. Then he thought about Angela and Jaxon, then a newborn.
His Humvee wasn’t full — just him, a supply sergeant and another soldier. No one spoke, but the Humvee engine roared like an industrial fan. Maccabee watched the tactical vehicle in front of him and kept a safe distance to protect the Rhino IED detector jutting out of his fender. A gunman scanned the landscape through the roof of the Humvee and swiveled a 50-caliber machine gun.
Then the earth shook, and Maccabee heard a boom like a cannon firing. Maccabee felt the force through five inches of gear. Gravel pelted the Humvee. The heat of the explosion burned into his nostrils.
Voices flooded the radio, and Maccabee looked at his radio operator.
“Keep going,” the operator said. “No one got hurt. Go, go, go.”
The convoy rolled safely back to the base. Hours later, Maccabee’s ears were still ringing.
One day in his algebra class, the tremors return. Maccabee tries to pay attention while the war in his body rages.
They work from his right arm to his torso and down his right leg. Like cold chills, they race through him. Every spasm in his neck is stiff and machinelike, and attracts the attention of students around the room.
The professor looks at him and turns back to the projector, pointing to a series of Xs and ones. She asks a question.
“X minus one squared,” Maccabee answers, his voice smooth and calm.
The professor tells the class to open their books to the next section, 6.5.
“This is our section on complex functions,” she said. “That means any function that is complicated.”
Maccabee isn’t sure what caused his tremors, but when he thinks back to Iraq, one particular night during his second deployment comes to mind.
Torrents pelted the convoy as it slinked to Mosul, Iraq.
They were going too fast, trying to get out of a bad area, when Maccabee hit a pothole. The Humvee fishtailed across the road. Water and dirt splashed onto the windshield as Maccabee tried to regain control. He watched the concrete road barriers get closer as the vehicle spun. Finally, windshield wipers smeared away the mud, and Maccabee slammed on the brakes, inches from the wall.
When they finally arrived in Mosul, he was frustrated that he’d nearly killed his comrades. Maccabee requested not to drive back. His superior officers told him to finish the trip like he started — in the driver’s seat.
Darkness blanketed the convoy as it left Mosul in the middle of the night.
Maccabee’s Humvee was packed, and everyone scanned the darkness for threats. As they crossed a bridge, Maccabee was so focused on the vehicle in front of him that he almost didn’t notice the white pickup truck on the other side.
He was turning to warn his sergeant when the darkness exploded.
The blast lifted the tactical vehicle in front of Maccabee a few feet off the ground.
Maccabee slammed on the brakes. His heart was pulsing in his ears, his face warmed by the roasting pickup.
“I need a weapon!” one of the soldiers screamed. “I need a weapon!”
Someone shoved a pistol at him. “Shut up.”
They waited for hours for someone to come get the damaged tactical vehicle. No one had been hurt, but its engine was destroyed, and they couldn’t leave it behind.
In the Humvee, Maccabee kept the engine running and his foot on the brake. Adrenaline pumped through him. He stared into the desert, but he couldn’t see beyond his headlights. Helicopters circled. Maccabee thought he heard gunfire. Were the shadows moving?
The next morning, when everyone was safely back in Kuwait, Maccabee heard a knock on his door.
“You need to go see doc,” a sergeant told him.
When the tremors began, Angela was confused and scared. She thought maybe it was some kind of epilepsy. Then she thought maybe he could control them if he could quiet his mind.
At night she’d feel his shaking legs under the sheets. For a while, she always drove in case he began to seize.
She thinks the tremors have gotten better since he got out of the Army last year.
“Now I’ll just see his hand or his leg kind of shaking,” she said. “Or sometimes his mouth will go to the side. And usually they don’t last that long.”
But in just two months, the baby will be here.
How will Maccabee’s body react when he hasn’t slept in days? She remembers the hormones and frustrated tears of being a new mom. What will happen when she’s upset and the baby wails, when Maccabee is moody or stressed? Will she be the only one up at night so Maccabee can sleep before class?
The baby gets heavier and lower every day.
Maccabee carries around the grainy ultrasound photos in his backpack.
His psychologist’s office is clean and bright. The bookshelf is lined with a series titled “Surviving Deployment.” Maccabee folds his camouflage Army jacket over the arm of the chair.
Every day is a chance to find meaning, to make sense of where he’s been and why.
“Every day above ground is a good day,” he likes to say.
His psychologist listens with chin in hand, like the statue of the Thinker. He and Maccabee talk about everything, pick through Maccabee’s life and analyze small details and big events.
The tremors are getting worse, Maccabee says. He’s had four or five in the past two weeks, and they’re getting longer.
“It’s scary sometimes,” he tells the therapist. “Then I feel aggravation. On the backside of it, sometimes aggravation turns into more fear.”
In church, Maccabee listens to the pastor delivering a sermon. In his head, he compiles a list of questions. What does God think about soldiers? About war and killing?
After one service, he poses these questions to the pastor as other people file out of the church. The pastor says Maccabee should pray, meditate and read scripture.
Maccabee thinks he was meant to see, smell and hear every experience in Iraq so he could tell others what the war was like. When he’s on campus, he doesn’t think students fully appreciate what he and other veterans have been through.
In one class, Maccabee bristles as he listens to 18-year-olds prattling about their heroes — celebrities and athletes.
“Athletes are not heroes,” he tells the class. “They get paid well, and that makes them heroes? There are tons of people who get paid crap for putting their life on the line.”
The place he feels the most grounded is at home with his wife and son.
Even with the constant battle in his body and all the changes ahead, when Maccabee comes home he is grounded.
In the evenings, Miles Davis flows through the Griffin living room. A folded flag, his medals and photos from basic training hang in the corner. Jaxon plays a computer game. Maccabee whispers to Angela’s swollen belly.
Maccabee holds Angela’s hand. She is sweating and clenching. There was no time for an epidural. Her water broke in their bedroom not even an hour ago. They had run out of the house and left a train of towels on the floor.
Maccabee pops his head around her legs to check the baby’s progress, then returns to her white-knuckled grip.
“What’s the doctor that deals with broken hands?” Maccabee asks. “Cause you’re going to have to call him for my hands.”
Angela stares daggers at Maccabee.
A few more pushes and Alexander, covered in whites and reds and browns, slides into the world. But he is silent.
Nurses whisk away the baby and Maccabee follows, craning over their shoulders at his son, blue-lipped and silent.
They check to see if his collarbone is broken, relocate the shoulder that popped out and suction his mouth.
Finally, his voice bursts into the room.
The next afternoon, light filters into the quiet hospital room. Alexander — 9 pounds, 12 ounces — eats, sleeps, balls his fists and wriggles in a blue and green onesie.
Angela thinks the tremors are getting better, and some days Maccabee agrees. His body may never be cured. But for a few hours at the hospital, everything is okay.
As if by memory, Maccabee’s arms sink into a familiar rhythm. His whole body moves. But these aren’t the movements of a damaged man. He rocks the baby to a still peace.