Pretty Bubbles

October 20, 2011

Andre had been a Navy SEAL during the Vietnam War. He was fifty six years old when I first met him at the San Diego VA Medical Center in March, 1994. He was African American, divorced, with four children and ten grandchildren.

Navy Seal and Bounty Hunter

SEAL training is rigorous, one of the most rigorous special operations training programs in the world. Andre had served in the Navy for twenty years, from age seventeen to age thirty seven (1954-1975). After leaving the Navy he did “bail and recovery”, apprehending subjects who failed to appear in court, thereby forfeiting their bond. He was known as a “bounty hunter”, capturing fugitives for a monetary reward from a bail bond company. In 1872 the United States Supreme Court gave bail enforcement agents nearly limitless power when hunting down subjects. Andre was a dangerous man, not someone you would want to get into a physical dispute with.

During the thirteen years that I knew and worked with Andre (1994-2007) he was mellow and engaging. I helped him change from killer/assassin to feeling/caring human being. He was comfortable with me; I was comfortable with him. We were almost the same age. For thirteen years we went through our fifties and sixties together, sitting and talking once a month as permitted by the VA contract. This might be called supportive therapy, except that we also worked on his nightmares.

Andre’s nightmares tended to be about either fire or water. The fire nightmares involved his experiences on the USS Oriskany, an aircraft carrier that caught fire in 1966 while he was on board. Andre was a hero during the Oriskany fire, saving a number of lives, though he was unable to save his friend and superior officer, an Ensign.

Andre’s water nightmares tended to be about drowning, either someone else or himself drowning. As a Navy SEAL, Andre had spent a lot of time in the water, both in Vietnam (on the Mekong River) and elsewhere. In one incident in Cambodia he and his six man unit had drowned a Viet Cong family in order to escape detection by the enemy. The family included a woman (who had a gun), a man, and their three children, two boys ages six and eight and a girl fourteen. Andre had held the two boys under water until they drowned. This became a recurrent nightmare.

The Dream Revised

Andre and I discussed ways of dealing with the mixed feelings he was carrying from this incident. He said he was OK with regret but not forgiveness. Initially, we decided not to change his nightmare about drowning young boys. Later it became evident that Andre had changed the nightmare himself. He began having dreams about a boy swimming but not drowning. Andre could tell the boy was breathing, since bubbles were rising to the surface.

The bubbles provided a solution for Andre and me regarding how to deal with dreams in which he found himself drowning. As a Navy SEAL he had been trained in how to reach the surface of the water when you felt yourself at risk of drowning: let out some air bubbles and follow them up to the surface. His last reported drowning dream was in July, 2005, at which time we reviewed and he rehearsed the bubble tracking technique. I met with Andre for almost two more years, until April, 2007, without him noting any further drowning dreams.

Dream revision therapy clearly played an important role in Andre’s recovery from PTSD.