Tag: PTSD

Tribute to a Veteran Counselor

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My Vet met me in the driveway  to walk me over and make introductions.  I could see the members of his group gathered around the patio where their host was busy barbecuing.  Some were standing, others, those with the bad hips and knees, sat at the patio tables.  They were all talking quietly, more often than not raising their voices for those of the group who had hearing aids.   I knew  a few of them, but I was meeting the majority of them for the first time.  As I shook their hands and was introduced to their wives, each one of them teased or joked about me being married to “the Gunny”.   Even the wives recognized my Vet when I mentioned his name.  “The Gunny” was one of the “movers and shakers” of this particular band of brothers and one sister.

As I made my way around the patio, I realized that these veterans of a particular age, knew my husband far more profoundly and intimately than I.  One  man in particular I was there to meet.  He was the guest of honor.  He was the reason these veterans ventured out of their routine and comfort zone to gather on their usual group meeting day, outside the familiar confines of the clinic room where they met every week for the last twelve years.  They were gathered on that patio to do the unexpected, say farewell to their veteran counselor.

I didn’t know their stories.  The veterans don’t talk outside the group about each other.  But he knew not only each of their stories, but their fears and dreams, their pride and their sorrows.  He was not just their counselor, he was their friend, their consigliere,  one of them who slowly helped each of them learn not just to help themselves, but to help one another.

Over these years I had seen the transition in my Vet.  I watched him hurt when it was easier for him to be “blank”.  I watched him grieve for his mother who had been dead for forty-six years because it had never been “safe” to open the lid to that jar of pain.  I sat silently as tears streamed down both our faces as he let himself feel pain for the families of those he had taken.  I stood by one solitary dismal night  as he raged against the memory of his 19 year-old self, who killed with purpose and efficiency and finally could weep tears of forgiveness for that same country farm boy.  I lay next to him as he prayed in the early morning hours for wisdom and understanding of the incomprehensible.  I listened with trepidation as he spoke without filter to a young veteran close to our family, helping this young man off the edge and choose life over certain death as he wrestled with his decision to seek medical help but was stigmatized by his command because of it.

As these veterans gathered to say goodbye to a man who was so much more than their group counselor, our host remarked that without him and the group members he wouldn’t have “all this” spreading his arms out to encompass the pasture with the horse and donkey, the patio and home, the garage open to the expanse outside, and most important, the wife who stood by him.  We all nodded our heads in understanding.  “… But for the grace of God, go I…”

After I said my goodbyes and made ready to travel back to my office, I took a couple of pictures of the driveway past the pasture and clearing where the house was located.  The trees grew such that they created a canopy over the road and for a moment I remembered my Vet’s description of the jungles of Vietnam.  The lush green density that barely allowed sunlight to filter  through, and I realized this band of brothers and one sister had come a long, long way with the help of their families, each other and their counselor.  This had not just been “farewell”, this had been “thank-you”.

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“What began as a love affair became how to manage life with the PTSD veteran ” excerpt from “Train’s Comin…”

“PTSD is a thief.  It steals your job, it steals your sleep, it steals your family, it still is your identity, it’s steals your life”.

This is what my Vet told a young Marine who suffered a breakdown and hospitalization. This is the fight. Fighting the “thief”.  I have observed my husband struggle with this thief for 17 years. I didn’t know what PTSD was. I didn’t know what depression was. I’d heard about them and even read a little about them. What I know now is that love and understanding are key in living with this fight, but counseling, a support group of veterans, as well as family, and your vet’s will to live his best life is what gets him back.

My vet could not have navigated to this point without at some point deciding whether he wanted to stay where life was comfortable in a “bunker” …or in the world with the rest of us.

A New Year Begins

Life got in the way of blogging around the holidays.  I wanted to share with my readers about my adjustment in the work force again and trying to get ready for the holidays.  I wanted to write about how happy I have been at my new job, learning family law, working with a great attorney and fabulous co-workers.  Yes, I am writing this from the lens of “new to the job”, but it feels like a very good fit.  Time will tell, but understand that recent events in my life, make me appreciate the “here and now”, because as my father is fond of saying, “tomorrow is not guaranteed”.   With that in mind, I appreciate the opportunity for as long as I have it.

December came with a get -together with old friends, a couple of Christmas parties and a trip to Jacksonville to spend Christmas with my parents and my youngest daughter and her godson.  Even though, I was not going to be home for the holidays, I still wanted to dress the house up in holiday decorations  put the tree and lights up.  Getting my husband motivated enough to do this, is always a process, since he does not “do” holidays, but our agreement, is he just has to get out the totes, I do the rest.  The only thing is I forgot how much work it was to decorate the house, especially, now that I am back working.  It took two weeks, but I got the house finished, enjoyed it for two weeks and then was gone to Florida.

The payoff, after we survived the parking lot nightmare that was our trip on I-95 from home to Jacksonville, was seeing  how much improved my mom is doing, and how happy my dad is, now that she is doing better.  My parents weren’t even home when we got there in Jacksonville, which further added to my husband’s irritation after spending almost two extra hours on the total trip because of the holiday traffic.  So the payoff was not immediate, only getting there and being able to get out of the car after 10 hours on the road.  The payoff came the next day.  That  first night, we visited with Megan and tried to get the outside lights to work.  My dad had left detailed instructions, but we failed to find the reset switch to get the lights on after they had been kicked off.  Now, a month later, it has become one of the things we all reminisce about when we talk about this last Christmas… how Megan and I could not figure out how to get the back yard holiday lights on and how we didn’t call my dad, because neither one of us wanted to admit we couldn’t figure it out.  We just broke out a bottle of wine and toasted being together for the holidays, for the first time in years.

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The bonus, was Megan’s godson, Isaia.  I was trying to remember when we last had a child in the house for the holidays.   Too many years .  The price of being a long distance Grandmother.  Which may explain why we all were touched by his anticipation.  He would hang out with Chester, while he played on-line poker and watched River Monsters.  He got up from a nap on Christmas Eve and asked my mom if she wanted to dance, when he heard music playing on her CD player.  He invited my Dad to watch cartoons with him, moving over on the chaise lounge to give him space.  He asked to help set the table for meals.  Later that night, He and Megan made cookies.  He helped decorate the baked cookies, then tested one to make sure they were “good”.  Then helped Megan put out the plate of cookies and milk for Santa.  He also helped write the note to Santa so he wouldn’t miss the treat.  He also, had to make sure the fireplace was big enough for Santa to get through.  All our family rituals of the holiday coming full circle with Megan’s godson.   The next morning,  Isaia woke up to presents Santa left under the tree.  It was a treat for us, not just to see his excitement, but for me,photo (10)it reinforced, what I have always felt, that Christmas is for the kids.  We all watched as he opened presents, getting excited over everything, bit and small.  It made our holiday memorable, sharing it with this little guy.

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With the holiday  trip a success (not counting the beginning) and the holidays a wrap, the end of year arrived with an invitation to an end of year party with family and one with friends.  I can’t remember us being this social, but a combination of the new judo dojo Chester volunteers at, the golf tournament and my work in local politics, all raised our profile to the point, we now have a semblance of  a social life.  Not a bad thing, but something that required some management, since by the end of this particular year, Chester was feeling the effects of all the exposure.  I have started a new blog “My PTSD Vet” to have a continuing conversation about Chester’s struggles (past and current), my observations, and his insights as he works to find a balance to stay engaged in everyday life, without compromising the gains he has made.   He has worked harder than he gives himself credit for.  For us to go to two parties in one night, was significant.  We didn’t stay long at either party, but at the end of the second gathering, our hosts built a huge bonfire.

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Of particular significance to me, the bonfire represented an end of the year as we knew it, and the beginning of the new year.  The riff between the past and the future was permanent in a couple of relationships we both had.  We had lost a dear friend in the first half of the year that we have still not recovered from.  I drove my parents to Texas, and reunited with family I had not seen in years, renewing the ties that bind.  I made memories with my kids and grand kids that I cherish more than I will could ever say.  I worked behind the scenes on a local election and was amazed at the tenacity of pure will.   My status as unemployed ended, and was humbled by that process.  The Nation reelected the President, after a particular contentious election, reinforcing my belief in our better angels.  I know without a doubt, that I love my husband more today, because of this journey we have taken on together, this journey called Life.

 

Contrasts

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When I stay with my daughter and son-in-law, I have a morning routine that takes me out onto their front porch. There, with my cafecito in hand, I breathe the morning air and take in the view of the oleanders, the fruit trees in the neighboring yard, the dragonflies trying to avoid the aggressive bluejays. I love the quiet of these mornings and watching the earth wake up along with me.

This particular morning, Instead of relaxing and quiet thoughts, I recalled yesterday's conversation with a stranger about her brother who suffers from Agent Orange poisoning, PTSD and alcoholism. This conversation was particular poignant, because as a health care worker, she understood her brother's symptoms, issues and remedies, but after years of trying to help him, he continued to suffer.

She described to me, how their father, who is a WWII veteran, had advised his son, he was eligible for a claim with the Veteran's Administration, because of his poisoning and trauma symptoms. The father had told him where he could go, who to speak with and how to get some assistance with the claim. The son could not get past the forms. He became anxious and overwhelmed with the information required. His sister said to me "He wouldn't fill them out". I replied, "Perhaps, he couldn’t.”

I expanded on this comment by telling her that the anxiety of taking that first step for a veteran is not about filling out the countless forms. Forms are part of military life. Ask any active duty or veteran, forms are what runs the bureaucracy of our military. Filling out those forms for the PTSD veteran, opens the door to the past. A door they would rather keep shut.

For most of us, civilians or even dependents of active duty or retired personnel, forms are a necessary evil, a means to an end. For a veteran who has been avoiding the memories, dealing with the nightmares, flashbacks, or self-medicating, opening that “box” means dealing with the pain, the recriminations, the anger, the horror, the reliving of how you felt then, as a teenager or twenty-something, through the eyes of a middle age man, twenty, forty or more years later.

When I said goodbye to this stranger, she wished me luck with the book I am writing, telling me, “You have a perspective of your husband’s struggle to contrast with a story like my brother’s”. It gave me pause when I remembered that comment, this morning, because it took my husband twenty years to identify he needed help. There are thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans returning from the theatre who have had three, four, five plus tours, who, even with the current programs in place to help them deal with any combat trauma, suicide rates for combat veterans are up. For every active duty personnel or veteran, there are a number of family members that are touched by Combat Related Trauma or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. For every family member, there are a number of civilians and strangers that are affected…the ripple affect.

I have seen this nation come together for the families of natural and man-made disasters. Thousands of volunteers went to New Orleans and Mississippi. Millions of dollars went to these and disasters abroad. We have a vested interest in helping our active duty personnel, our veterans and their families deal with “coming home”. In our own communities, in our own families, everyone knows someone, who knows someone who served. Take the time to know who they are, to inquire about them, to ask about their family. Our future does not have to be about “contrasting stories”.

PTSD – Anniversary, 2012

Subject and Related Research Material
My journals, notes, research materials...

My husband has a saying about his PTSD.  “I don’t have PTSD, PTSD has me…because if I could lose this shit, I would lose it in a heartbeat.”   When we were first dating, I thought it curious he couldn’t recall his address, only the location of where he shared a condo with his friend and roommate.  When I got to know him better and realized he memorized EVERYTHING because of his dyslexia, it occurred to me he may have short term memory loss.  Not severe, but enough to make his day to day life a little crazy.  I also noted that there were times, he would get in the car, start the engine and then look at me and say “Ok, what are we doing?” as if we hadn’t just had a conversation in the apartment, down the steps and into the carport about exactly where we were going.  It was disconcerting in the beginning.  I didn’t know whether this was real, or feigned, or why one day, he would get up on a mission and have A to Z lined out, and another day, he had no plan of the day, nor did he care if he had one or not.  I overcompensated, as I am wont to do.   I would have not just one route to a location, but a couple of alternate routes, until one day he told me “Stop.   Stop managing me”.

I got my feelings hurt then, and since then.  But, I’m not a doctor.   Nor am I a trained counselor.  My experience had been nil, regarding PTSD.  I read up on the condition and spoke to a couple of professionals, but translating the criteria for PTSD listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manuel of Mental Disorders or DSM-III or IV, had terms like, “traumatic stressor”, “avoidance and numbing symptoms”, “distress and impairment”.  These terms didn’t equate to  my guy, he was on some days in the first months of the year, just kind of quiet.  The kind of quiet where we could be in the house all day and not speak to one another, after the initial “Good morning, Babe…”  He would reach out to me, touch me in passing, but he could go on with his task at hand, and not say a word.  “Avoidance and numbing symptoms”…you think?

My denial of my husband’s symptoms, or my “gloss over” may have helped us both in those early years.   Looking back and reading some journal entries, I sometimes think I should have been a lot more concerned about him.    I recognized aspects of his symptoms, but I accepted them…to a point.  My husband is a good guy.  One of the few out there that are genuinely good guys.  What I saw and read about Vietnam veterans suffering from PTSD did not necessarily equate with my guy.  He is grounded in faith and family.  He has a sharp, quick wit.  He never drank or experimented in drugs.  He was an athlete in the Marine Corps., loves Judo and golf and is so competitive.   What I know now, that I didn’t know then, is that your neighbor, your uncle, your cousin, your friend, your co-worker and the guy at the 7-11 may suffer from PTSD.   I worry, just from what I have experienced and noted on a personal level, that our current veterans, who have dealt with multiple tours may be more at risk for stressors than the Vietnam veterans.

There is this part of me that believes we have the power to help heal ourselves.  Yes, we need doctors and medication in some cases, in other’s we need coping tools, in all cases we need prayer.  I pray for him and those who suffered like him.  I prayed he would receive the message he needed in counseling.  I prayed for patience and wisdom.  Patience to deal with those days that challenged him more than others.  Wisdom to know when I was in the midst of “one of those days.”  Wisdom to appreciate the days when I was not.

I learned to not panic when loud noises would lift him out of his chair and ultimately out of the room, the movie theatre, a family gathering, an office, and a gym.  Hyper-vigilance, especially this time of year, the anniversary of his wounding, for me, becomes an exercise in restraint.  Over time, I learned his sleep patterns change during this time of year, and this month in particular.  He stays up to early hours of the morning and sleeps late into the day.  Stressors that typically may not be a problem, become one.  A dream, a sound, a smell, a picture…  “Avoidance” became “bunkering”.  He would not want to socailize, perfering to stay inside.  He would not shave his usually well groomed face and head, letting the gray hairs show.  He seemed to age before my eyes.  He would not engage, preferring his sweats and tee shirts to his levis and polo shirts.

Showing the Gray

It took the words of the WWII veteran in his group to resonate with him.  My husband said the veteran came up to him at the end of one of last year’s group counseling session and patted his face and said…”You are too young to have this” touching his beard.  The beard came off that day.  That was a year ago.

This year, the beard never materialized.  This year the “bunkering” was minimal for a couple of reasons.  The WWII vet that made a fuss about his beard, suffered a heart attack last year and is still hospitalized. We have lost a couple of dear friends to illness.    Depression may or may not have factored in each illness and the lesson that was caught, is that tomorrow is not guaranteed.  You can live it, desensitized to the world around you, allowing your fears to engage you to the point they marginalize you,  or you can take a deep breath and live each day, one day at a time, facing the pain of engaging in a society that has little clue of the enormous sacrifice each veteran has made, each veteran’s family has suffered coping with a loved one that comes back forever altered from war, and like the majority of us, take the joy along with heartache.

 Notes from my ongoing project:  Train’s Comin’ – Our Journey with PTSD

Semper Fi, Babe

My male cat jumps on the side of the bed to wake me. If hitting the side of the bed does not do the trick, he jumps on the bed and walks over me, meowing, just in case, I didn’t feel him, I could now hear him. I throw back the warmth of my comforter and get up to either feed him or put him out, still half asleep, I am not sure which it is. I stop short at the end of the hall because there is my husband, playing his new video game…he has not been to bed and it is now five in the morning.

I have not figured out why Christmas is a tough time for veterans. I get a little insight each year since we have been married, that I go thorough the holidays and watch my husband’s routine and sleep patterns alter. He told me early on he didn’t “do” Christmas and we made a compromise, because I do “do” Christmas, it is not only a religious celebration for me, it is a defining time with family for me.

Something a young veteran said to a group of us at lunch this last week. He said society does not make a place for “warriors” to just “be” when they return from war. Society wants returning warriors to assimilate into every day life and in essence, fade away. We don’t ask any other group in our society to give up their identity and fade away, why would we do that to those that protect our freedoms, fight
for their lives in lands 95% of us have never seen? This comment did more for me in understanding my father and my husband, than anything I
had read in PTSD articles. Why would our veterans, who are conditioned to hunt the enemy and kill, be touchy-feely about the holidays? I
have watched my husband say nothing when he brings my totes of decorations from our shed, but the look on his face speaks volumes. I
stopped being offended because he expresses his appreciation for how
the house looks once the decorations are up, but his initial response
is irritation. How could I expect it to be otherwise? His memories
of Christmas during wartime are ones of duress and incredulity. We ask our teenaged and young men to kill in the name of God and Country and then we ask the to sit quietly in church and sing “O Come All Ye Faithful”.

As a wife of the PTSD veteran, I learned early on in my marriage, it does not matter how many years have passed since my husband was in conflict, it is as fresh and clear to him today as it was when he was nineteen. The process of PTSD is that thee recollections, emotions and memories are brought to the surface every year he survived his conflict. My husband has refined his coping tools to deal with these feelings and emotions that come every year. This makes a difference for him in how he processed his emotions twenty years ago, and how he processes them today. He is a warrior, he will always be a warrior, and he has not ever faded or assimilated into society’s preceived corner for him and others like him. It is as it should be. Semper Fideles…always faithful. Makes sense to me. Semper Fi, Babe.

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You’ve Come So Far, You Forgot the Road….

     When Chester and I first met, I was working an entry-level clerk job at Camp Pendleton, Marine Corps Base, in California. He was in the preliminary stages of treatment for his PTSD and awaiting a hearing on his disability rating. He was receiving retirement, but he was unable to work due to his treatment status. I was making minimum wage. I lived in a one bedroom apartment with Megan that was near my work and her school. When I think back to those days, we were happy, Megan was thriving, we were thinking of getting married at the end of summer, and thinking about relocating to North Carolina.

     A good friend of Chester’s called and asked him to pick him up at Naval Air Station North Island. Back in those days, before 9/11, military personnel could fly on “hoppers” from one base to the next, pretty much on a first come, first serve basis. Chester went and picked up “Chico” and he spent the day with us and the night with Chester at his condo, then Chester took him back to catch the next flight out. He gave Chester some money and told him to take me out to dinner.

     When Chester told me about this, I told him, knowing how tight the budget was, “Naw…lets just go home and have a spam sandwich”. He never forgot that story and he tells people about it when financial struggles come up.  He reminds me of it when I drink out of my Mikasa stemware and he drinks out of a Ball canning jar glass. When we get caught up in “wants” versus “needs” we forgot that it wasn’t the newest technology gadget, or the designer shoes, nor the five star restaurant dinner, that we have the fondest memories of.   It was sitting at the wrought iron patio table my mom gave me to use for a dinner table in that tiny one bedroom apartment, that had a view of the landscaped eucalyptus trees on the property, watching the Lakers, having a spam sandwich.