“May have been the losing side. Still not convinced it was the wrong one.”

"This report is maybe 12-years-old. Parliament buried it, and it stayed buried till River dug it up. This is what they feared she knew. And they were right to fear because there's a whole universe of folk who are gonna know it, too. They're gonna see it. Somebody has to speak for these people. You all got on this boat for different reasons, but you all come to the same place. So now I'm asking more of you than I have before. Maybe all. Sure as I know anything I know this, they will try again. Maybe on another world, maybe on this very ground swept clean. A year from now, 10, they'll swing back to the belief that they can make people . . . better. And I do not hold to that. So no more running. I aim to misbehave." ~ Captain Malcom Reynolds

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Elephant in the Room

So... this post is something that's been gestating in one form or another for over a year now. And, like all things, what I imagined at the conception is quite a bit different from what's actually being born now.
Not sure how this is going to come out in some places, as I'm going to open up doors I usually don't. But I also know that parts of my journey may be something that relates to one or two others out there, and the least I can do is share it. I also can say that you won't get everything - those who know me know that.
We're going to discuss Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. There isn't a quiz or anything, but you may learn something. I know I have.

The start of this topic was one night last year when my wife and I ended up watching a television special discussing PTSD, and the shockingly high rates among some people who've served in recent conflicts. They profiled one particular Army platoon from a "regular" unit, which had rates of well over 50% of the soldiers. And this wasn't minor "I have bad dreams" stuff - this was formerly "normal" guys descending into crime, rampant drug abuse, violence, suicide, and other antisocial behaviors to say the least. Part of the show trying to determine why some units, which didn't necessarily experience better or worse conditions than others, seemed to have more or fewer men and women affected.
Well, my wife and I got to talking that night. With my observation being the big difference in reported PTSD issues amongst special operations, EOD and other more or less "elite" units as it were. Similar to the numbers reported amongst SWAT and such among law enforcement as opposed to "regular" patrol folks. The discussion between us focusing on whether it was that the kind of person who makes it through such training tends to be more mentally resilient, or whether the increased training and confidence helps make such things less common. But also some of it kind of descending into the typical "they just couldn't hack it as much" dismissiveness that seems to commonly come up when "we" discussed "them". After all, "we" didn't suffer from PTSD - we went to war, did our time, and came home to move on with things. This will come into play again.
Please note, this is in NO way meant to belittle or dismiss the things these men and women deal with, or to say that such special groups are fundamentally "better" than the line men and women who do different jobs. The demons they suffer from are just as real, and they cope with them in their way.
Anyway, so I had this thought kind of bouncing in my head for a while - wanting to write about it and why it is different people deal with things in different ways - not that I had answers, just opening it for discussion.

So, fast forward to this past few months. As my readers have gathered, I've been dealing with a bunch of stuff - not feeling right, not sleeping well, not eating well and generally not being myself. Where it was putting a strain not only on myself, but on my home life, how I felt about work and life and everything in general. When you lose thirty pounds in a couple of months, and are living on just a few hours of sleep a night, it carries over into everything else around you.
Now, I've had bits like this come up here and there in life before, but it usually doesn't last that long. After three months of this though & noticing a continuing decline in how I felt about things I was at least smart enough to take an internal look and say "things aren't right." At about the same time I was reading some things on PTSD again, and started adding numbers together and coming up with the conclusion there might be a correlation.
Which is a tough spot to be in, for a number of reasons. #1 - again - "that" doesn't happen... I'm better than that. #2 - my mind starts wrapping it around my career, what will this mean to me still being able to work at what I like doing, and all that. #3 - what happens from here? I mean, my mind is wrapped around "those" cases & that's not who I am. #4 - all the labels, particular from the media etc. - where EVERY veteran is a seething pit of PTSD-inspired violence just waiting to explode...  It all adds up to a lot of baggage before you even walk in that door, much less try to do anything about it.
Anyway, I swallowed my pride and made plans to discuss this with my doctor at the VA on my next appointment. Given the alternative is being one of those guys who finally reaches for help after everything in his life has already spiraled down the toilet & THEN has the realization something is wrong. And honestly, my kids were a big part of it too - wanting to be around for them, and not driving them away by issues of my own.
Fortunately my appointment was later that month, and I have a decent doctor. I laid out my concerns and my issues and why I didn't feel right, and he agreed that it would probably be a good idea to talk with one of the mental health professionals and see what they thought. And, I'm very lucky in that I have a good VA hospital here as opposed to the horror stories I've heard from other places out there.
So, off I go to see a counselor. Labels again, but I'm at least open to seeing where this goes. She again listened to my concerns and, at least for me, did it in a way I needed of not judging while also not being over-huggy and let's all feel good.
I did my part too - I told her up front I was going to be honest but that I might not say everything. I laugh too at some of the screening questions they give you in the forms - because I can tell you anyone who knows about interrogation, psychology, and the like knows how to answer them to "avoid" the labels. Again, this is probably key to why some people "show up" more than others.

We talked the first session a couple of hours. I learned a number of things I hadn't thought about ever - parts of which came just from me not knowing, parts from new things we've learned in the past decade. And, some of which I'll be sharing here for your knowledge.
One of the first things that was pointed out is some of the changes in terminology. A soon-to-come change in the literature is going to removing the term "Disorder" from the title... Because, quite frankly, humans when exposed to stress such as combat or similar things, particularly if this lasts more than about a month, are GOING to have some kind of changes and effects in their makeup. Different for different people, but it's simply going to happen. And, the effects are cumulative - it doesn't magically go away when you are out of the situation, and if you are exposed to more stressors of the like it just keeps adding to that bank. So - calling it a "disorder" implies it is abnormal, when the best way to describe it is "a normal reaction to an abnormal situation."
We then compared that to my situation. She was able to point out that between the military and police work, I've basically been exposed to such things for almost 25 years without a real break... as she said "the miracle is that it's taken this long for something to break." Looking at the charts, you can pretty much guarantee that if you've been exposed to more than 3-6 months of such things, then you're 99% likely to have SOME kind of effect; and the 1% who doesn't are your psychopathic and sociopathic personality types.
Next I brought up some of my issues with the screening questions and concerns. How there is a whole lot of "do you run away from/avoid things that remind you of what happened," "do you avoid stressful situations," and the like. Which I'm not saying aren't valid elements for a lot of people, but they certainly don't apply in my case. I mean, I still work with bombs and violence and such every day - it's sort of the job I'm good at. So, #1 I'm wondering if I'm just reading myself wrong and there is something else going on; #2 is if I'm not going to answer things the "right" way to qualify for any help.
Fortunately once more I have a good counselor I'm working with. Again she pointed out that in about 95% of the cases the presentation is the "classical" model that we expect from such surveys and from what we as a society read in the reports. People who do have trouble dealing with society and normal life, who are jumpy around loud noises and have the flashbacks and all that. And, again, not to belittle it - definitely a tough spot to be in. These are the men and women who can't be around those high stress situations without losing it, because their ability to adjust to it is simply overwhelmed.

But - about 5% - and frequently in the communities I've mentioned - the coping mechanisms work differently. We thrive on the stress, we continue to seek it out. The adrenaline and danger junkies, the type A personalities. Because, and this is important, that chaos is the only areas we really feel we CAN control. We bury ourselves in work, in deployment after deployment, in staying just a little while longer doing the job, because we can define our performance there. And because the focus and concentration of doing so tends to isolate the moments and shut the other things out. What is the price? We drive away other people; especially those who haven't "walked the walk." Failed relationships, distance from kids, friends limited to those who do the same job. Obsessing about work and being ready for it, while we ignore other things in life. Often an overwhelming perfectionism towards things WE find important, while blatantly ignoring or neglecting the things we don't. The sort who sits on the edge of the crowd, always watching - except for those moments they find kindred ones, and then everyone else is shut out who isn't in "the club."
Talk about painting a picture of twenty years. I couldn't tell you the number of coworkers on their second/third/fourth marriage/mistress/whatever. The number of times one or the other of us has volunteered for a trip because it was easier than dealing with the "real" world. Because "downrange" - be that in a war zone, or working a beat - is where we are in charge, where we know and control what is going to happen when. I could point every one of these things out time and time again in my peers over my career. And, the thing is, most of us don't even realize it, and certainly wouldn't acknowledge it as an issue. In fact, I can only think of a handful of guys at that level who I can recall coming out publicly and saying "I'm dealing with PTSD." Again, talk about building a wall to keep people from dealing with things.

Needless to say getting this data shown to me kind of helped put some of it in perspective. That it isn't just me, and that we're not "supermen" who are somehow magically immune to the influences of what goes on. That I have peers dealing with the same kind of stuff, and a network I can start working with on it.


So that's more or less where it stands now, at least as far as we're going in this one post. This didn't happen overnight, and a couple of trips to the VA isn't going to resolve it overnight either. 

But, there's at least a label now - which isn't always bad. It's a place on the map to start from. I can't say where the road is necessarily going to end up, but at least I have a reference point and a rudder again. I have a good support system building at the VA, and a wife who is very understanding and working with me on figuring out how this affects our lives and family. It definitely beats trying to figure it all out solo.

Hope you don't mind me sharing at least some of my perspective. Bits more will come over time, but this isn't going to turn into a "my adventures in mental health" blog. However, parts of it I do want to share, particularly if it helps someone else out there. And again, I'm just writing from my experiences and outlook - I don't belittle or think this makes anyone else's better or worse, it's just theirs. 

And, for those of my readers who may have some of their own demons. Sometimes you have to look into the abyss, you have to face those things we want to ignore. Sooner or later it's going to happen, one way or another, so you can choose when or they get to. Just something to think about.


Old NFO said...

Good points, and thanks for sharing. And yes the chaos comment 'does' make sense now! And concur, it's the 'difference' in the mentality of those with advanced/special training and most of those folks ARE Type A personalities. Good luck with the counseling...

Melissa said...

Good job getting yourself through the door and talking to someone. That's usually the hardest part.

You're going to have fun becoming more aware of cultural attitudes to mental illness in the coming months. It'll piss you off. Have fun ranting, we can always use more voices dispelling the myths.

Farm.Dad said...

The thing is.. With the current instability in just what constitutes a " mental health issue " coupled with the push for shared records in background checks there is no way in hell a bunch of people who really could benefit from help will ever seek it. Get help .. Loose your civil rights .. What a bargain ! No i dont have an answer , just being " that guy " setting on the fence watching the rodeo .

Jay said...

That sounds like you have taken one huge step and I have got to say you have my full admiration. Don’t get me wrong I have not lived through what you have and I don’t have your experiences but still even I can see how far reaching it is to make this first move. You say you hope your words may be of help to someone else, well I think you can take that as a given.
There may be nothing I can do to help but at the very least I wanted you to know that I’m in your corner barracking for you. Best wishes to you and yours.

Donia said...

Love and prayers.

Phelps said...

You're on to part of it with the training -- it turns distress into eustress. There's one thing to remember, though. There is a reason all the WW2 guys never lost touch with their war buddies. It's the best way to heal. Keep up with your crew.

Andie said...

I am a new reader (found you via Old NFO) and found your post very enlightening. I admire you taking stock and then action for you and your family; it can be really scary to realize the changes that have happened when you haven't been looking. I wish you well in your counseling journey (glad to hear you have support and a good counselor!) and will keep you in my thoughts.
Thank you for sharing...