Did Do you have PTSD?
What is it like? How does it feel? What did you do about it?
Yep, I have it and I live with it. It’s not a good feeling and I’ve tried a lot of different ways to avoid and ignore it. HA! Impossible!
As I sit here writing in my basement AO, (“Area of Operation” for the non-veteran readers), I thought I’d begin by describing my recluse/hermit room so that you may learn a little bit about me. Looking around, I wonder if it is a room for PTSD escape or is it a PTSD enabler? Regardless, this is the room where I spend the majority of my time and where I do ALL of my writing. I have the room divided into two sectors. One side of the room is my war memories area and the other side is my sports and other memorabilia area.
In a prominent position in the room, I have my four Vietnam Veteran hats on display sitting on top of my locked gun cabinet. I don’t wear the hats very often but I sometimes wear the U.S. Army hat when I go to the VA medical center for treatment of various service-connected disabilities.
Inside the gun cabinet that the hats set on are about a dozen rifles, shotguns, and about a half dozen handguns. In addition, there are also my two AR15s. One of the ARs is a heavy barrel rifle that I added a bipod and a scope and zeroed for longer distance shooting if the need ever arrives. The other AR is a lightweight “grab and go” rifle if the need ever arises. Both have fully loaded magazines locked in them but no rounds chambered. Alongside the two ARs, I have three 7-pocket cloth bandoliers of fully loaded 20-round magazines. Just like I carried in Vietnam. And next to that I have a military-style model 1911 .45 caliber handgun with several loaded magazines at the ready. I asked my therapist if that preparedness is a crazy symptom of my PTSD? Am I crazy? I received no comment, no reply, no expressed opinion from him as he quietly continued writing his notes.
On the next wall, I have a shadow box display of my Army ribbons, badges, and awards along with my framed award citations. Draped over the desk chair is a camo poncho liner like the one I used to sleep with in Vietnam, and hanging on a hook in the bookshelves are my dog tags. My old worn-out jungle boots are in the closet. All constant reminders of my Vietnam service. Not that I need a constant reminder, the PTSD works diligently and efficiently at that.
Recently my daughter unexpectedly discovered that I had secretly published my Vietnam memoir, “Rucksack Grunt.” Why did I hide the fact that I wrote a book? PTSD avoidance maybe? After discovering and reading my book she called me and said that she wanted to bring the kids (my grandkids) over to see my Army stuff. I replied, “you know where that is downstairs and you can see it anytime you want.” She replied, “Yeah, but you know we NEVER go down there into your room!” We want to come over while you are there.”
On the other side of the room, I have a Pittsburgh Steelers plaque hanging on the wall, and on the fireplace mantle, there are a few trophies that my motorcycles have won at the motor shows and car cruises. One of the bikes I built is an Army tribute bike.
So what causes PTSD to develop in the first place?
I went into the Army at 18 years old. Right there… that should tell you something, Why the hell is the United States military accepting 18-year-old kids in the first place! Their brains aren’t even fully mature and are no way in hell ready to be sent to war. I fully completed my service obligation and my Vietnam tour as a teenager! Is there any wonder that I came home nuts!
In my opinion, a Vietnam tour of duty was an experience of “extremes.” Extremes that ordinary everyday citizens rarely experience. Well, maybe a few do experience a few of them, but not like we did in a never-ending ongoing series of extremes. We were thrown into an extreme humanitarian culture shock by the Vietnamese lifestyle and standard of living or lack of it, which apparently was the Vietnamese “norm” for them. Certainly nothing at all like suburbia Pennsylvania! Then there was the climate shock of overwhelming Jungle heat and humidity and extreme amounts of monsoon rainfall. There was frequent extreme exhaustion. Times of extreme anger and times of extreme loneliness and homesickness, along with some times of extreme boredom. Periods of Extreme fear when facing the unknown dangers of going on to the next mission. More times of extreme fear that goes along with coming under small arms rifle fire or under larger incoming explosions. There was the extreme fear for your life and the real possibility that you or your buddies may die, and some did. 58,000+ did.
Is there any wonder that some of us came home from the war with our heads all messed up as a result of the cumulative effect of the extremes? In my opinion, being exposed to some of the types of extremes that I described is enough to inadvertently and unknowingly to us, rewire our brains and cause PTSD, just the same as our exposure to agent orange inadvertently and unknowingly to us caused deadly damage to our bodies years later. These are the things that we now live with.
But I put up a good front. I came home and tried to bury all of those thoughts and memories the best I could. Got on with my life, went back to school, got married, got a job, and did all of the things we were supposed to do. Sucked it up… right? But how do you stop the damn dreams and the night sweats and wide-awake insomnia that follows nightly? Easy… a lot of beer for a lot of years. Get numb. Self-medicate. Another better way was to keep myself constantly busy with work, not allowing any idle time for those disturbing intrusive thoughts while avoiding anything that triggered the memories which induced the thoughts.
I pretended for a whole lot of years that those methods were working. I managed to temporarily suppress some of the extreme emotions and memories. But they always eventually resurfaced again and again. And there was no way in hell I was going to admit the problem and seek treatment for the “mental weakness” that I had. I’m a tough Vietnam Vet, right?
I thought that as I got older, the symptoms would eventually subside, but just the opposite happened, After I retired from work, the PTSD symptoms surprisingly began to escalate, to the point that I felt like I had to seek help or die. It was literally killing me. The anxiety, depression, heart palpitations, blood pressure, sleeplessness, and so forth, was causing a downward spiral in my physical and mental health. I honestly thought I would have a heart attack or stroke.
Decades after the war, I finally sought help from the VA and was quickly officially diagnosed with “moderate” PTSD. Fortunately, I was never suicidal. The psychologists and psychiatrists offered treatment choices of medication, talk therapy, or both. I wasn’t ready to talk so I chose medication. Well, I found that there was a trade-off with that choice. Yes, it helped to reduce the anxiety, but the accompanying brain fog and lethargy were unpleasant, to say the least. Over time my body has somewhat adjusted to the medication and those problems. It is really nice to be able to sleep through most of the night for the first time in many years. I found though that the meds were not enough, so a year later I began some intense individual talk therapy. What a trip! That’s a whole ‘nother interesting story that I will write about in a future article. As I said, the meds helped a little bit and so did the talk therapy. The worst of the symptoms have improved a bit, but I honestly can’t say that I believe my PTSD will ever be fully cured. However, even incremental improvements are welcomed! I’ve lived with it and managed it for 50 years and will continue on.
After reading one of the other articles that I wrote, a person close to me offered his opinion regarding my open discussion of PTSD “mental health.” He suggested that I should tone down the talk of being nutso and crazy as I sometimes half-jokingly write. “You don’t want to broadcast to the world about your mental health problems, do you?” Well, I thought about that for a bit and came to the conclusion that YOU my friend are actually part of the problem! Just like when we Vets came home 50+ years ago to an unwelcoming society that didn’t want to hear about our war. That is exactly what exacerbated and contributed to the problems that many of us suffer with still today. No, I am not going to tone it down, and no I am not going to hide my PTSD any more than I would try to hide my agent orange cancer. Think what you will.
I realize that the Purple Heart recipients are a whole other class of wounded warriors that have my and our entire nation’s most sincere grateful respect, honor, and empathy. Our war wounds are of a different nature of course. However, it is my hope that someday all disabled veterans may be acknowledged by this nation with the same dignity. Even those of us with the types of delayed wounds that have developed over long periods of time. Until then, personally, I will not tone them down or hide from the stigma. I wear them and think of them as a badge of honor and a tribute to the price that we paid for proudly serving our country.
In closing, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that one of the most therapeutic and productive results that I have found in dealing with PTSD is writing. And that is exactly why I am writing this article. It helps me and hopefully reading this will help others too. Surprisingly and thankfully, when I started writing my stories my nightmares finally ceased. I would encourage others with PTSD to write about their war experiences. It helped me, probably more than the meds and therapy did.
Always remember; In most cases, PTSD is treatable. No need to suffer unnecessarily!
Thank you for reading, and may God’s Grace be with you all.
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