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Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Part 2

written by Arthur Varanelli
on November 23, 2009

It is very important that those closely involved with a veteran also understand the wellsprings of the person that the veteran has become.

PTSD is forever. Those words give you the impression it cannot be "cured" in the popular sense of the mending of broken bones and the antibiotic eradication of bacterial infections. It is true: PTSD cannot be "cured."

Like any uncivilized critter with a mind of its own, though, PTSD can be tamed with lots of work; but even then, its taming is not absolute or 100 percent. I was told a long time ago that PTSD treatment was training those who have it to recognize its behaviors, and applying skills to control its effects. Thirty-nine years and 5 months since returning from Vietnam, I can say that this is true. Some things may diminish in intensity over time, but I cannot be sure if it is my course of treatment that is responsible for the diminishment, or if aspects of my PTSD are just getting older along with me, and care to venture out less. Perhaps both. Nevertheless, my treatment has to be continuous to keep me in equilibrium.

You may find it odd that I treat PTSD as some kind of being that resides in my mind. In many ways, it is. It is helpful for me to think that 21 year old person who experienced the battlefield is "still there" and still handles things more or less like he did 39 years ago. I spent years of painfully honest work re-discovering my pre-Vietnam self — the person who did not have anger management problems, who did not have the overriding sense that the mission was everything, and who did not have that 1000 yard stare of dissociation. I was either me or "it." Fortunately, I am here, and "it" listens to me, now more of the time than not. Make no mistake: my PTSD is still there in all its glory, just waiting for any opportunity to foray into my dreams or respond to triggers of odor, sound and situation. My redemption is that it is I who now returns. I am the one in charge.

Many PTSD disabled veterans, including me, experience sleep problems, waking up to check the "perimeter," anxiety issues, anger management problems, vivid dreams and flashbacks of both the horror of war and benign events. The list is long and differs for each veteran because his personal experiences were different. It is therefore important for the veteran to have an appreciation of how their disability, or sometimes just their veteran status alone, collides with the real world. I have drawn on my personal experience and will recount some of those collisions. I hope these examples will give some insight into the veteran's dilemma with PTSD disability and other people's attitudes, and foster more understanding as to what is really going on in the veteran's mind.

  • Veterans only trust other veterans: This is a basic rule, because veterans often feel that only those who have been where they have been can understand them and do so without judgment. What the veteran has done in the course of his lawful duty, often, is not what society wants for itself, and the veteran, having done his duty, can be mistreated with a range of "punishments" ranging from just being ignored to outlandish derision by some people. Once, I was driving — and my car has veteran's plates. An adult was driving a car in the next lane, and he loudly asked the youngster sitting next to him how "they" felt about veterans, coaching the youngster to make an obscene gesture. It was summer, the car windows were open, I did not have wax in my ears, and my glasses were on. Now that was kind of creepy and messed up my mind for a while.

  • An automatic weapon firing: One afternoon, I was sitting at the dining room table doing some now forgotten thing. Suddenly my attention was drawn to the window by a loud noise from the direction of the large expanse of woods behind the house. The noise had those unmistakable qualities of the sound of an automatic weapon firing a full clip of ammunition, sounding much like an AK47. I went into automatic combat defense mode. For that time, which felt like an eternity, I was scrambling to find a place of refuge. After somewhat gaining my composure, I called my neighbor with a voice that probably scared the wits out of him. He assured me that he heard the same sound, and it was not him. I then called the police department, and had a conversation with the authorities. The sound of automatic weapons firing has not returned. It took me a few weeks to actually wind down from that completely unexpected and acutely realistic excursion into the past — like trips into the boonies, three 105s and one click from the Cambodian border, Foo Gas on the wire, and so forth. My mind was a real mess.

  • The Monsoon effect: When it is summer, the weather is hot and humid, and the smell of decaying vegetation and other things is just right, heavy rain and lightning will trigger the "monsoon effect" and take me right back. If I get into an immobilized dissociated state, which has happened from time to time, the images of dead bloated rats, etc. come to my mind.

  • The benign flashback: Shopping for some photography equipment in a store took me back to walking the hot dusty road of base camp carrying some newly developed photographs. My daughter found me motionless and staring. It was just a few seconds to her, but an eternity for me as I was looking down at the dust rising up from my footsteps, feeling the heat, sweating down my back in the full noon sun, and hearing the comforting sounds of helicopter Cobra gunships overhead. It was the dry season.

  • Running out of the movie theater: Unexpected and vivid Vietnam action scenes like in Forrest Gump, photographs, newscasts and current events of ongoing combat zones, and Vietnam War documentaries, all send me running out of the movie theater, room, and wherever. I cannot bring myself to connect with this media under any circumstances. It really tears at my mind and destroys my mental equilibrium. This also applies to intense combat-like action drama, like the television series 24, parts of which just drive me right out of the living room and sometimes out of the house. It is one of my wife's favorite shows, and she has all the seasons on DVD. It is not in season for me. I just leave the room and she understands. Other people have to live, too. The classic WW2 documentaries and movies give me no problems, and I really enjoy them. Funny, isn't it?

  • The deliberately triggered flashback: As I sat quietly at work at my computer doing something, the word "Incoming!" was shouted behind my back. I flashed back: all I could see were the trees of the rubber plantation all around me, which were being hit with 122mm point detonating fused rockets; I had to run into the trees and sit in a maelstrom of shrapnel to keep the never-ever-to-fail 50KW TOC generators running. That was truly a bad hair day. Perhaps I should have just constantly dressed for work in my steel helmet, flack vest and jungle boots. Now there would have been a fashion statement.

  • The "going postal" stereotype: I was once presented with a gift at a lunch, in a cardboard box, all wrapped up in tape like a mummy. Using my teeth to tear at the tape was not an option, so I pulled out my trusty three inch blade folding pocket knife of 10 years vintage and proceeded to cut through the tape in a usual and customary neat manner. After some audible gasps from the audience, and some words, some of the people at the lunch were acting like I was brandishing the long curved scimitar of a pirate. Breathless conversation of "those knives are used to kill people, my father had one," could be heard across the table. I also heard people say, "and If I had known he was carrying that, I would have had a guard there," and "I am sitting here at the back of the room because he thinks I am responsible for this," etc. This is just a variation on the "going postal" theme of stereotyping veterans as putting people in imminent danger. This inflated mythology knows no bounds. I witnessed it sensationally occurring in presumably intelligent people in the workplace. The reality was that these people were very toxic to me. God forbid if I had used office scissors. Maybe I should have just spit on the cardboard.

  • Button pushing and cover-up: "Your disability does not define the workplace" was a mantra in a Human Resources department. When you have PTSD, and are gainfully employed, there is a very good chance that what you do at work is like a military combat mission in solving problems of harm to life and limb and keeping property from going up in flames. I subconsciously and involuntarily did that for years. I actually defined more of the workplace than most realized. When it came to nuzzling up to issues of dishonesty, I dealt with that in the same relentless manner all over the place. Like my Marine friend who became a 20-year LAPD "Super Cop," and many others with PTSD in similar protective and safety service professions, we all inevitably, automatically and unconsciously put the mission ahead of ourselves without hesitation. What then did define the workplace — dishonesty, dead people and smoldering ruins? There are some genuinely confused people out there who do nothing but push your buttons with stuff like this when they want to shy away from reality.

  • Exercising your rights: Employers are an odd bunch. Never ever expect more from them than exactly what the law requires them to do, even if you are a disabled veteran, Mother Theresa or Chief Pontiac. Some of them will also try to get away with as much as possible, hedging bets on getting caught, and weighing the risks if they do. I once used the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) in the Department of Labor to try to resolve an issue of discrimination. After the employer "barely won" and some people were "subjected" to some remedial training on PTSD and veterans by the OFCCP, I encountered the most profound hissy-fit Wild Bill wild-west display of an unsatisfactory performance review. It all passed by after a few years of my stubbornly moving ahead in spite of it all. It does no good to try reason, logic, fact or even common sense in such situations.

  • Sitting at the back of the room: I always sat or tried to sit with my back to a wall or right next to an exit from the room. I really worked at that. I overcame that for a while, but it is back, so I go with it. I think there is nothing more amusing than to watch a group of veterans scramble for the best back to the wall seat in a restaurant. In 1998 four of us met in a small town west of Dallas, TX, for a POV Re: Vietnam reunion of sorts. I wish I had a movie camera at the restaurant! My wife always asks me to sit wherever I am most comfortable. It is usually facing into the traffic flow of the aisle or entrance door. I would rather do that than get very jumpy and make everyone uncomfortable.

  • The last ride: Traveling by air has always been a chronic problem for me. Unless I wear my noise cancelling headphones, put on music, and mentally loose myself in it, I get into the feeling I had in the latter part of the airplane ride to Saigon — I felt like I was being taken to my death. That did not come true, but I cannot shake the feeling or my reactions to it even now, especially when I fly. My wife hates it because I squirm in the seat and drive her nuts. I hate it because I feel like dirt afterwards.

  • Irrational anger: This is commonly called an anger management issue and is one of the more profound markers for PTSD. This PTSD attribute is extraordinarily toxic to everyone around you, especially your family and friends. I went around thinking I was perfectly normal for years. I can still launch rockets in the air, but now it usually has a good reason, even if it is extreme to some. Nothing is ever perfect.

I think I have covered a waterfront of some of my personal experiences that may ring a bell here and there, and give new veterans a sense that if they are experiencing readjustment issues, they have never been nor will they ever be alone. This is a sampling of my experiences, and be assured there are matters about which I will never speak to anyone and experiences that got really repetitious so just one account would suffice and relieve everyone of the whole 40 year's accumulation of stuff.

My youngest daughter called me the other night as I was composing this piece. She wanted to be sure I was well grounded when I wrote this. I assured her that I was. I am sure you have noticed I kept to the subject matter and only spoke of situations in the most general of terms, divorced from time and space.

We remain left with the almost eternal question of what society expects of the veteran and what the veteran expects of society. With PTSD, it seems the burden rests completely on the veteran, and society gets to behave like a foolish child, taunting and calling names. As I continue to discuss topics, I hope you will continue to think on this issue of imbalance, a real impediment to readjustment in any time and place.

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