In August of 2007, I was finally given a consult to go see a psychiatrist. The nightmares were unbearable and I felt like I was cracking at the seams from the pressure of my impending separation from the military, the nightmares I was experiencing, and my inability to remember things. I guess the clinical social worker I had been seeing for a few months finally began to realize that I was suffering from a little more than “Adjustment Disorder.” It took about two months from the time he agreed to refer me to the mental-health clinic to the time of my actual appointment.
As I sat in the waiting room of the stigmatized 13th floor of the Army hospital, I worried about whether this appointment would somehow negatively affect my ability to hold a security clearance, or stay in the military. I hadn’t mentioned any of this to my superiors because I knew it didn’t matter. I had tried to get help from the unit back in Germany, and they basically blew me off.
The only person that took me seriously was Jordan. He had been my sponsor when I had first arrived at my overseas posting in December 2002. He was an E-7 like myself but had about 18 years in and was well-respected at the unit. He was a complete dick most of the time but when it was important, he was serious and treated me like I was a veteran member of the program.
I had sought his counsel after returning from the war in 2003 after I realized that something just wasn’t right. I told him about the nightmares, the insomnia, and the increased anxiety I was feeling. He took me to see a friend of his who was a Vietnam veteran and a pastor. For whatever reason, I remember telling Jordan that I’d go talk to guy as long as he didn’t try to give me some bullshit advice about needing to pray or getting right with the Jewish carpenter. Jordan said he would tell the gentleman, and so I agreed to meet and talk to him.
The conversation basically went like this:
Pastor: “So Jordan tells me you’re having some difficulties after coming back from the war. I was in Vietnam and suffered from some of the same things you’re going through.”
I knew the feelings inside of me had to come out, but I couldn’t or didn’t want to deal with them yet. My mind was in a tug-of-war over whether I should talk about the memories and painful feelings I was trying to avoid. I tried to make some brief conversation so as not to appear rude since Jordan had set the whole thing up. I felt the anger and pain rising to the surface even as I sat there, and finally called the whole thing quits a few minutes after it began. I could feel my veins popping out of my neck and my eyes becoming glassy as I looked through the window in the pastor’s office. I didn’t want to cry in front of two dudes, but they had to have seen it in my face, in my eyes, in my contorted expressions.
As I returned from my daydreaming, I found myself back in the waiting room on the 13th floor. I thought back to that meeting with the pastor and Jordan and wondered if my meeting today would end in the same way. Would I be able to talk, or would I just get so angry again that I would blow a fucking seal right in the psychiatrist’s office? If I did, at least some one would take me seriously and give me some help, I thought.
But at the same time, I was worried how it would affect my clearance and my future ability to work in the community. This, and a lack of time, had been the two main reasons I never got treatment before. It was impossible to get treatment while I was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.
So no shit, there I was, in the “mental-health” clinic, that white-walled, sanitized-looking area of the hospital that most fear. Rumors were rampant in the Army. I remember hearing one of them that I had actually taken seriously and was really worried about as I sat there in the brown, faux-leather seat, waiting for the receptionist to call me back. The rumor went something like this, “If you have PTSD really bad, and they see you on the 13th floor, they can actually commit you to a padded cell against your will to force you to get treatment. If you say certain things or express certain feelings, they’ll automatically commit you.”
While I knew that rumors were more common than STDs in the military, I was actually fearful that they would think I was crazy and have two orderlies come and grab me when I was in the office talking to the doc. I was ready, and guarded about what I was going to say.
“Mr. Dan, Mr. Stringer Dan!” the receptionist yelled out from behind the counter without even standing up. I hastily walked up and she pointed me around the corner to a tall man in a white lab coat with his Army dress uniform beneath. I walked up and greeted the officer and he simply turned around and walked off down the hallway. “What a fucking dick!” I thought as I tried to keep up with him. We rounded what seemed like the fifth corner and came to the end of a long corridor. He slowed and pulled out a set of keys and unlocked the door to an office.
The room smelled of cheap cologne and Doritos, and he reminded me of a child molester. He instructed me to sit in a large, leather chair with my back to the window as he opened a huge, metal filing cabinet and pulled out a notebook. He then sat down and began typing on his computer. He said nothing for about two minutes when suddenly he turned to me and said, “So what seems to be the problem?”
“Did you read my medical file?” I retorted with obvious disdain.
“I did, but I want to hear it from you.”
So I began, “I’m all fucked up. I have nearly constant, recurring nightmares about being shot, my weapon not firing, running out of ammo, having my head cut off, and being involved in plane crashes. I think I have PTSD and it’s really affecting my life and my ability to function normally.”
The first thing out of his mouth after I finished was, “Well, now, I don’t think you have PTSD per se. You don’t exhibit the classical symptoms of PTSD according to the DSM-IV.”
I interrupted and asked him what the “classical symptoms” were.
“Well, you must have experienced, witnessed, or have been confronted with an event or events that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of yourself or others and your response involved intense fear, helplessness, or horror,” he began.
“Ok, and…” as I waited for him to continue.
“Additionally, the traumatic event or events is persistently re-experienced in one (or more) of the following ways…” as he showed me the DSM-IV which listed the following:
- Recurrent and intrusive distressing recollections of the event, including images, thoughts, or perceptions.
- Recurrent distressing dreams of the event.
- Acting or feeling as if the traumatic event were recurring (includes a sense of reliving the experience, illusions, hallucinations, and dissociative flashback episodes, including those that occur upon awakening or when intoxicated).
- Intense psychological distress at exposure to internal or external cues that symbolize or resemble an aspect of the traumatic event.
- Physiological reactivity on exposure to internal or external cues that symbolize or resemble an aspect of the traumatic event.
- Persistent avoidance of stimuli associated with the trauma and numbing of general responsiveness (not present before the trauma), as indicated by three (or more) of the following:
- Efforts to avoid thoughts, feelings, or conversations associated with the trauma
- Efforts to avoid activities, places, or people that arouse recollections of the trauma
- Inability to recall an important aspect of the trauma
- Markedly diminished interest or participation in significant activities
- Feeling of detachment or estrangement from others
- Restricted range of affect (e.g., unable to have loving feelings)
- Sense of a foreshortened future (e.g., does not expect to have a career, marriage, children, or a normal life span)
- Persistent symptoms of increased arousal (not present before the trauma), as indicated by two (or more) of the following:
- Difficulty falling or staying asleep
- Irritability or outbursts of anger
- Difficulty concentrating
- Exaggerated startle response
- Duration of the disturbance is more than one month
- The disturbance causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.
With the little patience I had left, I tried to calmly explain to him that I was suffering from most, if not all, of what was described in his handy little blue book laid open in front of me, and that I had already fucking told this to the social worker they had me seeing for the past six months.
“Do you have suicidal ideations?” he asked.
“If you mean, do I want to kill myself, then no. But I think about death nearly every day,” I dutifully answered.
“That’s different. You’re not suicidal—you’re well fed and groomed, and you speak well. I think you’ll be fine. Would you like some medicine to help with the nightmares and your anxiety?” He asked in a dismissive tone as if he had something far more important to do.
Some medicine for my anxiety? Are you kidding me you fucking ass-clown? I thought to myself. It was at this point that I knew he was full of shit—just like the panzy, limp-handed social worker that I had to listen to prior to getting a referral to this indifferent, pretentious motherfucker.
“I’m good,” I said, casting a hateful look towards him.
“I need to get back to work.”
So, off I went, having tried numerous times over a period of four years to get my questions answered and have someone finally listen to the issues that were troubling me. I didn’t even get a chance to tell the guy what all my symptoms were before he had made his diagnosis. He didn’t ask any probing questions, nothing about the content of my nightmares, or what I had actually experienced in Iraq. It was at that point, instead of telling a field-grade military officer to go fuck his mother, that I decided to leave. I thought that perhaps everything would just work itself out. I was deeply mistaken.