I was working with a Viet Nam vet today and it got me thinking about a few things.
He has PTSD. You wouldn’t know it. People think they would. He’s just another professional like me that appears “normal.” I only know he has PTSD because I had to confirm his service related disability for workshop discounts. I don’t think anyone else in the workshop “knew.” And I’m pretty sure neither he nor anyone else in the workshop “knew” I have PTSD.
But I digress. The idea that people with PTSD and other mental illnesses or developmental/processing differences don’t appear as raving maniacs and actually just look and act like everyone else is a running theme through this blog, but only makes a cameo appearance in this post.
What this is really about, is how this guy got me thinking about the vets I got my first PTSD treatment with and how that got me thinking about some beliefs in -dare I say it? -PTSD culture.
See, first of all there is a real popular debate going on among people with PTSD, those who work with people with PTSD, and I guess anyone else who feels like they have a few cents to add. The question is whether or not it takes someone with PTSD to effectively counsel someone with PTSD. I guess the idea is a little like the idea that someone who has overcome addiction issues themselves is equipped to better help people who are struggling to overcome addiction. And I’m just going to stop right there. Because this post isn’t about that debate. You just need to know it exists, because I need to point out to you something I’ve noticed has become a running theme in these discussions. Whether someone is doing it subconsciously or consciously when the say “others with PTSD,” more and more people seem to really be meaning, “others with PTSD from the same source.” Veterans for veterans. Domestic violence victims for domestic violence victims. Sudden trauma (car accident, terrorism, etc) victims for other sudden trauma victims. I am going to voice an opinion here, because I think any time we start to polarize things into black or white, us and them, we lose a lot. And here’s and example of what we are missing when we separate veterans with PTSD from domestic violence victims with PTSD:
When I was first diagnosed with PTSD, that was a pretty new diagnosis for domestic violence victims. Quite frankly, they didn’t know what to do with me. The psychologist that I’d been seeing gave an address on piece of paper and told me to “go here” for further treatment. I thought there had been a mistake when I pulled into the VA. I went inside, more for directions than anything else. There had to be a civilian counseling office nearby? Imagine my surprise, when I spoke to the woman in the receptionist window, to find that they’d been expecting me. And that’s how I found myself sitting in a waiting room at the VA, surrounded by Viet Nam veterans with PTSD.
“They aren’t going to want me here.” I thought. “I don’t fit in. What I went to is nothing like what they went through.” I was both right and wrong. I thought they would dismiss me because my PTSD wasn’t as valid as theirs. Turns out I can reduce a roomful of tough old vets to tears. Because of the differences, for one thing–something that hadn’t occurred to me before as being strikingly horrific was both the length of time my kids and I were subjected to some pretty intense torture (most Viet Nam tours were relatively short compared with 10, 15, 20 or more years of trauma domestic violence victims suffer. I have wondered if, now that the US has spent so much time fighting in the middle east, that has added a new component to the PTSD we are seeing in our vets.), and the idea that the source of my pain wasn’t an enemy, but someone who was supposed to love and care for me. But also, there are similarities: the abruptness, the violence, the knowledge that you have been changed into someone who did things you never imagined you could do, and of course the symptoms. These things are a bridge, and the differences can be a balm.
What does that mean? I can’t speak too personally for the vets, because somehow we never managed to have a conversation specifically about this. But I do know from things vets have said to me, that some of them found it helpful to find a sort of gateway into civilian life. To them I was standing with one foot in either side of the line. I really understand what some of this is like. Things like what a freaking scum you feel like to hurt someone close to you just because they startle you, or you have a flashback, and how you feel about the people who made you into that and how you feel about yourself-if you had just done this-or this differently… OK, don’t get me started down that path right now–that’s probably enough for you to get the idea. But where that other foot stood: I was not military. Not military. That’s got a number of significances to it that one of those guys could explain better to you. This actually comes out as one of the reasons for segregating veterans from others with PTSD. Because those other PTSDers–they aren’t military. Only someone military can understand. Only someone military can help. I’m telling you from being the real life guinea pigs, getting understanding from someone nonmilitary with PTSD has value. And vice versa. And they can help each other. And this is where I get to tell you what those vets did for me.
My ex-husband destroyed any sort of positive role or image a male could have for me. Think back now to me in a room full of Viet Nam vets and try to imagine what kind if shape I was in that first day! Maybe my therapist thought it was some kind of immersion therapy! I couldn’t have a normal relationship in any context with a man. I felt terrified just sitting on the bus near a man, having to talk to a male checker in a grocery store. When I had a student-teacher conference with my son’s male principal I consternated him by insisting that his office door remain open and I don’t know how much I really took in out of what he was saying, because my mind was totally occupied with planning my route of escape should he suddenly attack.
My Dad was awesome by the way. He also had some great male friends that served as additional “uncles” as I was growing up. But Dad got sick just as I entered my teen years and my ex-husband took advantage of that to whisk me away while Dad was down, and isolate me. I know that this haunted Dad later. I know he had those “if I had just done this or this differently” thoughts. He’d have probably sent an armed posse after me if he had known what was really going on.
My ex-husband unmade that all. Every good male role model in my life was unmade. Luckily, I was about to get twenty-something additional Dads. It took some time, but a therapeutic environment is a great place for establishing trust relationships. My veteran friends retaught me about what a trusted male role model could be. They demonstrated for me that there is such thing as good men is this world. Because of them I can interact with men at the grocery store, at work, just like normal people. Because of them I can have romantic relationships again. Because of them, I was able to raise my sons through their teen years and into adulthood. I really, really do not know if I could have faced their voices deepening, and them looking more and more like their father–what would I have done if they had gotten angry and yelled as teens if my friends had not helped me see men as individuals again?
So all I am saying, is before you start segregating groups of people with PTSD, is to consider the value in the differences.