It’s been a long month of starting new jobs, new high schools, new colleges, new furniture settings, along with Lord-alone-knows-what-new-else’s. My wife has sworn on all that is Holy that she will never again gaze upon, let alone touch a Banker’s Box. I have to concur. We’re just hoping against hope that 1-800-GOT-JUNK has a franchisee somewhere within fifty miles of us.
But the blog kept calling, thankfully. Even more, so did the memories of the men and women whom I’ve had the honor to serve.
We weren’t supposed to have met, for example, he and I.
As I was finishing my last couple weeks at the VA in Indianapolis, I had made a pact, I guess you could call it, with the nursing staff not to take on any new patients. It had seemed only fair, after all, given my then lame-duck status. All in all, I kept up my end of the bargain.
Except for this one time.
I’ll blame one of my other colleagues (and why not? I’m gone, you know). He was the one to knock on my door at about 1400h one day to tell me, “Doc, you’ve got to see this guy. I know you’re leaving, but it’s bad.”
When I walked out my door, I saw in the waiting room a young man sitting about twenty feet from me, his hands gripping the sides of his chair for dear life, staring off to his right, my left, God-knows-where, having clearly been doing so for God-knows-how-long, given the tone of his forearm musculature. His shaved head accentuated his angular features, his gymnast’s posture and physique. He was wearing the nondescript dark shirt and dark basketball shorts that so often these days are the “just rolled out of bed” uniform of choice for men his age.
That would, of course, have assumed that he’d slept at all the night before.
“Sure, I’ll see him,” I said.
It’s been a good couple months now since he and I met, so many details have faded in my aging brain. His life had been falling apart, though, pain pills, the usual. His wife had had it. His family had had it. He’d managed, however, to get hold of some Suboxone (the opioid substitution medication) on the street, and he knew that if he could just take it regularly, he wouldn’t wake up every day obsessed with finding the next pill, given that the “next high” had long before been a luxury that had, through the miracle of the body’s ability to adjust to the effects of opiates, faded into distant memory.
He had, in other words, become part of that elite group that uses opiates not for fun, but for survival.
He was doing all he could not to be irritable with me. I assured him I wasn’t offended by his periodic failures in that endeavor. Clearly he was dope sick. At times I could practically map the waves of nausea as they progressed from his gut, cell by excruciating cell, throughout his body.
What I can never forget, though, is one line of his story.
“They called me the ‘IED magnet,’” he told me. “Thing was: I was always the one who lived.”
Many others—and I mean many others—had not been so fortunate.
Neither can I forget his intensity as he told me his tale, an intensity only somewhat heightened by the strength of his withdrawal symptoms. He had the gaze that I’ve come to see so often in many young combat veterans: one both hollow and piercing, as if the ocular orbit out of which these veterans peer seems suddenly to project a rocket-propelled grenade of psyche straight toward my own eyes, no warning, no mercy.
But when I started to talk to him about combat trauma, he could only say, “Please. I’m sick. Can we just talk about that later?”
He agreed to come back a couple days later, although because he was having such difficulties getting along with his family, he was not sure he could find a ride.
But he did.
He returned in garb just as collegiate, but now more appropriate for a grueling one-on-one at the basketball court, rather than for a semi-stupor on the pull-out couch in the living room, sheets not included. His gaze had followed the lead of his garments: more lively, more suave, even.
“This stuff is amazing,” he said to me. “I feel like a human again.”
And, indeed, he was acting like one.
That was not, however, comforting me, I’m afraid.
For again, although the details fail me all these weeks later, the image does not: his sitting there in the chair in my office, one ankle calmly pivoting over the other knee, opining at length about whatever, his child, his failing marriage, the war.
Note: I didn’t just write The War. Just . . . the war.
Similarly, I also cannot forget my own experience at that moment, my sitting there, watching him, listening to him, wondering over and over and over, with his each calm explanation, his each pensive musing: “Wait a minute . . . was I . . . was he . . . am I missing something? Did I overreact the other day? What the . . .?”
Finally, I had to speak it.
“I’m sorry, but . . . I can’t help but notice that you seem to be talking about The War almost as if we were sitting over cocktails in smoking jackets, chatting in British accents about some ‘dreadful little incident, you know, old chap?’ I mean . . . if I hadn’t met you a couple days ago, right here, in this room, if I hadn’t sat in this very chair and felt you say those words—‘IED magnet’—why . . . well, I’d think, ‘This guy’s doing just fine.’ But . . . I know better.”
For a moment, he said nothing. I said nothing. His eyes, however—and I suspect mine as well—picked up all the conversational slack, for how long, I can’t tell you.
“And so do you,” I finally said right to him, intending it just as tersely as I’d said it.
Our eyes continued to speak to each other, although saying what, I couldn’t have told you.
“Am I right?” I eventually asked. “Or am I overblowing all this?”
Ever so slowly his ankle slid off the opposite knee, his leg just as slowly planting its foot back onto terra firma. Not a cell of the remainder of his body moved. Including his eyes.
“Yes,” he finally whispered. “You’re right.”
“You know,” I said (more like stammered), “when you’re like this, you really hide it, the pain that both you and I know is there. I mean, you’re good, really good at that. No one would ever suspect—unless they knew already, of course. But even then . . .”
He assayed a smile, though all other cells, again eyes included, remained motionless.
“I know,” he said. “But I don’t know how else to do it, to say it, whatever ‘it’ is, you know? I . . . I can see that people want to know that it’s all right, that I’m all right, that the past is the past, that it’s done. So . . . I give them what they want.”
“And then they blame you for being a loser drug addict, right?” I replied. “Since they’re assuming you’ve put all that War stuff behind you?”
Slowly the cells began to shift within him, easing him into a sadness that was only slightly perceptible, yet, for any who would dare look for it, readily discernible.
“You do what you have to do,” he finally said. “You protect them, even when they don’t know it. Goes along with the territory.”
I was not about to let him off that easily.
“Your good looks and your charm are your greatest asset and your worst enemy, you know that, don’t you?”
The semi-smile returned as he inched forward in his chair and then slowly stood up.
“You gave me something to think about today, Doc” he said as he offered me his hand. As soon as I’d shaken it, he turned to walk out the door, only to stop, turn back, grab me one more time with those eyes, and simply say, “Not bad, Doctor. Not bad at all.”
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve thought about that man in the intervening weeks, how many times I’ve realized that I’ve met him many times before, in that veteran that one time, in that soldier now. So many civilians have no clue whatsoever how sharp, how perceptive many of these men and women are. So many assume that people go into today’s military to escape rotten childhoods, to find something to do with their lives that are going nowhere, to get three meals and a cot that they’d otherwise not be able to put together enough intelligence and common sense to provide for themselves in any reliable fashion.
How wrong, how utterly wrong they often are.
How often I also hear the “twenty per cent” number thrown around, the “official” estimate of the number of returning OEF/OIF veterans who are suffering from combat trauma/PTSD. Occasionally you’ll see a “thirty” pop up here and there, but just as often you’ll read of very smart people marveling that the “rate” isn’t higher than it is, thank Goodness.
Perhaps they’re right. I’m just a country psychiatrist trying to make a living, after all, as one of my former supervisors used to drawl.
I guess if one never asks to take a sip out of the drinks that others are pouring down their throats, though, one never has to know whether those burns making their way down those esophagi are stings of delight or, shall we say, stings of a much, much different toxicity.
Oh well, what you don’t know doesn’t hurt you, right?
I hope that somewhere tonight he is feeling more peaceful.
I wish I could be more hopeful in my hope.
God, be with him.