Thanks, Dad

His names first caught my eye, all three great: first, middle, last, like something straight out of Downton Abbey.

The man I saw in the waiting area could have come out of central casting for the same show, turns out. Imagine Ryan Gosling fresh out of Marine Corps basic training, but who’d managed to keep enough hair to make either a comb-back or a comb-forward look rakishly stylish. That pretty much summed him up. Dressed in his clean work uniform, his (admittedly non-boot-camp) beard well-trimmed, any photographer in his or her right mind would have been foolish to pass up the opportunity to shoot him in the latest from J. Crew.

It was our first meeting. He apologized for having had to cancel an earlier appointment. He’d had to make an alternative appointment that day, he said, one that he’d dared not miss.  I later learned with whom. He’d been right. Only after finding that out did I finally understand his initial tentativeness:  respectful, true, but guarded.  Most definitely.

It was not his first visit to our clinic, after all.  He was not a “regular” in any sense of that word, but he’d been there often enough, it would have seemed to me, to forestall the degree of hesitancy I sensed from him, even with his meeting the “new doctor” for the first time.  His medication needs were straightforward. A review of his records showed that he’d had a history of dealing with some combat issues, but in recent visits he’d assured other colleagues that he had been doing well enough.

And, indeed, in many ways, he has been. A relatively-new girlfriend, but one whom he’d fallen head-over-heels for: he smiled as he informed me that he was trying to think through how he was going to afford the aftermath of the proposal he was nudging himself toward making her. A good job, one that surprised him with its challenges, given how ordinary it might seem to some: the man who had taught it to him was funny, interesting, even, and not about to let him get away with a half-ass job, a compliment that, in a way, perhaps only a Marine can fully appreciate.

It was his father, however, whose psychological presence filled the room, a retired military physician—and a steadying hand. For, indeed, things had not been well after he’d returned from War.

“I can still get so angry,” he said to me, “over the stupidest things. I get so upset with myself. My girlfriend helps a lot, but I can’t tell her too much, you know? I can always tell my Dad, though.”

Yet I could see in his eyes that he was struggling more than he would have wished.

“How does the War still follow you around?”  I asked him.

“Oh, not that much anymore,” he said, in a non-defensive way, to be sure. There had been more nightmares, more flashbacks in the past, but the support of his family, his girlfriend, his Dad: they’d made a difference over time. He no longer took any “standard” medications often prescribed to those who suffer from combat PTSD. He’d never been a fan of them ever, given their side effects, and he was doing well enough without them. Seeing the presentation of the man in front of me, I had no reason to doubt that.

But, still, there was something.

“You talked of the anger. So how does the War still weigh on your heart?”

He shot me a look and didn’t skip a beat.

“The guilt,” he whispered, almost hissed, and then silence.

“So tell me about that.”

And so he did.  Two incidents, primarily, ones in which had situations just been altered just a bit, he would have been the one to have lost parts of his body. Not his teammates.

Each man of each incident survived, it turned out. In fact, it turns out, both men are thriving. I don’t even have to add the caveat “relatively speaking”: they are thriving. Period. He seemed genuinely happy to report that to me, that hint of a tear in the left eye notwithstanding.

He talks to them with some frequency. They always sound glad to hear his voice.  Semper fi, the tear stayed right where it lay.  All is OK with the guys, after all.

So no need for no tear to go mucking around some cheek where it has no business being in the first place.

“You were how old?” I asked.

“Twenty.”

“So,” I had to ask him, “do you imagine that you might ever be able to forgive him, that twenty-year-old kid?”

The look he gave me was genuinely one of puzzlement.

“You know,” I continued, “that kid who could have an attitude, but who would have done anything for his brothers, and his brothers knew that, who just didn’t happen to be where he might otherwise have been, and so who didn’t suffer what he might otherwise have suffered. That kid.”

He just looked at me. Or rather, he looked in my direction. I suspect that inside his head, he was looking somewhere much, much farther away.

“You’re the only one left who hasn’t done so, you know,” I said. “Forgiven him.  Truth be told, you’re probably the only one who ever blamed him in the first place.”

His look shifted into one of self-reflection, his eyes dropping down, flashing side to side, looking, interrogating, maybe. He then looked back at me.

“Yes,” he said. “Yes. I think I could forgive him.”

Now I’m sure my look turned into puzzlement.

“Really?” I asked. “That easily? You haven’t done so before, you know.”

Ever so slightly, he smiled.

“I never thought about it that way before.”

I suspect I too moved from puzzlement to self-reflection as he added, “It might have been different, had they not been doing as well as they are. But we’re all doing the best we can now. Yes, I think…maybe I could, one day. Forgive myself, that is.”

In the few seconds afterwards, so much flashed through my mind, happy stories, not-so-happy ones. At one level I knew he was so fortunate: to have friends who survived, who still wanted to reach out to him, to have a girlfriend who is willing to give him space when he needs it, a family who loves him and welcomes him back into their raucous, multi-child world.

To have a Dad who still comforts his heart even when Dad literally cannot do so as regularly as both of them might like, yet who psychically—spiritually, maybe?—can, without regret, whisper into that young Marine’s heart and keep an embarrassing tear from revealing too much too soon to a new doctor.

Medication issues managed, we soon prepared to part. I started to stand. He did not.

“So, I guess,” he said, “if things should change—because of that other interview, you know?—we wouldn’t be able to see each other anymore. Right?”

That, I wasn’t prepared for.

“You were honorably discharged, right?”

“Oh, yeah. Medically retired. I didn’t really want it, but…I see now that it was for the best.”

I smiled.

“Then we’re fine.”

He smiled then.

“Good.  That’ll make my Dad happy.”

“Your Dad?”

“He kept telling me that I needed to get hooked up with the VA. He’ll…he’ll be glad I finally did what he told me to do. I can be stubborn sometimes.”

I’m sure my smile back radiated the rolled eyes inherent in the phrase, “No kidding”

On this Thanksgiving Day in the United States, let me simply recognize the fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, lovers, children, brothers, sisters, grandparents, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, cousins, old friends, new friends, future friends—all who do what they can, in the best way they can, to bring home men and women who have gone to War, changed irrevocably, and yet seek to create new lives for themselves and for those whom they love.

And from one particular psychiatrist who is glad that one particular father has made the life of one particular son calmer, at least more days than not, let me simply say:

Thanks, Dad.

Giving Thanks

This past week, as I started up the “beta” version of Beam Me Home, Scotty!, I also started sending out daily emails that I’ve entitled Doc in the AM.  Each day, I will plan to publish the email here as well, sharing with you on the blog the thoughts that I have about what it continues to mean to empower self-calm, engage survival, and energize life after War.

Below is my post from last Thursday, 26 November 2015, Thanksgiving Day in the United States.

 

Silhouette of a soldier against the sun.

For Your Service, Thanks.

In the United States, today is officially “Thanksgiving Day,” the day of turkey, the day of the Macy’s Holiday Parade, the day Santa Claus comes to Herald Square.

I’ve said it many times. I’ll say it again many times:

So often the “thanks” given to service members after War is a “thanks”  both well-meaning and yet sadly, somewhat off-the-mark. What a complex word it is, thanks, when one is speaking of life during War and life after it. So many memories. So many complications.

Perhaps that is why I continue to thank all of you who served for your willingness to choose, at least at some point in your life, to live for something, for someone beyond yourself. In a way, you knew that you were signing up for War’s complications. But in just as real a way, you had no clue. No one does. No one can.

But you could and you did choose to live beyond yourself, even if you weren’t quite sure what that was, beyond some vague feeling in your gut. Good for you. While sometimes guts lead us astray, sometimes they lead us exactly where we need to go.

Your gut may or may not have been leading you to War, but to War many of you went. That gut, though, just as importantly, did lead you to some type of life beyond yourself. I hope that I can be a part of a process, today and every day, to help you re-find that gut feeling inside you.

So that you can keep re-living it—or live it once again.

For that gut, for that moment and all moments that you wish to re-make after that, thank you.

Until tomorrow, be well,

Doc

Thanksgiving and the Grammar of Hope

At this time of the year, the American holiday of Thanksgiving, I am indeed thankful for so much: for my wife and children, my extended family, my friends and colleagues, the men and women whom I’m privileged to serve, both at the Indianapolis VA or in my private practice.

I am also very much thankful that for veterans who have suffered from combat trauma/PTSD, it is possible for life to get so “better enough,” they can finally just deal with the problems they would have had to have dealt with had they never been on a deployment.

The veteran I write about today is older than many I have written about, smart, handsome and debonair, well-educated and well-spoken, quite the combo, in other words. And for many years, he has suffered the effects of his combat experiences: a shortened military career, a loss of life direction, in the end a loss (in a manner of speaking) of his family.

But only in a manner of speaking.

He and his wife have known each other since childhood. He was to be the golden boy, she, his gal Friday. Because both are so talented–and so committed–each did his or her best to keep that story line going in the years after his combat experiences. They were reasonably successful, if you want to call the well-staged, day-to-day trickle of misery that was their lives reasonable. It was a trickle, though, no need to overstate it. There were many good times. Great (albeit challenging) kids came into their lives. But trickle, the misery did.

The following had been their original script: he was to make it big; she was to raise the kids and then, once they were raised, “find herself” and go on to make it big in her way. His bigness would have led to the bigger (and earlier) retirement, possibly with consulting jobs afterwards, so all was to have worked out evenly enough in the cosmic sense–and big.

But War happened.

He was fine, of course, after The War–or at least so he assured himself and the world. And indeed, as long as he kept himself within certain military/professional parameters, he was fine enough. Still, he was “not the same” after the War, as his wife and everyone else told him through the years, so a brittle, unspoken (though sometimes loudly-spoken) tension settled between the two of them.

But both were (and are ) good people, so she tried to adjust as long as she could, until finally she made a demand on him that could not be ignored, so he adjusted his career path in a way that finally could not be repaired, leading to a loss of all those tenuous parameters, to a deterioration on his part that forced her to “find herself” much sooner than had been called for in the script, that then caused him to question the cosmic order, that then caused The War to take on even more salience, that then eventually caused a . . .

. . . well, let’s call it a complicated situation. Yes, they are divorced, officially, that is. But, really, what’s a piece of paper between friends?

As he and I have worked together over the past year or so, he and she have spoken regularly. She made an excellent career move that took her far away from Indianapolis. He settled some matters in his life that needed to be settled. His nightmares have decreased. He has begun the process of forgiving himself for what he did, what he did not do, what he saw and did nothing about during The War. He has begun to imagine a future, even if he has no clue what that future might look like.

But still, for both of them, there’s that piece of paper . . .

She flew into town earlier this week. The two of them and their kids lunched together, then she and the kids headed out of the town for a few days. When she gets back in town, the two of them will have some time together to speak.

“You know, Doc,” he said to me earlier this week, “I have been thinking: maybe she and I are finally ready to move on with our lives.”

Hmm.  Come to think of it: no, I didn’t know that.

“What do you mean?”

“Neither one of us wants to go back to the way things were. We can’t. She’s changed too much. I’ve changed too much. But at least we no longer have to hold onto what’s probably never been there.”

I did pause. After thirty years, I at least know when I’m walking in very dangerous territory.

“I would agree that neither of you wishes to return to the past. But I’m still struggling to see what that has to do with the future, i.e., whether you walk toward the future in parallel (whether or not you’re a couple) or whether you walk in different directions.”

Now he paused.

“I guess that’s true.”

I have learned that with bright combat veterans, whether of the extrovert/kinetic-energy type or the introvert/potential-energy type, I, as a therapist, have a little wiggle room vis-à-vis boldness. I was certainly well-trained, so I also know that I have to be careful that I don’t inject too much of my own worldview into a therapeutic conversation. Yet sometimes time is of the essence: an important get-together of this couple is about to take place, after all, and neither he nor I have the luxury of piddling away at platitudes that both of us know have zero to do with how he’s really feeling.

“Look: life hasn’t turned out like either of you had planned,” I continued. “You were supposed to be the one with all his stuff together, and she was to come into her own just in time to give you some more hours on the golf course kibitzing with the generals. But life happened, War happened. So now she’s ready to tee up, and you don’t even know whether you have clubs or not. This isn’t about whether you two are going to move on, pal: it’s about how you’re going to do it.”

He was quiet.

“I can’t hold her back, Doc,” he said softly. “That’s unfair. I’ve put her through too much.”

“Hold her back? Buddy, if she’d been worried about that, she’d have done kicked you to the curb a good three years ago. Has it ever occurred to you that maybe she’s willing to hold back a bit to give you a chance to catch up?”

Further quiet.

“But I don’t know what to do,” he finally replied. “I don’t have a clue. I mean, I feel better. I know that I can get something going, but I don’t know when, I don’t know how.”

“Like she doesn’t know that?”

“But . . . but this could take a long time.”

Now my turn for quiet.

“And your point?” I finally ask.

This time, only a few seconds of quiet. It just rolled out of me.

“You’re not the first, you know: the first man who thought he had at all planned out, only to find out that Life had different plans, who then found out that the partner he’d chosen was able not only to fill in the holes, but even to create a few new openings. You’re not the first man who’s had to decide whether he’s going to accept that being one-down does not make you the one-down-type, that your finally realizing that you’re vulnerable in front of your partner did not make you vulnerable, but that it merely wised you up to the basic human fact that that’s where each one of us has been, is, and will be, whether we like it or not:  vulnerable. You’re not the first man who’s had to get it in his thick skull that it’s actually possible for two people both to be strong and both to be vulnerable at the same time, and the sun will keep rising and setting.”

Again, quiet. Then it apparently was time for it just to roll out of him.

“Doc . . .”

“Yes?”

“Do you mean . . . are you telling me that this is not about PTSD?”

The question surprised me at first, but only because I was being the oblivious one now.  I just shot from the hip.

“Oh, God, no. Not at all. I mean, yes, your combat experiences and your PTSD are what waylaid you in such a spectacular and horrific way. But, heck, it could have been the economic downturn, a culture change in your industry, a life-changing medical illness unrelated to combat–any of that could have done you in. Combat and PTSD just happened to cause your particular pain, your wife’s and your family’s particular pain. Granted, it’s what’s never going to fully go away for any of you. But this isn’t a PTSD problem. This is a life problem.”

There was then more quiet, but on the outside only. I could hear so much in him. He was stirring so much up in me.

“Doc,” he finally whispered, “I . . .” He swallowed. “Thank you.”

“For what?” I swallowed back myself, not quite yet sure what was going on within either of us.

After a few moments, “I never thought that my life would not be about the War, only about the War, that is. I never thought I could ever again just face . . . a problem.” He smiled. “That’s a good thing, isn’t it, just a man and a woman trying to figure out how they’re going to make their lives work, whether they stay together or not?”

Finally realizing what was going on within us, I could only manage to utter myself, “Yes, it is. Yes, it is.”

Combat trauma makes The War Within the subject of every veteran’s sentence, whether explicitly or implicitly. All the rest of life is reduced to adjectives, adverbs, direct objects of verbs that respond to the will of The War Within and it alone.

Hope and growth from combat trauma are not just neurological, not just psychological. They are linguistic as well.

As combat veterans find their way, individually, to situate themselves as flexibly and as comfortably vis-a-vis their War Within, no longer is that War the sole subject of all their independent clauses. Soon it is moved into subordinate clauses, into because clauses, so that clauses, into language that gives background, goals, reasons for the actions that are now taking center stage in the main part of the sentence, the main part of the veterans’ lives.

And then, one day,  War Within is finally reduced to a mere participial summary statement: “Given the War, I must now . . . , I will now . . . ., I no longer must . . ., I can finally . . . .”

Etc., etc., etc.

At this time of year, then, I am so thankful that hope not only has a body and a soul.

I am thankful that it also has a grammar.

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