It was at April’s grandmother’s visitation when I met old man Dan. He sat down at the table where Liz, Mollie and I were having lunch and began telling long-winded jokes. The jokes turned into stories about his rebellious youth and the trouble he had gotten into, and the stories of his youth ended in a reference to his time in Vietnam.
Before long the crowd broke up and I went to join April in the visitation room proper. I couldn’t take the stuffiness of the still air or the heaviness of emotion for long and soon fled outdoors for fresh air, and as soon as I stepped down from the small porch onto the parking lot, I heard a voice call my name. Dan was standing nearby, smoking the tiny remnant of a cigarette.
I was looking for small talk, so I mentioned that my dad had been in Vietnam. Despite the fact that my dad and I don’t talk anymore—my choice, not his—I found myself mentioning him regularly over the two days we were there. Some of my most interesting familial stories involve him, and it was the time and occasion to talk about family.
Dan immediately asked if my dad had ditched out on me and my mom, to which I countered no, she had left him. I wasn’t able to say much more beyond that as Dan began to wax elegant about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Take kids who have never killed a man and drop them in a jungle, he said, and it will screw them up. His own nerves were burned up with Agent Orange, but the PTSD is what really messes vets up. He knew a guy who came back and killed his wife and kids, who knows why, maybe he thought he was still in ‘Nam. Knew a guy who came back and lived in the woods, just traveling around and avoiding civilization, for forty years.
He met that last guy in Topkea, Kansas at a center that helps people with PTSD. It’s a seven week program where they were roommates, and for the first couple of weeks the guy wouldn’t even talk to him. Every morning Dan would say hello, or good morning, and the guy would just grunt. Then Dan would take his Bible out to read and leave the guy alone.
After two weeks, they started talking. Around week six, the guy finally broke down and began dealing with everything he’d been repressing since the war.
The problem, Dan said, is that most people who have PTSD don’t know it. He certainly didn’t know he had it. He regularly stayed up until three or four a.m., playing on the computer or just wandering around the house. Around three or four he would think, “Well, looks like everything’s safe and secure, I can go to sleep now.”
His temper was violent and sudden, and he didn’t realize its cause. In the intervening years he figured he had gone through forty different jobs, always leaving or getting fired because he blew up at his boss. Once, he literally threw his boss off the work site. Dan couldn’t keep a job.
“You wouldn’t understand,” he said. “The rape victim understands, because she’s got PTSD. And the guy who has almost died, or who someone tried to murder, they understand because they’ve got PTSD. You wouldn’t understand what your dad is going through.”
Late one night my freshman year I was talking on the phone with a friend from Michigan. Sarah and I had been introduced through mutual friends who thought we would hit it off, and we did find that we had a lot in common. We soon began talking on the phone often, not with romantic intentions (I think we were honest enough to realize that we weren’t compatible in that fashion) but as simple friends.
Sarah was inquisitive, and her questions one night were particularly probing and invasive. As she began digging into my past, asking questions relentlessly and demanding answers, a door opened that had been closed for so long I had forgotten it. Memories from my youth I had been repressing for years came flooding back and I totally freaked out.
I couldn’t sleep at all that night, and for days I was out of sorts. It took longer to damp them back down, to wedge that door nearly closed again.
It wasn’t until I met Brian (our college minister) several years later, and then began dating April, that I really started to deal with my neuroses—with what I wouldn’t have called PTSD until Dan described it to me.
The nightmares, the violent temper, the unreasoned anger and frustration, these are all familiar to me, but I have dealt with them. I didn’t call it PTSD, rather referring to my collection of ill traits as “my neuroses,” but I didn’t let them abide either. I began with my temper when I was in junior high, by which time I had already nearly killed several people when it got out of control. I mastered it, continually work on becoming more even-headed, and I am healthy in that respect now.
I used to escape into books and games. I used to have nightmares, waking and sleeping. I used to wander late at night to make sure everything was safe. I always kept my back to the wall, my eyes to the door. I slept with knives under each side of my mattress.
And I dealt with it. By the grace of God and the friendship of my unflagging friends, I continue to struggle with and overcome my neuroses. I will not let them control my life.
Don’t condemn your dad too quickly,” Dan said. What most people don’t seem to realize is that I don’t condemn and I don’t hold grudges. I’m not angry at my dad anymore. Just as my collarbone is broken and there’s nothing I can do about it, there’s nothing I can do about the injuries of my youth other than to heal and get over them.
What I haven’t figured out is, “to what extent must I put myself out there for abuse?” Let’s say hypothetically that my dad does have PTSD, and that his manipulative, insulting, negative, and hurtful actions are the result of a mental disorder (a conclusion I reached years ago, to be honest). Do I have a responsibility to put myself in the line of fire, so to speak, to try and maintain a relationship with him anyways?
When his actions and words bring me down and make me feel angry and terrible for days, what should I do? I am happier now that I am not regularly going through that, and April at least can testify to the difference since she had to endure my ranting and frustration. I feel like it is expected of me to say, “It’s a disorder, so I should just ignore everything that comes from that disorder and maintain a relationship anyways. That’s what a good son would do.”
A larger part of me recognizes how unhappy I was and how very little I want to put myself through that anymore.
I am dealing with my own neuroses, but I can only do that when I am healthy, happy, and stable. Would I backslide if I were to reengage that relationship?
I’m not sure how to deal with other people’s PTSD, but I know how I am dealing with mine, and it is working out just fine. I recognize that I am still repressing more than I should, and perhaps someday I will seek psychiatric help to unlock those doors and take the next step to becoming healthier. For now, though, I am far more stable and healthy emotionally, mentally, and spiritually than I have ever been. I can find no compelling reason to inject poison into that system.
As Dan remarked, a person’s got to want to help themselves. If they don’t make the decision for themselves to get help, to find a psychiatrist and start dealing with these issues, then there’s nothing you can do for them. Because it is a disorder of the mind, it is an internal problem that must be dealt with internally. Someone else can open the door and help keep the flood from becoming overwhelming, but you’ve got to let them do it.
I’m not the one to open other people’s doors. I’ve got my own to deal with.