Two-Way Mirror

Folding handkerchiefs one afternoon, I was reminded of my father.

One of his many jobs after leaving the military was as a security guard at the Holiday Inn Express here in Springfield. He would regularly take me there of an evening, and I recall walking into the shadowed hallway in the bowels of the hotel, down white painted corridors, and to his office. It had a large window on it that was a perfect mirror when the office lights were off, so you could sit inside and see people as they went past on their way to the pool.

I would often go swimming for a bit then dry off in the office with the lights off, naked and nervous that someone would see me, but reveling in the freedom of being invisible. I was at my most vulnerable in that office, completely myself with nothing between me and the world except that two-way mirror. Sometimes I would lie on the floor, or read for hours, or just sit and think. It was a dangerous place, that office, because while I couldn’t be seen I also recognized the instability of the moment. It could end with the flick of a light switch, or the opening of a single door. It was foolish and wonderful.

I don’t think I will ever again experience that thrill of stupid liberation.

Dealing With PTSD

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.

Married Life

1 Corinthians 7:32-35

I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife—and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.

I have always felt that there were two paths available to me. The first was to remain single and celibate, devoting my life to the Lord and serving Him always. I would travel around the world, spreading the Gospel and trying to help people, bringing what healing and love I had to offer to wherever I went. And while this path was appealing for its own reasons, it is one from which I recoiled. Since I was nine years old, I have dreamed of marrying and having children; building a family of my own so unlike the family in which I grew up.

The second path, then, was to marry and begin that family. Rather than traveling around the world serving God, I would stay and work, come to the same home every night, and serve my family first. God would still be a part of my life, but the necessity and truth of the situation is that my wife and children would come first.

This is, as Paul writes, a necessary and approved path for our life. But at least to Paul’s mind, it is a less desirable path, and one I have often struggled to accept. I know what I want, but I have continually worried that I have disappointed God in some way, and that my life is not as meaningful or as helpful to “the cause” as it might otherwise have been. I walk to work each day, and walk home for lunch, and home again at five, and I wonder where else I might have been. I cook dinner and play WoW and go to bed, and wonder what more I might have done.

In the end, I work to serve my church and my community, and hope that someday, through my writing, I can impact and serve the world in a way that is glorifying to God. Perhaps my concern comes ultimately from my (misplaced?) desire to please my earthly father, which has always seemed a somewhat unattainable goal for a variety of reasons. It is difficult not to equate my Father with my father, and in so doing I do God a disservice. I know this, but it’s hard to overcome that feeling.

I do not yet know what my relationship with God should be as a married man, or how I should be serving Him. I don’t know what He wants me to do, and I have trouble accepting that He is completely happy, satisfied, and supportive of my life choices. But perhaps, with time, it will become clear. I know that He is not as central to my life as when I was single, but I desperately want to discover how much of my life and attention I can give Him and still honour April. I need to find out where that line is drawn so I can walk on it more comfortably.

Then again, perhaps it never gets comfortable. I’ve heard that that’s not really the point.

The Cemetery on Mother’s Day

Watching him die a little,
I wrote: a vain attempt
to catch his tears on my page.
We’d never spoken, this man
with his graying beard and wrinkles,
hands opening and closing
by his sides. I’d never ask his name
for fear I’d start caring.

I wonder if his tweed jacket smells
like pipe smoke, like my father
who would sit in our living room,
reading under cumulonimbus clouds
that never rained, and I thought
of storms from the sea and whether
they were salty like tears, like
the pathways in late May when
snow is unexpected.

I wanted to compare this man to a god
who dies a little each time
we leave, each time
we forget and fade away,
but all I could see in the slow suicide
of his mourning was myself,
was all of us who die
a little each day as we grieve
over what’s gone.