Why No Treatment for PTSI

A reader asked me why I didn’t seek treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Injury after the fall of Saigon.

The answer is that I held top secret codeword-plus security clearances. Had I sought psychotherapy, I would have lost my clearances and therefore lost my job. That was the way the government worked back then. I had a wife and four children. Unemployment was out of the question.

So I gritted my teeth and suffered through it alone. By sheer luck, I was blessed with enough self-reliance, self-respect, and fortitude to muddle through. Writing was a God-sent. I learned years later that one effective therapy for PTSI is writing down what happened as one way to force oneself to confront the unspeakable memories.

PTSI has affected all my writing. Most of it is about Vietnam. But my one novel not about my time in harm’s way, No-Accounts, also resulted from my struggle with PTSI. I learned early on that when I was helping other people worse off than I was, my memories receded into the background. So I became a volunteer. I worked with the homeless, spent seven years volunteering at a hospice and working with dying people, and, at the height of the epidemic, took care of AIDS patients for five years. The latter work helped with my PTSI, but I faced so many deaths among AIDS patients that I developed a new strain of PTSI. To vent it, I wrote No-Accounts, the story of a straight man caring for a gay man dying of AIDS.

So in a very real sense, nearly all my writing is influenced by—and maybe the result of—PTSI.

Cecil Whig Article

This morning the Cecil Whig newspaper published an article about the Maryland Public Television travelling exhibit, now in Perryville, Maryland, and my part in the display. The exhibit celebrates sixteen Vietnam vets; it tells of my time in Vietnam between 1962 and 1975. You can read the article at http://www.cecildaily.com/spotlight/article_9c5c8c66-2344-5112-98e8-248e703d90fc.html
Let me know what you think.

“Only Despair of Forgiveness Is Unforgivable”

Those are the words of Hans, the illegitimate son of Dave, the protagonist of The Trion Syndrome. Hans is counseling his father to seek forgiveness for what he has done—inadvertently killing a child in combat. But Dave is guilty of despair. He believes that what he has done is unforgivable. He despairs of forgiveness.

I suspect that despair is part and parcel of Post-Traumatic Stress Injury. Our memories are too ghastly to face. If we don’t face them, we’ll never find even an imperfect peace. We can’t do what we must do. Despair.

I believe that love can conquer despair. If someone loves me, then there is good in me and I can hope. In Trion, it is Hans’ love for his father that helps Dave find his way home from despair.

I wasn’t that lucky. It was up to me. No one was there to help. When I returned to the U.S. after the fall of Saigon, my wife refused to come to my aid. She and our children stayed at her father’s house in another state until I could get our house back from the people we’d leased it to for the duration of our tour in Vietnam. For two months, I was left to cope on my own.

That led to another discovery. Determination can lead the way home from despair. Or maybe the correct name is pride or stubbornness. I’d learned at age six to fend for myself because my alcoholic mother and jailed father weren’t going to take care of me. I developed a self-reliance that has stuck with me throughout my life. I wasn’t going to let hideous memories destroy me.

The character of Dave in Trion and I share that sense of depending only on one’s self. My sense is that if Hans hadn’t come along, Dave would ultimately have uprighted himself. But Hans did appear. Dave was luckier than me.

The Star-Spangled Banner

I’ve been at a series of events recently at which the “Star-Spangled Banner” was played. I was surprised by my own emotional response.

I know as a musician that the song is at best flawed music, and it’s difficult to sing because of the range it requires. I know as a writer that the text is overwritten. It is, in short, an imperfect national anthem. So why does it move me so deeply?

Because of what it stands for. I’ve served beside men of all services. I’m alive today because of them. Some of them are alive today because of me. We put our lives on the line for the country we loved.

I’ve come to understand that the strongest bond possible among human beings comes when they fight side by side against a common enemy. As I said earlier, we don’t use the word “love” to describe our feelings. That’s too sentimental. But it is love, the strongest love I’ve ever experienced.

And as I grow older, my understanding of myself and my country deepens. I see that part of the reason that I love the United States of America is that I fought for her. And as I watch the unfolding story of other nations burdened by dictatorship and a lack of freedom, I cherish more than ever what we Americans have.

This is where my heart is. I will always be a patriot, not because I made a conscious decision, but because my fate and the nation’s fate are one.

Post-Traumatic Stress Injury

I’ll be blogging for a while about The Trion Syndrome, so I need to revisit Post-Traumatic Stress Injury. As I explained earlier, I don’t call it a “disorder” because it’s the consequence of an externally inflicted wound, not the internal workings of the mind gone awry.

PTSI is the result of an experience so brutal that the soul is permanently damaged. I know of it from my experience in combat, but it also affects people who have been raped or tortured or faced monstrous happenings. Sometimes guilt is an element of the condition; that’s true of me.

The most common symptoms are flashbacks, nightmares, irrational rages, and panic attacks. A variety of triggers can bring on an onslaught of the symptoms—a moment of music, an odor, the color of the sky, a sensation on the skin. Sometimes an unbidden flash of memory will unleash reactions.

There is no cure for PTSI. The memories never go away or fade. They are always at the edge of the victim’s consciousness. The best that a PTSI sufferer can hope to do—in fact what he must do—is to learn to cope.

The first step in coming to terms with the unspeakable memories is to learn how to bring them into consciousness. My psyche had pushed some of my recollections to the subconscious because they were too painful to face. I had to put myself into a semi-meditative state and allow the memories to surface. Then I had to learn to hold the unbearable in my conscious mind until I could bear it. I had to train my emotions to react without going out of control.

I was fortunate in being a writer. My forgotten experiences showed up in my writing before I recalled them at a conscious level. Then I learned to write down what happened. That forced me to look the memories in the face.

Guilt is a factor for me in dealing with PTSI. I blame myself for not having done more to save other men’s lives; I feel the unfairness that men by my side were butchered while I went unscathed. I know at the rational level that my guilt is unfounded. I did all I could, and chance dictated that a stream of bullets took my buddy’s head off but left me untouched. I know all that. The guilt remains. The longer I live, the better I get at living with my guilt.

I wrote The Trion Syndrome in part to vent about my PTSI. I told Dave’s story borrowing from my own experience. But I let Dave do things I stopped myself from doing. He becomes irrational, runs away, lives the life of a bum, all because he can’t face what he has done in combat. In the end, a son he didn’t know he had finds him and leads him home.

Ungeminnt

In The Trion Syndrome, I used the German word Ungemmint because we have no equivalent word in English. The term means both unloving and unloved. It’s a quality born of evil which has no understanding of love.

The protagonist of Trion, Dave Bell, a German scholar, applies the term to himself without knowing why. For reasons he can’t remember, he thinks he has lost his soul. Something happened while he was serving in Vietnam; he doesn’t remember what.

I used the concept of Ungeminnt because it describes my own feeling about myself. For me, many things happened during the thirteen years I was in and out of Vietnam. In the beginning, I couldn’t remember some of them. Later they came back to me, sometimes in dreams. I knew that if I ever wanted to be free of being haunted, I had to bring those events into my conscious memory, face them, and learn to live with them. I had, in effect, to get my soul back.

For me and for Dave, my protagonist, it’s a life-long struggle. Dave is helped by his son. I’m helped by my writing. In telling Dave’s story, I confront my own past and find the remnants of peace.

Gay Men at Their Best

As mentioned yesterday, gay men are like all men, but the AIDS epidemic with its certainty of death for those stricken brought out the worst and the best in the gay community. Yesterday, I told of unseemly behavior. Today I want to talk about heroism and generosity.

As a buddy, I was assigned to a group that met once a month to talk and give each other moral support. I was the only straight man of the eight in the group. The group leader was a man of charisma who urged us to vent to each other, hang in there, and keep on giving. He was one of the few of us who contracted AIDS from his patient—he accidentally stuck himself with a needle after giving his patient an injection—and died several years later. He was the model for Mort in No-Accounts.

Mort is a buddy, now caring for his sixth patient, and a leader of buddies to whom Martin, the straight buddy, turns for help and reassurance. Mort lost his lover to AIDS and then devoted his life to helping those with the disease. He helps Martin get through his frustration at the shenanigans of his patient and bolsters him to face the oncoming death. Here’s a fragment of their conversation:

Martin wanted to weep. “They should get Peter another buddy. I can’t stand to be with him. I can’t stand to see him getting sicker, day after day . . .”

“Would Peter care if they assigned somebody else?”

“I don’t know. He depends on me. He asked me to be with him when he dies.”

“He must love you.”

End of quote. Mort in his wisdom knows that Peter needs Martin. In the end, he persuades Martin to go on caring for Peter.

I chose Mort’s name carefully. “Mort” means death.