Originally published in Voices for Change, newsletter of the Transformation Center, Winter 2016
“There’s a little Marine [in] here,” says Tim, slapping his torso, “telling you, ‘You’re still there.’ The only ones who know are the people who have been there.”
Tim is an American veteran of the Vietnam War. Since the War, he has lived with what he now self-identifies as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He says that when he returned from overseas in 1968, “I was a mean, mean guy. I did a lot of screaming and yelling, a lot of mood swings—and I didn’t know what a mood swing was! I was like a shadow person. As a shadow person, I can be somewhere else than where I am right now.
“It’s changed now. Now I can get it out. Now I got a voice.” Today, at the age of 65, Tim is a peer supporter, active volunteer, and self-described “pain in the neck.” He looks back over his life and speaks about what PTSD is like from the inside, and how treatment for it has changed over his lifetime.
When he returned from duty, no one offered him any support. “There was no place for me to really go” for help, he says. Indeed, he isn’t sure he could have accepted support if it was offered. “What would I say? Where would I start?” Also, he feared for his job. “I didn’t want anybody to know. ‘This guy’s got a mental illness; he might flip out or something.’ I never told them I was in the service, you know? They might not hire you.”
Tim worked in construction for over 40 years. He spent 10 years on the team of Boston’s Big Dig. He worked on the Congress Street Bridge. He proudly shows me his Laborers’ Union card, which he still carries in his wallet. “Kept me in reality; kept me in there; you know?” I ask him if he means that the work was an important wellness tool for him, and he says yes. “But they didn’t know that. You tell somebody, you might get laid off.”
He does remember one exception: “There was only one company that really helped me out. Walsh Northeast asked if I was a veteran. Only ones who ever asked me. I said, ‘Yeah.’ Left it like that. Didn’t want to tell them anything else. Didn’t want to do a whole lot of explaining.” Even with a sympathetic employer, Tim was cautious of revealing what he was going through.
So he lived with his rage and trauma, without any words for what was happening to him, without any organized treatment, until 2004. This, he tells me, was the turning point for him. “I didn’t have a clue. Until a helicopter, a bird, flew over. I dived right into a trash can.” Among the trash in the can, hiding from the helicopter that reminded him so vividly of the helicopters in Vietnam, he realized he needed help. “My primary at the VA in Jamaica Plain, I’m yelling at him” about that helicopter. “He said, ‘You have to do something. You’re going to fall apart. Go up to the twelfth floor and see the PTSD doctor.’ I really didn’t know anything about PTSD. They told me I should get treated. I said, ‘Get treated for what?’
“Then I started going to RLCs [Recovery Learning Communities], therapists, things like that. RLCs really helped me.” But, Tim emphasizes, it’s the other veterans who help the most. I ask him what he looks for in a mental health worker, such as a doctor, therapist, or peer supporter. He says what he wants most is someone who has also been in combat, not merely been told what it’s like secondhand. “‘Oh, I’ve heard that before.’ Yeah, but you haven’t experienced it!”
Today Tim volunteers extensively, on the Board of the Transformation Center, at the Hope Center (http://www.hoperlc.org), and at the VA. “The volunteer part, that keeps me in the Now. I work with World War II veterans, POW, and everything else. They didn’t say nothing, but they talk to me, you know?”
Once, a psychiatrist referred to him as a “patient.” “Oh, now I’m a patient? Well, I wanted to leave right then.” He imitates the doctor: “‘How’s your medicine?’ How’s your day going; that’s what I want to hear.” When Tim supports a peer, he says, “I like to respect you as a person. I’ll meet you in the park. We’ll sit on a bench; we’ll talk. I always bring up, ‘How you doing?’ you know? I try to keep good spirits with you. I have to have a therapy degree to have a conversation? Win your trust, that’s a big thing. People have to have patience.”
During the hard years, “Everyone said, ‘That Tim; he’s a nut!’” At his turning point, “That’s when I found out what ‘peers’ meant.” Now Tim can receive and give support—and he’s discovered that giving is as important to his wellness as receiving.
For information on the Veterans Affairs, go to http://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/ or call 1-800-273-8255 and press 1.
For links to RLCs in Massachusetts, go to http://www.mass.gov/eohhs/consumer/behavioral-health/mental-health/recovery-learning-communities.html.
For more information on the Transformation Center, go to http://transformation-center.org/.