The Voice of a Veteran

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/.

Dancing through mental wellness

Also published in The Bridge, Affiliate Newsletter of NAMI Central Middlesex, MA, February 2015

When I enter the movement arts center Jenny founded, she is in the middle of leading a dance. I quietly sit on one of the couches and wait for the music to end. As soon as it does, Jenny comes towards me across the dance floor and pulls me into a hug. “Val!”

She wears a colorful top and loose batiked pants, and is barefoot. Her face is framed with short graying hair, and right now most of it is taken up with a huge smile and sparkling eyes. She greets me like seeing me is the most wonderful thing that’s happened all week—an enthusiasm she brings to many things. There’s a reason people love to follow her in dance.

We haven’t seen each other since the last annual dance retreat, and we have a lot to talk about. When I ask her how she’s been, the first thing she mentions is her new therapist whom she really likes. To me, Jenny is first and foremost a dancer and friend, but she is also a strong advocate for others who, like her, live with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I congratulate her on the new therapist and wish her well, then say I’d love to tell some of her story on my blog. We set a time for a phone interview later—right now, we have some dancing to do.

“I’ve discovered that no one knows what depression is like for those of us who have it,” Jenny tells me over the phone several weeks later. “People use the word ‘depression’ to mean something very superficial, for when they’re just sad. When I’m depressed, it feels like I’ve never done anything worthwhile. It feels like dragging 500 invisible pounds.”

Jenny was an adult before she learned that the emotional challenges she’d always experienced were depression. She saw an announcement for National Depression Screening Day and filled out a questionnaire. One question she remembers was “Have your sleeping habits changed in the last six months?” “No,” she jokes, “I’ve always had insomnia.”

A subsequent doctor visit revealed “severe depression.” The doctor recommended medication. Jenny’s first medication made her unable to sleep and increased her symptoms rather than relieving them. “It got worse. I was scared. I called more than one suicide hotline.” She told her psychiatrist she wanted to stop taking it; the psychiatrist warned that if she did so her depression would worsen. Finally, unable to live in her current condition, Jenny stopped her medication despite her psychiatrist’s warning. She tells me that friends at the time said, “You stopped taking it? What’s wrong with you?” Now, she says, “I am very careful who I talk to” about her choices in this area.

Jenny visited a nurse practitioner and related the story. The nurse said, “You wanted to be un-depressed so badly, you kept taking it.” “I felt so validated,” Jenny says now. Where her friends saw bad judgment, the nurse saw desperation and determination.

When Jenny found help, it included art, writing, dancing, singing with the local church choir, and friends that understand and validate her. She also found help in a diagnosis of PTSD and a new medication. “And I said, ‘Oh my goodness, life is so much easier when you’re not dragging 8,000 pounds!’”

I ask her how she is these days, and she says, “I’ve been really, really tired. [When] I get triggered back into trauma and depression and anxiety, I have to give up whatever project I’d been doing. I’ve learned I have to be careful how many things I take on. But I keep going.

“I’m a voice for the voiceless, because I can speak up,” she says. “If my story helps someone, I don’t feel like it’s a total waste.”

Jenny’s blog, “Healing from PTSD,” is at http://jennydeupree.com/.

To anonymously take questionnaires like the one Jenny took, see http://helpyourselfhelpothers.org/.