CDR Carl B. Forkner, Ph.D., USN(Ret)
NOTE: This is an opinion piece hopefully opening a discussion on post-traumatic stress [disorder] and its worst-case result. It includes personal perspectives that may or may not mirror those of others who deal with the same or similar challenges. If you are having difficulty coping with PTS[D], please seek help–from other Veterans, from professionals, from close and trusted friends…but please get it from someone.
Sometimes a story begins and the person living the story does not know that it started. Sometimes the tape rewinds all on its own and the person has to figure out how the rewind button got pushed. Sometimes the story has missing chapters that might explain the “why.” If we are among the fortunate, we find out the “why” and can take actions to mitigate the issues; if we are not, we suffer the added stress of not understanding “why” we feel the way that we do. Sometimes we talk ourselves into the fiction of being OK and live in the unknowing case for years before we figure out that something is not right and we need help to get through it. And sometimes we end up saying goodbye to those who take a final action in their lives wondering if we could have made a difference…
And so, in light of those questions, I have chosen to share my story. It is mine–others may have similar stories, many will have more intense stories, but every story is different. You see, one of the common misperceptions among civilians is that a Veteran only suffers from the effects of post-traumatic stress as a result of combat experience, major injury, and other violent or outward-appearing experiences–by the way, many also believe the same to be true about first responders. This misperception could not be further from reality! Remember my comment about every story being different? While people tend to associate PTSD with outward signs of injury and stress, the reality is that PTSD can be a very silent killer–in both literal and figurative ways.
In my case, I am not really sure where the story started. Did it start when I had to deal with bullying in my early days in the Navy? Did it start when I became a Casualty Assistance Calls Officer (CACO) Coordinator, where I had to tell families that their loved ones would not be coming home as they had hoped and present them the flag that moments before had been on their loved one’s casket? Was it divorce? Did it start when I experienced major trauma, was hospitalized for two weeks, had two transfusions, and underwent months of physical therapy only to still have limitations? Did transition from military to civilian life become the trigger? Was it the death of my father and becoming the patriarch of my family–my children, my sisters, my nieces?
To this day, I am still not really sure–and although optimistic about where it will end, I am also not completely sure about that, either…except that hope and reaching out are vital tools in maintaining a positive outlook. That and having finally come to the conclusion that this was not something that I could handle alone, no matter how big my ego or how deep my confidence in self-sufficiency. After all, I was a leader and should be able to take care of myself with the same level of success with which I took care of those whom I had the honor to lead, right? Well, it’s ironic, I suppose… Even looking in the mirror and trying to have a heart-to-heart talk with yourself doesn’t always give you much of a look from the outside-in…and I finally learned that when it came to my own well-being I had very little (if any) objectivity. The worst part about it is that I still am reticent toward asking anyone for help–in anything, really–but am happy to help anyone who asks…so why can’t I sometimes be the one who asks when I really need help?
If I look at my logical self I cannot see the error of my double-standard toward my own well-being; rather, it took letting my “wall” of internal defenses down that had been keeping my emotional self at bay in order to start to realize where I truly was and that, perhaps, it was time to make the difficult decision to seek help. How long did that take? I honestly don’t know, since I still have not figured out when my story started. But what I do know is that it took eight years since my major trauma, five years after my retirement, and two years after rejoining the civilian workforce before I finally sought–and engaged–help to start climbing out of the black hole that I felt was around me. I had gained 95 pounds, was depressed, didn’t find satisfaction in much of anything anymore, and it was starting to affect my entire life–work, home, relationship. It was a wake-up call that I needed to stop thinking about a course of action and take steps to operationalize one.
Now let me get back to the title of this article and that you are likely wondering how the story so far answers the question. When is the right answer an evasive, “Oh, I’m OK” instead of letting someone into your personal space, your secret, your weakness (if you choose to call it that)? When is the right time with the right person to open up and set your logical self aside and let the emotional you talk for a while? This was, in fact, a challenge that I had to face–and still face–since I started getting professional help last year.
In the last decade, great strides have been made to demystify and remove the stigma from PTS[D]. But still it is not something that is easy to talk about–or even clear when talking about it–and the circle of people I trust is rather small…and nobody except my clinical psychologist knows the full story (at least the fullness that I know at this point) and has been able to help me break through to the layers deeper below the surface. This, I realize, is what can help me move past the symptoms and start understanding the root cause(s).
There are still many with whom I do not share pretty much anything having to do with PTS[D]. My wife, my son, and a very few fellow Veterans know a little about my challenges. A few people with whom I work know enough so that they don’t feel like something is wrong with me (like an illness) if I seem quiet or reclusive some days. But I have only really started to dig deeper into my story in the non-judgmental environment of talking with my psychologist…call it a “safe place.”
SO… I suppose the answer to the question is as individually unique as the many ways with which we are all facing our challenges with PTS[D]. I suggest, however, that there are two essential commonalities that help turn the tide of losing more of our fellow servicemen and servicewomen to the 22-Veterans-per-day suicide epidemic. For some, they may be difficult; for others, they may be easier; but for every one of us, they are essential:
1. If you feel like you are starting to withdraw, have unusual or unexplainable feelings of anger, or experience some other kind of symptom(s) that lead you to believe that something is wrong, speak up and find help–from a therapist, other Veterans, family, friends…someone! Don’t go it alone–your life is valuable!
2. If you notice a friend or colleague who is starting to act differently, becoming withdrawn, being unusually short or irritated or other signs that something is not right, speak up and find out! You could be the person who stops #23 that day…or another day. If it is something else bothering them, they at least know that they have someone who cares about them enough to ask.
This past year has made a positive difference in digging out of the black hole of depression, night terrors, and withdrawal. It is only happening because I finally sought help. I still have times that life piles so much on me that I start to slide backward–but I have someone with whom I can address it and keep from falling all the way back down to rock bottom again.
I invite fellow Veterans [and first responders] to leave comments and share their stories…if you would like to, that is…no pressure.
For those who think that they may be challenged with PTS[D] or depression, please seek out help so that you can regain the life that you want and continue to contribute. All Lives Matter and as a community of Veterans, we are brothers and sisters in uniform long after we receive our DD-214s and transition back to civilian society. We CAN still make a difference…
Thank you for your service!
Hooah. Semper Fidelis. Semper Fortis. Aim High. Semper Paratus.