My sister had her convocation ceremony for her Ph.D yesterday at Columbia University. When I finally got home, I was utterly exhausted. I still am. Here's how the day went:
It was a very long day. I had forgotten how dirty and loud the subways in New York really are. It was a very stressful ride. I was hoping that there would be standing room at the ceremony that would allow me to put a little distance between me and the crowds. That didn't happen. I finally reached critical mass during the reception. I told my Mom that I needed to get out of there. We left as soon as was possible to collect everyone up. The anxiety really started getting to me at this point. I started getting snippy with everyone. It was not pretty, but everyone just kind of ignored it and carried on with their day. By the time I got back on the bus, I was exhausted from my experience.
That will be the last time I visit New York for a long while. That city is like anxiety overload. It is way to easy to have intrusive recollections there. A lot of the sidewalks were in worse condition than in some areas in Iraq. Then there was the air quality. For a little while, I thought I was having an anxiety attack. Then I realized it was the air quality that was making my lungs so tight. Ratchet up the anxiety a little more.
Today, I am spending inside away from people and getting myself recentered. While I wouldn't have missed the convocation yesterday, I can't do that again for a long time. Regardless, I am very proud that I made it through the day without having a major breakdown. I finally got to meet two of my sister's close friends that I had never met and dinner was delicious.
Now it's time for recovery.
Tomorrow is Mother's Day and I won't have time to write this in the morning, so I am getting it written now. I am fortunate to have three mothers in my life whose love and support have meant the world to me over the past year.
OK, I had to get that out. It's time they really know, the mothers in my life, how much they mean to me. Don't pass tomorrow by without telling the mothers in your lives. We have a tendency to take it for granted that they will always be there.
I have been getting really good sleep recently. When I went in for the sleep study, they discovered that I never entered REM sleep while I was there. Not once. The apnea was so disruptive that I was never actually able to fall asleep fully. It didn't come as a surprise to me that my CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) Machine kept me from having any apnea events.
I figured this was coming. The CPAP machine has allowed me to enter REM again. Why wouldn't I get nightmares? These happened to be some of the most vivid I have experienced in a number of years. I couldn't just smell the blood of the wounded, I could taste it. I woke up from the nightmares a little after 0200 and it took me almost an hour to calm back down enough to try to get more sleep. I really disrupted my night.
Here's the weird part. I don't feel the emotional aftereffects that I have felt previously. I am not overly tired and I feel emotional stable. Is getting recuperative sleep just a few nights in a row all I needed to start feeling more stable? I guess time will tell. My sister receives her Ph.D tomorrow at Columbia University. I am a little concerned that there may just be a delayed fallout from this latest round of nightmares. I will not miss this once in a lifetime event. My sister has worked so hard for this moment. Besides, it's Mother's Day tomorrow. What better gift could my Mom ask for than the whole family together for a day?
Recently, I have gained a lot of weight. When I went into the hospital for respiratory distress back in March, I learned that allergens (pollen) had caused the reaction. After I got out of the hospital, I have been afraid to go outside, fearful of the consequences. This is not a good thing for a veteran with PTSD. The last thing we need is more motivation to cloister ourselves away from the world and hide in our homes, bereft of contact with other people. So what did I start doing when I was bored? I ate. And ate. And ate.
Now it's time to undo the damage. Yesterday, I decided to confront my fear of doing things outside. I went for a jog with my wife and daughter at the park across the street. It felt wonderful. A little cold - the wind was ridiculous - but wonderful. My lungs felt great. I kept on wondering when my lung were going to rebel. They didn't. At all.
So this is what freedom feels like. I didn't realize how much I had been allowing my fears to imprison me in my home. I don't even recognize the fat-ass in the mirror. I never thought I could let my body go this far...
Today, I resolved to do something about this. I have a new goal. I want my body back. I want to be able to run without my body getting sore before I get tired. I want to be proud to see what is staring back at me in the mirror. It's time to take this to the next level. I am going to talk with my wife and set goals. Maybe I can find an advocacy 5k or 10K later this summer. I don't know. So, PTSD, I have a question. Is it Okay for me to go outside?
Dear Gen. McCaffrey,
First, sir, let me preface my remarks by telling you I have the utmost respect for you and your continued service to our country. You are a no nonsense leader. You aren't afraid to speak your mind, no matter how difficult the position you take. Your advocacy efforts on the part of service members and veterans everywhere are laudable. That being said, I do have a major point of contention that I need to address: The recent view you expressed on PTSD.
During the 'After the Uniform' Panel Discussion on May 8 at the National Press Club, you asserted that, in most cases, PTSD can be cured within a year. By stating this, I feel you demonstrate a disturbing lack of understanding of the issues facing veterans and service members who suffer from PTSD. In the public arena, you are perceived as a material expert on military and veterans' issues. What you say informs many people's opinions on pivotal issues like PTSD. I am concerned that the view you recently expressed on PTSD is dangerously outdated and uninformed. These kinds of comments could have the potential to do a lot of damage to PTSD advocacy in the military and in the country at large, which is why I am reaching out to see if you would be willing to clarify your stance on this issue.
I do not intend to sound alarmist, but I felt the need to impress upon you the importance of this issue. As a combat veteran with PTSD, blogger, and PTSD advocate, I hear every day about the struggles facing our veterans, many of whom still suffer in silence. I hear the discouragement and the disillusionment in the establishment. The negative stigma and public misgivings about PTSD keep many men and women from pursuing treatment for a serious and potentially life-threatening disorder.
My first impression of you at the panel indicated that you are a man who values directness and productive discourse. It is a sign of a strong leader to surround himself with people who will challenge his opinions and positions on issues. I hope you understand that I am taking the time to write this letter because I am confident you are the type of man who will recognize this criticism as an opportunity to learn and grow. I invite you to contact me directly so that we can candidly discuss this issue and work together to better advocate for those who suffer in silence, before they become a statistic.
*NOTE: This is the body of the letter that was sent directly to General McCaffrey via email. The full document can be found below.*
As you all know by now, I spent the 8th down in DC attending a panel discussion. The hardest part of the day I knew was coming in advance: Riding the DC Metro. I don't do well in subways. Too many people to watch, too many points of ingress and egress. It sets me on a very dangerous edge most of the time.
Knowing that I was going to be riding the DC Metro to and from the National Press Club meant I needed to prepare for the ride so that I didn't paint myself into an anxiety corner. The panel discussion was too important.
What I decided on was taking my new sleep apnea machine down with me to DC the night before and getting a REALLY good night's sleep. That thing works like a dream. I may sound like Darth Vader when I'm breathing, but I woke up very well rested and better equipped to face the day. It was pretty amazing. It was my first night sleeping using the apnea machine and I felt like someone had flipped a switch in my brain. I felt a whole lot more stable. Regardless, I took an extra dose of anxiety medication to ensure I didn't freak out or get irritable on a morning when I couldn't afford it.
Then it was time: I got on the Metro car and stood next the the door with my back to as few people as possible and a good view of the rest of the car. It was rush hours, so there was no chance of putting my back against the wall. I got a little jittery but the DC Metro is nothing like New York. It's clean, quiet and comparatively efficient. On the way back it was even easier. The ride was off-peak and easy.
I felt incredibly proud of myself. I recognized that the PTSD could cause a problem, identified ways of coping with it so that it wouldn't keep me from doing something I really wanted to do. It was refreshing and a major step in the right direction. Let's see what tomorrow brings.
One thing has become abundantly clear after listening to what this panel had to say. We know what the major issues are that face our transitioning service members and our current veterans: Unemployment, homelessness, women's issues, PTSD and TBI, timely care for our veterans, substantially more efficient claims processes. I could keep on going, but those are the major issues. When I was listening to everyone talk and listening to the concerns raised by others during the Q&A, I also discovered a larger and more disturbing issue that is impeding everyone's endeavors to render aid: overdeveloped and cumbersome government bureaucracy. Time and time again, it was brought to everyone's attention that the bureaucracy at the VA is causing most of these issues. I would contend that it is government bureaucracy as a whole that is the problem. The VA is run by an even bigger bureaucracy - Congress and it's army of administrators, chiefs of staff, assistants, office clerks...
Yes, we've identified the problem. Now it's time to do something about it. Find ways to facilitate private and public organizational hand shakes so that we can all become part of a network of support, working toward a common goal. Even if it takes time to make this happen, the process needs to start now. In the interim, we have a year until the next panel discussion and I am throwing down the gauntlet:
The Volunteers of America and ReMIND illustrate how cooperation leads to results. Let's continue to focus on solutions and cooperation. Thank you for being organizations of rare vision and action. Please let me know what I can do to further advocacy over the course of the coming year!
Betty Mosely Brown carried herself very professionally and passionately advocated for women veterans' issues.
This could not have been the most comfortable experience for Betty. With how much the VA has been vilified online and in the press recently, it appeared she expected a certain amount of backlash, especially during the Q&A portion of the panel discussion. Despite this, Betty brought up some very good points.
Betty's greatest asset is her ability to listen. I was talking with her in the hallway after the panel was over. She gave me her card and asked me for my input on how I thought the VA could address their inefficiencies, what the VA could do to get more assistance to the veterans faster. I definitely plan on taking her up on that offer.
There is no doubting General McCaffrey is an expert on Military Affairs. He recognizes the unfair burden this war has been for so few to carry. He also recognizes that our current generation of military and veterans are the most battle-weary of any generation preceding them (the downside to an all-volunteer force in the modern age). Aside from these acknowledgments, McCaffrey brought up four major points:
General McCaffrey demonstrated a keen understanding of the many different facets of the challenges facing our service members and our veterans. Despite this, I still was left with a sour taste in my mouth. While I recognize his years of service and his dedication to his country and its men and women in uniform, one simple sentence is what I will remember him for: "PTSD can be cured within a year"
I am not going to address this comment here. Because I feel so strongly about this comment, I will be drafting a letter to General McCaffrey (which I will post in the blog and forward to him) and afford him the opportunity to respond.
Barbara Banaszynski exhibited a lot of passion for veterans' issues and very much seemed like a 'doer'. She made strong points on a number of issues:
Lastly Barbara said one thing that really stuck with me: "It is not what we say, it is what we do."
*A Note to Barbara Banaszynski*
I was honored to be invited by your organization to be part of this discussion. I look forward to learning about your initiatives moving forward. As the year progresses and we get closer and closer to next year's panel, I would love to catch up with you periodically and learn about your successes and your failures and what the VOA has learned from both. Your organization recognized that more needed to be done to provide for veterans and are acting now to make a difference. David Burch has my email but if you ever want to contact me directly, you can send me an email.
As I continue my life with PTSD, I will share my challenges and discoveries on this blog.