Anger mostly, an inability to recognize emotions, dissociative episodes, seizures, obsessive behavior, and plenty of other problems, but mostly anger. Those are some of the reasons I prefer not to write about my experiences. However, that said, there have been a number of events in my life that have compelled me to both think a lot more about living with PTSD and PNES.
Start with the panel that got me writing about disability, I tried to keep that discussion focused on living with seizures. I wanted it to be about living with what is, for most of the time, a completely invisible set of problems. From the outside who would know that I’ve been prone to falling over in the middle of where ever and choking on my own tongue. That I’ve had profound lapses of memory, debilitating headaches. The list goes on, and its a long one. But here’s the problem, my seizure condition is likely tied to PTSD and head injury. Thus, it becomes difficult to discuss one without discussion of the other.
Directly after the panel I was met by a couple of different attendees. Some of them wanted to thank me for talking. Some of them thanked me for my service. And a couple of them wanted to compare notes. One fellow in particular wanted to know if PTSD would manifest as a sort of long-term amnesia. And here I had to pause and think about what I was going to say. First, because I’m not a doctor or any sort of health care professional versed in dealing with a career of PTSD/PNES cases. Second, because my experience is all I have to go on. “That is not my experiences,” I replied hoping it would sate the guy, knowing that he needed a plot device to move his story along and I’d just robbed him of it.
This evening I took a very long walk around the neighborhood. I did this because, despite my best effort, something got to me today. I was seeing red for a while there and any more when rage takes over the best thing for me to do is stretch my legs until my spirit calms. Senator John Walsh made the news recently when a crack investigative reporting team at the New York Times broke the news that the former General did not correctly cite works used in a thesis.
A friend and veteran posted this editorial piece by Alex Horton on the topic which appeared in the Washington Post. I got to the end of the editorial and that’s where the rage started to hit me. It took a long walk for me to sort through why I was feeling so much anger and hostility.
I know that the first reason I felt anything at all is that Alex Horton’s experience is clearly not my own.
I was sitting in a college classroom less than a year after coming home from Iraq. We were discussing Shakespeare. I was thinking about dead bodies in Baghdad. It was jarring and uncomfortable that first semester, but I knew I couldn’t let my struggles influence my academic career.
But there’s a catch to this that I don’t believe is immediately apparent. It wasn’t visible to me at first that’s for sure. Throughout Horton’s editorial he uses his experience as a baseline. Deliberately he juxtaposes his struggles with PTSD and the challenges of getting an education to erect a moral bar that he has clearly passed and that the Senator has not. “I have PTSD and I never cheated,” he is saying.
Here is the problem I have with this attitude. It lacks any trace of empathy. Horton is acting as little more than Walsh’s judge from the podium of his own experience. Yet anyone with an internet connection can find plenty of examples of people with a PTSD diagnosis acting in an anti social way. And on the grand continuum of sociopathic behavior plagiarism barely registers as less-than-benign. And if Horton knows anything, it should be that you don’t survive a battle as an “Army of One.” If he’s struggled with PTSD he did so with help. The same aid he’s just denied Walsh for some reason.
The second, much greater reason, I found so much to dislike about Horton’s opinion is that he insists that an act of will was literally all it took to keep him from behaving badly. Not only does this sort of writing underline the myth that all broken people need do to overcome the challenges they’ve been dealt is simply want to get better it cheapens the struggle. Horton is too busy being worried about the slippery slope of veteran employment to pause for a moment and consider how much he’s just taken away from all those battle buddies he’s just tossed under a mental health bus.
“I couldn’t let my struggles influence my” whatever is so much rubbish. Yeah, you’re a mental paragon and a moral exemplar. And from the perspective of someone who struggles with anti social tendencies, sometimes winning and sometimes losing, you’re a fraud. Or if not a fraud, than a coward. If life after what you experienced in the service of your country isn’t littered with momentary setbacks, mistakes, and all the bloody, stinking baggage that comes with this condition than it’s really not that bad for you. If Horton is simply omitting those moments for fear he might have to account for them in the same way he exhorts Walsh to “own up to his mistakes and take responsibility for them” than he’s a coward. Worse he’s mistaken when he imagines that the reading public won’t see through his illusion of moral superiority.
Yes, I say these things from my experience. I make mistakes, I let myself and those around me down from time to time. Sometimes mightily, but, I’m willing to forgive those around me and more importantly, I’m willing to forgive myself. PTSD for me has been a lot like what I imagine living with alcoholism might be like. Once you’ve recognized that you have this problem you should be aware that you’ll likely die with it, if not from it. From that moment forward it’s more a matter of learning to cope with it than anything else. You cannot wish PTSD away any more than you can wish cancer, a broken spine, or multiple sclerosis disease away.