Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Haunted by Ghosts: My Life with PTSD (Part 1)

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Ok, sure, it should probably say "Our Life" in the title, but as this is only MY perspective, I'm going with it as-is...

I was born, unknowingly, into a life with PTSD. By that I mean I have been dealing with someone I love having this "disease" since the day I was born (literally). My father is a Vietnam Veteran. He was also the hardest person to live with growing up. Yes, he was strict like most fathers, but at times he also scared the living crap out of me. There were many times he would yell, scream & throw/break things. I have vivid memories of having a "messy room" and him putting the power cord THROUGH the speaker on my cassette player. I have even more vivid memories of having a "messy desk" and him yanking out the drawer & throwing it on the floor, all but breaking the solid wood desk in the process. Of course, those times scared me and I thought it was all my fault for being a "messy kid". I later realized that he just wanted to have control over what he COULD because there was so much in his life that he COULD NOT control.

I think the times I was even more scared of him were when he was quiet. I never knew what he was thinking and whether or not he would "come back" as "happy" dad or "angry" dad. He could go MANY days at a time not speaking a word to anyone in our house. As a child, it was hard to deal with, but as I said, I was "born" into that life so I knew nothing different. I thought this was "normal". I thought I was just a "bad kid" that made her dad angry. I cannot (and will not) speak for my siblings about growing up, but I'm ASSUMING they felt similar things.

Years later, I would learn about Vietnam in school and had remembered hearing my family speak of my dad serving in the Army at that time, but I never truly, fully understood everything he went though (and probably never will FULLY "get it") until I was an adult & my friends told stories of Desert Storm and it got my mind turning.

I woke up one day and got a "bug up my butt" (that's what my ex called it at the time) to get together a scrapbook for my dad. My goal was for his 55th birthday but that came & went and I hadn't gotten much accomplished. I was then determined to give him something, ANYTHING for Christmas that same year. I began posting in online forums seeing if anyone remembered my dad. I then submitted my mother to the Spanish Inquisition: grilling her for anything she could remember about dad's time in the Army.

My hard work & determination paid off - I found SEVERAL guys who remembered my dad and a few even had stories / pictures for me. They were a tight knit group - and for good reason - VERY FEW of the men in his unit survived the war. As I put more of the details together, I realized why my dad never spoke of his time there. It was literally HELL on Earth. I was scratching the tip of the iceburg on why he was who he was growing up.

Word got around in that small community about me & that I was looking for anyone who knew my dad. One day I got an email from someone named "Bob" who said he might have known my dad, but wanted to be sure who I was before sharing his story with me. I gave him my information and more detailed info about dad and he said he DID know my father. I asked him to write down his story for the scrapbook and he refused. He said he wanted to talk about it with me. We lived many states apart so I gave him my phone number and he called one evening.

I will never forget that day for the rest of my life. He told me the story of my dad's last day in Vietnam. He had been flying with dad when he was shot & wounded. We cried together on the phone over the memories. Him reliving & me hearing for the VERY FIRST time about the horrors my father had seen (in a future post, I will share the details of their story). I asked him to please write it down for my father. He was hesitant because he said, for some, it's hard to "relive" everything. I explained to him that even if dad didn't want to read it, my mother & siblings might want to know what happened so WE could better understand HIM.

I had goosebumps about 2 weeks later when I got the mail & saw the letter from Bob. I dared not open it for fear of offending my dad and his privacy. It would be HIS choice to share this story with the rest of our family. Instead, I continued to gather documents, photos and items with his unit's emblem on it.

You know how they say kids are anxious for Christmas morning? Well I was more anxious than any child that Christmas Day. I tried to wait as patiently as I could for everyone's presents to be opened. My dad received a mug & patch with the unit emblem and I also made a shadow box for him with his patches & medals and a photo of him in his dress uniform.

He thanked me and then I handed him the letter. He opened it and read it quietly to himself. My whole family was there & we could see the tears welling up in his eyes. When he finished reading it, he shared "his version" of the story with everyone. It was the first time we had heard him speak of Vietnam in our entire lives (at that point it was over 30 years after the fact).

There wasn't a dry eye in the house that day. My mother hugged me and said that's the first time she's heard the "whole story". She then shared with me that when they first got married, he had night terrors and she'd have to hold him down (literally) to keep him from hurting himself or her. Now all his anger bursts and silent times started to make sense. It would still be a few more years until he finally go the PTSD diagnosis from the VA, but it was a step in the right direction to help him FINALLY begin to heal.

He was/is haunted by ghosts - the spirits of the men who died that day he was shot & survived. But we were/are haunted too - by the spirit of the "dad that could have been" - had he NOT been through the "Hell of War". What would that life have been like? We will never know & forever will wonder what kind of man he was before Vietnam.

I didn't know it then, but I would soon get divorced and later marry a soldier who was also living with PTSD. I will write more about that in future posts.

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