Jeffrey Goes to the VA, part 1

How I Got Here

I sit across the desk from Dr.Taylor Plumb, the latest in a long succession of mental health professions who have been of such an ambitious nature or naïveté or have had the misfortune of begin ordered to try and help me sort out the haunted circus between my ears.  I have to say that, based on my limited experience of him before we got to this office today; I have a fair amount of faith in his ability.  This is actually our second one-on-one meeting and he facilitates a readjustment group for OIF/OEF vets that I attended a handful of times. My main challenge with him (as with those who preceded him) is to let him “drive.”  As I told Dr. Plumb during our screening appointment, I am probably the most self-aware patient he will ever see.  I can virtually chart all the things that have happened to me and their correlative effects.  But alas, my awareness of how I got here has not been completely successful in getting me where I want to go so, until he gives me reason not to, I’m willing to trust this man.  I’m not saying that it is my intention to simply hand over the reins completely and never question anything he says.  I think enough people have actually met their demise by doing just that within the mental healthcare system.  I’ve seen my share of people who seemed to have gotten more fucked up by the people that were supposed to be helping them, especially when pharmaceuticals come into play.  Now don’t get me wrong, I’m no Scientologist.  That is to say please don’t label me as “anti-drug” altogether.  For me, there’s a long list of things that I can do that don’t involve taking drugs to improve my mental health; among the things on that list are intense exercise, going to peer support group meetings, eating right, staying away from tobacco products, doing yoga, prayer and meditation, doing my morning pages (thirty minutes of stream-of-consciousness writing first thing upon awaking), disengaging from difficult personalities, not abusing caffeine, reading self-improvement literature include spiritual books, staying away from compulsive sexual behaviors, spending time with the dogs and staying focused on my goals and dreams.  I know it seems like a long list but trust me, there are more.  My litmus for when it’s time to seek pharmaceutical help is when I am absolutely incapable of doing (or in the case of those things that are detrimental,  not doing) any of those other things on that list.  It has also been my experience that even when I was so fucking depressed I couldn’t do most of the things, if I could manage just one, for example to make it to a peer support meeting or to stay away from cigarettes for a day, that that made it possible for me to do at least one more of the positives from the list the next day or not do one of the negatives.  Slowly I would crawl out of my depression.  I’m not saying it’s easy either.  Going the non-drug route has been excruciating at times.  Perhaps I’m a little paranoid about “surrendering” my brain to chemical manipulations.  That makes sense with my history of alcohol and drug abuse.  But ultimately, as troubling as my thoughts have been at times; my mind, my identity un-medicated, is all I have.  That’s a deeper philosophical argument for another time and God knows I don’t want to even remotely suggest that someone is only able to get by with the help of medication right now should put it down if they’re not ready.  You’re no good to yourself or anybody with a gun in your mouth and I don’t believe any situation is hopeless.  My journey toward a peaceful way of life has been dark at times but I hope that this series can help some of you if by nothing else, letting you know that you’re not the only one who’s struggled.  I know it helps me to share honestly about it.  I promise too that this series won’t be all heavy all the time.  There are some laughs along the way for sure so please stay tuned.

Today I sit across from Dr. Plumb staring down at the scars on my wrists, remember that night long ago and trying desperately to concentrate on what he’s saying.  I want to get every bit of benefit from coming to him as possible.  Difficulty paying attention is a symptom of PTSD.  Along with hyper-vigilance, they make for an odd combination.  I do have PTSD.  I realized this by my efforts to help other vets.  I would have told you that I didn’t because I never saw a dead body in Iraq and if that gunfire when I was on post was aimed at me, they were a shitty shot and too far away.  But co-counseling with other Iraq and Afghanistan veterans I started to notice that I had all the symptoms they described when they talked about their PTSD.  What I also realized is that I’ve had them for most of my life.  My initial trauma comes from physical abuse, sexual abuse, spiritual abuse, societal homophobia and from simply trying to navigate the sometimes very unfriendly world of rural Alabama as a hypersensitive, creative, compassionate little queer kid in the 60s, 70s and 80s.  I have also come to realize (and this one was a very hard one to admit) I have PTSD from my experience in Iraq.  Other than the trauma of spending most of my time there “outside the wire” (I didn’t even know there was such an expression until I came home.) A lot of what traumatized me about what I saw in Iraq was the ways in which what I was a part of was diametrically opposed to what I thought American stood for and challenged my very basic spiritual beliefs.  More on all that later.

A list of PTSD symptoms can be found here:

I’ve often taken umbrage at the labeling of this constellation of symptoms as a “disorder.” To me, it seems that a person would be more disordered if they experienced these kinds of traumas and were not affected.  When I’m asked to edit the DSM-V, I think I’ll change it to Post Traumatic Stress Response.

I’ll get to the discussion of pharmaceuticals, PTSD, and the history my seeking help more later in the series.  For now, suffice it to say that I am (and have been for a while) in a perpetual state of “not giving up” and that, at least in part, is what has me in this office today; staring hopefully into the eyes of a man with a lot of education and the Quixotic optimism in the quest of trying to help Jeff Key makes sense of Jeff Key.

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