Fighting Mental Illness Amongst Veterans: Take Control of Your Life
I want to start this blog by saying that I know that there are a lot of veterans out there suffering from PTSD. While there may be some faking it to get benefits or sympathy, there are a lot of guys who really need help . . . and they need more than medication. They need a community of supporters, motivation to get themselves better, and guidance to push them toward their life goals.
The media pressure on the VA to improve it’s treatment of PTSD has only worsened the situation in my opinion. Don’t get me wrong, I think the pressure was needed, but when you pressure a government organization to do anything the result is often an overly standardized blanket treatment that seeks only to minimize media blowback. As such, it’s become really easy to get a PTSD diagnosis.
Here’s an example. When I was discharged from the Marine Corps, I hesitated to go to the VA, mostly because I was sick of bureaucracy and was trying to avoid putting my medical care in the hands of the federal government. It took me 5 years, a severe case of ulcerative colitis, and a shitload of financial trouble to roll up a copy of my DD214 and head over to my local VA hospital to enroll in the system. At the time, I was in a world of shit, but it had nothing to do with my time in the Corps. My business was failing, I was in a shitty marriage, and I was broke.
As I filled out my paperwork, they had me fill out their mental health questionnaire. I can’t remember exactly what the questions were, but it asked questions like “Do you get angry easily?,” “Do you have problems sleeping?,” and “Do you get uneasy in public?” Well at the time, with my business failing and having 30-40 bouts of bloody diarrhea each day it was a fucking emphatic yes to all three. So while it took me 3 months to get an appointment with a gastro-enterologist for my colitis, I was quickly placed under the care of a primary doctor from Outpatient Mental Health and was told I had PTSD.
To me this was ridiculous. I saw more horror in my three years of a horrible marriage than I did during the time I was in Iraq. Don’t get me wrong, I was depressed as hell. Life sucked at the time. But that was of my own making and that of my shitty genetics. The truth was that I was lonely. I did miss the Marine Corps, and I really had no one to talk to about it. But I did not have PTSD from my military service.
Additionally, with all the stigma surrounding PTSD, I began to think that there was something seriously mentally wrong with me for them to pull that kind of diagnosis. This sent me deeper into depression, and it gave me an excuse not to go out in public, not to take control of my life, and to begin making excuses for myself. I sat on the couch, began abusing pain killers, and I became a mess. It wasn’t until I got divorced, went bankrupt, and began living out of my car that I started to realize something: everything bad that was happening to me, except for the ulcerative colitis, was a product of my own doing. I fucked up and I fucked up bad. My marriage was bad because I’d rushed into it, my business failed because I didn’t try hard enough, and I was living out of my car because I’d mismanaged my own money. I was responsible for everything, but I was also responsible for putting myself back together – and when I took charge of this, developed a real vision for how I wanted my life to be, and made goals – good things started to happen.
Now, I’m not comparing my situation to anyone else’s or calling for the VA to stop diagnosing PTSD. But I am saying this: maybe we should realize that there is a difference between PTSD and depression. Depression can be caused by many things, including life transitions out of the military where you are no longer surrounded by the people who you worked with, lived with, and cared about. Maybe we should also not be following the media’s lead and stigmatizing PTSD as the disease of the angry combat veteran who’s ready to blow at any moment and who can’t live his life because of this. This means that we should also understand that the stigma is not all the media’s fault because some of us play up that role and we act just like we are expected to act: like angry assholes, whether or not we have PTSD.
So my point is this: if you have PTSD, get treatment. If you have depression, get treatment. But beyond the treatment, there is something more important you need to do: take control of your life. The VA, the medications, nor the American public is going to do that for you. We can’t use these diagnoses as excuses not to put the hard work in needed to get our lives back together.
I realize that this is easier said than done, but it is not impossible. It all starts with understanding what life is: a temporary state of being. I’ve said this before: you’re only here for a short time and some of that time is gone. What do you want the rest of your time here to look like? Think about your perfect vision of how you want your life to be with no holds barred and no impossibilities. Spend a good 30 minutes thinking about it. Then, write that vision down and determine everything you need to do to have a chance to make that happen. Save this piece of paper, or save the document you made on your computer. Next week we will be using it to create your goals.