Total Drek

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Tuesday, December 05, 2006


Back when I was in college I met a girl. Now, to be totally honest, this was not the only girl I met as a college student. I actually met quite a few and had a circle of friends composed almost entirely of women- causing one friend to refer to me as a girl-boy.* However, the girl I am thinking of here, whom I will refer to as Leda, was special in that she was the first person I was ever really in love with.

We met at a friend's birthday party and at first I didn't really pay her very much attention. I only really noticed her when she, quite matter-of-factly, told me to "Just shut the hell up already." Believe it or not, this was essentially the beginning of my attraction to her. Amazingly, I managed to make a sufficiently good impression that evening and over the coming weeks that, with a little help from my friends,** I ended up going out with her. And then we went out again. And then, shortly thereafter, a third time. And pretty soon after that it's safe to say that we were "dating" or "going steady" or "in a relationship" or whatever. Leda and I were very fond of each other and, in many ways, had a very stable and genuine relationship. Our friends were generally quite pleased*** about the match and things were good.

Then things got a little odd. Leda started sleeping more. She started taking long showers at odd times. She started skipping visits with friends for no good reason. It got worse, and worse, and worse and eventually I started pressing her to see a doctor. I was, to put it mildly, worried. Eventually she did see several physicians and we received a diagnosis: Leda was bipolar. I was witnessing her movement into a depressive cycle that included psychotic symptoms. Specially, she believed that supernatural forces were attempting to hurt her and could do so when she was showering or when she was near an open window at night. This explained her increasingly-lengthy showers. She was, in fact, giving herself a spongebath and merely running the shower so that I would not become suspicious.

Being the kind of person that I am**** I stuck by Leda for a considerable period of time. I tried to help her through the rough spots in treatment, when therapy wasn't going well and when the drug regimen wasn't calibrated right. I tried to keep her spirits up and make sure she continued to receive treatment, even when her moodswings motivated her to do otherwise. I did this for a long time and, while much of the woman I knew remained, I also watched the disorder worsen and, in many ways, devour the person I had known.

Eventually we ended our relationship. It was a mutual decision brought about not by a lack of affection for each other, but rather by the pragmatic realization that things just were not going to work out.****** We went our separate ways and I spent most of the next year trying to pull myself back together. Trying to help her for so long was probably the most emotionally draining thing I have ever done and it was quite a while before I was really myself again. I even ended up seeing a counselor myself to help come to grips with things. I had to, among other things, accept that much of her behavior was not "her," per se, but was the disorder and that realistically some of the person I had cared for was probably a direct result of the psychopathology. I had to really come to believe that, had I been more patient and more loyal, it wouldn't have made a difference. Leda had a disease and my will was not going to "make" her get better. Moreover I had to work through a bit of anger at Leda: the hardest thing about mental illness is that with so few physical symptoms it's hard to believe that the person isn't acting that way for the mere reason that they choose to.

Of course, I got over this relationship and, you know, myself and went on to become the charming asshat I am today. It is safe, however, to say that Leda was an important experience and played a significant role in forming my current personality.

I bring all this up because of a recent story on NPR about the U.S. Army's treatment of mental disorders.

To sum up:

Army studies show that at least 20 percent to 25 percent of the soldiers who have served in Iraq display symptoms of serious mental-health problems, including depression, substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Administration officials say there are extensive programs to heal soldiers both at home and in Iraq.

But an NPR investigation at Colorado's Ft. Carson has found that even those who feel desperate can have trouble getting the help they need. In fact, evidence suggests that officers at Ft. Carson punish soldiers who need help, and even kick them out of the Army.

Now, none of us should really be surprised by this. The Bush Administration has done a wonderful job of screwing the troops when it comes to healthcare and I see no reason why this attitude wouldn't be reflected by the armed forces Dubya commands. However, what's especially interesting is that while we understand how devastating the psychological after-effects of combat can be, we are still apparently unwilling to treat them.

Jennings isn't alone. Other soldiers who've returned to Ft. Carson from Iraq say they feel betrayed by the way officials have treated them. Army files show that these were soldiers in good standing before they went to Iraq, and that they started spinning out of control upon their return.

Since the war in Vietnam, military leaders have said that soldiers who are wounded emotionally need help, just like soldiers missing limbs.


But soldiers say that in practice, the mental-health programs at Ft. Carson don’t work the way they should.

For instance, soldiers fill out questionnaires when they return from Iraq that are supposed to warn officials if they might be getting depressed, or suffering from PTSD, or abusing alcohol or drugs. But many soldiers at Ft. Carson say that even though they acknowledged on the questionnaires that they were having disturbing symptoms, nobody at the base followed up to make sure they got appropriate support. A study by the investigative arm of Congress, the Government Accountability Office, suggests it's a national problem: GAO found that about 80 percent of the soldiers who showed potential signs of PTSD were not referred for mental health follow-ups. The Pentagon disagrees with the GAO's findings.

So, despite having formal mechanisms for providing aid... aid simply isn't getting to the people who need it. Why is this?

I'll give you three guesses:

Almost all of the soldiers said that their worst problem is that their supervisors and friends turned them into pariahs when they learned that they were having an emotional crisis. Supervisors said it's true: They are giving some soldiers with problems a hard time, because they don't belong in the Army.

More tragically, if you listen to the radio story itself you'll hear one soldier comment that he went to Iraq and came back fine, so someone else who came back with problems is likely just malingering. I don't doubt that in some cases this is true but, in many others, it is a logic on par with Othello's "Methinks thou dost protesteth too much!" Recently my Sainted Fiancee has been sick with a cold and I have been healthy. In all likelihood we were both exposed at about the same time and yet she sickened and I did not. Does this mean that she's "weak willed" or something? Nah. It just means that my immune system managed to succeed where hers did not.******* The situations could easily reverse at any time without any more judgement being placed on it. I imagine that most soldiers would accept this logic as well. Unfortunately, this reasonable perspective disappears when it comes to mental illness. Another person's susceptibility to PTSD or depression must, obviously, be a sign of a personal failing rather than something that is not their fault. And the solution must be to punish them rather than to help them.

I can understand why soldiers who are not suffering mental issues would react this way: it makes them feel better. In a profession characterized by a willing acceptance of mortal peril, it's necessary to convince yourself that you are not as vulnerable as you probably are. And so, acknowledging that a man has a mental disease, and is not simply a coward, is an acknowledgement that you yourself may not be as invincible as you like to think. The pressure away from such a recognition must be immense. I can also understand, and even support, the practical need to transfer soldiers who are suffering from serious mental problems. Call me crazy, but I suspect a man with a mood disorder probably shouldn't have easy access to automatic weapons.

Yet, in saying all that, we can't lose sight of something else. Whether we support the war in Iraq or not, the men returing from it are U.S. soldiers. They volunteered to serve their country, hazarding their lives when it was deemed necessary, and aren't particularly well paid or respected for doing so. In return for this service, do we not owe them support and care? Is it not our responsibility to repair whatever damage we can? Is it not the Army's responsibility to care for their own? I would answer that it is, and that it is our duty to do what we can for these men, and not simply reject them once they are not quite the untarnished heroes we might have thought them to be.

As I did with Leda, we as a culture must come to understand that vulnerability to mental illness is like vulnerability to disease. It is a disorder that can come on anyone, often unpredictably, and its presence or absence doesn't reflect on those of us who must stand and watch or the person suffering. To be mentally ill is not to be selfish or weak-willed; it is, instead, to be sick. Our veterans need help and it is time we put aside ourselves enough to provide it. If we shirk our responsibility for doing so then we will ultimately take on something else:

The fault for their pain.

* Not, in fact, what it sounds like.

** This assistance included everything from outright manipulation to subtle hints. Mostly, however, it consisted of utter linguistic fuckups of a sort usually reserved for sitcoms. My friends in college were wonderful people, but not by and large the most discrete types.

*** The exception being Leda's roommate, who disliked me for reasons that aren't important right now. This shouldn't concern you overmuch since, by the end of college, Leda's roomie and I would be good friends and even date for about 8 months.

**** i.e. a total idiot.*****

***** At this point I'll make the comment my Sainted Fiancee would almost certainly make in response to that: It's just that, while it can be difficult to get onto the list of people I like, once you're there I tend to be absurdly loyal.

****** Nope, I'm not going to be any more specific than that. Current post to the contrary, this is not some fucking emo site, okay?

******* So far, anyway.


Blogger Practicing Idealist said...

Excellent post, Drek. I completely agree. And, yes, you are extremely loyal : ). -D's SF

Tuesday, December 05, 2006 11:10:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post. I hope it gets some exposure.

I just heard the story yesterday on NPR and am outraged and sickened by it.

I'm writing my representatives as well as a long list of other's who may be interested.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006 12:17:00 PM  
Blogger TDEC said...

Yes, thanks for that. And while some of us may be more prone to mental health issues or flu, no one is immune. There so much education to be done still about these issues, and my limited experience with survivors of trauma only confirms that everyone has a breaking point. It's all any of us can do to be glad not to have reached it. Moreover, I have seen, in some little ways, what help can do, and no one who has can doubt it validity.

Having said that, I did miss out on my free flu shot.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006 1:28:00 PM  
Blogger Vivienne said...

Interesting stuff.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006 11:25:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

very very interesting post...never heard about this desease that much...i kno a friend of mine who could be one of htese persons too.

Thanx so far


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Wednesday, December 06, 2006 8:10:00 AM  

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