I get a lot of late night phonecalls.
There is a lot of irony in these phonecalls. Not in the content, mind you, but in the fact that I get them and that I get so many of them. The people who should be getting these phonecalls would be very ruffled to know that I am getting them instead, and it is that particular attitude, in part, that ensures that I keep getting them.
This is all getting very abstract. I don't like abstract. There is too much abstraction leading up to these phonecalls. Abstraction from people who refuse to deal with reality, because it would be too difficult or too expensive or leave too large a black mark on careers built on accounting tricks.
I get calls from friends of friends, friends of friends of friends, and so on down the line. Sobbing, drunk, panicky, and combinations of the three. The people who call me very often have never talked to me before, but they all have something in common. They're veterans, and they're at the end of their ropes - on at least one occasion, literally.
Most of them have tried to get help, or worse, have been ordered to get help. "Help" typically consists of being shoved full of antidepressants, or even opiates as an off-label tranquilizer, run through a week of light duty, and then rubberstamped either "FIT FOR DUTY" or "TREATMENT COMPLETE", depending on which big machine still owns them.
On the rare occasion they fall through the cracks and get what they really need, which is someone to talk to, they get some credentialed buffoon who doesn't even realize the depths of their own ignorance. They are shunted off by the buffoon after the mandatory three sessions to a "prescribing therapist" because the buffoons can't understand why suggestions like "avoid caffeine before bedtime" don't quiet the night terrors and panic attacks.
So, my name gets brought up from time to time. "He's been around the block," they say. "He knows what it's like." I know these things are said because they're usually some of the first questions I answer.
I don't have the luxury of screening my calls anymore. When the phone rings, I answer it. Area codes mean nothing. Time of day means nothing. It's in the dark of morning when things are worst. Insomnia piled on alcohol piled on screaming horrors piled on everything else.
Here is how it starts:
"Um, hi. I'm sorry to wake you."
No, it's no problem. Who am I speaking to?
"Uhhh, this is so-and-so. I got your number from a friend who said you might be able to help me."
Sure brother, give me a second to get a cigarette and some coffee. Just one second. Don't hang up. Stay right there. (You would be amazed how long it took me to learn to say this. Too long of a pause and they'll reconsider, feel foolish and troublesome, and hang up.)
"Okay. So, uh, man, I don't even know where to start. I uh, well..."
Iraq or Afghanistan?
"Afghanistan, 02-03, 04-05. Got cut short by an IED."
"Well, I still have most of my legs. Thought I was gonna lose a nut..."
By the time I've filled in the major details (how many tours, what areas, what units) the coffee is ready and the cigarette is finished. This gives me a sense of how ugly it was for them and it lets them know that I'm hearing them, not just listening and nodding and figuring out from which pamphlet I should be constructing my response.
That I know the right questions to ask is sometimes enough to get them to open up immediately. By the time they call me they're usually pretty fucking desperate, anyway. Look, I'm not educated at all in this field, except the hard way. I operate on intuition, empathy, and the occasional dose of "nobody else is willing to say it because it doesn't align with the goals of this particular organization".
My theory is this: after sometimes years of talking to an endless loop of so-called professionals who treat you like an alien and blame you subtly when their little bag of tricks comes up short, someone who simply accepts your horrors for what they are is enough.
So I listen. Sometimes I talk, but mostly I listen. Sometimes I have to tell them to calm down. Sometimes I have to tell them to stop yelling. A lot of times, I have to let them cry for a while and get them to repeat things after the sobbing has tapered to a bearable level.
After they've told me their end, I usually field questions. "Hey, just one on one, no bullshit, do you sometimes..." and my answer is almost always either a straight yes, or a "Not me personally, but..."
With all of the education and therapy and help that our veterans are supposedly getting, how is it that so many of them can be so relieved to find that their PTSD symptoms are so common? That they aren't the only ones who fly into fits of rage over what should be non-item annoyances? That they aren't the only ones who can't sleep at night, or sleepwalk, or get antsy around heavy traffic? How can the majority of people call me not know that the majority of people who call me have the same exact problems?
The calls takes hours. Hours and hours sometimes. And at the end of it, I tell about 75% of them that they need to get to an AA meeting out in town, not on base. A lot have been through mandatory alcohol abuse programs, or have been to military AA meetings. Bad choices, both of them, because you're not going to do well in a program where you're trying to hide the truth as much as possible because you're afraid of your peers' reaction.
The self medication comes from doubt. When the VA just wants to put you on drug after drug after drug, and won't listen when you tell them things are getting worse, you begin to doubt the medical professionals who aren't fixing a goddamned thing, so you self medicate with booze. See, pills are cheap when you buy them in the quantity that the VA does. Much cheaper to dole out those little yellow bottles full of help than to build a decent program based on human beings helping other human beings.
And it's not as though there are many qualified human beings to begin with. It's hard to take a therapist seriously when you know that his concept of PTSD is what you can read in the DSM, and his concept of war is what you get from blockbuster movies or worse, stuff like that idiot Dave Grossman flogs. Stuff that is draped in intellectualism and the stink of echo chamber nonsense.
Most of the people who call me, if they're still active duty, I tell them they need to go find a chaplain and ask for help in doing the paperwork and hoop-jumping necessary to get the military to pay for them to go to a civilian counselor. Not a psychiatrist, who is just going to diagnose them yet again and dope them to the gills some more, as if the problem can be banished, demon-like, by discovering its name and applying the proper potion. Not a therapist, who is going to talk themselves in circles because it's the only way they can cope with something not in their playbook.
Someone to listen to them and to help them sort out their feelings. Most are resistant. They've tried headshrinkers, and they have been let down. The analogy I often resort to is this:
Imagine you have an M16, an M240, an M9, and a cuckoo clock disassembled, and with all of their parts put into a laundry bag and shaken up. What you understand right now is that none of your weapons work and you don't even know what time it is. You understand that your life is all fucked up and you can't even tell why.
What you are trying to do is reassemble everything using nothing but your tongue, and with a blindfold on. Your first step is to take off the blindfold and realize that your situation is fucked beyond your training, and that you're going to need some help. You're going to need to get all those parts sorted and get the weapons reassembled. Some of your problems, yeah, there's a manual for that. The drinking, the anger, the insomnia, that shit is easy. The parts you don't remember perfectly, you look at the manual and you get to it. You go to AA, you learn to tame your temper, you get your schedule under control.
But that clock, man, have you ever even seen the guts of a cuckoo clock before? No, shit no. And even if you found a manual for that thing, they're all different. That's your feelings. You need someone to help you figure out how you feel, to separate out the different little springs and gears and levers and shit you don't even know the name for, and help you figure out how to get that clock running again. There's no shame in that, you never had training on how to deal with no fucking cuckoo clock. All this stuff gets jumbled up in there so bad that the parts just fall out, and you have to suck it up and realize that if you want to get your house in order, you're going to need to find a decent watchmaker who can tell you what all those parts are.
Yeah, there are jewelers out there who don't know what they're doing, but the solution isn't to decide the clock is irreparably fucked just because one idiot swears that it only needs a new battery. You keep at it, because nobody else is going to do it for you.
Some of them take my advice, and some don't. I'm always very upfront in telling them that they aren't going to hear anything from me they haven't probably heard or thought about for themselves before.
A lot of them call just wanting to vent, to beat on their chests and wail for a while, or to shine a light however feeble into the dark corners. I've lost count of the number of times I've heard "I've never told anybody this before."
Some of them are indeed ready to climb out of the pit - I recently got a six months token and a scrawled "THANKS" in the mail with no return address.
A lot of them are still fighting, and some have given up. A .45 to the noggin or a belt on the coat rack are tough ways to give up, but I suppose it's one way to take back control of a life you feel like you've already lost.
I got a hard one tonight. Real hard. It rips my guts out every single time to hear firsthand how abandoned and alone, even intentionally neglected, someone can feel after they've already been through so much.
If you're reading this and feel like you need to talk, haqiqato @ gmail.com.