New Realities

by Jim Tritten

In 1979, my life changed. I crashed a military airplane. It only took a few seconds, but the near-death experience would unequivocally and permanently alter the rest of my life. Relationships with my family, work, and my view of myself would never be the same.

PTSD was hardly even a fragment in my imagination at the time, so I did not seek counseling, nor was any seriously offered. Military medicine was embarrassingly negligent in 1979. A series of unexplained symptoms increased in severity until an extremely stressful incident in 2008 brought all my unresolved issues to a head. I fell into a tailspin and retired unceremoniously from all work on a psychological disability. I was in total crisis–unable to function in society.

I became a professional patient and sought explanations for what was going on with my body and my mind. A short time later, I received a diagnosis. The good news: we knew the problem. The bad news: PTSD is a mental illness.

Until you’ve experienced being diagnosed with mental illness, you have no idea how society treats such individuals. To only read about the symptoms and the effects doesn’t do it justice.

So imagine yourself walking through a sunny parking lot. It’s a Sunday afternoon, and you’re out running errands. You see someone you know well—a leader in your community known for their political activism. You watch the individual make eye contact with you, only to avert their eyes. S/he ducks quickly into their car, turns the key, and drives off. Then picture this person wearing a clerical collar.

But I don’t need to imagine. Such an event happened to me. The only thing I imagined later when I was processing what happened was maybe I should wear a sign, “Don’t worry, PTSD isn’t contagious.”

Successfully dealing with mental illness on your own is simply not possible. It’s no easier than trying to walk on a broken foot without a crutch.

In 2008 following a total meltdown, I sought help from the VA. But being able to crack the nut of making a case, being correctly classified, approved, and then be scheduled for treatment wasn’t an easy task. Getting seen by the VA would take more than a year. In the meantime, I discovered the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and took advantage of their support groups and classes.

I transitioned from initial diagnosis to being part of a new club. I learned what to do next with the aid of excellent clinicians and a well-developed program at the VA and peers who volunteer with NAMI. I left my first prescription on the shelf for a month before I could muster the courage to take the first pill. I knew once I did that, again my life would never be the same.

With help, I learned the path leading to a predictable and better end state. I mastered coping skills, gained knowledge, grew to tolerate medicines, and changed my environment. Group therapy allowed me to see fragile souls blossom as they meet with like individuals who suffer the same judgment by society, friends, and family. These folks deal with unjustified inner shame, and share hope for a better life.

I discovered there are “underground” support groups for veterans who don’t want PTSD on their work record. I empathized with them and told my story of being first diagnosed in 1993 and hiding the branding so I could continue to work—until the meltdown anyway. I show them the results of not seeking treatment. The choice is theirs. At the time, I did not understand the choice.

I write a lot for therapy. I don’t want to write about my trauma, and I don’t want to write about the negative aspects of my diagnosis and treatment. Instead, I focus on humor and enjoy it when I write pieces that can make others laugh. The VA helped me write by teaching me about emotions. First, I learned to recognize there are emotions other than anger. Second, I learned how to describe what goes on inside myself when I feel other emotions. The last bit is tricky—how to write words that will cause the reader or listener to feel the emotion that I felt and am now trying to describe. From writing things that will make you laugh, my goal is to write about things that will make you cry.

I share my story with vets and non-vets alike. I know it’s customary for vets to say no one other than another vet can understand the challenges of military service. I don’t agree. I’ve obtained excellent care from mental health professionals who’ve never been in the military or crashed an airplane. I also learn from individuals diagnosed with a variety of mental illnesses that have nothing to do with PTSD. But they all face the same issues I faced–like being shunned by people you know. We debate if it is easier to keep your old friends or make new ones.

I volunteer my time to lead support groups for individuals with all types of mental illnesses. I learn from them, and we help each other. Part of my volunteer activities includes going into the high-security mental health units at a county jail. Incarcerated patients in my support groups include my fellow vets – both men and women. Not everyone has what it takes to do volunteer work inside a jail. It’s a great opportunity for most vets who do have what it takes.

We discuss issues common to anyone with any mental illness: How do we get the support of family and what do we do when support does not come? How do we define recovery? Who has stopped taking their medicine and not told anyone? Will this PTSD ever go away? How best can we process trauma?

We live in a country where there finally are good tools to deal with PTSD and good programs to reach all veterans who are branded with this diagnosis. The VA and NAMI are both organizations that offer hope to people like me who needed to be shown the road to recovery. With help, recovery is possible—and I define recovery as being able to function as well as I can, given the cards I’ve been dealt. No, my world is not the same as it was when I could work, let alone when I was a Navy pilot. My new environment is smaller and less complex, and it involves working on my diagnosis every day for the rest of my life.

My new reality.

As veterans with a diagnosis, we have the opportunity to get good treatment and share what we learn at the VA and in our self-formed groups with those less fortunate than us. We can help ourselves as we help others. Hope multiplies as each of us comes to term with our new realities and reaches out to help another.