Breaking the Taboo
I served as an intelligence officer in the United States Marine Corps, during which time I was trained in the art of stealing secrets, and the discipline of keeping them. Other than the operators with whom I served, I refrained from openly discussing my job or my missions in Iraq with anyone.
When I came home from each of my two tours, I realized just how isolating this secrecy could be. Not only was I unable to describe the specifics of my job with my family and friends, I was firmly unwilling to discuss any of the incidents overseas that caused me nightmares. Put simply, I just didn’t talk about Iraq. Period.
When I started to experience “reintegration” problems, the first signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, I began a systematic withdrawal from everyone in my life. I was afraid of what people would think of me. I was at once ashamed and riddled with guilt. Guilt for surviving when others did not, and guilt for being seemingly weak in not being able to appropriately handle my emotions.
I turned first to alcohol to help calm my nerves, assuage my anguish, and help me sleep at night. Initially it was just one drink a night, then two, and so on until I drank heavily most nights. Drinking, at least in the beginning, helped me forget about my troubles. But the more I relied on the bottle for comfort, the less willing I became to share my troubles with those closest to me, namely my wife. I was closing myself off to the outside world.
Undergoing two major hip surgeries, and taking the narcotic painkillers I was prescribed to manage the pain, quickly drove me to an even darker place. I had become both physically and emotionally miserable, and effectively shut out everybody in my life that cared for me. I desperately sought relief from my misery, and the only respite I could find came from a dangerous habit of washing down my painkillers at night with whiskey. It didn’t take long before I was hooked on the meds, and frantic to find an escape from my suffering.
I didn’t know it at the time, but my afflictions with addiction and PTSD were two of the most isolating diagnoses in the DSM IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health, essentially a psychologist’s diagnostic guide). My every instinct told me to retreat further and further from those I loved, to withdraw into my own realm where I could ostensibly hide my troubles from the outside world.
It wasn’t until I hit rock bottom, lying alone in a hospital bed going through opioid withdrawal and feeling more vulnerable and lonely than at any other moment in my life, that I realized that I was too weak to confront my addiction and PTSD by myself. I didn’t know how I was going to overcome my problems, but I knew that I would no longer wear them as an albatross around my neck. I would no longer be ashamed of myself or my struggle. The only way I could beat my problems was to own them.
And so I decided to write. I wrote about the gift of desperation, about redefining patriotism, and about PTSD. I finally had the courage to tell my story on my terms. The process of breaking the taboo and talking openly about my struggles was as liberating as it was cathartic. As I wrote, I healed.
My honesty spurred a dialogue with friends and family who previously were at a loss with how to interact with me. And I was also made aware, from my peers who were suffering from the same ills, that I wasn’t alone in my struggles. I no longer had to face my issues in isolation--I had a community of support to help me move forward.
And so I continue to write, and I continue to mend.