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trauma will rattle around in you like a restless ghost

March 27, 2011

On the last day of spring 1969, I was released from active duty by the Marine Corps.

I felt like a first grader starting summer vacation.  I stopped at the base gate for the

last time and hugged the huge guard.  “I’m out, bro!”, I exulted.  He laughed and

fully understood.

New Orleans seemed like a fine starting place for the rest of my life.  My wife Suzy,

son Chris and I rented a duplex.  I started driving a milk truck.  The biggest events

of that time for us were fleeing Hurricane Camille and the birth of our daughter

Meghon.  She was delivered by Frank Minyard, who told me he was running for

parish coroner right after he said “Well, you have a little girl.”

Doctor Minyard is coroner to this day.  He presided over the horrific body count of

the Katrina disaster.

With two kids to raise, Suzy and I decided that we couldn’t afford to live in the Big

Easy anymore.  We moved to Humboldt, Kansas, where I managed a dry goods store

for my father.  We lived for free above the store.  I started classes at a nearby junior

college.  About a year later we moved to Pittsburg, Kansas.  I finished my bachelor’s

degree in social work there.  I found work in my field at an adolescent group home.

Suzy and I were growing away from each other as I bogged down with my PTSD.

One problem was that I didn’t have a name for it yet, mainly because mental health

professionals didn’t either.  The condition itself had long existed under names like

“shell shock” and “battle fatigue”.  But in the 70’s it wasn’t well-defined.

I froze emotionally.  It was like I could see my wife and children but couldn’t get to

them.  Suzy and I called it quits.  She took our daughter and I took our son.  We rea-

soned that it was better for them to be raised by one calm parent rather than two

quarreling ones.  Letting go of Meghon is the most heart-breaking choice I have

ever made.  Many years later, when Meghon was a young adult, we repaired our

relationship.  It took time and required a lot of gut-wrenching conversation.

My choice was also rough on my son.  Without Suzy around to provide some pers-

pective, I stumbled blindly at first as a single dad.  Eventually I regained balance.

Chris and I had to learn new ways to relate, but we have a solid relationship now.

It wasn’t until 1992 that I had a breakthrough with my PTSD.  It was brought about

by the combination of two unusual situations.  I was working in suburban L.A. after

my second divorce.  I had a job on the sex addicts unit of a psychiatric hospital.  The

unit used a 12-steps program and focused on trauma.  I was reading a lot of back-

ground material.  I was especially affected by a book titled “Healing from the War”,

by Arthur Egendorf.

Egendorf is a Vietnam veteran.  He understood both the horror of all combat and

the uniqueness of the Vietnam War.  He wrote of an image I could really wrap my

mind around: there’s no place in your body to store unacknowledged trauma. Until

you identify, investigate and embrace it, trauma will rattle around in you like a

restless ghost.

At the same time I was working on the unit, the Rodney King riots erupted.  The

city I lived in wasn’t too close to South Central, but the death and destruction still

triggered some of my Vietnam memories.  The sensationalistic news coverage that

plagues L.A. further enhanced my fears.  I didn’t feel safe until, oddly enough, the

Marines rode into town to help restore order.

It would be years before I made peace with my PTSD, but I finally had a firm grip on

the problem.

  1. March 27, 2011 6:44 am

    These complicated brains of ours! You’d think that by now, we’d have developed a post-traumatic lobe! The stuff I go through now because of the stupid cancer is so weird! More power to your writing, Big A!

    • March 27, 2011 12:36 pm

      Thank you, Coach. I’m fortunate that my big stressors are long gone. More power to you as you continue to face fresh ones.

  2. March 27, 2011 12:41 pm

    Haven’t been commenting much because I’m pretty ill right now, but I wanted to say that I appreciate you sharing your experiences in Viet Nam. I went there in 2001, and there were quite a few Vets on the ship too. Some of them reported that it was very healing to be able to go back and revisit the country, though it was hard to read stuff in museums that referred to the Imperialistic French and American invaders who had been vanquished by the brave patriots.

    History is always written by the winners, non?

    Our cyclo driver had been a colonel with the South Vietnamese army, and he had not only survived the war, but also the *ahem* “reconditioning” that the North Vietnamese government gave him and his ilk. I can’t imagine what the whole thing must have been like for everyone involved, I just hope that everyone finds the healing they need.

    • March 27, 2011 1:52 pm

      I hope the healing continues as well, Rosie. And I hope you’re getting better. I wondered why you hadn’t blogged since January.

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