When he calls, his voice gives it away. Well, it’s more than his voice that tips me off; I can hear his breathing is faster and shallow and he talks at a higher pitch. His throat sounds tight and he talks in a patter, repeating himself sometimes during the course of our conversation.
He’ll call about something which would be an aggravation to most of us but is unmanageable for him. He can’t deal with it, at least not when he first calls about the problem.
It’s the university, it’s the bank, it’s the V.A., it’s some administrative bullshit related to his being a vet which requires linear, systemic processing – the kind of processing he no longer possesses. It’s gone. His mind is helter-skelter processing all kinds of material in multiple channels at the same time, scanning for normal and abnormal at hyper-speed. When he calls on these kinds of days I can’t help but feel like I’m speaking to something otherworldly which has him in its grips and is squeezing him tightly as he looks for a way out.
I knew it was very, very bad the day he called and he sounded as if he was half-asleep and moving through molasses. After a slow greeting and some idle chit-chat he told me he had heavily medicated himself and was on his way to in-patient therapy. There can’t be enough thanks offered for the sense he exercised in admitting himself. It was a nerve-wracking relief, if that makes any sense.
We don’t talk about Iraq, the source of his dully ever-present anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. I’ve only told him that I am so sorry, that we never intended this for him; we encouraged him to serve his country while seeing the world and acquiring some discipline and experience. He wasn’t ready for college when he got out of high school, and he seemed genuinely happy with being in the service. At least he was up until late 2002, when he was nearly at the end of his four years of active duty. Then it all went quite literally to hell and back again.
Apart from the abbreviated, tense and featureless phone calls home from the field while serving, there have only been vague hints from which we can deduce what happened in Iraq and what toll his rotation there had taken. There were cryptic photos, most devoid of people, dusty buildings and dustier roads; there are the wise cracks and the still-too-frequent cigarettes, habits picked up in the company of other soldiers. And the dark humor and darker hints. No, you don’t know what death smells like, he said, when I casually commented that something in the refrigerator smelled like it had died.
It’s a frustrating fact that I can’t share the qualia of his experience with him. He’s told us he’s been able to talk with fellow vets about his experience, and that strangely, the guys who served in Vietnam are both more helpful and understanding, and yet more fucked up than he is. If only we could understand this more readily we might be able to break through more problems than his alone.
When he calls now after his stint in in-patient, he sounds more relaxed, but he still has the occasional challenge. He’s most comfortable when he stays in his day-to-day groove, a ritualistic set of daily tasks and achievements, which means we don’t see him quite as often as we’d like. On the bad days the only thing I can offer is what I offered him as a boy, when he was the same age as his stepbrother is today. I’m here, I will listen, I will be steadfast. I’ll be here when he can’t talk to his dad. And I will promise him that it will be okay, we will get through this, and that whatever this is will turn out okay in the long run. I will repeat it like a mantra until I can hear his throat relax, his breathing slow, his pitch lower, until he sounds a bit more like the goofy boy he was when he was twelve. I can’t be there for him like his soldier brethren, but I will chew out the school administration, I’ll negotiate with the bank, I’ll contact an agency, I’ll call a member of Congress.
It’s the least I can do.
On this Memorial Day, I hope and wish that all our soldiers now at home and those who’ll come home soon can expect the same. Remember them, and remember that they need you now and for a very long time to come. Be there for them.