Sunday, August 24, 2008


BUS STORY # 96, Part 2 (PTSD)


I’m in the back of the northbound San Mateo bus. I’ve just sat down next to the guy who started telling me about his PTSD at the bus stop. I’m not sure if he wants to keep talking about it or not. Maybe the separation during the boarding process gave him second thoughts about being so open. Maybe it was just the stress caused by the revving of the Harley that got him to talking so freely. So I figure I’ll just sit there and keep quiet.

Right away, he thanks me for listening. He tells me people don’t always understand. He goes on: nobody even recognized this as a problem until after the war in Vietnam. So many vets came back with the same constellation of problems that it drew some attention. That’s when the condition got identified as “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.”

I figure the guy’s in his 40s, and I’m trying to place him in the time frames of Vietnam and Desert Storm and the invasion of Iraq. I’m not having much luck when he adds that it’s not just soldiers in combat who get it. It could be any traumatic experience. He pauses. I feel slightly disappointed when I realize I’m not gonna get a vet story here. Then I realize he’s having trouble talking about how he got it, and I feel ashamed of myself.

He says when stuff like this happens, he has a very strong urge to do something, do something about it, now . . . He says one of the things that helped back at the stop was that he could see none of the rest of us were upset. That helped him understand his reaction was abnormal, and it triggered him to access some "tools" to calm down.

The tools he’s referring to are strategies he's learned from therapy, the support group he belongs to, and pharmaceuticals. Regarding the last, he thinks a lot of the problems people being treated for PTSD are having is because they haven’t got the right meds or the right doses. As for therapy and the support group, he says it took a long time to learn to even recognize it when it was happening. Then it took another long time to learn how to use the tools effectively when he did recognize what was happening.

He explains you don’t get much lead time. Like this morning’s engine revving, it happens and you’re already in it. You have your immediate reactions, and you have to be aware enough to recognize them for what they are and start separating yourself from them. He says it’s hard every single time, that it doesn’t get easier with each success.

He’s not always successful. That has led to some problems. He alludes to a family lost, jobs lost, even to being on the street for a while. I ask him if not being successful is like falling off the wagon. “Do you just have to get up and start all over again?”

He tentatively accepts the analogy, but I can see there’s something about it that bothers him. He lets whatever it is pass. He does talk about what happens when he doesn’t succeed. You end up being pulled into a downward spiral. You think you can’t ever get to a place where you’ll be free of it. You think what’s the point in trying. You think nobody understands anyway. But he finishes by telling me he’s counting his blessings right now. It’s a beautiful day in a place he loves, he’s got a little efficiency all his own, he’s on his way to school . . . He makes it pretty clear he knows that where he is now – and where he’s not – is worth the effort.

He gets off a few stops before me. I thank him for the discussion and wish him good luck. Then I think about what an easy life I really have.

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