Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Into The System

In continuation of the reports on my sleep problem, I met today with my general practitioner who determined that I am, in fact, still alive. It was the first tier when reporting any sort of health issue to the VA. “How long was your tour overseas?”

“Which one?” I asked, and listed the duration of all three.

“Well, that’s DEFINITELY high stress.” Maybe. The last ended 23 months ago…

Based upon the pronouncement that I’m struggling with regular, restful sleep, I have been scheduled to participate in an overnight sleep study this weekend at the VA hospital in Richmond. Typically, a referral would take MUCH longer, but my doctor was somehow able to secure an almost immediate appointment with the sleep people. I’m actually interested in the whole process of being hooked up to electrodes, put on video and voice recorder, and told to go to sleep. I anticipate having no problems with it. 9PM Saturday to 7AM Sunday (which means I get kicked out of the place early morning, grumpy, and disinterested in driving a good hour to get home). What fun. But, such an examination stands to provide a lot of information, which may help with exact diagnoses, as well as effective treatment solutions. We will see. I continue to be amazed with the sharp memory of my doctor, who directly inquired if I was going to actually listen to her treatment suggestions, or ignore them like I always do. I assured her that I’d think about it.

In terms of medication (which is not my favorite subject, as we all now know), I have been prescribed a small dose of two drugs. The first is hilariously simple: 25mg of Benadryl – just enough to keep me drowsy and doped for up to 4-5 hours. The other (hydrocortyzine), acts in precisely the same manner, but has more lasting effects (perhaps as long as 6-7 hours). I may take whichever of the two I prefer, since they are relatively benign, small doses, and non habit-forming. I will be taking neither before Sunday, since I don’t wish to alter my physiology in the least before the sleep study on Saturday night. If I feel so inclined afterwards, I will try a hydrocortyzine and see what happens. If I should find my level of alertness or mental capacity reduced in the least, I will throw them all away.

Following the meeting with my general practitioner came the more ambiguous (in purpose) meeting with a licensed clinical social worker (basically identical to the folks I spoke to yesterday). As best I can describe it, it is this person’s task to better screen a patient before he or she actually speaks with the psychologist. They may find we’re most honest with a social worker than a psychologist. They’re probably right.

It was here that I was asked a number of questions about my military service, medals and commendations, exposure to combat (which required correcting my record, which stated I’d never been in combat – wrong), people I have shot/killed, IED proximity, and any lingering nightmares about these things (I have none).

I was asked to discuss my childhood, abuse (which didn’t happen), any dysfunction to which I may have been exposed at a young age, sexual problems, relational problems, chemical abuse, the substance of my dreams, hobbies, career ambitions, financial stability, and a rather lengthy barrage of questions about my failed engagement. In fact, far more questions were asked about my engagement than about my entire military service. “How do you feel about it?” he would ask. I told him.

Perhaps the most puzzling question was this: “How would you describe your gender and orientation?”

Since he refused to just automatically write down “male,” I was forced to explain, slowly, that I am a straight, heterosexual male.”

“I see.” He checked the appropriate box. Had I the opportunity, I’d have taken a peek at the form, which probably looks more like a continuum than a checklist.

Most frustrating, he asked a number of questions about my gun ownership. First, I don’t wish to subscribe to any notion that my ownership of a firearm in any way heightens my likelihood to do something foolish with it. Statistics have repeatedly proven otherwise. Second, he failed to jot down that I am a former FIREARMS INSTRUCTOR, and preferred to ask me how many guns I own and if I ever carry them. Third, I am particularly sensitive to this question given the recent Department of Homeland Security report that wrongly warns law enforcement agencies that returning OIF/OEF veterans will serve as the skilled and dangerous new recruits to right wing extremist groups within the United States. Statistics, once again, have proven irrefutably that veterans are no more predisposed to violence than any other subculture in the country. We, like everybody else, have our bad apples. Statistically, it is NO MORE than anybody else. Reluctantly, I answered the gun questions. I know what he was thinking, and I didn’t like it.

“Well, we refer all mental health patients to the psychologist for pharmacological solutions.” Better put (though he did not say it), their shrink isn’t there to help; he’s there to medicate. My interest in seeing him diminished further. Yet now, having said the word “depression,” and because I am an OIF/OEF veteran, it is standard operating procedure to perform a post-deployment mental health screening. In fact, there’s no way out of it. Basically, if you went overseas, they want to check your head, all the MORE now after alerting the “dark side” of the VA (the behavior health people) to my presence. They no longer call it mental health. It sounds too mean, I guess.

The social worker then gave me his card and asked if I wished to meet regularly with him as part of an ongoing treatment plan (I did not). He did make the interesting remark that I’m already way ahead of the game here, since one of his first pieces of advice to people is to journal what’s going on in their heads. Cleary, I already do this. While I feel no particular need for his services at this time, I am encouraged that the VA has professionals equipped and standing by to meet regularly with veterans, to take their phone calls at odd hours of the day and night, and perhaps help them through particularly difficult times.

As I departed, he asked me to fill out a PTSD questionnaire, which concentrates around nightmares, paranoia, panic, irritability, and a general annoyance with people who are dumb. I am fairly confident that my responses to the dumb people questions will immediately peg me a “victim of PTSD.” The psychologist will have the final say on that, I suppose.

So, after about three hours in and out of appointments, chatting with frazzled receptionists, kindly nurses, a doctor, a social worker, and briefly with the psychologist, I have learned the following: very little. I have been given some pills, scheduled for a sleep study, and will CONSIDER taking a SINGLE pill after the sleep study (as needed). I will be deemed either normal or crazy by the psychologist on the 29th of April. Right now, my greatest hope lies in the findings of Saturday’s sleep study. Until that time, I will continue to be irritable, try to not throw or otherwise break my cell phone (which keeps ringing or vibrating), not “correct” the people behind me that are having a hollered conversation across the coffee shop dining area, and do my best to be friendly to the general public. At this point, the best course of action is to simply go home. I don’t want to talk to people; they’re dumb.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved


  1. I laughed out loud when I read that thinking people are dumb is a symptom of PTSD, then ran a search to find if there were articles on the web to that effect. So far I haven't found any, but I do wonder how they arrived at that conclusion.

    I know someone who may have it, and he or she is also very annoyed at times with others' apparent lack of mental acuity, but I assumed that only meant the person was brilliant, and that brilliance was a high and lonely office...

  2. Quite and interesting and exhausting day. I can't decide if you feel better or worse.

  3. Brilliance is overrated; it just makes you more agitated.

    Well, well, well! What do we have here? A story? An account? A tale? A little narration? (YES!) Now, we're going somewhere.