Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Walking Past The Guard

In keeping with a personal resolution to be at all times boldly honest and forthright in my writing, I intend to continue directly recounting my ongoing struggle with insufficient sleep, how it is affecting me, and what steps I am taking to rectify the problem. Naturally, when I take the risk of laying all my cards on the table, there is always the potential that the audience will find me immeasurably lacking or insufficient. In my case I may lose credibility, respect, and potentially the audience itself. Why, then, do I pursue this when there is little to be gained? The answer is easy: I have attempted to expose readers to the mind, the heart, and the differences that characterize a veteran as irrevocably changed, challenged, and for some immensely troubled.

I have used myself as an example on several occasions recently, beginning with my broaching of the sleep subject in “Sweet Sleep,” and talking about “demons” in “Behind Closed Doors” (where I admitted to cleverly skirting a number of personal issues), and less direct allusions throughout a number of pieces. What started as a self-professed knowledge on a subject commenced a series of personal delves into my own wounds and dysfunction – beginning first with the admission that I actually HAVE any dysfunction. Before these writings, I was the guy with a little familiarity on the subject writing from the safety of not having seriously experienced it. I was the sane guy taking about the ones that weren’t quite so fortunate. Yet as I continually orbit around the subject, I come closer and closer to its core, which is that one room I’ve been afraid to enter. It’s another desert (in several ways), but I still need to go there. In short, to maintain the honesty which I feel so essential to any sort of personal recovery and also to people better understanding the issues, it’s time I climb off my high horse. I’m sure a number of people are finally saying, “well it’s about time…” Perhaps they’re right. I would challenge them to tread softly here, because my dignity lies somewhere at their feet.

Since writing about my struggles with a good night’s sleep, the matter has worsened considerably, leading most recently to my feeling that I never really have awakened, that I am perpetually ready for sleep, but never rested when I wake up. Naturally, my attitude, patience, and even ability to articulate simple ideas and concepts have suffered tremendously. I am no threat to myself or others, but this desperation for some rejuvenating, refreshing sleep has driven me to make an admission that I have been almost two years unwilling to make: maybe I should get some help.

Why wait this long? Because there’s still an enormous stigma associated with acknowledging any sort of psychological dysfunction. Because I don’t want to be considered crazy. Because any visits to a psychologist immediately terminates all opportunity for certain fields of work, confidence, and security clearances. It means suggesting that I have problems, which means exhibiting a weakness, vulnerability, and lack of “togetherness” that has required being driven into total desperation to even confront. “I’m not the screwed up one,” I like to say, “but I know a bunch of guys that are, and I’m sympathetic to their situation.” Truth is, I might be in that category, too. But I was a Marine once, and we don’t admit problems. We avoid them. We deal with them later (so we say). Perhaps that time is now.

To make a long story short, I called the VA clinic today to schedule a more immediate appointment to see the doctor than the one I had already scheduled two weeks away. I don’t know if I’ll still be sane after two more weeks of insufficient sleep. I might be mumbling in a sanitarium trying to sort reality from fantasy and nightmare. I’m already halfway there with my speech. I sound drunk sometimes.

After explaining that I already have an appointment two weeks away regarding an inability to get a good night’s rest, they informed me that they have no sooner dates unless a triage nurse deemed my situation more urgent. That required a telephone transfer to the Richmond regional office, where I answered at least five questions about the color of my urine, at least a dozen more about specific aches and pains, and then the pinnacle of undesirable questions: “Are you depressed?” I hate this one. I don’t want to answer it, but at the same time, I elect to be truthful, even though I’m annoyed that the nurse can’t even pronounce the word, “fatigue,” which to me seems simple. “Are you depressed?”

“Insofar as I’m tired, cranky, and frustrated that I can’t get any good sleep, yes.”

I could virtually hear every gear in the great governmental healthcare system grind to an abrupt halt. The nurse’s attitude shifted immediately from one of busied disinterest to “there, there” speech and very concerned. My response, I am certain, opened up a new window on her computer screen with even more frustrating inquiries. A few more questions about the color of my urine, the consistency of my stools, and the obligatory question about wanting to hurt myself and others (I do not), and she very gently tells me that if things get worse, call 911, and if I need to talk to somebody, call 1-800-273-TALK. I thank her and wait for the call-back on an appointment. Within ten minutes, my supposition that I had raised warning flags left and right was confirmed. My appointment is tomorrow. And the VA now knows I have psychological issues. Pandora’s box, as far as I’m concerned, has been thrown wide open…

As the receptionist scheduled the appointment on the phone with me, she typed in numbers and information and occasionally whispered unconsciously. “0415,” she said quietly. I’m immediately defensive.

“Is that the code number for my case?” I was thinking of how crazies in the military are either given a categorization of “section 8,” or “fourth floor.” Is that what I am to them? Crazy? Shit. This is why it took two years to get me to call them.

“No sir. That’s just the date of the appointment. We’re here for you.” More nice speech.


This isn’t a simple meeting with a general practitioner, however. I have that meeting first, wherein she will probably determine that, “yup; he’s got issues.” Then I get to see a social worker they have on staff, another dreaded experience. Never mind that just this morning I stood before a class of over TWENTY social workers and told them somewhat articulately about veterans issues and how a lot of guys have problems (but I really don’t). Actually SEEING a social worker one is a nightmare of mine. There goes the rest of my dignity. I’m sure those that know me are saying, once again, “It’s about time, you bozo. We’ve known it all along.”

And I don’t want pills, since they may change my personality. Maybe that’s my last holdout here. “Actually taking pills REALLY means you have a problem.” But more importantly, I don’t want to be unable to think clearly. The whole idea with sleeping is that I CAN think clearly again. I do quite well when I can think coherently. And I don’t want to be called a crazed, PTSD-ridden veteran. I just want to WRITE about them. It’s safe on my side of the fence. Vulnerable is not safe at all.

It’s like an onion, really, and it has a lot of layers. When I first started writing on the subject of the military, it was from within the ranks, very superficial, and pertained to tactical matters, deployments, and missing home. That may have been the first layer. After the military, there was missing it, and hating it at the same time, and not having peace with my own service. That probably propelled me a couple layers deeper. It was still easy to talk about. But then came more complex matters, like readjustment, depression (never mine), and PTSD and suicide rates (again, disconnected to my own thoughts on the subject). The medial layers had been penetrated.

Yet as I have spoken directly with more veterans who have been blown up, suffered traumatic brain injuries (TBIs), been diagnosed with PTSD and chronic depression, I have also read at length on the subject, specifically for the causes of service-related PTSD and depression. While uncomfortable to write about at times, I have pierced ever deeper layers. I have gone to great lengths to circumvent my own struggles with these subjects. It requires more vulnerability than I am willing (and at times able) to muster.

So now enter the trouble with sleeping, which is an ongoing issue that has only worsened over the past few years and recently landed me in a place where I am unable to rest, reluctant to rise, and self-loathe if I must resort to taking naps to get through the day. It reinforces the self-held belief that my name and situation may be synonymous with fail. It’s ugly; and I don’t want to touch it. But desperation is quickly carrying me here, where I must make the halfhearted admission that despite the stigma, despite the bridge-burning associated with it, and despite the potential for great loss of countenance before others and even myself, I need to go there nevertheless.

This last cling to dignity (pride) is the demon guarding the door that I speak of in “Behind Closed Doors.” What lies within still intimidates me, and I still only enter with great trepidation, but, like the other desert I am inexplicably drawn to, this one beckons me powerfully. Yet I must enter. Therein lies the little dark mass I’ve carefully avoided for quite some time.

What is to be gained by speaking about it? Potentially several things, foremost among them that other men and women who need help will recognize that it’s available, that if somebody who nearly two years after his service can still come to the realization that things are amiss (despite a loving family, a strong faith, and a great network of friends), perhaps they, too, will be emboldened to seek help (if they need it). After all, I, having made a pronouncement of needing assistance, am in no place to judge them. I am in the same boat. I will have gone there already, and perhaps can now go there with them, too.

Finally, as much as it may sound like self-stroking, there is something honorable about honesty, even when it places one in the discomfort of total vulnerability. This will not kill me, I know. It will help me. As I mentioned before, I don’t want to hurt myself or others, I want to find healing. I don’t want to survive, I want to live, and more abundantly. Just as significant, there is a story to tell, and this is a critical component of it. As listeners, and friends, and family and anonymous readers, I want to tell it to you. It’s my story, and I’m bringing you with me; thus you become part of the story. And just as much as you go with me, God also goes with me, and He’s in that dark room and desert, too. And it is His attendance, and to a lesser degree yours (but still infinitely important), that will make all the difference.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved


  1. Ben- It was great meeting you and talking with you yesterday. All I have to say is "wow".
    If you want me to elaborate we can go on that field trip! I won't give you any "nice speech"!
    Abby Dini

  2. Sleep deprivation is a form of torture. And sometimes the thought asking for help is a form of personal torture. However I see it as a sign of strength.
    I am so glad that you are seeking the help you deserve.

  3. I had similar issues with the tiredness, which turned out to be a combination of hypoglycemia, food allergies, and seasonal affective disorder, which were remedied by eating regular snacks, avoiding certain foods, and getting a dawn simulating alarm clock, respectively. I hope, whatever is causing your trouble, that you can get it worked out and get some relief.

  4. "0415", your case number. Hahaha!

    The strange word verification prompts continue; my latest one was "hodump."