Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Dear Charlie:

I have been mentally composing this post all the way home. This is one of those moments you're almost afraid to talk about for fear your normal, path-of-least-resistance self will amble forward and crush the fragile determination you've fostered to do something positive for yourself... but that you have to talk about anyway because it was just too awesome for self-containment.

For the last couple of weeks, the hospital we're affiliated with has been sending out e-mails announcing a presentation by a Navy chief on the stigma and truth of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD hereafter) brought on by both combat and noncombat situations. Every time I got this e-mail from the hospital, I also received at least three forwards of it from people within our own organization, telling me that it's not mandatory for me to go, but that because I spent some time manning the Crisis phones after the tornado, my attendance was strongly encouraged.

Now, I can think of a few things I'd less rather do than listen to a bunch of sobbing testimonials that conversely make me feel worse followed by a round of personal-space-encroaching hugs... but not right off the top of my head. I did not want to go.

But included in the e-mail's body was a listing of this Navy chief guy's cred. If you know me, you know I'm all about badasses, and this guy is a badass among badasses. He's done stuff he can't even tell us about. And he trains soldiers in the philosophies of total warriorization.

If you've read more than one post on this blog, you know I am all about warriorization.

So, I wobbled back and forth all day today, knowing the presentation was tonight and I needed to make a decision. At the end of it, I decided that the chance of hearing some kick-ass war stories made the infinitely more likely chance of suffering through a hug seem bearable. So, I went. I crossed my fingers that the badass military aspect would prevent too many sobbies.

I really, really don't want to deal with crying outside the scope of my job description.

From the minute Chief Mike Wade took the stage, I knew I was in for a real treat. This presentation was exactly what I needed, exactly how I needed it. I'm not even suffering from PTSD, but I would watch this presentation ten times. In a row. It is brutal truth from his own personal war against the disorder plus real world statistics on the cause, symptoms, progression, and possible outcomes of PTSD, generously sprinkled with hardass military humor.

The chief is an anomaly to the statistics. By all logic, he should be dead like thirty times over (and those are just the times he told us or hinted about), and yet there he stood, cracking jokes in the same breath as he reminded us of how easily any of us could succumb to symptoms of a life-threatening disorder.

Devoid of sentiment, he told us about how he was literally a finger-twitch away from death by SWAT team due to the downward spiral his symptoms had dragged him into. His is not an easy story to listen to, and he doesn't try to pretty it up. In this, as in everything else in his life, he is balls-to-the-wall. He is a military man. He's not devoid of emotion, but he no longer allows it to rule him.

I was more than impressed. In fact, I think I was a little in awe.

Even the meat of the presentation was difficult to watch. He showed actual war footage -- live fire exchanges with the enemy, bombings both from and against us, night-vision urban warfare -- and then showed us footage of our own disaster. Yeah. Even though I'd caught most of our footage before, seeing it all strung together in the context of a PTSD seminar and placed to mood-appropriate music was... intense. To say the least.

Probably 90% of the room was already in tears.

If you have to ask if I was in tears, you don't know me at all. No. I did not cry.

But I was fascinated. This was neither a "come cry with me" sob-fest nor a dry recitation of symptoms and resources. Chief Wade's entire presentation is designed to slap the entitlement right out of you and make you sit up and pay attention. You can tell in an instant that he has no patience for mamby-pambying. It's not that he has no sympathy for the average civilian. Quite the contrary.

It's just that he's been there, and he's been way worse, and he knows there are no shortcuts or easy answers. There's no magic button to push to make you feel better. You have to go after it like you go after any combat engagement.

In his own words, if you're gonna go to war, you'd better by God WIN.

Failure is not an option.

Then, he showed another film of battle footage interspersed with Joplin aftermath footage, all set to "He ain't heavy, he's my brother" as people dragged other people out of hell and hopefully to safety. This time, 99% of the room was in tears.

No. I still didn't cry. Stop asking.

I didn't need this presentation to deal with PTSD. I'm not overly traumatized by the situation here in Joplin, though it's terrible. Everyone deals with tragedy and crisis differently, and my process is my process.

However, I did need Chief Wade's no-nonsense attitude toward the world. As human beings, it is our duty to take care of our loved ones and our community. To do that, we have to take care of ourselves. First, we have to see to our physical needs. Second, our mental needs. Third, our spiritual needs.

I'm pretty good on 2 and 3, but I suck hardcore at 1. That has to change.

I can mentally handle just about anything life can throw at me (please don't see that as a challenge, God!). And if I can live with a militant atheist for almost five months without losing my faith, I think my spiritual foundation is pretty sturdy.

But I don't give a damn about my physical needs. I'm careless with my health, and, though I eat relatively healthy, I am criminally lax about physical activity. Part of the reason I wanted out of an office two years ago was because I sat in an office chair for 8 hours at work, then came home and sat in another chair for how many other hours to write. Domino's helped in a way because it's definitely an on-your-feet kind of job with very few sit-down breaks, but I couldn't afford it financially.

Now that I'm back in an office (and glad to take pleasure in what I'm doing there), I need to get some activity. It's so easy to say "Oh, God, it's been SO HOT! I don't have room for exercise equipment in my studio apartment (true), but I can't just go out walking without melting into a puddle and dehydrating and ending up with heat stroke (very possible), so I can't do anything about it until it cools off!"

It's easy to say those things because they're true. But since when has that stopped someone like Chief Wade?

NEVER. That's since when. Because he's an absolute badass.

Yes, this presentation was exactly what I needed, exactly how I needed it. I've always wished I'd been able to go military (bad knees and flat feet be-damned!). It only stands to reason that it took a hardcore military personality to remind me that, though I've been taking care of my own, I can't do that forever if I don't take care of myself. I may be last on my own list of priorities, but I gotta shift that paradigm.

I stuck around after the presentation and waited until after the people who needed to speak to him privately did so. I wasn't about to interrupt someone else's emotional moment. But I did wait around, talking to friends from work about the presentation and other things.

And then I shook Chief Wade's hand, told him he was a very brave man, and said that, though he continually said "Don't be me" during his presentation, I would be honored to be like him. I like to think he looked a little surprised at that. Then, I thanked him sincerely for speaking so openly about such obviously painful times in his life. I meant every word. I will never forget his words.

To my fellow Joplin citizens, Chief Wade has two more presentations lined up over at Missouri Southern. GO SEE HIM. I'm not sure what nights or times, but if you call MoSo, they'll tell you. Whether you don't feel you're dealing with the aftermath well enough or your friends/family tell you you're not dealing well enough, GO. Even if you (like me) just need a kick in the pants from someone who doesn't care who's had it worse or who's had more to carry through life or who's had a silver spoon shoved up their butt, GO.

You will not regret it.

[Edited to add: One of the two remaining presentations was tonight. Sorry -- I would have added that information here, but I went directly there after work to be there for a couple of friends who didn't want to go by themselves.

Of course, the ones who specifically asked me to be there... didn't show.

Lots of other people did, though, and the show was just as potent the second time around. If you can make it out for the last presentation, it's tomorrow morning at 10:00 AM at the Missouri Southern Justice Center (aka, the police academy). It's well worth the time you'll spend (about 2 1/2 hours, at least).]


At 7:06 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Navy Chief Mike Wade PTSD
WTOP news

At 5:38 PM, Blogger GutterBall said...

I appreciate the heads-up, but I hopped on the site and paged through several pages of headlines, reading articles here and there, but I didn't see anything about Chief Wade. Any way you can be more specific, Anonymous?

At 12:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

got to
in the search field type NAVY CHIEF
it brings up the 30 sec story byte. they moved the link.
Thank you for all you have done to support the effort and make others aware.

At 5:34 PM, Blogger GutterBall said...

Found it! That's awesome! Here's the current link (apparently subject to change) for anyone who's interested in a sound byte:

As for supporting the effort, I may only work in patient accounts at a mental health center now, but I worked their records department for a long time, and it's hard not to get involved in the struggle to facilitate understanding of what people with these diagnoses go through. They don't only fight mental illness; they also constantly battle the world's perception of it and them.

I may not be able to help our patients directly, but if I can help other people understand how crippling mental illness and its stigma can be, maybe I'm doing something. How can I not at least try?

Thanks hugely for the info!

At 11:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

saw the speech...all innuendo and alluding to being somewhere, somebody.... don't recommend...


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