Very Different Journey, Very Different Hero (II)

“So whose journey should this be, Doctor? Do you really want to know about War?”

I ended my post yesterday with a hypothetical veteran asking me this question. Time to come up with an answer, non-hypothetically.

Funny thing about stories: they don’t even start until something goes wrong. Otherwise, you have nothing more than running commentary on a bad home movie: this happened, and then this, and then this, and then…

As a psychiatrist, I’m well-trained in how to tell the “standard” story of a patient:

Once upon a time, a person was fine, until one day s/he wasn’t. Desperately did s/he want to return to her/his former state of well-being, and so s/he set out on a journey of healing.

Behold! A message comes to her/him: seek out the Wise Mentor with the script pad. He will lead you to Understanding and grant thee the Elixir that will help you find your way back home, whole again.

Mentor met. Elixir prescribed. Celebration upon the return home (after therapy adventures faced and overcome, naturally).

It’s a nice gig, truth be told, the Wise Mentor. I even had an Emmy nomination or two, some seasons back. Got the plaques to prove it.

Now, also truth be told:  to play this gig adequately, I don’t even, technically speaking, have to know that much about War. I just have to know about biology.  You’ve seen one USS Enterprise, you’ve seen them all. The crews might vary here and there, but basic roles are covered, and a drone is a drone is a drone, as long as you program it correctly from the start.  Offer meds, offer therapy, get the show on the road.

That was sort of the whole point of Beam Me Home, Scotty!

But my hypothetical vet invites me to participate in a different story, not as a substitute story (for many, if not most, are quite happy to journey with a psychiatrist if the relationship is a respectful one), but rather as a supplement, a story in which, well, the veteran is the Wise Mentor.

In other words, in that supplement, that Wise Mentor, the vet, is telling me that I am the one who is no longer fine—or who at least should no longer be fine.

Pray tell:  how would that story go?

How about something like this:

Once upon a time, an aging psychiatrist  was living his life in a Society, contributing to it, but also drawing advantages from it.

One day, that Society went to war against another Society. As it happens, when the call went out to to fight this war, many others in his Society answered that call, and the Society had no need to recruit the psychiatrist or any of those whom he loved.  So instead, the psychiatrist kept on contributing to Society and drawing advantages from it, paying for his own little part of the War through his continuing contributions (taxed income) and advantageous withdrawals (monetary support for a commerce system similarly taxed).

One day, however, the psychiatrist turned around, and there standing in front of him was a combat veteran, returned from the War.

“I’m back,” said the veteran. “I took a journey in your stead, in the stead of the ones you love. I lived where you did not have to live. I saw what you did not have to see, heard what you did not have to hear. I did what you did not have to do.”

The veteran then looks at the psychiatrist, who looks back. For a few seconds, nothing, then the veteran simply says, “Nice to meet you, sir. I did the best I could.”

But wait, where’s the problem? Where’s the story-starter?

Good question. Answer? There doesn’t have to be one.

Our good psychiatrist can simply say:

“Thank you for service, brave veteran. Are you having a good day or a bad one?”

And we’re back to the standard, psychiatrist-patient story.

But what if we imagine a slightly different exchange:

“Thank  you for your service, brave veteran. But what do you mean: ‘you took a journey in my stead’?”

“I went to War, sir. So you and your loved ones didn’t have to.”

“What if I didn’t want you to go to War?”

“Did you stop paying taxes, sir? Did you stop participating in the commerce of the land?”

“No, veteran. I did not.”

“Then you agreed that someone needed to go to War, sir, for Those-in-Power declared that War, sir. I did that. For you. Went to War. Whether either of us thought it was or wasn’t a good idea, I did that.”

So now, the psychiatrist must choose: is he (i.e., the psychiatrist) having a good day—or a bad one?

A good day for the psychiatrist:

“My goodness.  Thank you, veteran. I never realized that before.  Thank you. So…are you having a good day or a bad one?”

In contrast…

A bad—or, shall we say, a not-as-good day—for the psychiatrist:

“My goodness. Thank you, veteran. I never realized that before. Thank you. So…what was it like, taking my place?”

Which, of course, brings the question that got this whole post started:

“Well sir, with all respect: do you really want to know about War?”

Pause.

Long pause.

So the psychiatrist sits there. Meds prescribed. Nothing but time left on the clock.

A decision. Might the world not be as good as our psychiatrist had thought?

His world, that is?

“If I say yes, veteran, then what?”

The veteran looks at him. The psychiatrist looks back.

Then what, indeed.

More to come.

Very Different Journey, Very Different Hero (I)

So with such a title: just what’s that supposed to mean?

Well, any good “Hero’s Journey” tale needs a good setting, after all, so let’s start there.

In my current job, I have been hired primarily to work with combat veterans to determine whether medications might help them in their journey toward healing.  Easily stated.

There is, of course, a great deal of complexity to that subject, requiring an understanding of the body’s chemistry and function that I must continually keep current. Researchers do their job to learn more about those chemistries and functions. I do my job to keep learning what they learn, complete with tables of data, graphs, and long Graeco-Latinate words attached thereto. (And, admittedly, some very ingenious trade names that would make any Don Draper of any Mad Men episode quite proud).

Yet even with that complexity, my job is relatively straightforward. Sad to say, while researchers continue to work hard, they are tackling a subject so complicated, they are not setting off fireworks of new practice and insight with every monthly journal publication. We’re all doing our best, but there you have it.

That means that topics for my medication discussions are certainly worthy of consideration, but they are anything but unlimited. Mechanisms of action and side effect profiles tend to cluster in certain groups, with particular trade/generic names within such clusters tending to differ from each other more in degree than in kind.  Jointly with the combat vet, I discuss the highlights of the groups, the pros and cons, the particular applications of possible meds to their particular cases and, once the vet decides what he or she wishes to do with his or her body (my gold standard), I type into a computer to notify some distant pharmacy, and voilà, there we go: we give medication A (or E or K or…) a try.

Or not. Not everybody is into meds. That’s their right. And I mean that.

All together, that does take time, but just some. Time does not march on during our sessions, in other words. It may just shift in place. Slightly.

So…

What else do we have to talk about?

Well, how about psychotherapeutic treatment focused specifically on combat trauma?

Another complicated subject.

In most of the systems in which I have worked, my particular job has not been to provide such particular treatments, although I have been expected to understand them and to be able to work jointly with those who do such treatments.

Trauma-specific psychotherapies focus on helping combat veterans confront, in some way, memories of the experiences that still distress them so that the vets can begin to feel such experiences to be less “live,” less tormenting in the here-and-now.  Practitioners of such treatments are expected to have specific training in such modalities and are expected to use their clinical judgment in doing so in a gentle, yet sustained manner.

Again, easily stated. Or at least easily enough.

Trauma-focused treatments are not things to dabble with. Combat vets who have done them know that far better than many of the rest of us could ever imagine.  One does not revisit intense emotional experiences for an hour or so and then head off to a round of Putt-Putt afterwards.

In other words, given my limited time after a medication discussion, I do not delve into that prototypical Pandora’s box. Unlike the myth, if I were to do that, it is quite likely that neither the combat vet or I would get to the Hope that the story claims is at the bottom of that box.

So I leave that for others.  Happily, for many combat vets, such treatments can be life-changing.

Interesting thing, though: many of the combat vets I get to serve have already “been there, done that” with such treatments or, having considered doing so, have concluded with a “thanks, but no thanks,” sometimes hesitantly, sometime anything but.

In other words, much of my day is spent with individuals who have either decided not to try that particular life-change or, more sadly, have found themselves less-than-satisfied customers of the changes those treatments did not—or even worse, did—produce.

Thus, I am faced with a choice.

I could, for example, urge them to give another, good-old college (re)try at trauma treatment. That can work, sometimes. Emphasis on the some.

Or I could assume the role of Wise Mentor in their Hero’s Journey toward healing and begin offering sage advice on life, love, and Hope after War.  Yes, I, the Mennonite who has never worn the uniform.

You’d be surprised at the number of combat vets who would be kind enough to listen to my “professional wisdom” if I were to offer it. I guess most of them were so used to enduring ridiculous platitudes, having nothing to do with real-life, coming out of their military superiors’mouths, my pathetic attempts at such platitudes would be for them just memories of another day at the office.

Or, I guess the combat vet and I could look at each other and honestly ask each other, “”So whose journey should this be, Doctor? Do you really want to know about War?”

Come to think of it: if my combat vet friend hadn’t taken quite a journey already, would s/he even be sitting there? So if one of us already taken a journey, isn’t it at least fair that the other should be willing to consider a journey of his own?

Maybe, for example, as a “hero” who willingly takes a chance and who has to make active decisions along the way, rather than just comment on the plays on the field like some quarterback who’s seen better days?

Well, come to think of it: I guess that would indeed be a different journey for a different hero.

My, my. We’re back where we started this essay.

My, my.

More to come.

Plus ça change . . .

plus c’est pareil.  Or so say the French.

In other words, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Meaning what, you might ask? Well, two things.

First, the change:  Yes, indeed, finally I have finished a draft of Beam Me Home, Scotty!: How Star Trek Can Help Us Make Sense of the Brain, PTSD & Combat Trauma. Click on that link, and you’ll get a PDF file.

What a change. I finally got it done.

In the future, I’ll likely record portions of the story and add them to blog entries. Who knows: maybe even I’ll do a whole performance and put that on as well.  We’ll have to see. But for now, and for any who are interested, there it is. Feel free to read. Feel free to download. I hope that you find it helpful.

Now, as for staying the same…

As any of you who have been following for a while know, over the past three or so years, I’ve not found myself as able to write longer essays about my encounters with the veterans I’ve had the honor to serve. Working during those years with active-duty soldiers, it became too difficult to maintain confidentiality, plus, as I’ve said elsewhere, I wasn’t quite sure exactly what I was hoping to accomplish with the essays.

During that entire time, however, I continued Listening to War, what had been the tentative title I had chosen for a collection of those essays. As a I return to a less conspicuous work, I find myself wanting to return to an old way of writing.

Plus c’est pareil.

In these past weeks, as I’ve enjoyed the changes in my own personal life, I have also reflected on the work of Dr. Edward Tick, whom I had the pleasure of hearing and meeting several weeks ago. I have long recommended his seminal work, War and the Soul: Healing Our Nation’s Veterans from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and I enjoyed hearing him speak of his most recent work, Warrior’s Return: Restoring the Soul After War.

Dr. Tick has long championed the idea that Western society has forgotten how to care for the warriors we send out to fight in our names. Even worse, we have, for the most part, even declined to accept fully our indispensable role in our having sent them into war—and thus our indispensable role in helping them return.

And what, according to him, is an indispensable part of that role?

Listening. Really listening. Listening in order to learn, to be changed, not just in order to teach or to change. Listening until it hurts. Listening for as long as it takes to listen.

And then fully taking responsibility for what we have heard.

I am no stranger to psychotherapy. I “grew up” in it an older time, with older teachers. From the beginning, I was taught that listening was, is, and always will be the greater part of doing.

But even we old-timers have to be reminded of what we know.

And so, I return to Listening to War. Even more, though, I hope to push myself to listen (and to write) not to show how smart or skilled I might be, but rather to show how, perhaps finally, I know not only my obligation, but even more my honor to make someone come alive inside my soul, no matter how much that might hurt, so that a combat veteran who once had to hurt in the body and the soul can know that, yes, what happened was real and, even more, what might one day happen in its place can be filled not with horror, but with hope.

If an old man in northern Indiana, of all places, is willing to feel the truth, then hopefully much younger men and women (and yes, older men and women as well) might begin to believe that old truths can be made into new ones, old tales of tragedy can be retold as tales of meaningful life.

And that the crew of the USS Enterprise can boldly go where once combat veterans, young and old, had feared that they never could go before.

I am a most fortunate man, in my family, in my work.

More to come.

Smiles. Amen.

img_1711

Dad sat to the side on Saturday, watching his eldest take a selfie with her soon-to-husband, her two sibs, his two sibs, and their best college friends. He mused, “Cute picture, I bet,” but thought little more.

When I look at this picture on Monday, however, Dad’s in tears.

In a world that too often makes no sense, hallelujah that there are still the outrageously hopeful smiles of the young. Life will go forward, with all its stubborn joy. Thank you so much, Abby and Jacob. Thank you so much, Bekah and Joey. Thank you so much, Lavonne and Anna. Thank you so much, Becky, Cara, Cristian, Stephen, Stefan, and Alex.

You give an old man the strength to face another day.

To life!

Amen, to life.

A Joyful Interlude

Just a quick post for all the “faithful few”:

It’s been some days since I finished Beam Me Home, Scotty! and, yes, there’ll be much more to come.  However, not right away, for you see …

I’m more than happy to announce and celebrate the wedding of my eldest child this coming weekend, bringing my “child count” from two girls/one boy to two girls/two boys.

‘Tis a busy time.

And a wonderful time, indeed.

While War can often engulf everything in its path, I am thankful that Life and Love still stubbornly demand their say. To my children, to the future—to Life!

And for that, a hearty “Amen.”

Beam Me Home, Scotty!: 18, Epilogue

And now, with the Elixir:  three out of three.

So, let us finally return to that lone doctor, leaning against the guardrail, looking out over Boston Harbor, over at Logan International Airport, the planes landing, taking off.

“Beautiful day, huh?” comes the familiar voice, just to his left.

Doc turns to see leaning against the same guardrail, looking out at the same harbor, a tall, fit man in a polo shirt and cargo shorts.

Colonel James T. Kirk.

“Yes, it is, Colonel,” Doc says, smiling. “Yes, it is.”

“God, we were so young when we lived here, weren’t we?” Kirk says, still looking ahead.

“How true,” Doc replies, joining Kirk back in a mutual gaze over the Atlantic.

“So many years, so much war since,” Kirk says.

“True, sir.  How true.”

For a while, both men are silent.

“These two were the easy ones, you know?” Kirk says.

“How so?”

“They only blame themselves for destruction that they didn’t directly cause,” Kirk says. “We both know that soon GI John from Special Forces will be coming to us, ‘the one who caused destruction directly and doesn’t know where to go from there. And GI Jenny, from Ordinance, the one who felt the destruction from that IED (improvised explosive device) in her very brain-ship.”

A gull flies in to perch on the guardrail to Doc’s right, drawing both men’s attention.

“All the more important that we continue being the General’s emissaries then, huh?” Doc says, turning back toward Kirk.

The gull then flies off, pulling their gazes back to it.

“So will we ever be done?” Kirk finally says, looking back at Doc.

“With War?” Doc asks, still looking forward.

“No,” says Kirk. “Come on, we’re both smarter than that.  You know what I mean: you, me, listening, absorbing, releasing eventually, into the waves, into the smiles of our children and their friends, even into our conversations together, yours and mine, alone in the quiet of the night? All to start over the next day, then the next?”

Doc turns toward him.

“You mean ‘done’ as in before we’re done-done?”

Kirk chuckles.

“Yeah. Before then.”

Doc smiles as well.

“What do you think?”

Kirk leans forward. “Knowing us?”

Both men smile, shake their heads, and then mutter in unison, “Probably not.”

At that, Kirk stretches his arms high, turns, and begins to walk back toward the Faneuil Hall Marketplace.

“Where do you think you’re going?” asks Doc.

“To that place that had those great Bloody Mary’s,” says Kirk, still walking forward. “Just a small one, before we head back to the hotel.”

“But it’s not there anymore. We both know that, from the last time we were here in town.”

Kirk stops and, then with only the slightest turn of his head backwards, says, “For you it’s not.”

And with a chuckle, he moves ahead, as Doc only shakes his head, as the Colonel slowly begins to fade, and as a familiar voice, one last time, is heard.

“Colonel’s Log, Stardate Now:

In war, each man, each woman hopes against hope that his or her sacrifices might end up meaning something, something bigger, something more. Yet each also realizes that sacrifices too often come in the small moments, one person at a time, one decision at a time, one horrific, inescapable event at a time.

Yet our brains, our minds, our souls remind us that what we’ve always hoped for did not vanish in those horrific moments.  They remind us that meaning still lives within our brain’s chemistry, within the logical and imaginative wanderings of our minds, within the solidness of our immaterial souls.  

All three remind us of the one Truth that undergirds our cells, our Selves, us: 

Love may not be able to conquer all, but until, and even in spite of Death, Love willwill—conquer what it can.

Kirk out.”

Beam Me Home, Scotty!: 17, GI Jane & GI Joe

So, as Vogler tells us in The Hero’s Journey, it’s time for the Return with the Elixir.

Well, at least for two out of three of our heroes.

Sitting in the empty passenger area of another gate, both Jane and Kirk stare forward.

“So, what was that?” Kirk says, eyeing Jane.

Jane looks at him. “OK, Mr. Brainsmart-Self, I give. You tell me!”

Kirk looks down and shrugs.  “I don’t know. Maybe we should do something with it all?”

Jane shakes her head, eyeing him as well.

“So I’m really stuck with you for the rest of my life now?” she says.

Kirk looks back at her. “As if you haven’t been already?”

Jane chuckles and looks down.

After a minute or so, Kirk asks, “We feeling better?”

“A little bit,” Jane replies. “I guess.”

Kirk looks out a window, toward a runway. “Well, they did say there wasn’t going to be a major life shift from one plane ride, but I guess we know more now than we did before.”  He turns back to her. “Right?”

“You mean” Jane says, still looking down, “that it might be time to stop blaming that girl back there for not knowing what she was doing all the time?”

After a pause, Kirk shifts in his chair. “You didn’t throw away that card the Doc gave you, did you?”

Jane rolls her eyes.  “No!”  She looks at Kirk.  “And yes, I’ll call and get names of therapists in Atlanta from him. Satisfied?”

“Hey,” he says, smiling. “Just asking. We’re kind of in this together, you know?”

“Now I do,” she says, shaking her head.

Kirk leans back and puts his hands behind his head.

For a few seconds, both say nothing.

“Comfy?” Jane finally asks.

“I shouldn’t be?” he replies.

After eyeing him another few seconds, Jane asks, “So if we work together, we’ll figure this combat stuff out, you and I, at least more than we have already?”

Kirk closes his eyes, breathes deeply, and then looks back at her. “I’m game to try. What have we got to lose? What do you say?” He smiles. “Deal?”

Jane smiles as well.  “Deal.”

Jane gets up to start walking toward the baggage claim area, but then notices Kirk reaching into his pants pocket.

“What are you doing?”

Kirk pulls out something.

Ahmed’s chocolate bar.

“Seriously?” Jane says. “You actually have the nerve to sit there and eat that while I don’t have anything in real life?”

Kirk takes a bite, then looks at her and grins. “Rank has its privileges.”

“Just my luck,” Jane mutters to herself. “I’ve got a brain with an attitude.”

“And you’re surprised?” Kirk asks, chomping away.

Jane shakes her head.  And smiles.

“See you later?” she says.

“You always know where to find me, girl,” Kirk replies, as he and the chocolate bar slowly begin to fade.

At that she turns and begins to walk forward.

______________________________________________________

 

 

Standing in the far corner of the Logan Airport terminal, Joe looks out the huge glass window, toward the planes and the ocean beyond, his weathered backpack on the ground next to him.

“So,” comes the familiar voice behind him. “We done?”

Joe turns to see, in casual, civilian clothes, Colonel James T Kirk.

“Don’t you even go there,” Joe mutters.

“Go where?” Kirk asks, stepping right up to him.

“You know what I’m talking about,” Joe says. “I don’t know what that was back there. I don’t care. I’m not going back into therapy, period. Out of my face!”

“So sorry, pal,” Kirk says, not moving. “Hate to remind you, but my face is your face, and I ain’t going nowhere, got it?”

For several seconds, they stare at each other.

“Look,” Kirk says, “I don’t want to go through therapy again any more than you do, plus it’s clear that you and I aren’t ready for it anyway.  But we now know what we need to do if we’re ever going to hope to get over this. I’m as tired of seeing Top every night as you are. We have got to do something.”

“Do what?” Joe says, turning back toward the window.  “It’s been fifty years.”

“And it’s still almost every night,” Kirk says, approaching even closer. “And we now know that it isn’t you fifty years ago who’s yelling at us.  It’s us, you and I, right now, today!  God damn it, Joe!”

Kirk’s voice catches.  He steps back.

Joe looks down at ground. “I don’t know.”

After a few seconds, Kirk whispers.  “Please. Call Junior.”

Joe whips around. “I am not going to call him.  We’ve . . .

Kirk grabs Joe by the shoulders.

“We’ve what?” Kirk says through clenched teeth.  “Managed to blow every conversation with him in the last 30 years because we’re both Class-A a**holes?  Jesus, Joe, we’re the f***ing parent, not him! You know what we’ve got to do.  We can’t keep living like this, Joe.  We can’t keep pushing everyone away.  We’ll get the service dog, fine, I don’t care, but Joe…”

Kirk’s voice catches again. For seconds, neither says anything.

“Right there, in your right pocket,” Kirk whispers. “Take it out. Call him. No big deal. Just call him. Please.”

Joe stares at him, not wiping away the tear that has formed in his own right eye.  He looks down at his pocket, looks back up.

“It’s 7:30 in the morning. He’s in Saint Louis. It’s only 6:30 there, he won’t even be up, and…”

Kirk backs up, laughing.

“What?” Joe asks.

“Well, my friend,” Kirk says, putting his hand on Joe’s shoulder. “Actually it is 10:00, and actually you’ve been standing there for the last two and a half hours, and actually I’ve been the one who’s been trying not to get ourselves arrested on suspicion of being some crazy, old hippie-terrorist.”

Joe backs up. “Two and a half hours?”

Kirk nods.

Joe wipes away the tear. And smiles.

“So,” Kirk says, “given that, sir, how about we move and you give Junior a call?”

Joe looks down, picks up the backpack, flings it over his shoulder, looks up at Kirk, then walks right past him, toward Baggage Claim. Yet after only a matter of yards, he stops and turns to see Kirk staring at him.

A few seconds, and then Joe nods and waves Kirk forward.

Kirk nods and does so.

Joe turns back, and just as Kirk catches up, Joe pulls the phone out of his pocket.

Joe stops. Kirk stands next to him.

Joe looks at the screen, looks at Kirk, walks forward, presses a button on the phone.

Kirk smiles.

And fades as Joe lifts the phone to his ear.

 

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