I was diagnosed with PTSD and clinical depression a year after my last tour in Afghanistan. I knew that something is wrong but refused to admit it to myself. I refused to talk to anyone about the diagnosis or about the true extent of my condition. I am an army man. I'm tough, I just needed to throw some dirt on it and move on.
I don't know what the trigger was. Maybe it was this young Soldier, a mother of two, just deployed, whom I watched cut down after she hanged herself. Maybe it was the faces of family members, being told their loved one is not coming home. Maybe it was the pink mist of blood of Iraqi children, blown to bits by insurgent bombs on my uniform. I didn't know the triggers, only that when it hit, it hit me hard. I thought I had heart attacks and I would crumble down, panting for breath.
This is not an actual picture of the author.
I didn't know the triggers, only that when it hit, it hit me hard. It felt like someone reach into my chest cavity and squeeze my heart. I felt claustrophobic, paralyzed by panic and pain. I thought I had heart attacks and I would crumble down, panting for breath. I was miserable and scared. There is nothing honorable about that. At twenty-eight, my life was over before it even began.
PTSD army men feel that the very act of seeking help from a mental health professional could be information that could be used against us, target us, and make us feel we were burdens to the system. We are the deadwood soldiers in the Army culture. I had no bullet holes or medals to show my wounds. My wounds were invisible, the kind we bear in our souls, but for me and others like me, they are just as real as the bleeding ones.
One day I was in Barnes&Noble Bookstore, looking for self-help books, and I felt one coming. I felt paranoid. I felt someone watching me. I looked up, and I see this woman, standing ten feet away, staring at me. I thought, " How rude! Go away, nothing to see here!" Instead of going her away, she walked right up to me, and said, " Hi, I am Mel. You are in a bookstore. You have a panic attack. Care to share?"
I mean, who does that?! Who says things like that to strangers? She asked me if she can touch me. She went behind me and put her hands on both sides of my head, then to my forehead and back. Her palms were so hot! But suddenly I started relaxing. I can imagine what we looked like, me sitting there while some strange woman holding my head.
This is how I met Mel. She then bought me a cheesecake as if I was five years old, sat down, and demanded, "Tell me everything!" So I did. I asked her what does she do, and she said, she helps people when she can. That simple. Would I let her? We have to meet twice a week for a couple of hours, that all.
The next four months were the most challenging but the best months of my life. I deconstructed every event and memory that plagued me with Mel's guidance. She helped me to see how blessed I am, how fortunate I am, how strong I am, and most importantly, how much more is waiting for me. Finding my girl, starting a family, being a father, finding what I love and whom to love. Mel used to say over and over, " You've earned it, now go get it!" She made me write it on Post Its, which I was to place everywhere. I had them stuck on the fridge, in my bathroom, and in my car. We worked with my nutrition, physical exercise, guided meditation, and Boolean charts. Yes, I use Boolean charts now quite often! I bet she would be delighted to know that. She made me take dancing classes which came very useful later. I can salsa you out of your heart!
Mel made me laugh. She made me wiser. She made me feel alive and hungry. She gave me a future. I stopped the meds and joined the gym. She took me to Home Depot and helped me get a job. There are a lot of vets there and some of them, much older than me, have seen much worse than me. I really enjoyed the comradery. One day a young lady asked me if I know where is the gardening tape. I didn't know what that is, so we went to find out together. I thought she is too young to garden, so I ask her what does she need the tape for. She told me that her father has a landscaping business and she loves to create landscape plans for projects. Then she said, that with my physique, I should not work indoors. " Come out and smell the roses!" she said, smiling. And I did! I left Home Depot to work for her father. Now she is my wife and the mother of my beautiful children. We moved to California to plant and grow life! And business is great. Must be the Boolean Charts!
Guess what is written on the inside of our wedding rings? " You earned it. Now go get it!" Of course, Mel was our best woman for the wedding.
PS. Mel hangs out in bookstores. Just go there. She will find you!