Saturday, September 4, 2010

To J.

The other night at Quail Ridge Books, a woman waited until the signing line was empty and then came over to me. She'd been in the store to pick up some CDs, heard me start talking, and stayed. When I finished, she bought a copy of Children No More.

She asked if I had ever served.

I said no. Nixon canceled the draft a few weeks before I would have had to decide what to do.

She nodded. Would I, given all the bad things that happened to me in the Young Marines, have gone into the Marines? She watched me very intently as I spoke.

I told her the truth: Yes.

Why, she asked. Why, after all that abuse, all that pain, would I have gone into the Marines?

I told her the truth again: It's hard to explain, but I came out feeling like a Marine. I couldn't have imagined being part of any other branch.

She nodded and pulled a photo from her wallet. It was J-, her son, in his Marine dress uniform. He'd dropped out of college and joined. Now, he was just back from Afghanistan, where he'd done a tour as a sniper. He wouldn't talk about it much, hardly at all, but when he did speak of his time there, it was about the kids. Kids trained to throw IEDs at them. Kids trained to shoot them. Kids caught in hot zones. Kids he'd physically pulled behind his body to protect. Kids he was able to save, kids whose parents brought them into their homes for horrible-tasting tea the next time they entered that village. Kids...she paused and looked into nowhere.

We both knew those were the ones he couldn't save. Neither of us spoke.

After a few seconds, she leaned a little closer and stared again at me. Would he be okay? Would he get over it in time?

I told the truth once more: I don't know. Probably better in time, probably never back the way he was.

She nodded. I wasn't surprising her.

J. loved sci-fi, she said, read it a lot.

She straightened her shoulders. He probably has PTSD, doesn't he.


Like you?

Yes. Like me. Like a lot of people: many of his fellow vets, abused kids, trauma workers, cops--many people.

And there's no shame in it, is there?

No shame, I said, not to me. No shame.

She nodded again.

I signed the book to J. I asked her to remind him of something he already knows but will be prone to forget.

He is not alone.

There are a lot of us.

He is not alone.

She smiled, thanked me, and left.

It took me until now to write about it.

J, if you're out there, and you read this, it will get better, you can seek help--there is no shame in that--and you are not alone.


J. Griffin Barber said...

Damn. Hard to type.

God help the loved ones, and let them find one such as you to comfort them in their fears for the walking wounded, even if it is to let them know that they, too, are not alone.

Michelle said...

Wow. My heart goes out to both J and his mom. And you are right, he is not alone.

Mark said...

Thanks, Griffin.

Mark said...

Thanks, Michelle.

John Lambshead said...

There is no shame in PSTD; many people get it for many reasons, some of which probably seem uninportant to other people. In my case, ever increasing work stress did it. I take my SSRIs and get through one day at a time. The younger you are, and the longer you have to come to terms with what happened to you, the better the outcome.

Mark said...

Many people, though, remain embarrassed by it.

Dan Campbell said...

Hi, Mark. As always, I very much appreciate your blog posts. This one, and the comments that followed it, struck more of a chord with me than normal--and I wrote the rest of what is in this comment. But I'm not sure it's an appropriate comment, fully in tune with the spirit of your original post. Emotionally, I can tell I'm reacting as much as responding to the post, but I'm hoping this contributes well to the conversation:

It's not just embarrassment, or shame, or even guilt. In my experience (only son of a schizophrenic single mother), it can also be the difficulty in communicating one's experience: If you're talking with, or writing/speaking to, folks who are not veterans (of trauma), can you express yourself in a way that they understand, really truly understand, without resorting to pity or shunning? If you're communicating with folks who are veterans, can you express yourself in a way that allows them to hear and understand, yet not be overwhelmed by their own memories?

There's a quote by Robert Graves, talking about the Great War and this very issue of communicating what 'cannot' be communicated, which I read in Verlyn Flieger's A Question of Time: J.R.R. Tolkien's Road to Faërie. It's rather long to post here in a comment, but if anyone is interested, I have that quote in a blog post about writing.

That quote from Graves is what eventually got me writing creatively again. I'd like to share it in the hope that it helps someone else make similar connections and find ways to reach out, to communicate the incommunicable, and to be understood. It's about halfway down the page, is a block quote, and starts with "The incommunicability is not of beauty but of horror..."

Mark, Griffin, Michelle, and John are right: You are no alone. Don't be afraid to reach out. You may be surprised to learn how many people *do* understand--even, especially, understand the isolation that trauma can instill. But that common experience of isolation, shared by so many, means that no one is ever truly alone. Just reach out when you're ready.

Mark said...

Thanks, Dan, for the long and thoughtful post and for your blog entry. Communicating what happened is indeed one of the greatest challenges.

sarah said...

I was in line behind her. Your conversation looked focused and much more serious than the usual author / reader interaction. I'm glad I walked away and gave you both some space. Now I know that was the right decision.

I applaud you.

Mark said...

Thanks, Sarah, for both the space and the kind words.


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