Nobody Gets Off the Bus:
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"Vietnam was a fucking outrage."
"It was a goddamn, fucking tragedy. Everything about it was fucked. Its reason, our country's reaction; you guys did the best you could and our country let you down." This guy swears more than me.
"Fuck America!" I screamed.
High functioning is how they refer to us. That's how the staff refers to the guys with PTSD. There's just seven of us on this ward that holds twenty-four. High functioning is understandable when you compare us to the other seventeen patients on the ward. General Psychiatric, they're called. Hah! I've finally had my opinion of general officers validated. General psych patients are your run of the mill schizos and psychos. Our ward is called a POD. It's rectangular, with the patients' rooms on the outside, dining room, bathroom, showers, nurses' station and doctors' offices occupy the interior. "The Pit' is what the rest of the hospital calls our ward. PIU is feared and loathed by the rest of the hospital. And the guys with PTSD are feared and hated by the general psych patients.
"Would you like to come and take your MEDS, Mr. Meade?" Jennifer asks. She's been assigned to me. She's in her junior year of nursing school and PIU is one of her classes. The first thing they teach the student nurses at PIU is the application of drugs.
"Thanks, I'm fine, Jennifer," I answer while looking up from my morning paper.
"What does fine mean, Mr. Meade?" she innocently asks.
"It means Fucked Up, Insecure, Neurotic and Eccentric," I answer. I'm feeling feisty this morning. MEDS is short for medication. Besides chow, it's what the general psych guys crave most. Pavlov, my foot. No one has to ring a bell for those guys. From 8:30 to 9, every morning and evening, as regular as the swallows coming to Capistrano, like salivating dogs, the wackos gather in front of the drug room to get their fixes. All I get in the morning is a vitamin pill. You see, I'm not crazy, just stressed. Psychos get all sorts of good doses. General psych guys are mellow. That's probably why they hate us PTSDers. We're always raging and ranting.
Ft. Miley is a teaching hospital. In addition to student nurses, we also get psychiatrists doing three months of a four-year residency. It took just one walk of the grounds at Ft. Miley for me to see the profound symbolism in the place. Ft. Miley was once a real fort. Old, circular bunkers of smooth concrete, build one hundred years ago, now lie abandoned. Long haired kids, on skate boards, now randomly patrol over and around the contoured, smooth cemented revetments. Gun positions that had guarded the southern entrance to San Francisco Bay, still cover the sea side of the old fort, but the guns and crews are long gone. I feel a vague, low intensity stirring in my gut. I remember a place long ago called Khe Sanh, with such a fog and many large guns. Yes, it made perfect sense with the old gun positions and the student shrinks. So Freudian.
Devon and I are sitting together in the dining room at dinner when in walks this new guy, Ron. He's shaking so bad his food tray rattles. Devon and I have known each other for years. We both did group together at the San Francisco Vet Center. Devon is a chef who also got his PTSD fired up behind the Gulf war. Ron had just spent the last month next door at the SAIU (Substance Abuse Intake Unit). Ron has a hyperactive thyroid called Graves Disease, the same thing Bush has. Ron also has PTSD. He is shaking real bad. He's due to be operated on for his thyroid, but they're also concerned about his PTSD, which he's never addressed. A PTSD cherry, we call them. "Did you see your doctor?" Devon asks Ron, then looks over at me with a nasty smirk. We both know he'd just met Nguyen. He's in shock.
"You mean the fucking gook?" Ron jerks and says. He is shaking so bad he almost spills his tray. "Yeah, I saw her. I saw her," he repeats. He plops down heavy, on a straight-backed chair. Ron's shaking real hard. He digs a fork into his food. "What the fuck is going on?" he asks. "Why are they fucking with my head?" he pleads.
Ron has just had his first session with young Mai. Psychiatrists are in charge in mental wards. Mai is a resident psychiatrist doing a three month tour at PIU. Mai Pho Nguyen is also my shrink. I like Mai, but the bloods seem to have a big problem with her. Both Ron and Devon are black. "Where were you in Vietnam, she asks me," Ron says to Devon while trying to stuff some mashed potatoes in his mouth. His fork bangs against his face like an electric toothbrush gone berserk. "Why in the fuck do you want to know where I was in the Nam?" Ron continues. "I told the bitch I was in I Corps," Ron says, white potato scum circling his mouth and starting to run. He's shaking real bad now. "The fucking bitch didn't even know where I Corps was," he says, then gags.
"She was only eleven when she left," I say in her defense. Mai got out in '75. Her dad worked for the U.S. government in Saigon. Takes guts for a Vietnamese to face a bunch of angry Vietnam vets. Mai did it with dignity and courage.
I like Michael. I've always gotten along with gunfighters, Nam gunfighters, anyway. Mike was with the First Air Cavalry. He's my roommate and had three weeks in, before I arrived. Mike is also a PTSD cherry. Besides his PTSD, he's also in the hospital to have his gut looked at. He got gut shot in Nam and his stomach's been acting up lately. Ft. Miley is jerking Mike around. They're giving non-service-connected surgery priority. Mike goes on and on about how Vietnam guys have to take a back seat to World War Two guys getting their hemorrhoids and prostates done first. Mike also went full blown PTSD during the Gulf war. Like me, he hates the VA and stayed away as long as he could.
When Mike got out of the service in '69, he dealt with his war trauma the best he could. He worked down in LA as a bouncer for about sixteen years. "it's the way I dealt with my aggression," he explained. "I worked mostly redneck bars," Mike said. "I busted heads and got paid, just like Nam."
"So why did you finally come in?" I asked him one night as we sat alone in our room.
"Cause I'd quit drinking about eighteen months earlier and all the Gulf bullshit was eating at me. What really did it was my five year old daughter. She finally made me see the light," he said.
"'Why are you always so angry, Daddy?'" Mike said rather softly to me. "She sat on my lap and looked me right in my eyes." Mike looked real sad. His long blond scruffy hair and beard couldn't mask his sorrow. He quickly regained his composure and continued, "Yep, Tom, it took my five year old child to finally get me to admit that I'm PTSDed."
They knew I was a writer when they admitted me. I was sent to Ft. Miley for having homicidal and suicidal tendencies and thoughts. I didn't want VA drugs. I was afraid they would ruin my creativity. I was wired and pissed off when they admitted me. Atavan is what they prescribed. Atavan is a downer, a tranquilizer. "I prefer Atavan to Thorazine," Rikko said to me one night while we discussed his preference. "But, ahhh, you know how doctors always want to have their way," he said. Like Rikko, Jean is an RN. Everyone in PIU gets assigned a primary nurse and they gave me Jean.
She'd break out in song whenever she felt like it, which was often. Besides being an RN she also did plays and musicals. She convinced me to give antidepressants a try. I had been so nasty that they had me on downers the first week. At the start of the second, at Jean's urging, I decided to give Nortriptyline a try. Nortriptyline is a mood enhancer. The first night I took it, I took off.
"Is there anything I can do for you, Mr. Meade?" Dennis the night nurse asked. He had been watching me from the nurses' station adjacent to the day room that I now paced in frantic fashion. It was four am and the rest of the ward was still.
"Yeah, scrape me off the ceiling," I said, while nervously pacing. Woo, was I high. Going from downers to uppers can overjack you. It did me.
Jean stopped me in the hall the next day. "How do you feel?" she asked.
"I'm still flying," I said.
"It takes time," she said.
"We talking about wine?" I cracked.
Robert has a scam going in. He is treated like royalty in PIU. He has his own private room, no classes or meetings and all the food he wants. All he has to do in return is let the VA test new drugs on him. Mice or monkeys can only give so much feedback. With psycho drugs, feedback is essential. We're not dealing with face creams or lipstick, where test results are obvious. Feelings take telling.
I'm not sure what types of drugs they were using on him. Robert was supposed to be psychotic, but he didn't act it. He always talked rationally and he certainly seemed more intelligent to me than Quayle. Robert was supposed to be a bona fide nut, but he didn't fool me. If he's nuts, so is Bush. They just both understand the system and how to play it. Crazy is someone like Wild Bill.
He had been a radio operator for an artillery forward observer during the Korean conflict. He looked to me like the character who played Dr. Zorba. Bill had wild eyes as well as hair. He is also a vegetarian. Wild Bill is bone skinny, white, clammy looking. Word on ole Bill is that he's been psychotic for years. He lived with his mom. She died recently. Bill freaks and stops eating everything. PIU tries to transfer him to a board and care facility. Bill loves it at PIU. Bill loves giving away food. It is customary during meals to offer what you don't want on your tray to the dining community. You could always tell the boys who were in behind crack. Those shaky suckers would take anything, sugar, butter, crackers.
"Does anybody gots anythings they can give?" a shaky, reed-thin guy desperately implored one night during dinner. It takes a couple of weeks of serious eating to purge the crack from the system. "Ah man, dem vegees ain't gone hack it," the guy said to Bill's offer. "Eyes need some meats."
Devon smiled at me. "Uh huh," he said and nodded. "Another crackhead, pretending he's crazy just so's he can eat for a few weeks."
Bill is a very gentle wacko. One day we were doing relaxation therapy with Jerry, a recreational therapist. "We have to be careful that our minds don't get captured and carried away forever," Bill cautioned. Bill's eyes went extra wild just before the lights were turned off. Just after the music on the mood tape started, Wild Bill got captured.
"Imagine yourself floating above a beautiful blue sea," Jerry said. Synthesized music on Jerry's little boom box softly played in the background. It was pitch black.
"Jerry, please turn on the lights," Bill pleaded in the dark. "Please, Jerry, turn on the lights, now!" a very frightened Bill called out unseen. Jerry hit the switch and Bill stumbled out of the room. Bill showed no anger, but fear was riding him hard.
When Jerry doused the lights and started in again, I said in a panicked voice, "Jerry, turn on the lights, please. Now, Jerry, now."
I'd walk by sometimes and Robert would be in the evaluation room with his shrink, going over his reactions and feelings concerning the latest drug he had tried. I could just imagine him doing a take off on one of those, make me puke, wine connoisseurs. Ah yes, it's a young drug, bit fruity, with fine tooth. A little whoosy around the edge. Tasty. A very tasty high."
"I shit my pants every time," Lee said. His blond mustache twitched in time to his nervous grin. Lee has bright blue eyes and long, thick blond lashes that accentuate his madness. Lee radiates madness. Lee had been a door gunner on a Huey and did several tours during the Vietnam conflict. "Did any of you guys shit your pants too?" he laughed and nervously asked. Lee was asking about combat induced bowel movement. Lee has a laugh that starts deep in his gut then rises up and bounces off his nasal passages.
"That guy was nuts before he ever got in a helicopter," Mike leaned over and whispered to me.
Lee followed me one day when I went for my daily walk. "The cops really beat me up, but they apologized after they found out who I was," Lee said. He then recounted for me his litany of tours in mental health facilities, both private and government. Lee was trying to kill his roommate when the police intervened, most recently. "I'm usually fine, the drugs work for awhile, then, I don't know," he said sadly. "I can't take being threatened, you know what I mean?" Lee asked. We walked the road overlooking the channel to the Bay. I preferred walking alone, but who was I to say no to someone of Lee's stature?
Lee went both ways. Besides being crazy he was also very PTSDed. They only let him attend one session with our PTSD group. Lee was too disruptive, far out. "The best friend I ever had was a hand puppet called Daffy Duck," Lee said. The collective mouths of patients and staff dropped as Lee went off on how great he got along with this puppet at some psych ward down in Santa Barbara. Then they took Daffy away. "I don't know why they did that," Lee said. Devon looked over at me, opened his big eyes wide, and silently whistled.
"There's one of two things can happen to you with them trycyclates," Jeff cautioned me. "Some will give you them teenage raging hormones. Some will screw up your sex life. Man, I couldn't handle Nortriptyline. I could never get it up when I took that shit," he said. "I wanted to, but it wouldn't work. God, it was awful." Jeff had been Airborne in Nam. He had recently done nine months at Menlo Park for PTSD. "I made enough money on disability while I was there to pay off all my bills," was how Jeff rated Menlo. Menlo didn't cure him of a thing; booze, drugs or PTSD. Jeff blamed the Gulf war for his relapse.
"How much Nortriptyline did they have you on?" I asked. I was very interested since I was on it and hadn't been home yet.
"250mgs," he said matter of factly.
"250? I'm only on 25 a day," I said in disbelief. "What do they have you on now?"
"Prozac," Jeff said. "I gotta talk to my doc about that," he said with a concerned look. Jeff did seem a bit aggressive even for PTSD. "Maybe I should cut down on the dose," he said. "Hey, now you take that drug Trazadone, now that stuff could make me stand tall in the saddle. Mmmm, too bad they didn't let me stay on it. They said it was bad for my heart. Too much blood was pumping." Jeff looked like a guy talking about some big fish that got away.
The next week, Jeff got thrown out. Violence was not allowed at PIU, not even the threat of violence. Jeff went berserk over his own stupidity. He lent his truck to two guys with long histories of addiction, Tim and Robert. Every time Robert went out he got drunk or stoned. Tim had gotten a disability payment. He and Robert went out to celebrate. Crack can kick ass. They were only supposed to be gone for twenty minutes to buy groceries, they promised Jeff.
"Hey, come on, Jeff," I said. "You lend your truck to those two heads, just after one gets some cash?" Jeff kept winding up throughout the night. Ron and I had to restrain him. He finally got dosed real good by Rikko. Robert and Tim came back late that night. The truck was found, down in the drug section of town. Jeff was the first to go the next day.
At group, Ron asked Sally, the head shrink, "Why are you folks so sensitive here? We had Jeff under control. We could have handled it. You didn't have to go and call security. Jeff hates cops, you know that." Sally remained in control of her feelings.
"Why do you people only stick up for Jeff? What about Tim and Robert?" she defensively asked. "Besides, this is a general psychiatric ward. We cannot have any hint of violence here. I won't stand for it," Sally said, as she recrossed her tight fitted, panted legs. Robert and Tim got thrown out also. I watched them wheel Robert out in a wheelchair. Sally hid Robert at another VA psychiatric ward for a month, then brought him back to PIU. PTSDers are expendable. Robert is a VA investment.
I got discharged after a month at Miley. They told me my bed was needed. I just wasn't crazy enough for Miley's standards. I didn't know if I should feel proud or ashamed. They told me Menlo could take me in two months. They told me to stay cool and on their drugs while I waited. I could get all the refills I needed. Whoopee.
Thomas Meade is a pseudonym.