That Dark Cloud

That Dark Cloud October 14, 2010

I have put off writing about this because I know how you people are, you’ll freak out and start worrying. And frankly, I don’t want to worry you; I only want to alert you.

I wasn’t going to write it at all but I saw something on a friend’s Facebook post tonight that alarmed me. I call this fellow a friend although we’ve never met. We’ve never even had a phone coversation. I don’t know what he looks like. I don’t know what he sounds like. If I saw him on the street, I wouldn’t recognize him. Hopefully, he’d recognize me and speak first.

He’s from England so I’m pretty sure the minute he opened his mouth I’d know him. I’d probably say something like, “OH! My veteran friend!”

He introduced himself to me on Facebook through a veteran I do know.  A veteran whose voice I recognize when he calls. A veteran who traveled to Vietnam with me in 2003.

I’ve been taking a hiatus of sorts from social media. I check in but that’s about all. I’m not doing that for any particular moral reason. I’ve been otherwise occupied and not at my computer writing like usual. And there’s that other reason, the one I didn’t want to tell you about.

But tonight I logged into Facebook and was reading through those status updates and saw his post: I am a former solider who is lost. PTSD has ruined my life.

I checked back over his site and saw that six hours previously he had written: That dark cloud is coming.

I knew exactly what dark cloud he was talking about. Just yesterday I’d sent a friend a note and called my sister, and told them the same thing — That dark cloud is back.

The first time I noticed that I suffered from a “season of mourning” was 1998. I had started work on the family memoir, After the Flag has been Folded. What I remember is how I would shut the kids out of the bedroom, and curl up on the bed and weep uncontrollably. I thought it was just a culmination of other things — jobs, kids, marriage.

My doctor gave me something to take the edge off, to lessen the anxiety. Nobody called it Post-Traumatic. I’ve never been to war, after all. I’ve never suffered real trauma. I have family members who don’t even believe in PTSD. They think people make this stuff up so that they can get  others to feel sorry for them or so they can bilk the government out of their own tax dollars. Go figure.

The weeping stopped eventually and I returned to my happy sunshiney self.

Until it came back the next year.

And the next.

And the next.

I learned to recognize it. I could chart it like a menstrual period. October. The cloud. The knowledge that this was the season when my father was due to return home from Vietnam. Only he didn’t. Not like planned.

Before the memoir came out, I started spending every Veterans Day at the Vietnam Memorial Wall in D.C. I made a lot of friends there. I started looking forward to Veterans Day. It felt like a family reunion of sorts. My birthday is the day afterwards. Birthdays had never been much fun but the veterans I met did their best to make mine special. It helped to ease the dread of the day and that old familiar loneliness. My birthday, it seemed, always had me stuck on age 9.

I was so busy those first few years after the memoir came out, and so many wonderful friendships were built as a result of that book, that honestly I thought the season of mourning would never revisit me again. I thought I’d been cured of it by writing my way through it.

But then the other day that dark demon came upon me once again and this time it brought friends. Lots of them. I told my sis that I was crying so hard I didn’t think I would ever stop.

I’ve cried like that only a handful of times in my life  — when my father died, when I first visited the Vietnam Wall, when my buddy and fellow veteran friend Gordon passed, and when my girlfriend The Redhead died.

I know many of you have your own seasons of mourning. I hate that for you. I know that loneliness.

I find it hard to be around people when I’m in a season of mourning. I try not to avoid people but I can be irritable and unpleasant to be around, so a lot of  the time people will avoid me. I don’t hold it against them. I know this is a season and that it, too, will pass. Sometime after Veterans Day, after my birthday, the skies will clear and I’ll have enough focus to write coherently again. I know that laughter, not sobs, will fill my throat once more.

But meanwhile, it’s just hard. Dark. Lonely. Sad. And try as I might I cannot will my way through this. I have come to accept the crying. I don’t apologize for it. I refuse to apologize for it. Tears are part of living. Sometimes the sweetest part.

My friend Gordon once said that he hated to cry about Vietnam. And I replied, “If war isn’t worth crying over, Gordon, what is?”

Now I cry because I miss Gordon.

And The Redhead.

And my father.

And I cry for all the life they’re missing out on.

But tonight, I’m crying for my friend in the UK whom I’ve never met.

This online stuff scares me. What is a person to do when somebody writes that the dark cloud is upon them again? Or that they are a veteran suffering from PTSD?

I wrote to my buddy in the UK and asked him, what’s wrong? How can I help? Did he have someone there? Was he in touch with other veterans? I urged him to talk to somebody.

He wrote back: “I am not very good on the phone. One of my big problems I worry about others more than I do about myself. So I find it hard to reach out for help. I am one of those ex-servicemen who have found it hard to adjust to not being in the service. That is after 20 years. I see very few people I have become a Hermit. I’m off work due to my problems. I am 60 and no long sure what to do.”

I know lots of men and women just like this fellow. My friend Joe Galloway is a military correspondent. There is no help for PTSD  for war reporters. Joe was in battle with those men in the Ia Drang. The next few months is a season of mourning for Joe, too.

Chances are you know a veteran or two yourself. Or a military family. Like me, they don’t want you to make a fuss over them. I’m just telling you this so you’ll be aware. Suicide among our veterans is high. Pay closer attention to those in your circle. Be a better listener. If you pray, pray more.

They don’t really need you to fix them. They don’t need advice. They just need someone to sit with them through the long darkness that stretches out before them. Somebody who will say, Hey buddy, I’m here, right beside you. I’ve got your back.

The way any good soldier or good friend would.

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