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Nothing political in this diary. I'm just recanting an episode from yesterday that changed my perspective on life, and trying to collect my thoughts on it.

For whatever reason I couldn't get to sleep, and I noticed it was starting to get light out, so I thought I'd take my bike down to the dock on Lake Champlain to watch the sunrise and think about the things that are going on in my life.

After a few minutes of contemplation, I noticed another man staggering around the dock. Eventually he staggered over in my direction and started talking to me.

It was immediately apparent that this guy was extremely drunk. He started rambling about the construction they were doing to extend the dock, and why couldn't they do it in the wintertime instead of now when the weather is nice? Now I really didn't want to engage this guy, so I nodded along instead of bringing up the point that it's probably difficult to extend a dock when the lake is frozen over.

Then he started telling me about how he hadn't slept in five days because of his flashbacks. Apparently he joined the military in 1977, and was sent to Korea. Two years later he witnessed something horrible. His speech was rather slurred, so I didn't catch all the details of the story, but apparently he was put in charge of burning some field for some reason. Some locals came to the fire, presumably to warm themselves. Everybody else seemed okay with it, so he didn't intervene and tell them to get away.

Well, eventually for some reason I didn't quite catch, they threw somebody in the fire. He watched this man burn to death as the man was looking at him. Then another person was thrown into the fire. And another. A lady even threw a baby into the fire before they could get the situation under control. It deeply disturbs me to even think about such a thing happening. I can't imagine how traumatic it must have been to witness it, especially since he felt he could have prevented it. It wasn't even wartime. It was innocent people dying for no reason.

So I guess this experience messed up the rest of this guy's life. He can't hold a relationship, can't hold a job, can't sleep, and apparently just tries to drink his troubles away. He told me he tried drinking drain cleaner once. He told me he once went to a V.A. center and when they asked him how they could help him, he told them they could give him a gun to shoot himself with. He showed me where he tried to slit his wrists two weeks ago. And he told me he thought he'd come down to the dock this morning to drown himself, but that he thought it wouldn't work because his suicide attempts never do. He told me repeatedly not to think he was a psycho.

I felt very sorry for this man, but what do you say to someone like that? There's probably nothing I could possibly do that could make his situation any better, and certainly nothing I could say. He told me his name and said he was having a birthday party in August at a local bar and that I should come. I told him I would (knowing I won't—that bar is one to avoid like the plague) and he departed. I saw him go into an outhouse, at which point I promptly hopped on my bike and pedaled to a gas station where I called the police. I know meeting the police probably wouldn't make his morning any better, but what else could I do? I didn't want the man to kill himself.

So anyways, I've been thinking about what he told me, and it's put some things into perspective for me. My petty "problems", like having a job I don't like that doesn't pay me enough, renting a room the size of a closet because it's all I can afford, living in a town where there's not a whole lot to do, not having a girlfriend or a's all completely fucking trivial. There are lots of people who would kill to have what I have. To have a job, to have a house, to be young and healthy, to have a family who loves me, to have an education, to live in a First World country, to not be tormented daily by traumatic experiences from my past. The minor inconveniences I've found myself frequently complaining about lately are fucking nothing. I apologize to everybody who's had to put up with my petty complaints.

But above that, it made me realize that we're all in this boat together. Even though horrible things happen in this world, even though people hate and kill each other, we're all in the same boat. We're all just riding this little speck called Earth around the void of space, trying to get as much pleasure as we can out of the limited time we have here. And what makes life worth living at all is each other. That's why it's such a tragedy to watch a life end, or to see a life ruined by trauma.

And it's precisely because the world can be such a horrible and cruel place sometimes, that we need to come together and give each other reasons to live. Luckily, as humans we have a gift that no other animal has. We have language, which allows us to share our inner thoughts, ideas, dreams, hopes and memories with each other, creating bonds between us on a level that exists in no other species. Even without language we can do so much to make each other's lives better.

I used to ask myself: "what is the meaning of life?" Well, it's us. You and me and them. It's everybody. It's humans coming together to form associations that are greater than the sum of their parts. It's persevering through the awful, depressing, horrible stuff that happens, and leaning on the others who are in this boat with us. It's doing what we can to prevent that kind of stuff from happening, and to create the joyful experiences that make our lives worth living.

I don't know if what I did yesterday morning helped that guy at all. My guess is probably not. I did the only thing I could think of doing. As he left me he said he was "sorry for fucking up my whole morning".

You didn't fuck up my morning, sir. You gave me some much-needed perspective of the bigger picture. I wish there was something more I could do to help you, to erase those memories from your head, but I can't, and I guess that's just another one of the ways this indifferent cosmos is cruel to us. Nevertheless I promise to do what I can to help make life on this planet worth living. Thank you.

Originally posted to AtomikNY on Sat May 29, 2010 at 01:23 AM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  It's so hard (13+ / 0-)

    to help PTSD. Sleeping means nightmares...I don't know.

    We don't talk about Korea enough.

    Pale blue dot, man. Sometimes I really fucking miss Carl Sagan.

    Thanks for writing this.

    Fluorescent, flat, caffeine lights / It's furious balancing

    by CayceP on Sat May 29, 2010 at 01:27:02 AM PDT

  •  ((((((((((((((((((AtomikNY))))))))))))))))))) (14+ / 0-)

    Thank you for reaching out and listening to the man.

    Thank you for giving him a safe place to tell his story.

    Thank you for taking him seriously.

    Thank you for calling the police.

    My husband had undiagnosed PTSd, from surviving torture in Vietnam. His wasn't as severe as your friend's, but he was still waking up screaming the week before he died five years ago. Today would have been his 64th birthday.

    May your friend find peace and healing.


    Torture is ALWAYS wrong, no matter who is doing it to whom.

    by Chacounne on Sat May 29, 2010 at 01:41:10 AM PDT

  •  You did way more than most... then & now (13+ / 0-)

    But above that, it made me realize that we're all in this boat together.

    Thanx for sharing some soul AtomiKNY

    I don't want your country back..I want my country forward - Bill Maher

    by Eric Nelson on Sat May 29, 2010 at 01:47:00 AM PDT

  •  You did a lot and that is coming (20+ / 0-)

    from a VN Vet's wife who has been
    diagnosed 100 percent ptsd by the VA.
    This is political, and I will tell you why.  Imagine that man getting re deployed over and over and over in Iraq and Afghanistan and the military saying PTSD is not reason enough for a way out.
    That is happeing today.
    I live this horrible thing every single day.  My husband at one time was the drunk on the dock.  He was the HOBO on the train...He was the one and still is at times the one who has had life interrupted by something as small as a firecracker or a plate being dropped.
    He at one time was the one sleeping on top of a dumpster.
    What you did was reach out and listen.
    Veterans suffering from PTSD are misunderstood.  They are deemed whacked out vets.  The majority suffer from survival guilt.  I have sat with more vets on a phone holding a gun to their head than I want to think about.  Precisely why I am a veterans advocate.
    Look at the time of this post.  It is memorial day weekend.  Do you think my PTSD suffering vet husband is asleep?  No.
    He does go to the VA.  He does have family support now.  He does have someone to say if you need a tune up, we can drive to the VA.  (That is what they call it when they check in for rest on a floor with all PTSD patients having flashbacks.
    I stand on guard almost every holiday because we just don't know how THIS holiday will affect him or others I know.
    You absolutely did the right thing.  I have called the police to more people to take them in for evaluation than I can name.  The drinking and drugs is just self medicating.
    My husband used to say, "I got killed over there", I just ain't laid down yet.
    True for combat vets.
    The soldier leaves the war but the war never leaves the soldier.
    Bless you for taking time with this veteran.  

  •  Perhaps he was just drunk (6+ / 0-)

    As someone with a 70% PTSd rating from the VA, I can tell you there's a whole lot of BS out there.
    I was sitting in a chair in the VA clinic the other day when this guy started telling me about parachute jumping into Afghanistan as a MArine in 1986. He had his story all down, it was obviously well rehearsed but it was all complete bullshit and it shouldn't take a veteran to figure out why.

    You have to take what drunks say with  a grain of salt, they make up outlandish stories sometimes.

    Happy just to be alive

    by exlrrp on Sat May 29, 2010 at 05:08:29 AM PDT

  •  Phil Ochs lays it out beautifully (5+ / 0-)

    And one of the most perfect voices sings it.

    The folded coffin flag is nothing but a receipt from the Masters of War to the pawns in their game.

    by BOHICA on Sat May 29, 2010 at 06:03:11 AM PDT

    •  BOHICA, that is absolutely perfect. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Joan Baez and Phil Ochs have real heart. They reach down from their depths into you.

      Funny how Bob Dylan's music has touched, moved and educated so many and has said what needed to be said, but sort of from an outsider's viewpoint. He observes and sees more penetratingly and clearly than others but stands to the side and does the type of reporting that we can only dream that journalists would do.

      But it is real. He should have gotten the Nobel Prize in Literature in the 60s.

      "You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it." - Rabbi Tarfon

      by samddobermann on Sat May 29, 2010 at 11:33:24 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I'm glad this was rescued (3+ / 0-)

    This is a very meaningful diary. I'm sorry for the guy you met but glad you were able to get some clarity as a result of that meeting.

    I hope you drop in on his birthday party, in spite of hating that bar, and tell him that his talk with you made you realize that if he can survive what he's endured in his life, you can do it, too. If you put it that way, it just might help him to realize that his life has actually had a positive effect on someone else, and that might help him feel a little better.

    One small detail that feels almost too petty to mention, but which I'll mention anyway:

    You you didn't recant this episode; you recounted it, and did so very well. Thank you.

  •  Get a friend and go to his BD party (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    MichaelNY, swampyankee

    When someone is that broken, the smallest gesture looks like a

    Take 3 guys with you, if the bar is that bad.

    The universe gave you an opportunity made of gold: to minister to a combat veteran. Life is not perfection, as I believe you note. We remember our lives as a series of moments. Give him a moment, a different moment, a positive moment, an unlikely, seemingly miraculous moment, to sit up against his fire-y memories.

    It will comfort him over and over, that simple moment, when he needs some shred of comfort. And most importantly, it will start to abrade the edges of the fire-y horror memories. It will say, "Look, there is miracle in life, as well as horror." It will say, "Maybe we could move a bit towards the miracle, instead of bathing in the fire-y horror."

    (FWIW, PTSD is in some part literally having too much emotion on some nerve pathways in the brain, so they get burned up and don't function any more, so the brain needs to reroute around non-functional areas. Literal fire in his brain occurred, in response to the fire.
    It's no picnic trying to get the re-routing to work. I have a vet friend with PTSD. It's a struggle. I knew him before Iraq, I stand by him now, to the best of my ability.)

    Does he know he has PTSD? Does he have a name for it? If not, give it to him. There are a number of treatments that help PTSD. Tell him that. Tell him that even if he hasn't heard of them, and even if he never contacts them, they exist. That there are people who've devoted their entire adult lives to working in the field of humans with trauma, figuring out how to help them. That they'd help him if they found him.

    To make that seem real, here's a video of a fellow helping a Vietnam Vet who's had intrusive damaging memories for decades:
    or here:

    Google "PTSD help for war veterans". See if you can find a modality that you think is good. There was a show on NPR recently about a VA center (TX? somewhere in south) which has a treatment that's working. Call the nearest VA. Ask them what they have going on to help people with PTSD. Ask them if they do street outreach. If not, ask them why the hell not, do they think these people are all functional enough to come to them? (Or don't say that, up to you. But seriously, there are people out on the streets trying to help homeless children, what are we thinking as a society if we don't have street outreach to our homeless PTSD-impaired vets?) When you go to the BD party, tell Honorable Vet what the local VA has going for it re PTSD.

    Tell him you honor his suffering. Tell him he helped you. Thank him in person.

    I don't know if you are Christian at all, I was raised as such, and there was this J guy who said, "I stand at the door and knock." and "I was hungry, and ye did not..." The birthday invite is him saying, "I'm asking you to care for me. Improbable, miraculous, impossible as that would be." Yes, one has to be crazy to ask such a thing, driven crazy by visions of horror, too much pain, endless looping tape. Not disputing that at this time he's crazy, but it's not contagious, and he could get better.

    For sure, please, if all the above seems too much, read "The Soloist" by Steve Lopez. If you saw the movie, that's nice/good, but the book is different.
    Or your local library for free. It discusses what the most pivotal thing is for getting homeless troubled people into housing, getting them to upgrade their lives. Friendship. That is all.

    The universe has given you a huge opportunity. What a privilege.

    This health care system is a moral atrocity. Dr. Ralphdog

    by AllisonInSeattle on Sun May 30, 2010 at 12:00:36 AM PDT

    •  ...smallest gesture looks like a mountain. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      ...smallest gesture looks like a miracle.

      ...smallest gesture looks like solid gold.

      When someone is that "crazy", whether from PTSD, alcohol, type of mental illness, or just down and out and hopeless after formerly having it together... they live in a sort of language of dreams. Things have different, grander meanings and symbolism.

      But it's a language we can understand, if we think of the language of dreams and symbols.

      [Apologies I somehow deleted the rest of that sentence.)

      Ak in NY, thanks for pulling back the curtains so we could look into this one man's river of dream language.

      This health care system is a moral atrocity. Dr. Ralphdog

      by AllisonInSeattle on Sun May 30, 2010 at 12:28:11 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  We'd all better take a course to help (0+ / 0-)

    I live near Ft. Benning, GA. There are a lot of PDSD problems in the community and there will be more as these wars drag on (Hopefully not forever: see Jonathan Alter's excerpt from his new book "The Promise" in Newsweek, May 24/32). Your words can help individuals anticipate a helpful response...I think you did the best thing. Your being there and listening also helped.

  •  Many claim to be vets, few are (0+ / 0-)

    I'll admit to anecdotal evidence right up front.  I had a close friend who worked with the homeless for two decades.  Most of the guys claimed to be vets - but every time she did battle with the VA to get them admitted, it turned out that it was lies.  Of the tens of "vets" that she worked with over the years, only one turned out to be legit (and he never brought up the subject voluntarily).  I suspect that, as a society, we forgive vets more easily for being alcoholics, drug abusers, etc. because of the horrors we imagine that they have gone through.  It's an easy justification for behavior that is deemed socially unacceptable.
    As for the multiple failed suicides, I have direct personal experience with someone with bi-polar who has gone that route - many times.
    While I definitely believe that the man needed help, I would be very doubtful that the story he spun is in any way accurate.

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