Getting Right in the Head

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From a BBC article 1 January 2017

I saw this tweet from Louis Leung a week ago, and immediately thought of a half dozen Asians and Asian Americans whom I know have suffered silently for years, if not decades.  I was one of them, but no longer.  A friend finally convinced me that admitting I had a problem, like an alcoholic does at an AA meeting, was braver than trying to gut it out alone.  That seeking and finding professional help for mental health issues was not, as I’d long mistakenly thought, an admission of weakness.

Around 20 years ago, I never went to sleep without first checking my nightstand.  Inside the top drawer, next to three loaded magazines, was a .45-caliber Colt 1991A1.  First, lock the slide back.  Load one of the magazines, then hit the slide release with my thumb.  Hear the satisfying “snick” as the slide jumps forward and chambers the first 230-grain round.  I’d pull the slide back a half-inch, enough to make sure the round sat in the chamber, then let the slide go forward.  Drop the hammer, push the safety up, replace the pistol in the drawer, then try to sleep.  “Try” is the operative word; sometimes I could zonk out, other times I couldn’t without the help of a pint glass of whiskey and a Percocet.  If I spent the night at my girlfriend’s place, the pistol came with me, inside a holster at the bottom of the bike messenger bag that held a shaving kit and change of clothes.  The weight of it in the bag, the heft of it when I held it in my hand, was in itself a drug that numbed any number of neuroses that then plagued my waking mind.

Outwardly, I was adjusting well to life as a pseudo-civilian after my active duty hitch in the Army: college student by day, waiter and bartender by night, National Guardsman on occasional weekends.  I seemed to fit in as a twenty-three-year-old sophomore, and while I wasn’t making any friends on the military side, no one could question my tactical or technical proficiency.  My enemy was the six- or seven-hour stretch between closing the pub and my morning alarm.  Suffice it to say, I was struggling at the time with undiagnosed post-traumatic stress and, like legions of Asian Americans before me, I compartmentalized it – buried it deep, in the mistaken notion that once it was buried, it could never escape to hound me again.  My attitude towards mental health then was fairly indicative of that of the Asian American diaspora: only pussies admit weakness, and only the weakest of the weak seek treatment for it.  If you must, then self medicate, but don’t bother the rest of the world with your troubles.  Seeing a mental health professional is a waste of time, and a shame on your family.

Alcohol and opioids were my drugs of choice, one naturally followed by the other like the inserts and shells of the old Army gloves I wore in winter.  I lived in such a perpetual fog that almost two years passed before I could blink.  My other drug was fighting.  It isn’t enough to seek or start a good fight.  You first have to accept the possibility that you might get your ass kicked, show up to work or class with a black eye, experience pain when you breathe because of a cracked rib or two.  You also have to go into a fight knowing in your very bones that there is no way this son of a bitch can best you.  You go into a fight foreseeing how you’ll beat him so badly that he’ll always fear the memory of the big Asian dude.  When it’s over, he’s lying bleeding on the sidewalk, and endorphins are racing through your bloodstream like a narcotic, you feel … oddly at peace.  You find another bar, drink the physical pain away, chase the whiskey with the Perc in your jeans watch pocket, and somehow find a cab back to your apartment.  Back to your pistol and its false promise of safety.

I left DC to visit a friend’s grave, the kind where you place a dime on the headstone, and salute your friend after you weep over your misspent youth.  For some reason, that visit shook me to my core, far more viscerally than previous visits.  I suddenly remembered details I hadn’t thought of since he died: how goddamn heavy live ammo was, compared to the blanks I had carried during field exercises; the sound of Velcro when I undid the front enclosure of my body armor after a long patrol; the exhaustion that can only come from constant vigilance; the smell of burning human excrement mixed with diesel fuel; how much red and green tracer rounds at night reminded me of a battle scene from Star Wars.  I popped a pill, then walked all the way from Union Station to my apartment in Arlington.

Once home, the first order of business was to make sure my pistol was where I’d left it.  I passed out for a few hours, visited by another old friend, my recurring nightmare.  Many people know this friend.  Many people hate this friend.  This friend has visited me now and again for about two decades, returning for nightly gigs beginning on 12 September 2001, then tapering off a year later.  I was black (all out) on ammo during a firefight filled with smoke, screaming, blood, and explosions.  My ammo pouches were empty, and every ammo pouch of every dead soldier I searched yielded nothing.  Even the dead enemy’s weapons and ammo pouches were empty.  The nightmare’s last gift was the sight of a rocket-propelled grenade coming straight for me, and I jolted awake like I always did.

When I woke up this time, however, my pistol was in my hand.  I’d somehow gotten it out of the drawer, flicked the safety off, and cocked the hammer – while I slept.  All it would have taken to end myself was about five pounds of pressure on the trigger.  Just make that damn dream stop, I thought.  I didn’t want to deal with real life, which always seemed to kick me in the balls.  The last time I had felt anything resembling a sense of purpose, I’d been on active duty.  To hell with all of it.  I put the muzzle against the bridge of my nose, the pistol angled so that the bullet would take the top rear of my skull with it as it exited.  “What the hell are you doing, Kim?”  Took me a second to realize that voice was mine.  I put the pistol down like it was made out of glowing slag in a steel mill.  After I got my wits about me with a pot of coffee and half a pack of cigarettes, I did what had previously been unthinkable for me: I unloaded the pistol and locked it in the carrying case I had never used.  I eventually sold the pistol to help finance my wedding, but until then it stayed in the carrying case unless I was at the range.

The week after my trip, I met my former history professor, who took me out for a midday beer.  Full disclosure, we had considerably more than one beer each, but I hadn’t seen him in a while and needed his advice.  He was the only Vietnam veteran in my circle, but more importantly, he was Asian American, and I needed someone with the same cultural baseline.  When I told him how I’d woken up that night, he wrote something on a cocktail napkin from memory.  It was the number to his therapist.  “Dan,” he said, “you remind me a lot of me in 1970.  You’re angry but you don’t know why, or even at whom.  So you get to feeling that maybe it’s the whole world that isn’t right, not you.  Go see this guy.  He helped me come home from Vietnam.”  This wasn’t a military issue, necessarily, he said.  He’d seen too many young Asian Americans like myself fall into the same spiral of self-hate, anger, and despondency because we so steadfastly refused to seek help.  Benny died of a massive heart attack in 2001.  I owe him a debt I can never repay, for the gift of my own life.

I was initially the polar opposite of a model patient.  What jarred me enough to keep coming back was that Dr. Gillen was the first non-military adult to call me out on my bullshit.  “If you’re going to be an uncooperative asshole, then it’s probably best that you leave my office.”  Then I noticed the shadow box on the wall above a credenza; the top two awards were the Bronze Star Medal with “V” device for valor, and the Purple Heart.  He was also a Vietnam veteran, having served as a Navy corpsman assigned to the Marines in Hue.  The good doctor had walked the walk.  My reaction was a lot like Keanu Reaves as Ted Logan saying “whoa.”  This not only rocked my world, it earned my immediate respect.  From that point on, I spilled my guts.  I rearranged my work schedule around my biweekly visits, damn the cost since my shitty insurance didn’t cover mental health.  Self care, difficult enough for a single person but damn near impossible for one in the restaurant industry, became a new goal.  I measured success in weeks, then months, elapsed since my last fight.  Weeks, then months, since my last “God, please kill me with an asteroid” hangover.  Later still, weeks, then months, since the last Perc ingested for a reason other than pain.

My mother sought help after she divorced my father, unbelievably brave acts and selfish for all the right reasons.  In seeking the help of a therapist, however, she was an outlier, and didn’t even admit this to me until years later.  My mother had so subsumed her own identity in that of her husband, my father, that she initially didn’t know how to even proceed with the daily inanities of life.  Divorce was so outside her friends’ experience, so outside their comfort zone, that they weren’t much help to her.  I was less than no help to her at this time, consumed in my own spiral of booze and opioids.  My mother’s immeasurably bold fight against depression and the after-effects of a miserable twenty-three-year marriage bore fruit; the woman she was twenty years ago wouldn’t have been capable of being the loving, giving grandmother she is now to my children. 

As for me, my own depression was finally diagnosed, in addition to the post-traumatic stress that I’d been trying and failing to keep at bay.  I now viewed therapy with a fervor that the American Taliban evangelical Christians save for the revival tent.  I was lucky, too, in that my therapy occurred outside the military.  I was too horrified of it showing up on my Army medical record, should I seek help from either the VA or a military psychiatrist – thereby blackballing me as less than mentally strong enough to renew my membership in the tribe.  All too sadly, many soldiers still feel this way today.

This stigma also applies to the Asian American community, both the immigrant and succeeding generations.  Less so with American-born Millennials, thank goodness, but the resistance to help for mental health issues is still fierce among Boomers and my own American-born Generation X.  My cohort and I were raised by our parents to “never let them see you sweat,” as if we’re collectively allergic to showing any hint of vulnerability.  We don’t want to allow any opening for someone else to eat our lunch, either in a personal or business setting; this leaves untold thousands of emotionally stunted people who lead lives out of sync with their own feelings.

Only speaking for myself, both as a former soldier and also just as a human being, I regret that it took me so long to seek and find meaningful help.  I still need what I glibly call a mental health tune-up now and then, with a therapist I found through my health insurance after moving the New York.  With one exception, it’s been fully twelve years since my last fisticuff.  Thanks to yoga and a realization that I was fast becoming hooked on Perc, I haven’t had an opioid for anything besides pain management in fourteen years.  As for my old friend, the nightmare still visits me on occasion, but I’ve grown to accept it, not actively try to shut it out of my psyche.  The credit for much of this belongs to the mental health professionals who’ve helped me over the years.  I can only hope that as the stigma of mental illness dissipates over time, more Asian Americans will see that there is no shame to it; that their very survival may depend on getting the help they need.

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2 thoughts on “Getting Right in the Head

  1. I found this because I read and respect your twitter posts. I am grateful you shared your story. As someone who encountered depression fairly early on, I know as you do that therapy and support were there only way to overcome.

  2. Thank you for sharing your story. I wish you the best and to continue to discuss this topic until its no longer taboo. I’m Greek and we do the same thing. Bury it deep, work hard, don’t talk about it. Thank you again.

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