Mental Health: Where I Have Been

Winter in Northern Utah

(Silverdale, Washington; Jun. 9, 2019) – I’m back.

I was able to finish the Grand Tour properly and a bit early (all 50 states, and a bit of Canada, from Nov. 2017 – Oct. 2018). But I had to lop off a lot of stops in order to see all 50 and get home in time to help my family out. Part of that was choosing to focus on keeping my photos captioned and published at the expense of writing these columns. I just didn’t have the time and had to make a choice. After that, life moved very rapidly and I spent many months in basic survival mode trying to catch up.

I moved out here in January during a four-day marathon drive that took me through a blizzard in Texas and badly iced roads in Utah and Oregon and western Washington State. I settled in Silverdale, Washington, and am working as the staff writer/editor for a group up the road in Keyport.

I will, over time, complete my stories from the Grand Tour. But for now, I re-emerge on the blogosphere talking about a favorite painful topic: mental health.

Simply put, I’m a mess. I’m not in danger, but I am a mess. I knew that, once I got off the road, the reality of not being in the Navy anymore would catch up and I’d have to go through an emotional adjustment process. I also knew I’d have to learn how to feel at home where I choose to go because the bedrock of military orders no longer underpins my location. I knew I’d have to accept missing the community of the uniform, the camaraderie, and the built-in sense of belonging.

I did not anticipate the last six months being so difficult as to explode anew all the landmines that my own past traumas buried in me. But, explode them anew it has, and so I have found myself reacting like a classic PTSD case you’d see on a moving documentary on TV, complete with emotive music and subdues, dramatic lighting. However, there is a problem I have found in the trauma-recovery community: some traumas are more “politically sexy” than others. I’m not a combat vet or a sexual assault survivor. Most of the programs the VA and others set up have told me I’m just not the right fit: my trauma isn’t the trauma they care about.

Talk about making a person feel alone in a crowd.

I’m a statistical anomaly. According to all the research I’ve done, most people that experience direct workplace violence experience it once. I got assaulted three times, and all three times my leadership was complicit:

1) In 2005 I was assaulted and imprisoned (yes, imprisoned) in a room at the photo lab on Guam when a fellow Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class didn’t like that I’d been named shop supervisor instead of him. He even cut the phone line. I had to break the window to get out. I got to headquarters, and our senior chief promptly lectured me to learn to “listen to people.” So, that’s simple assault + false imprisonment seasoned with higher authority blaming the victim.

2) Later in 2005 our new chief petty officer, coming back from a school, got an earful from the PAO that the photo lab had done nothing: sent in no reports, completed no jobs, and responded to no inquires for the three months he had been gone. I get it—he got yelled at and torn a new one. He came to the lab and backed me (again acting as supervisor while he was gone) in to a corner, yelling in my face and spitting on me as he did so while physically thumping my chest. I had a bit more backbone by then; I told him to fire me. But, before he did, would he like to see a hard copy of the three months’ worth of paperwork I’d done documenting our completed work that the PAO had ignored? Oh, and, besides, if we really were so out of control, why hadn’t the senior chief (same one from earlier) come from HQ to get things in control? I had no recourse I knew of in either assault. The same senior chief was in place, and he’d already shown his true colors. At that time I also had no training in Navy regulations for such things, so I didn’t know to go to the legal office to file a complaint in either case.

3) While aboard USS Ponce (LPD 15) in 2010 another senior chief burst in on a meeting of first class petty officers I was chairing to resolve a berthing dispute. My own senior chief followed him into the room and, as soon as the dork backed me into a corner, yelling and spitting on me and thumping me in the chest, my senior chief literally turned his back and pretended not to watch. I did not even thing I could go to the ship’s legal officer; my backbone was getting tougher, but I was still about three years away from the education that taught me the legal remedies the Navy had for sailors like me. Again, I did not know I had any recourse; I swallowed my feelings and just survived.

Those three incidents don’t tell the whole story. Several times I was thrust in a life-threatening situation with no training and minimal support by a direct chain of command that would maybe get to it later when they had time. I am fortunate in that I’m smart, resilient, and know how to find help. I kept me alive and found allies in other shops that would train me and watch my back. This pattern first started in VF-213 during my days as an F-14 Tomcat technician, but it repeated many times.

Now, many people who do not suffer from the aftereffects of trauma will blithely tell me (and, for that matter, have told me) I should get over stuff because, well, obviously I’m quite capable of taking care of myself so instead of still feeling fear, anger, confusion, and distrust of authority I should feel proud, strong, and steadfast.

It doesn’t work that way. I still feel these things because, like other trauma victims with PTSD, I never had the chance to feel through them; I had to stuff the feelings away and just survive.

The blizzard driving out here—that started it again. Then after I found a townhouse the storage company holding my stuff dithered for three weeks until I threatened to call a lawyer. By the time they got my stuff shipped, I had already moved into an empty house with my cot and one chair…and then the biggest snow event to hit the Kitsap and Olympic Peninsulas in 70 years shut down the entire western half of the state for a week. So I’m alone in a new place for the first time as a civilian trying to keep myself amused and sane while stuck inside an empty house surrounded by snow.

But wait, there’s more!

We have had some upheavals at work. Personnel issues. They hit everywhere, and it was my bad fortune to start work on Jan. 7 of this year only three weeks before an issue building for two years exploded. It does not mean the organization is bad or broken, just that human beings have collided. I was caught in the blast, and reacted all out of proportion until I understood what was going on: I am suffering classic PTSD. My fear and distrust of authority were at a boiling point; the fears generated by instability were roiling; my sense of being betrayed because, as much as I was holding up a neon sign begging for help, no one helped. You see, for one thing, I kept being told that work is for work, not emotional help (very true and entirely unhelpful); I was also told I shouldn’t be feeling so strongly since nothing was a real threat to my safety (also very true and also entirely unhelpful).

I have learned that, without the constraints of duty and military decorum, my ability to keep my emotions stuffed down under the surface has eroded. It is much like the way a landslide on a volcano can unleash an eruption by freeing the trapped, super-heated magma below from the weight of million of tons of rock. The uniform provided a powerful stabilizing force; that force is gone now and the magma chamber in my soul is no longer held in place by it.

All the PTSD support groups are in Seattle and Tacoma—a two hour dive from me on the Kitsap Peninsula (or longer if you take the ferry and have to wait for it). There is not one VA group in Bremerton (which is just south of me). Quite by accident I landed in a place where I’m geographically cut off from the support network for veterans. I also have another variable; the VA does offer counseling through video chat. I tried that and discovered, to my frustration, that video chatting with a counselor ends up making me feel more isolated. I guess it’s because the video call reinforces to me that I’m forever separated from the other human being and can’t touch them if needed.

I knew finding community would be difficult since I can’t comfortably go to church. I am a relatively conservative Roman Catholic who has two major strikes in my own denomination: I’m divorced and I’m openly gay. Church law prevents me from communion on both counts. Protestant denominations abound, but those that are gay-friendly are largely, in my personal opinion, very theologically unsound. So my old standby (from back in my days living in the closet) of settling into a faith community are somewhat thwarted.

As has often happened in the past, I’m largely on my own.

I am trapped right now, trapped and driven by things deep within me that I know need have no power over me, but do because I can find no help in dealing with them. To put it in very colloquial terms, I can find no one who will help me cry and let it go, but plenty of people telling me I need to get over it and that much it is my fault for putting myself into situations I know are risky or for having had any kind of expectations, no matter how reasonable.

I do not intend to remain trapped. I do not intend to remain driven to ill-considered actions and decisions by emotional forces within me that I can’t process or let go. I intend to be free. I intend to find a way that will allow me to finally feel through all these things and let them become part of my history, not part of my waking nightmare.

I just do not have a clue how I’m going to achieve that as yet. Without help from a proper counselor and support group…I just don’t know how to achieve such a lofty goal. However, I will achieve it. Somehow. That is a legacy I have left to myself from these years of strife: in the end I am remarkably good and finding allies and help in unlikely places.

This column has extended to a length far in excess of what I prefer. However, I wanted y’all to know where I have been and what I am doing now. I intend my future columns will be far more succinct as befits a professional writer and journalist.

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Nathanael Miller’s Photojournalism Archives:

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