Monday, July 21, 2008

ANNALS OF PTSD: One More Casualty

Joseph Dwyer was a hero who became famous for carrying a wounded child toward help, an act of courage documented in one of the most famous photographs to emerge from the Iraq War.

A medic from Long Island whose brothers were cops, he joined up after 9/11. He cared for the wounded on the battlefield as the army fought their way from the Euphrates to Baghdad. When medics are under fire, they don't shoot back. They're too busy putting pressure bandages on sucking chest wounds, or tying tourniquets on the remains of a limb, or strapping their wounded friends onto stretchers. He was decorated for his courage with a Combat Medical Badge for service under fire.

He came home safely from Iraq, but he couldn't get the war out of his head. The VA gave him medicine and inpatient treatment, but they weren't enough.

Imagine the endless nightmare of war superimposed on your normal life -- ordinary sounds threaten death, roadside litter becomes an improvised bomb. Imagine the heart-pounding terror every time someone knocks on your door. He lived in that hell for five years. Finally he died there.

Technically, the death was from a drug overdose. But when you're frightened sick all the time, unrelentingly, any drug that will give you surcease can be an unbearable temptation.

I hope he has found peace and rest now in a place without gunfire. I pray that his wife and daughter, his friends, his family, will all find consolation. But for those who live with this pain, there is very little consolation.

PTSD destroys lives, and it can spread to your partners and into the next generation. My father was a medic in the Korean War. I'm sure that some of what he did to me, some of the living nightmares i still fight, came from the battlefields of Korea.

In "Let the People Speak," Stephen Fry interviewed various (possibly fictional) members of the British public about the first Gulf War, which was then beginning:
"Let's get one thing straight," said a doctor from Long Melford. "Soldiers are made from flesh and bone and tissue that is, as Wilfred Owen said, 'so dear achieved.' It has taken them from 17 to 30 years to grow into what they are. In seconds it can be a tangle of blood and smashed material that can never be put right again."

. . . "Are you in the business of comforting the enemy?"

"No, I'm in the business of repairing flesh. Just be sure. For God's sake be sure."

Minds can be smashed beyond all repairing, too. It took 26 years to make Joseph Dwyer into the kind of man who would rescue a wounded child under fire.

It took 91 days on the battlefield to destroy him.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

After 32 Years, Network Still Nails It

Network is probably the greatest rant movie ever made. (I can't think of another contender with so many great rants from so many different characters.) And this rant (newscaster Howard Beale's magnificent on-air breakdown) seems eerily on-target for life as it is today.

I don't have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It's a depression. Everybody's out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel's worth, banks are going bust, shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter. Punks are running wild in the street and there's nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there's no end to it. We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit watching our TV's while some local newscaster tells us that today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that's the way it's supposed to be. We know things are bad - worse than bad. They're crazy. It's like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don't go out anymore. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we are living in is getting smaller, and all we say is, 'Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials and I won't say anything. Just leave us alone.' Well, I'm not gonna leave you alone. I want you to get mad! I don't want you to protest. I don't want you to riot - I don't want you to write to your congressman because I wouldn't know what to tell you to write. I don't know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street. All I know is that first you've got to get mad.

[shouting] You've got to say, 'I'm a HUMAN BEING, Goddamnit! My life has VALUE!' So I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell,

'I'M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!' I want you to get up right now, sit up, go to your windows, open them and stick your head out and yell - 'I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!' Things have got to change. But first, you've gotta get mad!... You've got to say, 'I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!' Then we'll figure out what to do about the depression and the inflation and the oil crisis. But first get up out of your chairs, open the window, stick your head out, and yell, and say it:

[screaming at the top of his lungs] "I'M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!"

Not a Goddamned thing has changed except that we now have video games and the Internet.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Officially Cheerful

Had a rough day? Stressed about the looming Apocalypse and your dwindling bank balance? You need James Lileks. You need The Institute of Official Cheer. It's got everything, all enhanced by elegantly phrased snarky commentary:

* Clothing ads from the 1973 Sears catalog! Go ahead and laugh. But dammit, we thought it was pretty. Except the plaid pants. And some of the hairstyles. And all that polyester. No, I didn't buy my clothes from Sears--that was too fancy. What Ma didn't make, we got from Eynon Drug.

* Elvis meets Liberace! And other all-too-memorable publicity shots.

* Sometimes meat likes to dress up and feel pretty. A sample of the joys of The Gallery of Regrettable Food -- actual food illustrations and photography from the Depression through the swinging 70s. There are a few recipes, but the focus is on the unappetizing pictures and Lileks's delicious commentary. Imagine the mind that could dream up hot dogs in aspic. No, don't. Not if you're eating. Or about to eat. Or ever want to eat again.

Most of the content in Lileks's books is no longer on the website, but truly they are worth buying. (I keep an eye out at used bookstores and library sales; so far I've picked up two, plus a book of essays.) He describes a loaf of mottled red meat sludge in aspic as "a core sample from a mass grave." He tells the hidden stories of the people in those illustrations. Truly, he is the MST3K of old advertisements -- and his wit is as sharp as his eye. (He also posts a lot of other useful and interesting material, including old photos of Fargo, ND, and Minneapolis.)

The effect of reading anything by Lileks is, first, laughter, tinged with horror. Then, as you read on, uncontrollable spasms of laughter. Then choking, screaming convulsions of something that might be laughter or agony, garnished by tears. Then full-fledged hysteria. It's absolutely guaranteed, and it's one of the best ways I know for dealing with a horrible day.

Why yes, I had a . . . regrettable day. Any day in which one's automobile, freshly emerged from the shelter of a warranty period, demands repairs that will cost almost a month's rent (which, incidentally, has just been raised again), that day cries out for Official Cheer.

(It worked, too.)

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

IN MEMORIAM: Thomas M. Disch

He wrote beautiful prose. He wrote beautiful poetry. The rage and pain and beauty of his work shone like supernovas at sunset. He was viciously original and sometimes just vicious.

He was notoriously hard to deal with -- his LJ demonstrates his prickliness and anger. Those may be characteristic of a man who never learned to defend himself against the world or his own deep pain. (No, that's not just something I say of the honored dead. I have loved, do love, a few people like that.)

He killed himself on Independence Day -- surely a comment and a message to us. And his magnanimous, lyrical descriptions of life after death in The Businessman give me hope. Perhaps he has found his way toward that heaven where suicides learn to cope with life.