Before I get into how and why shit really does get a hell of a lot better, I’ll write a little about the VA and why it is so difficult for many of us to seek help from that system.
Walking into a VA hospital is a coin flip for every veteran who suffers from, well, anything really. On one side, you might flip heads and end up with a great doctor who will check your records, listen to what you have to say, give you an examination, run some tests, and assign to you the medical treatments that you will require while being a professional. However, some of us flip tails and end up with…substandard healthcare. I don’t mean that you will either be treated like a hero or a villain for life, I mean every time you walk through those doors, your experience will be different.
If you spent any amount of time in the Marines, you know that everything comes from the lowest bidder. The doctors at VA hospitals are no different. There are many men and women in the system that are very genuine in their pursuit of helping sick and injured veterans, but of course there are also some that are only there to enhance their careers. Many of them are fresh from college, which is good and bad. They lack experience but have all of the modern knowledge…which is also a two-sided coin. I’m not trying to go all Harvey Dent on you, but it really is a coin flip at every turn in the VA system. Some of the more experienced doctors have vast reserves of information in their heads, but have become so jaded by scams and “advice” from above that they will treat every patient as if they are only seeking a drug connection (that is, unless the patient is over 70). The nurses are…well, honestly your nurses will either be sweet as pie and full of sunshine and rainbows or complete bitches who don’t give a shit because “ugh, *tch* I’m on break.” Males included. Some guys bitch about the “foreign” doctors, but they are just as professional and courteous as any other docs you’ll meet. The best help I have received came from two Pakistani doctors, so pay no attention to the racist/nationalist bullshit from our older, less enlightened brethren. Some of the older guys and patients with hearing loss ask a nurse to basically interpret, though. If you get a doc with an industrial strength accent, the nurses will be ready to answer your questions. I have met a couple guys in group that had to request another doc because they couldn’t handle baring their soul to a guy who looks and sounds eerily similar to the men they fought against.
And there are the pills…
If you suffer from chronic pain, be ready for one of two things to happen:
1. You will be treated with respect and dignity while receiving the help you need for you injury.
2. You will be treated like a common criminal.
You will likely get the medications you require to kill the pain and allow you to function as a productive member of society. However, some doctors have become very jaded by their years of doctoring and dealing with addicts and will therefore use extreme scrutiny when considering your individual needs. Some of them will ask you what medications you want as a test to see if you jump right to opiates, which will lead them to believe you don’t need the meds, you’re just a filthy, lying goddamned junky. When you are standing in line at the pharmacy window, you will very likely find out why this is because loud mouthed shitbags exist in the VA system as well and they have no problem bragging/complaining to you about their “score.” Yeah, you have to deal with shitbags in the civ div, too (fuckin’ frowny face and shit, man).
The mental health side is just as messy, if not worse. Mental health care has become a trial and error process of seeing what chemicals are less likely to put you down for good. There are now over 300 different *cough*bullshit*cough* diagnoses that can be given to anyone, whereas there used to be only a handful (which included female hysteria and drapetomania…and that’s your cue to google those two terms by the way). Again, some docs will ask you which medications you would prefer to weed out addicts. If you request that they NOT prescribe you anti-something pills, you will likely be prescribed something anyways and receive a “voluntarily refused treatment” statement on your medical record if you choose not to use them- a form you have to sign in order to continue receiving health care from the VA. Any time you don’t follow their advice, you have to sign another one. The system is usually pretty clogged up with red tape shit like that. They are required to prescribe pills because that is the new thing to do and apparently therapy wasn’t cost effective (but was in reality very effective for veterans). Appointments are usually a few months apart and are very difficult to schedule sooner unless there is an emergency. The chemicals do not begin to work for two to six weeks and sometimes make things like PTSD, depression, and suicidal thoughts/tendencies to intensify. SOP for worsening symptoms is to stop taking the medication immediately and contact your doc for a replacement, leaving a several-week time span where the veteran is extremely vulnerable and sick before they can ever see someone who can help them. When they go back, they are given a different chemical and the process repeats until they find something that doesn’t make the problem too much worse, succumb to their ailment, or get very pissed off and find their own way to deal (this last one is not recommended by professionals).
That all being said, the system does seem to do more good than it gets credit for. I once ended up with acute pancreatitis (I would suggest avoiding this if at all possible) and they helped me avoid losing that inflamed little bastard. When I had nowhere to sleep, they hooked me up with a local mission, who in turn, due to an unnecessarily intense confrontation with the manager, pointed me towards the hotel our VA uses to house transient patients. Their substance abuse programs are pretty useful. I haven’t eaten any strange medications or had more than one beer since February of 2013 and I was shitfaced nearly every day before that. Without the alcohol, my depression eased up a bit. Enough that I decided to stop taking anti-pills. That did suck at first; coming off of any brain-altering chemical will be awkward at the very least. Separating myself from my old friends/bad influences helped A LOT. The group sessions they hold are often very eye-opening. When I was in the inpatient program, they had classes every morning and a group session before and after lunch, then another class. Group was held by the head counselor-guy and was usually a motivating speech then whoever would talk about whatever, the conversations centering around positivity and letting go of the things that truly do not matter. After these talks, I would always feel better about some ass-chewing or bullshit game because I had realized that it was almost always due to shoddy leadership instead of a personal failure. It gives a lot of intelligent insight into how and why people become assholes.
Many of the most useful things I learned there came from other veterans who had made far poorer choices than I and for much longer. There were retired officers and SNCO’s with cocaine and crack problems. Bad ones. Alcoholism was present in nearly everyone, but there were people that were addicted to meth, heroine, pills, eating, shopping, sex (seriously, the most honest addicts you will ever meet are sex addicts), and even success. That is a real thing by the way. Several guys from my local VA are literally addicted to gaining a fortune then losing it all so they can get it back over and over. This happens to people on both sides of the law. Most of them never touched the harder shit until after they got out, which kind of has to be expected. Be prepared, however, as you may hear some stories that will curdle your spermicles and make you think to yourself, “holy shit how the fuck are you even alive right now?” or “wow, dude, you really should be in prison right now” and those aren’t even the war stories. Shit will make you sick sometimes but you have to sit through it to get a proper perspective on how truly flawed our system is.
They feed you. It is food, and it…um, has nutrients? Sometimes it has taste, but most of the time it will be hospital food that is very easy to digest (its all soft and bland). It’s hot, it’s free, and it’s always on time, so you can’t really complain. To quote Alfred Matthew Yankovic: “Just eat it.”
Job placement services are available to any veteran who wants help finding a good/better job. Inpatients can get part-time to full-time employment within the VA doing things like laundry, painting, landscaping, and other manual labor jobs while they are being treated. It is a good way to save up a little cash so that when you’re treatment is through you can find a place and a vehicle. Some VA’s have on-site or nearby group homes where patients that have completed the program can live and work.
Normally there is at least one VFW representative in the hospital somewhere. Even if you haven’t deployed to a war zone or seen combat, they will help you file your claim and work with you if you are having legal troubles. There are sometimes volunteers who come in to help veterans with financial woes like bankruptcy, losing their home, or the almost obligatory bad credit so many of us tend to accumulate. They will even do your taxes if it is February – April for the free. These fine folks, the VFW and volunteers, will help you buy a fucking house!
Many of the employers they can introduce you to are very awesome people who want to hire you. It may be a little bit of blind troop worship, but use it to your advantage because if you don’t, a shitbag will abuse it until they no longer accept us.
Education benefits are the easiest thing to apply for, and they will help you with that, too. If you have had problems with school due to anxiety, depression, PTSD, or something similar, your docs can pull a string or two and keep your instructor from dropping you due to absence or tardiness. That “string” being a letter stating that you are seeking assistance for a disability and they must accommodate your illness’s unfortunate side-effects.
It can be difficult for many of us to even walk through those doors for the first time. The “only shitbags go to medical” mentality follows some of us for life, stripping us of the willingness to seek out medical help until it is often too late. Horror stories of bad experiences with staff, treatments, and policies ruin some peoples’ opinion of VA healthcare, but those stories often lack the important elements of truth and perspective.
I didn’t know what to expect when I walked into a VA for mental health and substance abuse help. I mean, I knew where to go and what the buildings looked like and all of that because I grew up there; my ma worked around the VA for most of my life and I had been in and around just about every building. The anxiety I experienced was very intense for the first couple of hours, but that was mostly due to the fact that the mental health ward was once home to the bed where, as a child, I watched cancer slowly turn my grandfather into a 70-pound skeleton. That realization later helped me a little bit by reminding me how bad things can get when you replace someone’s instinct for self-preservation with John Wayne Macho Bravado. I wasn’t sure how the doc would react or how the other personnel would treat me: were they going to be dicks like the old, jaded docs, or calm, understanding, and willing to listen and help. They were definitely in the latter category.
Counselors helped me figure out what my problems really were instead of just ticking off symptoms on a checklist and tossing a diagnosis my way. This was a huge step. It is hard to fix yourself if you don’t know what is wrong. Medications are for treating symptoms and are used for sustaining stability. Therapy and getting it all out is the cure. For some at least. It appears that many of us depart the Corps with some demons, and an exorcism of sorts is often in order. I found my outlets in art and beating the ever-loving shit out of an old heavy bag. Painting something horribly violent, disgusting, or ugly helps me focus. Tits work also, but making pretty things has never really been my thing. Being an addict, however, is often a life-long ordeal, so many people just trade one addiction for another…or several.
Instead of drinking, I hobby. I hobby my ass off. Old, broken things are easily acquired for the cheap, and I find a lot of crap to fix in order to stay busy. If something is broken or looks like shit, I feel obligated to immediately fix and improve it if I can. It took me a while to realize that this was not a fault and should be used to my advantage. The counselors helped me get back into school and even offered to help me with homework if I had any. I had already finished all of the prerequisites like readin’ and ritin’, and in auto tech there isn’t much homework, but the sentiment was there, and I appreciated the crap out of it.
With my mind slowly beginning to work properly again, I was able to concentrate in school and take the next step and find a job. After a few unsuccessful attempts at working around a large number of people, I found a part-time job as a janitor. Already being fully trained (and possibly over-qualified), I was hired on and have been skat…cleaning buildings for about a year, which is the longest I have held a job for a while. Those of us who have problems with anxiety (and no shame) should look into janitry: It is easy, relaxed, quiet, and above all else, nobody fucks with the janitor.
Employed and doing well in school, things were looking better. I slowly weened myself off of anything stronger than ibuprofen until I was off prescriptions altogether. I waited a few months to tell my doctor about this because I figured he would come down with a case of the Butt Hurts, but he instead was not only supportive, he told me that is their goal. The doctors and counselors want to see us off the medications because they know how harmful they can be but are required to issue them – if we have improved that is. My counselors were initially against me stopping my medications but once I showed them that I was getting better, they were much more supportive. It needs to be noted that you should never simply stop taking your meds and think that shit will magically get better. If you aren’t ready to change, dropping your meds will only hurt you. It needs to be done gradually and with a good amount of control. You can’t take a double dose to make up for having a bad day or because you have an important interview, it ruins the progress, and you can’t just stop for a few days and then start taking them again when you start feeling like shit again because they will take a while to kick back in and by then you could be anywhere from perfectly fine to permanently confined.
So, unnecessarily long story short, I’ve held a job for a year, stopped drinking, got released from death by prescription, gained my physical and mental health back, and earned an associate’s degree in auto tech. Sure, plenty of people have accomplished much, much more and against much greater and dire odds, but it was my struggle and I made it my bitch. For now.
Some of the most important things I learned from all of this:
-Alcohol and drugs are not the answer. A couple of beers or blunts now and then between friends who are celebrating a victory or an accomplishment is perfectly healthy, but getting wasted to relieve stress or forget about your problems is counter-productive, depressing, and potentially dangerous.
-Talk to someone. Believe it or not, there is at least one person in your life that WANTS to hear your story, and you need to get it off of your chest before it crushes the life out of you.
-Keep yourself busy. When you are in the Corps, you are almost never truly “bored,” you just spend a shit load of time waiting. There is always something that needs to be done, and even if you spent the majority of your time avoiding said thing-that-needs-to-be-done, your mind was occupied. Without the constant use your brain is accustomed to, it will find things to occupy itself, those things often being negative memories or other triggers.
-Find someone to talk to. This doesn’t mean you need a girlfriend, boyfriend, fuck buddy, friend with boobs, or that guy you met through Craigslist’s casual encounters section that swears he just wants to watch you play with it a little, it means have another person around that will listen. Family members, spouses, and old friends can be hard to talk to because they do not understand, so you may have to adapt and overcome by getting yourself a good dog (hey man, worked for me).
-Death won’t help. Killing yourself will not end your troubles, it will ruin the lives of everyone around you instead. If you have children, they will be scarred for the rest of their lives and will feel at fault or that you are doing it to punish them. If you are married, your spouse will feel like it is their fault for not loving you enough. Your parents will feel like they are to blame. Your friends? They too, will think they were the cause of your demise. The guys and gals from your old units? Yep, them, too. They will feel terrible because, “I should have known but didn’t.” I have been unfortunate enough to have been on several sides of this confusing octahedron, and can tell you that every side is just as awful.
-Talk it out. Tell your story. If you don’t trust anyone enough to listen, write it out. Find a pen, pencil, marker, crayon, finger-full-of-shoe-polish, half-frozen cat turd, whatever. Scribble that shit on a pizza box if you have to. Burn it into your neighbor’s lawn if you want, I don’t care, just get your story out. Grab a keyboard and pound out a few words here on this very site if you can. (Have I stressed the importance of talking about your problems yet?)
-It gets better. It really, truly does. The world may seem like an endless ocean of shit, but you have to keep swimming: The Shit gets thick and sticky, but that just means you have to push a little harder to get through it. The Shit may confuse you at times or obscure your view of the goal, but you have to wipe it out of your eyes and keep pushing onward and upward. The Shit gets heavy, but you have to push it off your back and keep going. The Shit gets deep, but you can’t let it suck you down. The Shit can seem to suck the life right out of you sometimes, but you have to keep kicking your legs and pushing that shit out of your way so you can breath and move on. Don’t ever let The Shit keep you down.