My father will be dead in ten years at the very outside. He is drinking himself to death. He is a high functioning preserved specimen, completely pickled but eerily alive-looking inside the cloudy glass jar.
He wakes up with beer. He falls asleep with it. He has developed ways and means of hiding his problems, of course. The classic tricks - opaque trash bags to conceal the bulk of the cans, with a socially acceptable number placed out in the open-topped recycling tubs. The ability to slam a 12 ounce beer in a matter of seconds without resorting to shotgunning the can, so he can drink an extra one every time he gets up to grab another without being out of the room for too long.
He powers through a case of cheap domestic on work days. More on weekends. He is so practiced at driving drunk that he frequently drives down to buy more without remembering having done so, on account of being blacked out. He has never been pulled over for so much as speeding in the last 25 years.
But he's slipping. I'm catching him more often than I ever did before. He's slipping and that means he has started down the other side of the curve, the sharp decline heading exponentially towards rock bottom that is familiar to those who have watched drunks live their lives, or who have grown up with them.
I wake up every morning and wonder if I'm the same person I used to be. Not in the sense of this being another chapter in some hack's attempt at a blockbuster bildungsroman, no. I wake up and wonder if, in a real sense, I am the same person that I ought to have been.
If a person is nothing but the sum of the workings of their nervous system, as I believe to be the case, what am I to make of the fact that the structure of my brain was physically and permanently altered by a traumatic brain injury? In other words, if what all of modern science points to is even remotely correct, if the models and best wild guesses are even pointed in the right direction, it would mean that being blown up literally and irrevocably altered who I am in some way.
Did I really get away with this? Nothing more than this nearly permanent low grade headache, and the occasional slip of what was once very nearly declared a photographic memory after batteries of testing?
How much of the depression and hypervigilance are genetic? How much of it is PTSD? How much of it is fucking brain damage? This is not a Facebook status cry for help. It's not any kind of cry for help. It's the question that I wrestle with daily over my morning coffee, shortly before telling myself to pack it in, shut it up, and do what needs to be done for the day.
Yeah, I'll be the tough guy and just not let it get to me, at least while I can stay occupied. It's either that, or the drugs.
My mother is, too, an addict. Some years ago she started down the benzo/barbiturate spiral and shows absolutely no desire to pull up out of it. She has grown more and more paranoid over the years, something not helped by her constant self-medication with marijuana.
Oh, she'll outlive the old man, but by how much I am unsure.
She picks and chooses what medical advice she's willing to believe. If the doctor says yes, by all means, let's up your dosage of lorazepam to deal with that anxiety and paranoia, then clearly this is a physician worth his lab coat. Double that if he'll write another prescription for butalbital.
If the doctor says no, listen, your lung problems are not going to clear up unless you quit smoking cigarettes and marijuana, then clearly this is someone who is out to get you and would rather lecture you than simply give you medication to help.
And when that medication is a steroid inhaler to help you with your chronic walking pneumonia, you shouldn't trust it, because there's no telling what they put in that stuff, and I try to limit what drugs I take to an absolute minimum.
Oh, the hilarity.
In theory, after getting back from a ground tour to a war zone, you're supposed to get a psychological evaluation before returning to normal duty.
In theory, before you leave the military, they have to fix everything wrong with you. You get one last trip to the dentist and the doctor, they note everything wrong, and they fix it.
I was discharged immediately after returning from my last tour in Afghanistan. Since it was Christmas, there was nobody around to complete many things that are mandatory in theory. It will, in fact, note this specifically on one's DD 214 with a little checkbox.
I waited four and a half months to get into the VA to see a headshrinker.
When I finally arrived for my appointment, the good doctor informed me that there had been a mistake with my scheduling, and that the doctor that should have seen me had in fact retired three and a half weeks ago. He apologized for the confusion, and informed me that he would be my doctor now despite what my pocket calendar might have said to the contrary.
Retirement is not an overnight process, especially in the government. That nobody had realized this was going to be an issue did not build up my confidence in the facilities. What came next, though, burned it down and pissed all over the ashes.
The doctor flipped idly through my chart and asked me the same seventeen questions I had answered no fewer than six times previously in my interactions with the VA. He then found one of the many copies of this questionnaire inside my file, stopping in mid-sentence on question number 11, and said, "Oh, looks like we have one right here. I guess it's pretty recent, so we don't have to worry about doing it all over again."
His next question was if I'd ever had "an adverse reaction to fluoxetine, also known as Prozac". When I told him no, he nodded and handed me a prescription, then gave me helpful directions towards the exit and began to reassemble the file folder with my name on it.
When it became clear that he wasn't going to look up at me again, I could only muster a flat
So he did look up, and asked if I had any questions. I asked him if the extent of mental health services I could reasonably expect actually amounted to three and a half minutes of unnecessary questionnaires and a prescription for a horse-choking dosage of Prozac.
His answer is something I'll not likely ever forget. His answer was,
"If you aren't willing to work with me here I'm not sure what else I can do. What is it, exactly, that you think you need?"
I've asked my mom if she's going to be okay when dad dies. Of course it will be a train wreck - she's known him for decades. They've been married for almost 30 years. And because it's simply the way things work, she will be devastated when he dies despite the fact that he has been an abusive drunken fuck for decades, that she would have left him long ago if she had the courage to do it, and that she cries to me and admits she wants to leave him now.
No, she understood in the way mothers do what I really meant. That I wanted to know if I would need to have a place for her, because I know nothing of their finances and do not care to know.
She told me she'd be fine, that she had spent the last few years making sure things would be paid off if not within the next few years, then definitely by his life insurance and whatever his truck is worth.
And my dad, well, if mom dies first there won't need to be a place for him. He'll finish drinking himself to death before the pink slip shows up.
My mother confided in me recently that she feels as though she's been cheated by life.
She says at her age that she feels as though she was lied to and cheated by a world that promised her that if she kept her nose to the grindstone, she could expect to put in twenty or thirty years with The Company, and then retire to live the high life with a pension and Social Security to fund gallops to exotic locales.
So, she looks at the quarter acre of immaculate lawn, and the 2000 square foot house with the hardwood floors and french doors, marble bathrooms and windowsills, the in ground pool and the ancient oak trees, the high end trim package on the luxury sedan, and her impending retirement, and she feels cheated because it's not enough.
It's not what she feels the world owes her after making it to retirement. It's not fair, says the woman who reminded me daily that Life isn't fair.
I knew from an early age that I would probably have to work until I died, and that "retirement" was something that had gone the way of the butter churn and monochrome television. And it had been beaten into my skull and my heart that life is inherently unfair and that one can only expect whatever one can claw and scrabble and plan for with the care of years.
So, I look at my parents who are living to a standard higher than 99% of the world, almost certainly to a standard I can never hope to sustain, and yet still railing against the unfairness of it all, and it makes me sick to my stomach and sad in my soul.
There are so many things that I want to talk to them about but that I am not allowed to mention.
I am the grateful son, the successful one, the one that regardless of their fumbles has attained the American Dream. Did they not raise me to be the triumphant war hero that I am today, with a dog and a picket fence and a beautiful wife? How, then, could any of my upbringing been hurtful to me as a human?
But my mother will pour her heart out and expect me to welcome it with a nod and a consoling arm. To accept, with grace, that my arrival at the American Dream by a path of my own choosing has invalidated her entire life's work.
She tells me with one breath that she is just so proud of the way her kids turned out. She tells me with the next that she is disappointed with the way her life turned out. She tells me her whole life has been devoted to her kids.
She tells me all about how she stuck it out and stayed with dad and lived such a hard life so that her kids would never want for anything, so that we wouldn't have to grow up and join the military. So that we wouldn't have to have the hard life that she chose for herself.
But we did anyway, the two of us, and it's just not fair that life did that to her despite her years of sacrifice to make things easy for us. That it isn't fair that she had to worry about us. That it isn't fair that all of her efforts and sacrifice ended up, in her eyes, for naught.
I joined up to get the fuck out.
All I wanted from the time I was about twelve years old was for mom and dad to listen to me without trying to shove a solution down my throat or to try to mold me into someone who wouldn't have something to worry about.
By the time I was sixteen, since I was not following the roadmap that had been laid out for me, the hammer came down.
Mom took me to the family doctor and said I was depressed and that I needed something to help me get through this difficult time. Looking back, of course, this was the natural line of thinking that comes from someone who cheerfully embraces and extolls the virtues of better living through chemistry. If I'm not happy, the answer is a pill that will make me happy.
The doctor, my thanks forever to him and his wisdom, found a way to talk to me alone. He told me he was going to give me a dose of Prozac so low that even if they somehow forced me to take them, it wouldn't do anything to someone my size. He then said that part of his recommendation was going to be that my parents take me to a counselor to talk over my issues.
Two weeks later my mother took me to my first counseling session, and sat in for half of it. The man introduced himself, asked if I'd ever been to see "professional help" before, and read me the disclaimer required by state law that he was not a licensed psychiatrist or psychologist and that as a mere counselor he held no legal certification or powers.
The week after that, I walked out of my first solo session in disgust after he suggested that pornography was at the root of all of my malcontent, and that if I didn't stop watching it (and I know you are) I would inexorably end up seeking harder and harder pornography, and that the inevitable result would be a bad case of pedophilia and a very good chance that I'd end up raping children when pornography could no longer sate my appetites.
See the world, they said. Serve your country, they said. Invest in your future, they said.
And while none of what they told me was a lie, it wasn't particularly forthcoming, either. But I knew the score going in, and was okay with the possible consequences of creative omissions and best-case sales pitches. I wasn't expecting a fair shake, because even at 18 I had learned that life will give you no such thing.
So I signed on the dotted line, flew through the pipeline like a greased turd, and, to make a long story short, ended up right here. Or at least, mostly here.
I lose track of time often enough that it has become a running joke in my household. Tuesdays become Sundays or Thursdays. A train of thought will carry me four hours in fifteen minutes. It's hard, sometimes, to keep track of what month it is, particularly when the weather doesn't change fast enough to keep me steady.
I've reconciled most of it, I think. My parents will likely be dead without my having learned to fully appreciate them as human beings. My grandparents checked out of the picture a long time ago, despite still being alive for the most part. Half of them have gone plain mean in their old age, the other half happier sowing venom and hate among the family over perceived slights grown huge in the headlights of regret and impending doom.
It is a shame on both counts, because a person needs roots to develop. The easiest way to put down roots is through family, but I won't call it unfair that I have to do it the hard way.
I will also never fully know the precise ratio of change exerted by the forces in my history. In time, I may find it to be enough to accept the simple value on the right hand side of the equation, content to never understand the mess on the left.
More importantly, I hope to grow content to not have a back of the book to check to see if I did it right.