Today, for a little while, I was really really brave.
The Department of Defense was holding a Task Force on Mental Health town hall meeting. (http://www-nmcsd.med.navy.mil/news/news_view.cfm?nrid=236) I only found out because I needed to refill my prescription for Effexor and saw the words "Mental Health" on the San Diego Naval Medical Center website and read the press release. Despite my cynicism--no one will ever do anything about this issue, no one really cares, this is just one in a series of masks the government wears to try to make its citizens believe they care--I went and I spoke. I knew if I did I would feel as though I had done my part to serve my country. I knew if I didn't speak, I would regret giving up one of the few chances I have to make a difference in the world, and to hopefully help someone have a better life.
I also knew I was one of a very small number of women in a position to speak out about the nearly worthless psychiatric services available at San Diego Naval Medical Center and throughout the military health care system because I am in no danger of ruining my husband's career or being chastised by my husband for opening my mouth.
Today I was brave.
(And I want to say, I have Andrew, one of my former students, to thank for that bravery. I learned from him, from his demonstration of bravery last year when he decided to break the silence and come out not only to his family and friends, but in the school newspaper. It was the most important moment in my teaching career, and I don't think I'll ever forget it. By example, Andrew taught me to be brave.)
When they called people to the mic of course there was hesitancy. I can't really remember how it all happened, but I either went first or second. I think second. I think the first person to speak was an 80 year old veteran who said that for some of the boys the first people they talk to about their experiences of war are the old guys at the various bars for veterans. He had many good points--one being that the living history of our country should be used while it still lives; that those men who fought in previous foreign wars can help because they can relate to the boys coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Actually, I think maybe I spoke first. Because after he spoke, or before, he came back and shook my hand and said thank you for sharing my story, and several times during his talk he referred to some of the stories "that young lady in the back" shared.
I introduced myself as the wife of a Marine Corps disabled veteran who is an amputee. I said that I was a high school teacher and that I had a miscarriage in May 2005 after a lot of infertility testing including a surgery, but that none of my healthcare providers ever asked how I was doing emotionally. I told them that I think they don't ask because they don't want to have to deal with the answers. They don't want to have to take care of us. I apologized for being so cynical, and the non-military female professor in charge said I didn't have to apologize. I told them that about 9 or 10 months later a friend and counselor sat me and my husband down and told us that he thought I needed help. I thought I'd have a therapy session once a week after school, but in my first session my doctor was astonished that I was still working--I was "so depleted" she said. I ended up on meds, sneaking lesson plans into my classroom at 5:30 in the morning because I refused to accept that I might need to take a longer break than just one or two days. I did that for two weeks. Then I had to call my principal and tell him I had a miscarriage and apply for disability through personnel and enter the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Intensive Outpatient Program at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital. After three months, as the over achiever that I am, I felt that the project should have been complete--I should have been healed and back at school. But I was not. I was worse. I was suicidal, and my doctors knew I would succeed if I tried--that's what I do. So they told me they wanted me to spend the night at the hospital, but I said we were having a garage sale and I couldn't leave it all to my husband. They insisted until I agreed to go inpatient. Unfortunately, because of our Tricare insurance I had to go to the Naval Medical Center. I spent two days in the locked ward and six days in the unlocked ward. They made me strip down and then gave me men's hospital clothes to wear for the rest of the time I was there. "I mean look at me! And I think they were a large!" I got four hours of good therapy there. One of them includes the hour the elderly volunteer brought her dogs in for us to play with, another includes the times we were allowed to go outside and I saw that there was a chapel and church services and one of the other patients told me they couldn't restrict my right to worship, so on Sunday I found us a way to get out again and some of the boys and one escort came with us. I told them how the people who took care of us were for the most part not trained in mental health--the HN Whoevers were just assigned to the hospital, some of them because they didn't know what to do. Every morning they woke us up at 6 a.m. to get our temperature and our blood pressure taken, and I have to take my thyroid medicine before I eat and that was a huge issue, and then we had this meeting where we all had to say our name, how we were feeling (nearly everyone said "depressed") and what our goal for the day was. Some of the boys goal was simply "hygiene." One of the guys running the meeting actually just said to us, "Wow. That's a lot of depressed people in this room. Any idea what we can do for you?" We all just stared at him; we, a group of people who were just recently trying to kill ourselves were supposed to have the answer to what would make us feel better?
I let them ask me questions.
I answered to the best of my ability.
Next, one man said he drove all the way from Loma Linda to speak on behalf of three other people and himself. A retired woman--the only person there purely as a citizen--said she read about it in the North County Times and researched more to find out she could speak today. She is outraged. She wants to help. They say they do too, but we all found out about the "town hall meeting" by chance, essentially.
After others spoke I added my thoughts; approaching the mic again I told of my neighbors who we called the "scary family" their dad was deployed and every morning the mom started the day by yelling at the teenage boy and there were also three other kids in the house. Sometimes it sounded like between the larger people someone was getting hit. And it didn't get better when the dad got back.
When they asked what they could do after a gentleman explained all that his work is doing to try to help the "warriors" I added, "I'm a high school teacher on disability--I've been sitting back there lesson planning. It's Olaina Anderson again. Training about mental health needs to start in boot camp. Some of the boys I was in the hospital with were just from boot camp. When they enlist they need to know what they are getting into. It needs to continue to be talked about while they're at war, and it needs to be discussed when they return. It's a culture change we're looking for here. I realize this isn't the best setting for this example, but in my classroom no one is allowed to use the word "gay" in a derogatory way. "That's so gay." I will stop the lesson and explain that they have no idea who they are hurting by talking that way, that someone in the room might be gay, or a best friend might be gay, or a family member; and eventually the culture in my classroom changed to where at least people knew they shouldn't go there and the students would chastise each other or catch themselves. I told them that the change needed to be among the higher ranks and the enlisted men.
I told them about the doctor (a recent graduate; just barely a doctor) who when I was being examined for a lumpectomy--I don't have cancer--made a terrible joke. I told him I was concerned because I'd been losing weight and bruising easily, and as if he were in a bar or they were out surfing he hit my husband's thigh and said, "You gotta stop slapping her around like that." My husband and I were taken aback; and I said, "That's definitely not it," and then wrote him up. It was a good thing that it was me; but if it had been someone else someone might have been beaten that night.
It's a total culture change--people just need to be more aware of what they're saying and doing.
Afterward, a few of the panel and the vets thanked me for sharing my story. I said thank you. Then I spoke with the young staffers from Senator Barbara Boxer's office--apparently she was there yesterday and really cares about the issue; they said she really wants to see something done. They gave me their contact information and I gave them my card.
Then I spoke to a woman serviceman who teared up as she told me of her trials with the system and a man (who was in) with a personality disorder, and how when she stepped forward she was accused of trying to ruin his career. She was one of the people I spoke for--the silenced.
Then, someone from the Pentagon gave me his card and told me to tell any of my friends to use the numbers there--I told him they probably wouldn't, but thank you. I told him that as an educator I had decided that if one good thing could come of my terrible experience it could be that I became a part of destigmatizing depression. I let him know that I've spoken in front of thousands of people before and that I also write, so if there was anything I could do to help to please let me know, and I gave him my card.
Today I might have made a difference. I might not have. I know my words did not fall on deaf ears--as the leader of the group said we were preaching to the choir--but I know they may not travel far. All I can know for certain, is that I did my best. As I told the panel, this would drain all the energy out of me and tomorrow I'd be exhausted, but I did it.
I am spent.
But I hope I taught someone something.