Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Suicide, and the Lessons of War

Stories From the Book: MAF

Ugly men could not have gotten away with what Dennis got away with. That's the truth-I would never have taken it, none of his women would have, and he had a lot of women. I was Mrs. Fisher the third. I've never seen such a handsome man in my whole entire life. He used to take my breath away.

There was never a doubt in my mind that he loved me, but there was the really good Dennis and then there was the really bad Dennis. He would go out on these binges and he would write bad checks. I would say, "Okay, don't worry about the bad checks; I'll go down in the morning and pay for them. Oh, you stole from your mother? I'll go down and deal with your mother and, yes, I'll make sure that she doesn't call the police. Here's something to eat." I mean, I just took care of everything, and nothing I was doing was working. When I took care of all the problems for him, that didn't work. When I threw him out, that didn't work. Screaming and going to therapy, that didn't work. When I let him take the medication in the house, that didn't work; he just abused the medication. Nothing I was doing was working, but I didn't think it was his destiny to die. I thought that God had a different plan or he would've been dead a long time ago. Dennis was a dope fiend. You don't use dope the way Dennis used dope and stay alive, so I always thought that he was going to stop, that he was going to get clean. I just believed that in my heart, that it wasn't his destiny; that it wasn't our daughter J's or my destiny either. I didn't know what it was going to take, but something was going to have to happen, and then he was going to get better and we were going to be okay.

So what was he doing? Drinking. He worked as a carpenter, and at an oil refinery, but those were short stretches, like two-three months. He was never able to hold a long-term job. Authority issues, for sure. And his anxiety level was too high. He would go into rages over nothing. He wouldn't sleep for like three days, and then he would be crazy. The holidays were a nightmare; planes, helicopters, everything was a nightmare. He couldn't handle anything. I didn't know what his problem was, but I wanted that shit to stop. I was the one that was starting to lose it, because he was doing weird stuff that nobody else would understand. Nobody else does understand unless they're married to a PTSD vet.

Dennis didn't talk about Vietnam at all, so I don't know all the details. But I know he got blown up over in Vietnam. He was in something like a tank, and there were, I think, six of them, and a hand grenade flew in there. They all died except for Dennis. I know that that was one of the traumas. There was a little girl that he befriended that one of the officers raped, and that upset him. Also, he was in a helicopter, and the guy who had the machine gun got shot to death, and Dennis had to move him and take over the machine gun. Shrapnel went through his shoulder and through his neck, about an inch away from the base of his spine. His disability was 110 percent. They only gave him 10 percent for the PTSD.

We didn't even talk about PTSD until we had been married for a few years, J had been born, and he was in therapy. He'd been living with symptoms for years, but nobody knew what it was. A diagnosis of posttraumatic stress? From the V.A.? Forget it! We had to fight for that. This was the '80s and nobody I talked to had any understanding of PTSD. They just wanted to get him out. They came to my house every night with a big padded envelope of medications, all types: Vicodin, Methodone cocktail, Paxil. Take this, go away. Towards the end when he got really bad, he would go to bed in November and wouldn't get out of bed until March. And that's the truth.

It was a big thing in therapy when we finally understood that it was PTSD. It took six months, just working on that one thing. He would be screaming and telling me it was all me, and I would say, "Dennis, it's your PTSD," and instead of saying, "No it's not, you fucking bitch, it's you!" he would finally say, "Okay, I'll think about that," and he would go out to the garage and do it. We had gotten to that point, but he just couldn't go through to the other side. He'd have to hit the bar.

I gave up the last two years. Actually, I should have left two or three years before I did. Nothing was working. He didn't need to go out and drink, he didn't need to do cocaine. We had a whole cabinet filled with different types of medication from the V.A. He just started abusing the medication like he did the other drugs.

There were some good people running the support groups at the Vet Center in Bellingham, Washington. I was going to the Partners of Vets with PTSD. I had been in groups before with women who were exactly like me-they couldn't get out either. I would listen to them talk about their lives and think, "Are you out of your mind? You're crazy!" Then I'd look around, and I'm in the circle with them. That's when I really felt isolated, because I wasn't going anywhere. But the women's group at the Bellingham center helped me tremendously. These women got it, and they helped me decide that I would not go into my forties being this crazy. And it was that crazy. J was cutting herself because she was that messed up. There was no way I could keep her there. I turned forty in September, stalled until February, and then put everything I could into the car and grabbed the kid. Certain things I couldn't take, like my jewelry box that had my charm bracelet in it, charms my parents had given me. I couldn't take them because if I took them it meant I wasn't coming back.

I had been gone a year and a half when I got the phone call. It was the Everson police, and I thought, okay, now what did he do? But the cop said Dennis had shot himself. I wouldn't let them take him off the life support until we got there. Because if only his heart was beating, I had to get there before. I kept calling the hospital, saying keep him going until-just don't let his heart stop until we get there.

They had a white cloth over him and his eyes were open and I could see his green eyes. He was still warm and his heart was still beating. I was there when his heart went down from 64 to 32 to 19 to 6 to 2. I had my arms around him, I had my head on his chest, and I heard his heart stop beating. I'm really grateful for that.

I let the nuns come in to pray around Dennis, but I wanted to say no. I was enraged that this had happened. This was not right. I did everything I was supposed to do. So why did my husband have to leave the world like that? Why? Why did God allow this to happen? Why does J have to go through this? I kept trying to figure it out, trying to figure out what I could do to undo it. After about three months it started dawning that this was permanent. There was nothing I could do, that this just was, that he was dead.

I couldn't talk to J. I didn't have anything to give her. But she had no outlet. She was talking to people, and I just wanted her to stop. I didn't want anybody to know that he died like that. It was the shame-on top of everything else, it was the shame. When something like this happens, you are so wide open and vulnerable, you have absolutely no defenses. I didn't want my husband's suicide being discussed over coffee at the diner. I didn't want a lot of people knowing, because I couldn't stand to have his death treated casually. And I couldn't defend him because I had nothing. I was just totally, completely an open wound.

It was J's idea to go to Sons and Daughters in Touch.52 The meeting was on Father's Day. You don't know how bad it was on Father's Day because that was the day he shot himself. But we went down there, and we felt welcomed. We were around other people who understood-these people got it. We were standing in line for coffee, and all of a sudden I started crying and I couldn't stop, and I couldn't stop telling people, "My husband shot himself in the head." J did the same too, and that's when she really cried. Everyone looked at us with empathy and let us finish. Nobody went, "Oh my God!" They understood. That was such a relief. I was having a hard time getting everything out, and I was falling and choking over what I was saying: "This isn't over, this isn't over. It's 1999, and my husband just died from the Vietnam War."

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