Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Suicide, and the Lessons of War

Stories From the Book: Emilia Parrish

We had decided to have a natural childbirth. After Noel's death my mother became my Lamaze coach. It was so hard to go to the class and see all the other happy couples, and there I was-with my mother. I didn't want to hate them, but I did. They were so happy and I was so miserable.

My son was born on December 24, 1970. When it was time to go to the hospital to deliver, everyone asked me where my husband was. At first I would tell the truth and say, "He's dead, he committed suicide three months ago." But I would get these horrified looks. So I just started saying that he died in Vietnam. It was easier.

I named him Noel, after his father. I had such mixed emotions when he was born. It was just amazing how many gestures and expressions he had that were so very much like his father's. I loved him to death, but I resented him, too. And I kept thinking, "I don't want you to take his place. I want him."

I never screamed and hollered the way that I should have. I had to go back to work immediately after he was born. A few weeks later, I had two baby showers. Life went on as though nothing had happened.

My husband was my high-school sweetheart, a gorgeous man with Paul Newman blue eyes and beautiful curly hair. When he got a low lottery number, he enlisted rather than waiting to be drafted. He chose the Marine Corps because he thought he was a tough, macho guy. They sent him to Vietnam right after boot camp. He was stationed with the 3rd Tanks Battalion in Quang Tri, near the DMZ, and I know that he saw a lot of combat. I could never get him to talk about it. I do remember one story. He said they had access to all the liquor they wanted. One evening there was incoming artillery and some of his friends died because they were too drunk to move.

I didn't know exactly when he was coming home. On Thanksgiving Day, his family and mine were celebrating together, and I got a call, "Emilia, I'm home. I'm at the airport. Come get me." When we got back, everyone was there having Thanksgiving dinner. He was more quiet than usual, like he was in another world. The service never debriefed him. They brought him home from Vietnam-boom! straight back to civilization-with nothing in between.

We got married soon after he got home, but it was a real anxious time. He was stationed at the Marine Corps base in Vallejo and having a lot of problems with alcohol. He knew it, but he just didn't know where to turn. I called the base many times asking for somebody to help him, somebody to do something. I even talked to the chaplain, but he just kept saying that he would be okay. When it got worse, first they demoted him to PFC, and then they discharged him five months early. It was an honorable discharge, but just barely. It was easier to just get rid of him than to try to help.

When he finally came home, we stayed with my parents for a while. I was working, and I was pregnant, and he was trying to find a job. He wanted to be a policeman, but he didn't get hired because they saw that he'd been demoted. That was a big disappointment. He got more and more depressed, his drinking was out of control, and who knows what else he was doing to keep himself sedated. My parents thought he had malaria because he would start shaking and break out in cold sweats. He was real fidgety, couldn't sleep. I had to be careful when I walked into a room to let him know I was there. You could never walk up behind him without saying something because he would turn around and attack. When he began to feel really out of control, he went to live with his brother, Neil. We had been married less than a year.

The last time I saw him was a week before he died, and he scared me to death. He was completely out of it. I thought he was drunk, but it could have been something else. He was dirty. He was always an impeccable man, and there he was with dirty clothes on. He tried to be loving, but I was repulsed. This was not the man I had fallen in love with. This was not the man I married. My last vision of him was-not him.

He called me at 3:00 in the morning the night before he died, to say that he was sorry, but I had heard it so many times before. I didn't think he was serious, but he had bought a gun and he shot himself in the heart.

About ten years ago, I found a suicide support group near my home. It was the first time I had thought to look for help. Everyone else in the group was mourning a recent loss, and I was talking about something that had happened over twenty years ago, but when I started to tell my story, it felt like it had just happened. It was still fresh in my body, mind, and soul because I had never been through a grieving process. It seems that every time I tell my story, it gets a little easier. I can talk about it all now, but it's taken thirty years.

I'll be fifty-two in May. I have never remarried. Sometimes I wonder about being so alone. I guess it's the trust factor. I have a hard time trusting anyone with my heart. It is only recently that I have come to understand how angry I was at Noel for leaving us. He should have been there when his son was born, and now his son has become a father, and he will miss his grandson. He loved babies. He was a gentle man. I think Vietnam ripped his heart apart. The bullet just finished what the war had started.

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