PTSD: The Unlikely Disease that Brought my Father and I Together
Listen to Executive Director Gabriel Nathan read this post aloud:
Growing up, I was always told I was a lot like him. It was true, I had inherited many of his traits: stubborn independence, obsessive drive, and effortless concealment of anxiety. I was close with my mom and sister, but everyone knew I was daddy’s little girl. I’d keep him company in the garage as he’d saw precious woods into various shapes and sizes, and I’d pile the sawdust into small mounds, pretending it was food for make-believe customers. We’d repeatedly watched Lady and the Tramp on VHS, my father always imitating the whistling beaver. I’d laugh every time he said the word “ttthhh-ycamore” between his teeth. He showed me how to ride a bike without training wheels when I was small, then later taught me to drive a car at age sixteen, my white knuckles clenched the steering wheel as tightly as they once did around the handlebars.
My father was a combat veteran of the Vietnam War. Like many of his comrades, he never spoke about it. He lived with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a mental health condition caused by enduring a traumatic event. While he was never formally diagnosed, we knew he was suffering. Sleeping was hard for him; he rarely slept through the night. There wasn’t a time when I didn’t wake up hearing my father busying himself in the kitchen at strange hours, the smell of freshly-brewed coffee filling our otherwise darkened home. When he’d watch old war movies, his blue eyes were glued to the black and white battle scenes, in some sort of trance.
“Was that how it was in Vietnam?” I’d ask, cringing at the explosions erupting on the television.
My father never answered, he kept his direction on the screen. It was the only time he ever ignored me.
One winter when I was home in Connecticut from college, my father fell on the ice while putting the plow on his truck. I knew he was in pain because he was prescribed Vicodin, and took it. My father was a carpenter and never even took Advil for a headache. These prescription pills made him more anxious and talkative. He sat at the dining room table in a tattered green robe, nursing a cup of coffee that had gone cold, telling me about a best friend who was killed in war.
“Jesus Christ,” my father said, twirling a silver piece of his hair between two fingers, thinking. “His leg was blown off. All that was left was a bloody stump.”
I stood beside him unable to move. I never heard him talk about Vietnam. I didn’t know he had a best friend from war.
“I dragged him off the front lines,” my father continued.
“He died right there,” he stared down into his coffee. “Right there in my arms.”
My father covered his mouth with a large, veiny hand. He closed his eyes tight, his shoulders trembled.
My father was always my hero. He wasn’t a huge man but he was strong, stern and protective. He’d do anything for his family. As a child, he saved me from drowning at Cape Cod, pulling me up and out of the ocean’s strong undertow.
When he was diagnosed with lung cancer, after I graduated from college, he was too weak to breathe on his own. A machine did it for him. That mechanical exhale and high-pitched beep still haunts me.
I wasn’t at the hospital when my father died, but I saw him the day before. I remember telling him I loved him and watching as he mouthed the words back to me. When I got the call from my sister that our father died, I sat alone in my apartment for what felt like hours, numb. This wasn’t a surprise, we all knew it was coming, and yet, I couldn’t stop myself from wondering why.
After my father’s death, I barely got out of bed. I felt useless and defeated. There were no more hospital visits, no more doctors and treatments to research. His fight was over but mine had only begun. I now had to learn to live without a father. I knew my mother and sister were inconsolable in their own grief to help me with mine so I found a counselor and made an appointment. During my first session, she made me scream into a pillow, put my hands inside a small box of sand, and told me to consider an animal I felt emotionally connected to.
“A frog,” I told her. I had read somewhere that frogs were the symbol of spiritual transformation.
I came home after that first session completely drained and my boyfriend of four years was waiting for me. His blonde hair was disheveled as though he woke from a nap. The auto racing t-shirt he wore was faded and wrinkled, his jeans hung below his hips, the bottoms frayed and ratty.
“You see the crazy doctor today?” he said, watching from the doorway as I started making dinner.
“I saw the counselor today,” I said.
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“So,” he said, grabbing a bag of chips off the top of the refrigerator. “Does the crazy doctor think you’re crazy yet?”
I was humiliated by his question and self-conscious about my grief. I had to wonder if there was some truth to what he had asked, I was after all, considering my father’s reincarnation as a frog.
Six months after my first therapy appointment, I moved from Connecticut to Miami. In less than a year following my father’s death, I was in a new city with thick humidity and man-made beaches, making friends, working on a writing career, and not facing my own grief. It felt good to be away from the suffocating memories that Connecticut held, to keep my mind busy on shiny new objects that Miami provided. Then one day I was alone in my new apartment. A holiday movie came on that I’ve never seen. There was a dying parent. It was then I felt a tightening in my chest. My breath pulled out from me. The walls narrowed. The air conditioned living room turned into a sticky, unbreathable hell. I clutched my heart the way my mother, a retired special education paraprofessional, once clutched hers during a massive heart attack years ago that almost took her life. Her artery was 100% blocked. But after a few minutes passed, the pain in my chest lightened, my breath came back.
I contacted my grief counselor in Connecticut but was reluctant to tell her what happened, unsure of what I had experienced myself. She said I likely had a panic attack since the pain only lasted minutes before letting up. While I was relieved it wasn’t my heart, I was concerned. These attacks came on more frequently. I had trouble going about my everyday routine. At the market, I suddenly became faint and couldn’t catch my breath. I left my cart full of groceries to run back to the car, pump the AC, and wait for my heart to stop pounding. I had to admit, I felt, well, crazy.
After that, I couldn’t leave my high-rise apartment. The thought of being with other people made me lightheaded, my insides tingled on high-alert and my skin grew hot and damp. I had completely lost control over my body. I was scared I’d suffer another attack in public and not know what to do. I shut myself in hoping it would pass. But after weeks of not being able to go down the hall to do laundry and spending too much on delivery food, I made an appointment with a local therapist. I felt guilty. I was angry at myself for not being able to conquer my anxiety on my own.
“Am I crazy?” I asked the therapist in Miami.
“No,” she said. “You have post-traumatic stress disorder.”
I sat back on her couch, balancing a cup of tea in my lap. I thought of my father and how he couldn’t sleep, those old war movies he had to watch.
“Are you sure?” I asked my therapist. “I never experienced war.”
But I did experience trauma, my therapist said. I watched my father battle stage IV lung cancer seven months before he died. My mother struggled with visiting the hospital and still working full-time for their health insurance. My sister was too scared to see our father die. As a writer with the flexible schedule, I was always at the hospital. I was there when my father’s eyes pleaded for help when he couldn’t breathe, I heard that device sucking mucus from his lungs, I smelled that ceaseless antiseptic everywhere.
Getting that diagnosis allowed me to put a name to what I was feeling. But it was the same illness my father had and never admitted to. Ashamed of my own diagnosis, I kept it to myself. It took months to tell my mom and sister but they didn’t know what to say. They were grieving, too. We didn’t talk much about it after that. It took even longer to tell my closest friends, my boyfriend that originally called me “crazy.” He was not a fan of therapy. Lucky for him, it seemed he never endured much trauma in his life.
After I moved to Miami, we tried long distance. When he came to visit from Connecticut after I got my diagnosis, I picked him up at the airport and couldn’t keep my secret any longer. He was the first person besides my therapist I had seen in weeks.
“I saw a therapist here,” I said, my hands trembling.
My boyfriend was silent. I was scared to look at his face so I kept my eyes out in front of me on I-95 and the congested traffic.
“I’ve been having these attacks,” I said, my skin vibrating. “She seems to think I have PTSD.”
My boyfriend huffed under his breath and shook his head. Then he said what I feared he’d say, what everyone would say.
“That diagnosis is a joke,” he said, his eyes on the road. “You’re only looking for attention.”
I was humiliated again, but my heart was also heavy. I thought of my father, the tubes, the machines that kept beeping until they didn’t. I hated my boyfriend’s judgment. I hated how he downplayed my grief.
That weekend, I broke up with him.
My journey with this illness was a lonely one. I kept my treatment plan to myself. I went to therapy to talk about my father, his sickness, the end of his life. My therapist taught me how to meditate. I started yoga. I was adamant about not wanting to take pills. Unlike him, I wanted to talk about it with a professional to understand what was happening to me. I didn’t want to hide my feelings anymore, nor my anxiety. I didn’t want to pretend my illness wasn’t there.
There are still triggers: Doctor’s appointments, Father’s Day, movies with a dying parent. But I’ve realized I have this illness because of my father. Each worried thought, every poke of panic was related to losing him, to the battles we both had fought. Learning this made me feel more connected to him and helped me understand what he’d been through. He suppressed his feelings the way I hid mine. He had unresolved emotions about his trauma the way I couldn’t resolve losing him. It was a relief to understand what was happening to me. That I was not crazy. I was a daughter who missed her father.