Sunday, June 15, 2014

All I Ever Did Was Love My Country

What we don’t—and can’t—know about PTSD (because we weren’t there)
My Dad, USMC Captain Theodore T. Long, Jr.

Note: this blog was originally written for I wanted to re-post it for Memorial Day, but then the Santa Barbara shootings happened. So I am finally posting it today, in honor of my father, an American hero, and to highlight National PTSD Awareness Month.

“Oh yes, you asked me about the rocket attack on Denang, and well, honey, just don't worry about rocket attacks at all—they're really inaccurate.  Of course, we'd take it very personally if one hit us, but they are very inaccurate, and since I've been here, rockets haven't hit at all.” Captain Theodore T. Long Jr., USMC, in an audiotape mailed from Vietnam to my mother in Layton, Utah, February 1970

For reasons I don’t fully understand, I’m obsessed with the show Madmen. This season, the clothes get ugly, the soundtrack gets funky, and it’s time to talk about hard truths that never seemed possible in those early 60s Camelot times of JFK and Jackie, pearls and Hyannisport. The one scene from an early Madmen episode that still stands out for me is Don Draper and his (then) wife, Betty, picnicking beneath stately trees in early summer with their picture-perfect children. When they leave, they don’t bother to clean up the mess they have left—why would they?

What a mess. That’s what a group of veterans told me on a Monday in late April 2014, when I was invited to visit a group of Warrior Pointe members in the recreation room of a cinderblock Christian church in Nampa, Idaho. The men ranged in age from grizzled Vietnam veterans to young soldiers who had just returned from Afghanistan. Their leader and Warrior Pointe founder, Reed Pacheco, walked in with a cell phone to his ear. He was talking with a family member of a veteran who had threatened suicide and needed an intervention fast.

Pacheco, himself a veteran of Somalia, founded Warrior Pointe because he wanted to create a space where former soldiers could come together to talk about the issues that continue to haunt them. “The VA just isn’t there for us,” he said, as heads around the table nodded emphatically. This group of 20 men have taken a new mission upon themselves: no soldier left behind.

“The first thing people ask when you get back is ‘Did you kill somebody? How many people did you kill?’’” one Vietnam veteran told me. “They just don’t understand how inappropriate that question is. We did what we had to do. You can’t know what it means to sit, 40 years later, in front of a television set reliving the same 40 seconds, over and over and over. You can’t know. You don’t want to know.”

I learned more than a few things about courage in my hour with this veterans’ group. And I also learned more than a few things about how the United States has let its soldiers down. I often wondered why so many veterans’ groups were opposed to the Affordable Care Act of 2010. “It’s the same thing as the VA,” one Afghanistan veteran told me. “You wait and wait and wait for care. And when you finally get in to see someone, they just give you painkillers instead of recommending surgery or something you need to actually fix the problem.”

That delay of care has been in the news recently, with VA Secretary Eric Shinseki facing allegations that VA clinics delayed treatment to vets who desperately needed it, then covered it up.  No one disputes that patients waiting for care died. [Since this blog's original publication, Shinseki has resigned].

The Warrior Pointe organization recognizes that all of its members, no matter where or when they served, suffer from some sort of PTSD—Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. The controversial DSM-V revised criteria for the disorder, which is now described as “a history of exposure to a traumatic event that meets specific stipulations and symptoms from each of four symptom clusters: intrusion, avoidance, negative alterations in cognitions and mood, and alterations in arousal and reactivity.” 

Pretty much everyone who went to war to defend our country could suffer from PTSD. My father likely did.

But the Warrior Pointe veterans feel empowered to help each other, where they feel the Veterans Administration has failed them. “We are all brothers,” says Tom Bosch, who suffered a traumatic brain injury in Iraq. “We understand each other. We can talk to each other. We can support each other.”

My father served in Vietnam. While the Don Drapers of the world were enjoying three-martini lunches and free love, my Dad sent anxious audiotapes to reassure my mother, who heard nothing but bad news about the war at home. Dad didn’t have to serve. He was his father’s only surviving child. He set out to write his senior thesis in Political Science to defend the Vietnam War. As he researched the subject, he concluded there was no justification for America’s involvement in Indochina. Then he graduated from college and went to Vietnam anyway.

My Dad flew medical rescue missions. As far as I know, he never killed anyone. He came home to life as a husband and father and used the GI Bill to pursue his passion to study law. But I will never forget the morning we were running errands in Bakersfield, California. The road was blocked to allow a parade, a hero’s welcome for the warriors of Desert Storm.

When I looked at my Dad, I was surprised to see tears streaming down his cheeks. “They spit on me when I got home,” he said quietly. “They called me a baby killer. All I ever did was love my country.”

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Dear Mormons: Count Me Out!

I'm a Mormon.
Views from the Diaspora on the LDS Ordain Women Movement 

On April 5, 2014, a group of brave, dedicated, faithful women, some of them personal friends, tried to attend a semi-annual conference that has traditionally had a large “No Girls Allowed” sign on its front door—and has no plans to change its exclusionary and hurtful practices any time soon. Of course, my friends were turned away. These women are part of the Ordain Women movement in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Today, the New York Times reported that Ordain Women founder and human rights attorney Kate Kelly had been summoned to a disciplinary hearing, where she may be excommunicated from the church she has fought so hard to change. Mormon Stories podcaster and gay rights advocate John Dehlin, a husband, father, and fifth-generation Latter-day Saint, was also summoned to a church disciplinary court in what Flunking Sainthood’s always insightful Jana Riess has predicted may signal the beginning of a new Mormon purge. 

I’m no longer a practicing member of the Church. But like many of my friends who have stopped attending Sunday meetings, I still consider myself culturally Mormon. When Facebook asks me for my religious views, the best thing I can say is, “It’s complicated.” So I’ve watched from the sidelines as my feminist friends who are still faithful Latter-day Saints agitate for change, cheering my girlfriends on, but believing that it’s not my fight. My suspicions, rooted in historical fact, are that no one ever got anywhere by walking up to the doors of the patriarchy, knocking politely, and asking to be let in.

I haven’t weighed in on Ordain Women until now because frankly, I felt like my voice didn’t count, that it wasn’t my fight. After all, I left on my own. I’m not like Kelly, who told Buzzfeed’s Laura Marostica “I never considered leaving the church. That was never on the table for me. I’m more of a person who’s like, ‘Well, I’m in an institution and I can see it needs to be improved. It needs to change; I don’t need to leave.’” Talk about the faith to move mountains!

In response to OW’s plans to attend the Priesthood Session in April, the church’s PR spokesperson Jessica Moody attempted to minimize and marginalize the efforts of my faithful friends: "Women in the church, by a very large majority, do not share your advocacy for priesthood ordination for women and consider that position to be extreme," she told Ordain Women, saying that 1,300 women who signed the OW petition were not significant in a worldwide church of 15 million members.

Well, if you’re going to count them, maybe it’s time to count me.

Because here’s the thing. When the Church says that it has 15,000,000 members, they are counting me, and lots of women like me. They’ve never formally kicked me out, at least not to my knowledge, though I’m WAY more apostate than Kate Kelley or John Dehlin. In fact, I’m so apostate that I actually went to the Dark Side, joining the Roman Catholic Church, which former Mormon General Authority called “the great and abominable church” in his first edition of Mormon Doctrine (a statement which, to be fair, was repudiated by other Mormon leaders).  Sorry, Mormons, but #OurPopeBeatsYourProphet.

Unlike many of my post-Mormon friends, I’ve never formally asked to leave. It wasn’t that big a deal to me. I still get monthly newsletters from my Relief Society visiting teachers and the occasional much appreciated plate of brownies or other home-made treat.

But if I count as a member, then I should count as a woman who left the church because I felt marginalized by policies that relegated me to the position of a second-class citizen. Motherhood does not equal priesthood, or even womanhood, for that matter. And nothing I know about Jesus leads me to believe that is God’s plan for me, or for any other woman I know.

Some of us who are still counted as members simply lacked the patience or just plain perseverance to continue to fight from within. So we drifted away, one by one, feeling, as I did, increasingly marginalized and irrelevant in a culture that emphasizes and celebrates two-parent, so-called traditional families as the pinnacle of righteous living (and hey, girls, as a carrot at the end of life’s stick, women can be “Heavenly Mothers” to millions of spirit children. No thanks—I didn’t like being pregnant in this life, so I’ll pass on that in the next one).

I can’t give you any hard and fast numbers. But everyone knows the Mormon Church is losing members fast, as both new converts and the long-time faithful grapple with cognitive dissonance, discovering less-sanitized views of their religion’s formerly white-washed (I chose that term deliberately) history.

After I expressed support for my OW friends on Facebook, one of my friends, a woman I deeply respect who is still an active member, messaged me to say that she just didn’t feel like she needed the Priesthood, since she always had access to its blessings. I remember feeling that exact same way when I was married. But after my divorce, I realized that in fact, I did not have access to those blessings in the same way married women did.  

Indeed, the issue of gender inequity affects both my former (cultural) faith and my new (spiritual) faith, as Chris Henrichsen noted in his article, “We Are Already Seeing an Exodus of the Faithful.” He quoted BYU Professor and Catholic Damon Linker’s oddly prescient observation: “in both Catholicism and Mormonism, there’s often nowhere else to go. It’s either love it or leave it.”

It seems a lot like the Pharisees’ approach to Jesus’s radical notion: “Love thy neighbor.” It's not “judge thy neighbor.” Not “expel thy neighbor.” But “Love thy neighbor.”

To John, Kate, and all my friends who are fighting for love within the religion they have chosen, I wish you every bit of luck on your spiritual quest. They would be silly and short-sighted to lose you. But to the people whose interpretation of love is to close doors and shut windows, to those “faithful” church members, I say #MormonsCountMeOut.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Great Divide

Hendric Stattmann"The Grand Canyon"
Two bills in Congress, both designed to improve mental healthcare, reveal a growing rift in the mental health community

Like many parents of children with mental illness, I have spent much of my life feeling isolated. At social events or the morning water cooler, while other parents share their children’s accomplishments—“Mary got elected to Student Council! John got the MVP award for his soccer team!”—I am usually silent. It’s hard to brag about how your child was able to plead his misdemeanor battery charge down to a mere juvenile beyond control status offense, or how he was the star patient in his psychiatric ward last weekend, even though both are arguably notable accomplishments.

When I finally spoke out about the struggles my family faced, I found an instant new community of friends, mothers like me who had become vocal advocates for their children’s care. But I also discovered that not every mental health advocate supports the same goals I do. This rift in the very advocacy community that should be supporting parents like me and kids like my son has been growing for a while. The divide has widened even further after the tectonic tragedy in Santa Barbara, when a young man whose parents had sought treatment for his mental illness for years took his own life—and the lives of six other people.

At its center is a disagreement about serious mental illness—schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression—and the best ways to care for this vulnerable population. That disagreement is evident in the contrast between two proposed bills that both seek to remedy America’s broken mental health care system. To my mind, the biggest difference between the two bills is this: one treats people with serious mental illness. The other does not.

One of the most controversial features of Representative Murphy’s HR3717, the “Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act,” is its Assisted Outpatient Treatment requirements, which the opposition has labeled “forced treatment.” Yet even Representative Barber, the author of the second bill, acknowledged on Monday’s Diane Rehm Show that “involuntary treatment is necessary from time to time.” And many of the provisions in HR 3717, including a revision of HIPAA laws, might have stopped Jared Loughner before he shot Rep. Barber in Tucson.

Dr. John Grohol and others like him are worried about “arbitrary distinctions” in mental illness he says HR 3717 creates. I agree with Dr. Grohol’s point that all mental illness can be crippling or even deadly, just as a cold, if left untreated, can lead to fatal pneumonia. But I also think we do need distinctions in mental health, just as we have them in physical health. The current focus on behavior rather than organic brain disease is the real challenge in making sure that people with serious mental illness get the medical care that they need. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, “Oh SAMHSA, Where Art Thou?” there is no readily apparent or useful information for me, as a parent of a child with serious mental illness, on SAMHSA’s home page. And this is the government agency tasked with providing resources to people with mental illness!

As I read the opposition’s often vitriolic attacks on mothers like G.G. Burns, a friend of mine who shared her family’s painful story with Diane Rehm yesterday, I’m reminded more of religion than science. We have this very human tendency to rely on our own belief systems about the mind, and especially about our ability to choose and to be accountable for our choices, rather than looking at the choice-stealing reality of brain disease. G.G., in talking about her efforts to get treatment for her son, told a harsh truth: “We are forced to watch our loved ones die with their rights on. Without help, there is no hope.”

The comments section of Diane’s show demonstrates the wide variety of challenges parents continue to face, and why so many of us are still afraid to share our stories. We have the mental illness deniers, the Mad in America anti-medication crowd, the folks who blame our bad parenting, the consumers who think that everyone with mental illness can seek treatment and recover like they did, and the E.F. Torrey haters (and boy, are they an angry bunch! They should try some SAMHSA sponsored yoga!).

Still, I think that a robust discussion about HR3717 is a good thing. Task-oriented conflict can ensure that the end result—fixing our broken mental healthcare system—is the best it can possibly be. And certainly the experiences of people who have experienced involuntary commitment need to be carefully considered (see this powerful essay at "The System is Broken," for example ). I wish Diane Rehm had included the voices of people with serious mental illness on her show.

But when we rely on our belief systems about what mental illness is (or isn’t), when we retreat to our anecdotal or lived experiences rather than considering other points of view, it can be too easy for the dialogue to devolve into person-centered attacks rather than focusing on productive, inclusive solutions. We don’t have time for any more of that kind of talk. The consequences of inaction on mental illness are unacceptable. We cannot continue to treat serious mental illness in prison, or to ignore it on the streets. That’s why I support HR 3717.