The V.A. is in the news a lot lately and none of it is good news. I work for them, so I’ve got the inside scoop. Sadly, it’s the same as what you’ve seen. Why is it that funding science or education or infrastructure is always way more controversial than starting a new war? I was never a big fan of indiscriminate interventionalism. Now I’m a medical transcriptionist for the V.A. and I’m even more anti-war than before. In many ways, I miss civilian transcription. Sure, you get a whole plethora of sad reports, but you also get a decent number of neutral to good ones. People have babies or get their condition cured and have a new lease on life. Minor stuff like “I’ve got this rash,” with simple solutions like an ointment. Or a person comes in “Do I have cancer?” And the answer is “No, you’re just a hypochondriac.” Okay, that one might be autobiographical of me ages 6-20. Ah, fine, 6-present.
90% of the V.A. is sad though. It can be argued that the vets with physical injuries are the best off. Losing a leg is something that in time they can adapt to, but losing their mind or personality or higher brain functions is basically impossible to cope with. How do you compensate for never again feeling safe in your entire life? Or losing the ability to form a full thought because of a head injury? It wouldn’t be so bad if there were a light at the end of the tunnel. But the current vets are traumatized. The Desert Storm soldiers still have PTSD. Vietnam. Korea. Even WWII soldiers come in with PTSD yet. No matter how far back you go, the war never ends for them. The number of lives lost in our wars isn’t limited to the people who didn’t come back.
Yet on the other hand, I find myself apprehensive about the search for a cure to PTSD. One of the major side effects of modern pharmacology is the idea that different emotional states are, in and of themselves, diseases. If you’re depressed all the time you might be sick and need help. Or you might be in a really depressing situation and need a different kind of help than pills can provide. More and more the medical industry is trying to convince everyone that there’s something wrong with them. A lot of the time, there’s something wrong with the world or the immediate environment around the person and their reaction is normal.
Shouldn’t killing other human beings be depressing? They want to make a pill that makes war okay. They see all these broken people coming back from war and instead of asking how or why it happened, they want to fix it so they can get them back out there to fight some new wars. PTSD is the natural reaction to war. If we want to avoid that, I think we should avoid war. I’m not a 100% pacifist, but to my mind not just are the vast majority of wars unethical, they’re also stupid from a tactical/strategic point of view. What has Iraq accomplished? I don’t think we’re safer or more secure. For the most part, I think every time we intervene, we make our future selves less safe by creating a whole new generation who look at America and see us as the country who ruined their lives and killed all their friends. Recruiting terrorists is a lot easier when the “good guys” ride around like cowboys shooting everything and blowing up any building still standing. The cost in blood, money, sweat and time was not worth such meager results.
For civilians, companies like GlaxoKleinSmith and Pfizer have a similar view. As people feel more and more helpless and hopeless, the answer is always newer and better pills. It’s never evaluation of the situation. It’s never trying to improve the world. Just numb it out. I see little difference between GKS and Jack Daniels and marijuana and all the other ways to tune out the world, except that in the case of pot, it is statistically much safer. In fact, many of the anxiolytics and antidepressants on the market now were often outperformed in clinical trials by the placebo.
Part of my revulsion at medication comes from my own personal experiences with Paxil, which I was prescribed when I was a teenager. I was in the end stage of the disease known as puberty and it was the newest cure. My doctor told me it had no side effects and it would make my life great. I will admit, it felt good. Imagine what it would be like to never worry. Ever. About anything. In fact, for me, Paxil worked too well. It put me into a pleasant dissociative state. Of course, because I had no worry, I had little empathy. Also, it turns out, being afraid of some things is kind of important. I wanted to fight other people just to see if I was a match. I planned to kill myself to test out the theory of the afterlife. I didn’t feel depressed in the least. I thought of it as a bold new adventure. Later, of course, they would discover one of Paxil’s side effects was teen suicide.
So I went off it and my doctor told me it was fine to quit cold turkey because it wasn’t addictive. Now they know it is. I got what’s called “the zaps.” Imagine having 9 volt batteries hooked up all over your body shocking you at random times. While coming off of it, I had waking dreams and my first and last fully awake hallucination ever in my life where my bathroom sink talked to me. I was a wreck. Being on it made me a sociopath, coming off of it was like temporary schizophrenia and afterward my anxiety was so much worse.
Now I’m fine. I don’t even get depressed much. I still have generalized anxiety disorder a bit, but I’ve gotten used it. When you’re a teenager and a doctor tells you that you’re too sad or too anxious, you believe them. You believe all the criticism anyone gives you. The older I get the less I care about what other people think and the more I look around and see that I’m not that unusual. Compared with the rest of my family I’m probably the healthiest (admittedly they set the bar real low).
I wouldn’t say I’m anti-medication in the same way I would say I’m not anti-war (though the only wars in American history I agreed with were the Revolution, Civil War for the North and WWII.) I just think that these things need to be taken seriously. They aren’t for everyone. They aren’t toys. Plenty of people need medication. Just about all schizophrenics and people with bipolar disorder need meds. Plenty of people are so depressed they would kill themselves otherwise. Or anxiety so bad they can’t leave home. For many, meds are the difference between a never ending nightmare and a life worth living. But being sad in and of itself isn’t a disease. Worrying isn’t a disease.
What I really wish for is a world with less psychiatrists and more therapists. Less prescriptions and more life changes. Less psychological Band-Aids and more social justice. What if when you went in to see the doctor, you tell him you’ve been feeling depressed. He asks why and then refers you to some service that could actually help you get out of your personal situation. Imagine a world where you weren’t completely financially, socially and legally trapped.
They are working on a medication now that erases traumatic memories. Right now its not so accurate, but one day they hope to remove more specific memories, or at least all the bad stuff. I find the very thought horrifying. I’m proud of the terrible things I’ve survived. They weren’t easy and I’m likely permanently damaged goods, but that’s life. I learned some really important lessons from my worst memories. The self is such a fragile state. It changes over time and with different input. Tampering with the process is such a metaphysical, philosophical and technical quandary.
I had a doctor once who whenever a patient lost a loved one, he automatically prescribed them Zoloft. I imagine all the furniture in his waiting room had Zoloft written on it. It’s kind of stuck with me over the years. I started to imagine a world where when someone you love dies, you take a pill and you won’t feel the sadness anymore. I didn’t know what to think. When you’re in the situation, you’ll do anything to lessen the pain. Why should it be any different than taking a pain med for a physical injury? But there’s something so cold and unnatural about it too. I’m a bit old fashioned about it. I consider mourning a kind of sacred duty to commemorate any good person. I’ve known people that after they died, the most anyone could muster was “It’s such a shame they wasted their life and never let anyone in.” The only crying done is mourning lost chances, not cherished memories. Soul rending sadness is what sets the loss of someone or something you loved apart from the people who never truly connect.
I find myself very torn. I do these reports on these kids coming back from war and I want so badly to help them, to heal these psychic wounds, but I remember living in a world without consequences and I’ll do anything to prevent that. Imagine an army of people who are never afraid. They never have regrets. They just follow orders, get paid and come home like it was an all expense paid vacation. It’s a terrible blessing that our drugs don’t work. I’m not a moral absolutist, so I’ve got no clue what to think about it all or what limitations or rules might be placed, but I can’t help but be creeped out by the quest to end the human condition.
Wow, my friends are right, I sound like an old man. These darn kids and their fancy shoes and rock & roll and tricyclic antidepressants. I’m becoming the John Henry of the chemical revolution. That can’t end well:)