Light Where There Was Darkness (surviving PTSD)

by Chaplain Nick Sebastian

Chaplain Nick RLTWhen Peggy Sweeney asked me to write an article about my long, ongoing experience with PTSD, I emailed her back and said sure. That was the easy part. I’m a 66 year old Viet Nam veteran (Marines), who shares things pretty much only with other vets, or like now, as I have been as a public safety chaplain for years with police, fire, and EMT’s. I am a member of the Federation Of Fire Chaplains lead my Ed Stauffer.

I have been with my guys (women included) through some ugly scenes. I am privileged to have served with some great heroes. Like most heroes, they don’t want the recognition, especially those who come back from a combat zone and taken off their uniform and put on the turnout gear, climbed in an ambulance, or gotten in a squad car.

When they came home, besides readjusting to civilian life, there were different work rules than those overseas including how you engage situations. I would hope there are better mechanisms in preparing our military for transition than in my day. PTSD hadn’t been phased in yet when I came back. I had the CISM course, Battlefield to Street: One Uniform to Another, by Duggan and Greenhalgh a few years ago and it was quite helpful in understanding those coming home to serve us here.

I am a person of faith. Now we can talk acute stress, delayed stress, chronic stress, cumulative stress, PTSD 1 and 2, clinical counseling and the rest. I can only speak of what I know and testify to what I have seen. Sometimes, we reach for the one size fits all remedy. It’s not like that though. Each of us is uniquely different. The event that might overload your coping mechanism, may not someone else.

We rely on a variety of helping services such as CISM, Peer, Clinical and spiritual support. All are good if used properly; improperly can cause harm or delay a recovery.

I had a veteran firefighter tell a coworker to ‘man up’ when he noticed tears as he was caring the remains of a four year old from a fire scene. The firefighter had a five year old at home. Each event is personal and cannot be measured through some clinical formulae. It’s not one thing that works best, but using all the right tools from the tool box. The best way I can explain this is through the many years of darkness in my own struggle with depression and PTSD.

nam_1When I came back from Viet Nam, all I wanted to do was fit in. Never mind the fact that the country had changed so much while I was gone. I went to school, worked, got married had a child, got divorced. Tried my best to be ‘normal’. Never missed work, would always be the fun guy. No one ever knew the demons that would steal my sleep, my ambitions, and my soul at night. I would fight the fight that prevented suicide. I went on. I was the one man ‘man up’ cheerleader in my head. The fixer, after all I’m a Marine.

I married again to a person that today I will never be worthy of. I had PTSD, she lived it. Within a few years of being married, I had dug a large financial hole all the while thinking I can turn this all around. Wound up telling about every lie ever told in masking the problem. The Veterans Administration’s (VA) response all this time was more Valium. I was a wreck who was on a journey going nowhere. I was neither the husband nor the father I should have been.

Stephen Cornfield/Flickr
Stephen Cornfield/Flickr

I received a phone call on Memorial Day of 1986 that a friend from Nam had committed suicide. I spiraled down. The demons were in control now. For months it was not about killing myself, but no not today. This went on until Memorial Day of 1987. My wife went to work at the hospital and I went to the dresser drawer and took out my pistol. Went to the kitchen table where I field stripped the pistol and cleaned it. Put the clip back in and I headed toward the door. The wall phone caught my eye, and for whatever reason I picked it up and called 911.

In Montgomery, Alabama they don’t send a squad, they send the Calvary. I had cops at every window. At that point I figured I was going to have to do this inside, which was not how I had planned. As I raised my weapon to my head, there was a loud noise outside the kitchen window. A very young patrolman shouted, “if you put it down, we can figure this out”. I released the clip and pulled the slide back and the round danced under the refrigerator. The officer came in and called my wife to come home. While waiting he said he thought that I was spiritually bankrupted. I didn’t know at the time what he was talking about.

My wife came home and I received the help that I needed. Life went on slowly and cautiously. It’s hard to explain when you lose your self-confidence. It’s like having to walk not just on egg shells, but your own egg shells.

Some years later I was a volunteer at the Crime Scene Investigation (CSI) lab in Montgomery. Of course they background checked me, they knew all the dirt on me. One day the corporal in charge invited me to lunch with Cops and Firefighters for Christ and tell my story. I told him no thanks, but I agreed to have lunch and listen to this Captain who was retiring. As the Captain was speaking he used the phrase spiritually bankrupted. I realized this was the young patrolman who came to my house 17 years earlier. Small world.

These men and women convinced me to take the training and become a chaplain. Because of the military background and my life experiences I was easy to talk to. I thought I was going to be the chaplain in charge of doughnuts and laughter. Six weeks later, I had my first line of duty death. That changed everything.

I believe I am a reasonably good chaplain, because I am not about myself, but rather ‘real’. I have warts like so many that serve us, and it’s OK if that we talk the deepest and darkest things among ourselves, because we understand when others don’t. I will always live with PTSD, it’s a management issue that I can help others with.

The rest of the story…. The rest of the story: I am a 66 year old Viet Nam vet who resides in Tuscola, IL. I spent from 1967-1971 as a US Marine. When I came home in 1970 I was spit on outside the gate in California.

Upon being discharged, I tried to fit in as a 24 year old freshman in college. Once again, I was spit on again, this time asking if a towel came with that. I wanted to fit in but it was for not. A lot of people acted like the war was my fault.

By this time, the PTSD was taking hold of me, although PTSD was not a term yet. I left school, worked construction, got married, had a wonderful daughter, got divorced. I still was unable to get a handle on life. Got remarried.

In 1987, the depression and suicidal thoughts had a grip on me. My wife got me help and I dealt with survivor’s guilt, depression, and accepting my own junk in all of this.

I wound up becoming a volunteer in the crime lab, where I met an officer who knew my past from a background check. He invited me to a Cops and Firefighters meeting. From there I became a Fire Chaplain. After much training I became a minister with a lot of CISM training in the mix along with other approaches.

Today my past is one of the best tools I have in my tool box to help people. I currently serve as the chaplain for the Douglas County Sherriff’s Dept.

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