Diagram of a Defense System

Back when I was a psych nurse at the MVAMC, I worked with a lots of Vietnam vets. They were struggling to find their way through the morass of PTSD symptoms they were suffering from, mostly unsuccessfully.

PTSD is a complicated disease. It’s symptoms are legion, and stealthy. They’re like unto an army of ninjas, and just like ninjas, they attack without warning.

In an attempt to help my brother veterans gain some insight into what they were fighting, I came up with this presentation to help them see what they were up against.

Imagine your life as a game of chess. I actually used chess pieces in the group. I arranged them on a table and moved them around as I explained my idea.

Your opponent attacks. You go on the defensive to protect your position, and the pieces you employ are defense mechanisms. These are tools we use every day of our lives. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. Defense mechanisms help us survive. But, do you have any idea what kind of weapons you’re using. Or why?

What I’m talking about is something I call a defense system. Anytime you have more than one component, you have a system. Think of it like unto an home theater stereo system. Multiple components working together to produce an integrated effect.

That’s what your defense system does. By utilizing a series of connected mechanisms, you create a buffer zone to keep you safe from the world around you. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of defense mechanisms, but let’s start with the basics. There are three fundamental building blocks that every defense system is built upon.

Repression. Suppression. And Denial. After that, the sky is pretty much the limit, but let’s start here.

Repression. If you’re confronted with a traumatic memory, your brain will automatically repress it. This reaction is hardwired into your brain. You don’t even have to think about it, it just happens.

Suppression. When repression doesn’t work, this kicks in. This takes some conscious effort, but these two mechanisms work together, and they’re pretty damn effective. But life can be complicated, and sometimes you need a lots of tools to get a job done, right?

Denial. When repression and suppression don’t work, you have to start bringing in the big guns. With denial, you can make stuff disappear. Denial is a total negation.

It did not happen.

Defense mechanisms are powerful weapons. And they are mobile! They can be deployed wherever they’re needed, and there are ga-zillion of them. You can lock and load and secure the perimeter, and blow shit up with a thousand different kinds of armament.

Minimization. Take a big problem, and make it small.

Maximization. Take a small problem, and make it big.

Rationalization. Logically analyze anything to pieces until it dies of boredom.

Intellectualization. Logically analyze something to pieces until it commits suicide to get away from you.

Shuffle the deck and play them when and where you need them. You can do this shit all day! And there’s a lots more where those came from. Deflection. Projection. Sublimation. Humor. Drug and alcohol use. Do a Google search. There’s a list of defense mechanisms a mile long.

But any effective system needs a fuel supply to keep it up and functioning. And we have that, too.

Anger!

Anger is almost always a secondary response. The precursor might be fear, or shame, or guilt–and it might only be present for the blink of an eye. None of us like feeling that way, but anger. Yeah, were good with that.

Anger, is a powerful fuel. And I’ve seen you guys. Anger is where all y’all have been living. Anger can also be a defense mechanism. No one wants to be around an angry person. Anger is like an electric fence. Only an idiot pisses on that, right?  Anger is like one of those multi-tools. It can do a lots of stuffs.

There’s one major downside to anger. It’s exhausting! I can stay angry for a couple weeks about something my wife or daughters do, and then I have to let it go. It wears me out. You guys have been pissed off for what–twenty or thirty years? How’s that going?

And what happens when you run out of fuel? Everything shuts down! The walls come crashing down, and then what?

Your defense is breached. You have to fall back. You bunker up. You run!

Yeah, you do all those things, but then you have to find a way to get your system back up and running, and that’s not easy to do when the enemy is looking over your shoulder watching you. That’s what brings you guys here. This is the place you come to when your defense system crashes, and you can’t do it on your own any more.

I mentioned drug and alcohol use earlier, but it’s such a pervasive problem I want to take a moment and talk about it. Eighty percent of the people that come here for treatment have a secondary diagnosis of drug or alcohol abuse.

Only eighty?

Well, it could be higher, but that’s the statistic the administration here likes to throw around. I know I’ve tried these methods myself, and while they might be effective in the short term, they are completely ineffective in the long term.

Alcohol is a depressant. If you’re not already depressed, you’ll end up that way if you abuse alcohol long enough. Also, mass consumption of alcohol tends to short circuit the wiring of your defense system.

Yeah. That’d be true for me. That’s why I quit drinking.

I had not quit drinking, so it’s more than a little ironic that I was telling someone else to take a look at their drinking habits when that’s what I needed to do myself.

Well, there you have it. I’m not telling you guys to quit drinking. I’m just throwing this out there to give you something to think about. But even if alcohol isn’t an issue, look at all this other stuff. We all have these invisible walls that protect us from stuff we don’t want bombarding us. But it probably works in reverse, too. We’re expending all this energy to keep stuff from getting to us. How easy is it to let our emotions out?

Is it easy for us to let someone know we love them? These walls we have constructed are well built, and they are strong! But in the end, we have essentially created a state of siege mentality–nothing gets in, nothing gets out, and we have stopped living, in exchange for simply…existing. And I know what you’re all thinking, What the fuck am I supposed to do?

I don’t have any answers for your questions. I don’t have any solutions to your problems. Hell, I don’t have any answers or solutions for mine. But we have to start somewhere if we’re ever going to get our lives back.

Awareness is the first step. Once you’re aware of a problem, you can start to do something about it. What you do, well, that’s up to you. You’re gonna have to figure this out for yourself.

I been watching you, Mark. I see you up at the nursing station. Sometimes you just sit there, and stare. You have PTSD, don’t you. You’re one of us, ain’t you.

That was a guy named George. He diagnosed me in that group. I have to admit, I was a little freaked out to hear that. But I couldn’t argue with what he said.

The Nam vets called it the Thousand Yard Stare. Someone could be standing right in front of you, and you’d never see them. You were seeing shit in your head ten thousand miles away.

But however freaked out I might have been, it was nothing compared to what the guys in my group were feeling. They came up and analyzed the chess pieces as if they were going back into combat.

When that guy tried flanking you here–it opened a breach when you redeployed there. Your back is to the river…  You have no drop back position, no place to regroup. You’re about to be overrun.

We all are!

The guys in my group practically ran out of the room.

* * * *

About ten years later, I presented this to concept to my AA group, Squad 46, the bestest squad in all the land. And when I finished, I was met with

Silence.

My group members finally came out from the tables they had been hiding under, and discussed my presentation. I’ve discussed bits and pieces of it with a lots of people over the years, but I’ve only presented it in its entirety twice. This makes three.

Sometimes I think it’s the most significant idea I’ve ever imagined, mostly based on the reactions of the people I presented it to, not because it’s actually been proven to be an effective therapy or educational tool.

Oh, and I do make the World’s Best Chili.

Most of the time I don’t think about my concept of an organized defense system at all. But I did this morning. Maybe someone will find it useful. And that’d be cool.

Paperback Writer

When I started writing my Reflections posts on Facebook, many of the people that read them said, You should write a book!

My response was something like unto, Forgive them. They know not what they say.

Writing, like cunnilingus, is dark and lonely work. If you don’t believe me, try doing either one of them exclusively for a year or two. A writer spends hours, days, weeks and months doing nothing but writing. On the Fun Scale, it doesn’t even register.

For starters, no one writes everything perfectly the first time. I sure as hell don’t. I have to edit and rewrite almost everything I write, even grocery lists, and that includes these posts. When I was trying to become a published author, I spent eight to ten hours a day or more parked in front of my computer monitor almost every day for two years. My only companion was a glass and a bottle of scotch.

I’m probably not a very good writer. I doubt I could tell you the difference between an adverb and an adjective. I mix past, present and future tenses. I leave participles dangling all the time. The only reason I know what a conjunction is is because I watched Schoolhouse Rock when I was a kid. I wrote what popped into my creative mind, irregardless of its grammatical correctness. And yes, I know irregardless isn’t a real word.

I’ve written a book before. It was a monster; over 1500 pages. After a lots of discussion with other hopeful authors and people in the publishing business, I broke my magnum opus into three smaller books. If you’ve never heard of me, or any of my books, there’s a simple reason. None of them were ever published.

I titled my book Seven Trumpets. It was a fictional interpretation of the Book of Revelation, the Two Witnesses, and the End of Times. And you have never seen a more pissed off person than I was when Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins came out with their Left Behind series.

still hate those two fucking fucks.

I wanted to be a rich and famous author back in the 1990’s. And a prophet–I really wanted to be a prophet, too. Granted, the publishing business has changed a lots since then, but what hasn’t. Would I have a better chance of successfully being published now?

Possibly. But the publishing business isn’t the only thing that’s changed since then. I no longer have the desire to be a rich. I no longer desire to be famous. Okay, I still want to be a prophet. That part hasn’t changed much.

And I still like writing–writing is a creative process, and I’m a fairly creative guy. But I have no desire to write another book. And that’s all because of the publishing process. Publishing is a business. Publishers aren’t interested in creativity. Publishers are interested in making money.

Back in the 1990’s, once you wrote something you wanted to see in your local bookstore, you needed a publisher. To procure a publisher, you wrote a query letter that briefly described your book and why it should be published, and sent it out to every publishing company you could find an address for. I’m going to take a wild guess here, but publishing companies probably received hundreds of query letters from guys and gals like me every day. I don’t know the statistics of novels published based on a query letter, but I’m going to take another guess here and say not very damn many.

There were actual published books that were little more than lists of publishing companies and their addresses, and you could find them in bookstores. Publishers probably loved them because potential authors bought them by the ton.

I know this because I bought a few/several of them. I wrote query letters by the dozen and mailed them out every week. And I received a lots of letters in return. I can still remember the excitement I felt when I saw my first response from a publishing company I had queried in my mailbox. My hands were shaking so badly I could hardly open it. Good thing it wasn’t an engagement ring!

Alas, the first letter I received from a publishing company was a what authors referred to as a rejection letter. Come to think of it, the last letter I received was a rejection letter, as well as all the letters in between. I had a stack of them over a foot high.

I’m not the only author that has experienced this. Norman Vincent Peale received so many rejection letters he threw his manuscript in the garbage. His wife pulled it out of the trash and convinced him to try, one more time. You might have heard of his book, The Power of Positive Thinking.

Robert M. Pirsig received over one hundred rejection letters before his manuscript was published. Maybe you’ve heard of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. If you haven’t, read it. It’s one of my favorite books.

Rejection is part of the publishing process. My experience certainly wasn’t/isn’t/will be unique. As I was to learn from the mountain of rejection letters I received, publishing is a very subjective business, and just because Random House wasn’t interested in publishing my manuscript didn’t mean another company wouldn’t be. Good luck with your career…

After two years of writing, and editing, and rewriting almost every sentence I wrote, thanks in part to double vision from the scotch I was drinking. After another three years of writing query letters, and attending seminars on getting published, and making follow up calls to any publishing company that would talk to me, I finally decided I’d had enough and quit. I threw every copy of my manuscript I had in the garbage. I trashed every note of research I had done. Any scrap of paper even remotely related to my writing got tossed. Even my pile of rejection letters.

I have no desire to go back down that road again. I like to think that all of you who encouraged me to write a book did so because you enjoyed reading my stories, and I appreciate that more than I can say. A writer lives to have his or her work read. A comedian lives to make people laugh. I have at least two reasons to live right now. Writing a few humorous and perhaps poignant short stories every week has fit into my new lifestyle very well so far.

Lea would never tell me, but I think she was overjoyed when I finally gave up trying to be a rich and famous author. And a prophet, though I’m still holding on to the slight possibility it could still happen. I look upon it as my last chance at redemption and recompense. I’m sure I ignored my lovely wife terribly during my writing days. She was one of the few people that actually read my monster manuscript from start to finish, and I know I didn’t take anything that sounded like criticism or correction from her gracefully. I don’t know how she put up with me. I could be a real bastard to live with back then.

Thanks for not divorcing me, honey.

What Was I Thinking?

Anyone that has been in more than one serious relationship probably has a story about that time they got involved with someone that was totally wrong for them. If you have more than one story, you should probably consider not dating for maybe a decade. If you have more than five, you should consider becoming a priest or a nun.

For me, that person was Cynthia Jamieson. I met her right around the time I was having my final showdown with Sister Mary Hitler, so she initially presented herself as a very welcome distraction in my already troubled life.

Cynthia was roughly my age and height, and thin–almost too thin. I asked her out. She agreed. We met at a restaurant/bar that had live music on the weekends. We ate, had a few drinks, and danced a lot. She was attractive with short, kind of platinum blonde hair–I don’t know what her natural hair color was. She was smart, witty, funny, and she was a good dancer. She could also sing. She could sing arias from Puccini and Mozart and classical guys like that. And she was good! I was totally impressed.

Cynthia was divorced, she was the first previously married woman I seriously dated. She had two boys, Bert and Pete. I think Bert was maybe ten years old, and Pete was around eight. They were good kids, we all got along.

Cynthia had some vague GI problem that she was seeing three doctors for treatment–two in St Cloud, one in Minneapolis. And she was getting at least one prescription medication from all three of them. She saw each of her doctors about every two or three weeks on a rotating basis. Her vague problem didn’t seem to be serious, and the medication, whatever it was, seemed to be managing her illness, whatever it was…

Things were going mostly smoothly with Cynthia and the boys. I moved into Cynthia’s’s apartment after a couple months of dating her. Things were getting kinda serious. It was only after I moved in with Cynthia I got my first inkling there was something not quite right.

Cynthia was…moody. And sometimes she was darkly moody. And when it got really bad, she always played one special song on the stereo: Harden My Heart by Quarterflash.

“Oh, God,” Bert said, the first time Cynthia played that song after I moved in. “Mom’s in a bad mood. She always plays this song when she’s in a bad mood.”

“What’s that all about?”

“I don’t know, maybe cuz dad divorced her.”

“Yeah, but that was, like, two or three years ago, wasn’t it?”

“All I know is she plays this song, and then she starts yelling.”

I had to investigate this phenomena, and what Bert said was absolutely true. Cynthia went off on me like she was the Witch Queen of New Orleans. I grabbed the boys and fled. We went to my old apartment and hung out with my brother until it was safe to return.

This was not a frequent occurrence, but it wasn’t a singular event either. If Cynthia was upset with her ex-husband, I could understand that, but when Cynthia got into one of these moods, her ire wasn’t focused toward her ex-husband. It was seemingly directed toward anyone/everyone with a penis.

Cynthia’s ex’s name was also Bert. Cynthia’s son was actually Bert II. Bert the First was a semi-wealthy guy, and he had derailed Cynthia’s very comfortable lifestyle by divorcing her. Cynthia had very nice, very expensive tastes. Everything she owned was designed by a Somebody. Cynthia was my first high maintenance woman, and she would become my first serious fashion consultant.

I think it was around this time that my youngest sister got married. Cynthia sang ‘Ave Maria’ a cappella at Julie and Curt’s wedding and brought the house down. She really did have an amazing voice. I think that was the moment I fell in love with her.

Weddings. Never make any serious life decisions immediately after going to a wedding. I bought a ring. I proposed, all that stuff. And then things went all to hell.

Cynthia not only had an ex-husband, she also had an ex-boyfriend. I can’t remember his name, but he couldn’t get over the fact that Cynthia had dumped him. He used to call frequently. I hung up on him whenever I answered the phone. He wrote letters. He sent cards. He followed us around sometimes. And one time he even kidnapped her.

Okay, maybe he didn’t actually kidnap her, but that’s what it felt like. I can’t remember all the details… Cynthia’s ex-husband had the boys, so it must’ve been the weekend. We were out at a park, maybe playing Frisbee. My brother Tom was there. Mr XBF walked up, said he needed to talk to Cynthia. I kind of lost it, and told him to walk away before I killed him to death. But Cynthia agreed to talk to him! Privately!! They went over to his car. Tom and I followed them, and immediately lost them in traffic after Mr XBF drove off with her. I was sure he was going to kill her, then kill himself.

Okay, maybe he didn’t actually kill her. My brother thought I was being a drama llama and told me to get a fucking grip already. He dropped me off at my apartment where I waited for a call from the police, informing me my fiancée had been brutally murdered. By her psychotic ex-boyfriend. Who then committed suicide…

The phone rang, but it wasn’t the police. Or Mr XBF, outlining his perverted ransom demands. Or even Cynthia, calling to say goodbye to me before she got dead at the hands of the psycho guy she never should’ve dated. It was Cynthia’s best friend, Patricia. I told her what had happened in a rush. We talked for at least an hour, and she filled in a whole lots of blanks in Cynthia’s storyline.

Mr XBF was bad news. Patricia had never liked that creepy bastard, and had been telling Cynthia to dump him from Day One. I had met Patricia couple times, and I thought she was okay, but now I thought Patricia was brilliant and I loved her. And then came the bombshells. Cynthia didn’t have anything wrong with her stomach or any other portion of her GI tract. And the medication she was getting to treat her malady was phenobarbital. I couldn’t believe it! My darling opera singer, fashion plate fiancée was a drug addict!!

My head was spinning after I hung up the phone. Cynthia walked in the door a short time, or maybe a long time later. I really can’t remember how long I waited. All I know is, I should’ve been playing Quarterflash when she walked through the door.

I confronted my then fiancée. She countered with any number of reasonable sounding explanations. I called Patricia. She wanted to talk to Cynthia. I handed the phone to my fiancée. She had the shortest conversation she would have with her best friend, ever, but about half an hour later Patricia walked in the door and we ended up doing a tag team intervention on Cynthia that lasted until the wee hours of the morning. I doubt any of the people living in the vicinity of our apartment got any sleep that night. Thinking back on it now, I’m surprised no one called the police.

Cynthia fought us tooth and nail, but Patricia was beyond amazing that night. When Cynthia finally broke down and admitted she had a problem and needed help, it was because of Patricia, not me. Cynthia packed a bag, and we drove her to the St Cloud Hospital ER to get her admitted into the Chemical Dependency Treatment Program.

I talked to Cynthia’s ex-husband the next day to let him know what had happened. He wasn’t as surprised as I was, but agreed he should keep his sons until their mother got out of drug rehab.

I supported Cynthia while she was in treatment. I visited her every day. I went to Family Night. I participated in her program whenever my presence was required. Cynthia’s parents and siblings even got involved, and they started mending their relationships, but I knew I was done.

Given my history, her drug abuse wasn’t the issue. I probably made her look like a grade school kid in terms of drug and alcohol use. It wasn’t the drugs, it was her crazy behavior–the yelling and screaming, the diffuse rage that rained down pell-mell and helter skelter. And there was also Mr XBF. The fact that she had voluntarily disappeared for several hours with him…

I told Cynthia we were through near the end of her hospitalization. She took it better than I thought she would, and gave me my ring back. I didn’t ask for it, she simply took it off her finger and placed it in my hand. I packed up my stuff and moved out of her place just before she was released.

The last thing I did before I left her apartment was break her Quarterflash album in two.

I ran into Cynthia about a month after she completed rehab. She was smiling and relaxed. I just about had a heart attack. Cynthia looked about the same, except for one surprising physical anomaly. Her ass had become huge! She looked to be about the same otherwise, but(t)…

And that was when she became Cynthia ‘Fatass’ Jamieson to me.

I know. It doesn’t say much about me, does it. I make no excuses, nor do I apologize. I’m a guy. I’m not always sensitive to the pain of others, despite my training and my inherent compassion. I rarely care what others think or feel about me and my words or actions.

I’ve done a lot of work fixing the broken parts of me. I’ve come to the conclusion that life is essentially an endless recovery program. Recovery never ends, you simply move on to the next issue. We all have areas that need some work and tuning up.

I hope Cynthia’s life turned out great. I hope she conquered her demons and is prospering at whatever it is she’s doing now. I hope her sons grew up to be decent men, and that they married nice girls, and gave their mother grandchildren to spoil.

But I really wish I had never seen Cynthia’s gigantic ass. It’s an image I’ve never been able to erase from my brain. And I can’t listen to Quarterflash without damn near having a panic attack.

In some ways, that’s the biggest tragedy of this story. I love music, and Quarterflash had a few decent songs back in the 80’s. And I love the 80’s.

The Devil Drives a Chevy

Back when I was in Oklahoma, I had a couple of Army buddies that were from the Great State of Texas, which just happened to be conveniently located due south of Oklahoma. Several of us would pile into a car after work on Friday afternoon, fill up the gas tank, load up on beer and munchies–and hit the road. It was party time.

We’d end up at Johnny’s parents’ house. Or Kim’s parents’ house. Or Tommy’s parents’ house. Or Raoul’s parents’ house. The parental units were always happy to see their son and almost always happy to meet his new friends. We were happy to be out of Oklahoma and the Army, if only for a couple of days.

On the weekend that the devil went down to Texas, we ended up at Raoul’s parents’ house, and it was just Raoul and myself, not half the company. He had a blue, two door Chevy Nova. It was a beautiful car.

Raoul’s parents lived somewhat west of the middle of nowhere, if memory serves me right. We got in late Friday night, grabbed a couple hours of sleep, ate breakfast (Raoul’s mom could’ve made one of my boots taste great), and headed out to party down with a couple of Raoul’s cousins.

Raoul was about ten years older than I was. He was divorced, and that, is going to be one fuck of a story if I ever find the courage to write it. Raoul was an Hispanic guy, and the first group of his cousins we partied with were on par with his age. We met up at a little bar in a little town, and started drinking our way toward the geographic center of the middle of nowhere.

Sometime around midnight, maybe, we ran into another group of Raoul’s cousins that were closer to my age, and they knew about this monster party out by the river that was east of the middle of nowhere. So we all decided to go to that.

Raoul’s younger cousins were less into booze, and more into pot and psychedelics. They asked if I wanted to try some acid. I said make mine a double, and smiled. This was going to be an epic night.

I’m sure my memories of what happened next are a bit blurry, but they’re the only ones I have. The Party at the River was huge! It was like Woodstock, only smaller. And there were no live bands. And it didn’t last three days. There was music, and people dancing in the moonlight. Lots of beer, lots of pot. And then the acid kicked in and the world went Technicolor®.

I wandered around the party grounds with Raoul’s electric younger cousins while the Old Guard kicked back by the tables where the audio system was set up, and drank beer.

At around 3:30 AM, the party was still going strong, I was tripping my balls off, but Raoul thought we should head for home and catch a few hours of sleep. We still had to drive back to base, and go back to the Army, and all that buzzkill crap.

I was going to be up all night tripping the Light Fantastique, so to speak, so I told him what I thought he could do with his idea. Raoul got really pissed! He started yelling and swearing. His electric cousins told him to chill out, man. He started yelling at them in Spanish. The Old Guard Cousins formed a line, facing off against their younger Electric Cousins. And then there were a lots of people, all of them yelling.

The Electric Cousins and I decided enough was enough, and started to walk off. And then Sergeant Raoul Killjoy got all up in my grille and said, “Get in the goddamn car! We’re leaving!”

I refused. Raoul shoved me in what I think was the general direction of his car, then he punched me in the jaw. That’s when I lost my glasses. A brawl broke out, and we were all kicked out of the Epic Party at the River, East of the Middle of Nowhere.

Once we got kicked out of the party, Raoul’s cousins started laughing and helping each other up, clapping each other on the back. Raoul and I were not laughing. I was essentially blind without my glasses, and I had somehow broken Raoul’s arm when I retaliated against his unprovoked aggression, though neither of us knew that yet.

We said goodbye to all the cousins, got on the highway and drove off into the night. Raoul was pissed off as two hells at me for being such a goddamn hammerhead, and not listening to him and disobeying a direct order. He did outrank me. He was an E5. I was an E4.

I was tripping on maybe a couple thousand micrograms of LSD, and I wasn’t too happy either. I couldn’t see anything clearly, except the hallucinations I was having, and they were vividly intense. I looked over at Raoul, but he wasn’t there. In his place was the Devil!

Yes. Satan himself was my chauffeur, driving across Texas as the sun was starting to come up. I had been raised Catholic and the stereotypical image of the Devil–horns growing out of his head, red skin, pointed tail, glowing eyes, evil smile–it was all there, just to my left, driving the car down the highway to hell.

I’m not sure if I screamed, but I think it would’ve been appropriate, don’t you? At the very least, I should’ve done the Home Alone face, but I know I didn’t do that. I did what any other hallucinating former Catholic would’ve done in that situation. I opened the door and jumped out of the car. The moving car, that was traveling at least 55 mph.

Whatever you think should have happened to me for doing what I did, probably didn’t happen. I didn’t got dead. I didn’t lose consciousness. I didn’t break any bones. I don’t think I even ended up with road rash after sliding across the highway. What I did end up with was a very small, very superficial cut on the top of my head.

Raoul slammed on the brakes and got out of the car. It was right about this point in time he figured out he had a broken arm because his left arm hurt like hell when he tried to open the door.

“WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING!?!” he screamed at me. I could kind of make out Raoul’s features in the distance, and this was a relief to me. Satan, the real Prince of Darkness, was gone. And at that moment the sun rose over the horizon.

We drove to a military base that was kind of in the general direction of Oklahoma. Raoul had x-rays taken, his bones manipulated back into place, and a cast put on his left arm. He also got a bottle of Percodan for dessert, which we washed down with a twelve pack we bought at a convenience store to get us back to Ft Sill.

I’m not sure anyone believed the story we told them–and the story you just read is the story we told everyone–when they asked us what happened.

If I hadn’t been there, I probably wouldn’t believe it either, but I have had a blessed life and what appears to be ten thousand guardian angels protecting me or I wouldn’t be here now.

You might think Raoul and I would be anything BUT friends after this. Nope, we were buds right up to the day I got out of the Army. He came to see me when I took a trip to Dallas in 1978 with my then almost best bud ever, Gerald ‘Shorty’ Girtz.

And if you think The Devil Went Down to Texas trip is the weirdest thing that ever happened to me, you’d be wrong. It’s in the Top Five, for sure. Maybe the Top Three.

That trip to Dallas though, that might be Number One.

Alcoholics Anonymous

Hi, my name is Mark, and I’m an alcoholic. I’ve been sober for ten years. Prior to that I drank for probably thirty-five years. When people ask if I was always an alcoholic, I used to say yes. It’s not easy to defend my former drinking habits. But while we’re on the subject, let’s take a look at them.

I started drinking when I was fifteen or sixteen years old. A beer here, a sip of whiskey there. The legal drinking age back then was eighteen. I went to high school in Montana in the 1970’s, when the legal age was more of a suggestion than a law. Things were very different then.

I joined the Army after high school. The Vietnam War was winding down, and I was stationed in Oklahoma. There was no chance I would fight in ‘Nam. And there were no more Indians to fight in Oklahoma, so me and the boys sat around the barracks drinking beer and smoking joints, and talked about what we’d do if there was ever another Indian uprising, or if the Vietcong decided to invade Oklahoma.

And for the record, there was never a successful Vietnamese invasion of Oklahoma while I was stationed there. You could look it up if you like…

I discovered the Wide World of Drugs while I was in the Army. Weed, pills, powders, liquids. I never met a drug or drink I didn’t like, except tequila. Yeah, that was a night to remember, if only I could remember it. I’ve heard stories though…

I liked to drink back then. It was fun. Lots of good times. Was I an alcoholic then? No, and yes. I say no only because I need to have a end game, but I had all the hallmarks of someone who would become an addict. I drank, I smoked, I took pills. I was the embodiment of the sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll lifestyle. It was the 70’s, man! All the cool kids were doing it.

When I got out of the Army, I quit popping pills. I no longer had access to the pipeline of drugs that were so readily available on base or in an Army town.

One down, two to go.

I think I liked smoking pot more than I liked drinking at this stage in my life. I seriously loved weed. I’m still not sure why I stopped smoking it. I woke up one morning and I didn’t feel like getting high. I’ve never actually quit smoking pot, I’ve simply never lit up again. Oddly enough, given my affinity for it, not smoking weed again was probably the easiest thing I’ve ever done in my life.

Two down, one to go.

I discovered microbrews and craft beer. Oh. My. God. Grey Goose vodka and the Famous Grouse scotch. And I discovered that my nursing career enabled me to purchase mass quantities of all of the above. I didn’t hang out in bars. When I drank alone, I preferred to be by myself.

You have to be especially inspired to engage in a behavior this destructive against your better judgment. Almost all alcoholics have some major traumatic issues they’re avoiding. I’m no exception to this. I have some serious demons.

Mark Twain’s saying (illustration above) is no doubt true, but when you’re an addict, there’s also a B side to that record that is equally true. I embarrassed my wife. I embarrassed my daughters. If I hadn’t been so out of it, I would’ve realized I was embarrassing myself as well.

I have very few regrets from this stage in my life that are related to the things I didn’t say or do.

Drinking was still fun, most of the time, I think. I certainly told myself it was, but it was also starting to become less and less so. And then I turned forty. I don’t know what it was about forty, but the brakes on the bus started to fade. When I turned forty-five, the brakes failed altogether. Looking back, I’d say I wasted at least half of my life getting wasted. I can’t change that, but I don’t have to perpetuate that behavior any more.

And that brings us back to the beginning and the answer to the question, Were you always an alcoholic? Here’s my vague differentiation regarding my early and late drinking habits.

Early: Was it fun to drink? Yes. Did I drink a lots? Yes. Was I drunk all the time? No.

Late: Was it fun to drink? No. Did I drink a lots? Yes. Was I drunk all the time? Oh hell yes.

That’s where the whole alcoholic thing set in as I see it now. Any time you have to get drunk to feel ‘normal,’ you have a serious problem. For ten years I persisted in a behavior I really didn’t enjoy all that much, but getting drunk was the only thing that mattered to me. It makes no sense, but logic and rational thought don’t apply when it comes to addiction.

The end to my drinking career came in late 2005. I went on an epic binge drunk and almost killed myself to death. When I came to, I knew I had to do something, or I might not survive the next one. I talked to my lovely wife, and she helped me decide what to do. She told me she would support me, and added if I didn’t quit drinking, I had to leave our home. She had had enough.

I reluctantly started going to AA. As I was driving to my first meeting, which just happened to be held at Fairview Medical Center, the hospital that saved my wife, I was praying for the road to open up and swallow me before I got there. I think I cried tears of relief all the way home afterwards. To the members of Squad 46, the bestest squad in all the land, you all contributed to saving my life, and I want to take this time to say,

Thank you.

I had one relapse about one year into my first year of sobriety–in September of 2006–picked up right where I left off. I don’t need to go down that road again to find where it might lead. That was ten years, one month and eight days ago. It took me a long time to come to this realization, but sobriety is the coolest drug I’ve ever tried. If I’d only been willing to try it sooner…

Captain Ken

I’ve had the honor and privilege to work with some of the best nurses in the country during my career. I’ve also had the misfortune to work with some of the worst.

Darth Vader. Anyone here remember her? What a bitch she was. Unfortunately, the Naughty Nurse List consists of more than one person. And given the title of this snippet of my life, you’d probably be safe in assuming it contains at least two. It does, but Captain Ken isn’t on that list.

I worked with Captain Ken at the Minneapolis VAMC. He wasn’t really a captain, I think everyone called him that because it sounded neat. I can’t truthfully say Captain Ken was a bad nurse. He wasn’t. He was a genuinely sweet and sincere man. He was an adequate nurse, I suppose. You could never say your day was ruined because you had to work with him. But likewise, you couldn’t say your day was made by his presence.

Unless you liked his stories.

It’s been said most people don’t listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. If that’s true, Captain Ken was in a league of his own. He interrupted with the intent to one up.

Any two people or group of people could be having a conversation, about anything–You could be telling a story about your first baby, and how you were in labor for 59 hours. And Captain Ken would barge in and say this: “Oh, that’s nothing,” like he had been in labor for 65 hours or something, and then he’d add, “Back when I was in Okinawa…”

Yes, all of Captain Ken’s greater than anything you’ve ever seen or done adventures had two common elements. They all occurred in Okinawa, and they all involved a nasty guy called the Commander.

Ken had been in the Navy, so maybe he actually did know a commander. But there was always something weird going on with the Commander, and it was seemingly always up to Captain Ken to save the day and keep the Commander from following through with his threats of bodily harm and injury to sweet old Ken. So, here we go.

“Oh, that’s nothing! Back when I was in Okinawa, the Commander lost one of our nuclear submarines. So he calls me into his office, it was a Saturday, and I wasn’t even on duty that day. I was supposed to be planning the surprise birthday party for the Commander’s wife… But anyhow, he calls me into his office and tells me what happened–I mean, how do you lose a submarine, right? Anyway, the Commander explains the situation, and then he says, ‘Goddammit, Ken. You find that missing sub, or you’ll have a new asshole by the time I’m through with you!”

You remember the movie, ‘Home Alone’? The iconic scene where Kevin slaps on some aftershave, and makes that face? Captain Ken made that same face every time at this point in his each of his grand adventure stories with the Commander.

I used to sync my movements in the nursing station to Ken’s stories so I would be standing right behind him when he got to this point in his narrative. I’d make the Home Alone face with Captain Ken, and then leave the nursing station entirely. It was the only part about any of Ken’s stories that I liked.

Captain Ken never failed. He found the missing sub. He surprised the Commander’s wife. He had 300 lbs of barbecue ribs and 50 lbs of cole slaw airlifted to Okinawa, overnight. He was like Superman, if Superman had been in the Navy instead of a reporter for the Daily Planet.

Whatever the situation, Captain Ken was on it. Whatever the disaster, Captain Ken surpassed it.

And I’m sure Ken has but one asshole, like the rest of us, because he never asked me, “What do you think this is?”