by Kat Kaelin
I’ve dealt with depression for probably the last ten years of my life. At first, I just dealt with it, knowing I’d gone through a traumatic experience that would leave an impression on the rest of my life. I grew accustomed to being down. But just dealing with my symptoms ultimately led me to a worse state. Exhaustion set in, withdrawal from friends and family, anger and frustration at the drop of a dime, impatience—I lived in a whirlwind of hate and bitterness.
What drew the line for me was becoming pregnant with my oldest daughter. I finally had an excuse to be happy. I was happy because I had to be happy for someone else. This is definitely not the right answer, but possibly a step in the right direction.
Fast forward through a divorce, another deployment, a loss of a beautiful friend and teammate, leaving the military, moving 2000 miles across the country with a toddler, another marriage, (my final marriage I must add), and add two more beauties to the crazy mess. I’m no longer allowed to live in hate, because if I do I’ll create three images of myself that will, in turn, go out into the world full of hate and guilt and recreate the demons I accepted and tried to suppress the last ten years. My goal after my youngest was born was to fix me. I needed to fix these feelings that were not right and not fair. I learned that living like this was a waste of life. And over the past few years, I’ve witnessed life wasted and I could no longer waste the life I was spared. So I reached out.
I had all the opportunity to start the journey to not ultimately fix but deal with and accept the issues that were wrong with me. I did what most veterans do: I walked into the local VA hospital and asked, “What do I need to do to feel better?” That was the first step—and in hindsight—a disaster in the making.
After I returned from Afghanistan I saw four separate psychiatrists, not having changed by the fault of my own, but the doctor leaving the VA to work someplace else. I’ve had five separate primary caregivers, three through the VA and two from the Hospital on Fort Benning.
Throughout this time I was prescribed over seven prescriptions ranging from anti-depressants, sleep aids, hormonal therapy, and other anti-psychotics to boost the ones I was already taking. I had blood work done to check thyroid and any vitamin deviancies and/or any hormonal levels that may be out of whack. All came back normal—but my symptoms remained the same.
My case kept getting passed to a new doctor, who I ultimately had to retell everything in my chart because I know they scan it over five minutes prior to my visit. That moment you’re sitting in the chair with just the Doc and you and they are silent for what feels like hours. It’s totally awkward. Yeah, the doctor is scanning your chart because they don’t know fuck about you.
I saw a psychologist for over a year who offered exposure therapy to ease my symptoms, but ultimately made them far worse, to the point I became suicidal. I felt confident enough to tell him that it wasn’t working and he responded with, “You know I am doing you a favor by seeing you.”
Now, I’m in a position of trying to get to know my emotions again, I know a lot of us may go above and beyond what the “normal” person may express in times of stress, but my response, at that time was sufficient for me. I kindly told that doctor to “Fuck off,” and I never went back. So I let some time go by. I got to the point that I believed my state of mind was just something I had to live with and my lack of emotion or over-emotional state was just the person I had to be. There was no help for me. I was left to live with my diagnosis and not be the person I wanted to be. I believed that. I settled for that. I’m ashamed of myself for becoming that.
I fell into another depression, which led to a more severe suicidal stage in my life. I’d always thought I’d never care if I lived or died, but I’d never do it at my own hand. But this time it was different. I created “the plan” everyone warns you about. I became more and more comfortable with that plan—regardless of the absence, I was going to leave in my family.
It’s so cliché, the commercials for anti-psychotics and the famous quote, “If you have thoughts about killing yourself, contact your doctor immediately.” I’ve never met anyone who got on the horn and just casually called the doctor and told them they were about to off themselves. Besides getting in touch with your doctor through the VA is like killing yourself—so it’s a lose-lose situation.
After months of not giving a fuck I finally broke down and called the notorious suicide hotline. With the support of my husband and the friendly voice on the other side, I was able to come back to center. I realized I needed to get some serious help. At first, I did my own research. I’m not sure about self-diagnosis, but I do know that I want to know my options and the medications, or holistic therapies that are out there before I head into the doctor’s office. I did my research, wrote a list of questions and medications I thought would benefit my symptoms, and called the VA.
“We can get you in January 10, 2017.” My jaw dropped. It was the beginning of December. I had to wait an entire month and ten days before I could get any help.
I asked to be referred. They transferred me to a number that was disconnected. For many of us, hopelessness starts to set in. Feeling like the world is crashing down is heavy. I decided to call the hospital on Fort Benning. Unfortunately, my primary doctor was unable to see me for another month, but another physician would be able to see me the next day. Great, some hope. All I needed was a referral. I could talk to someone outside the VA about the whirlwind I’ve been caught up in.
Now, like most, I get super anxious going to the doctor. I hate reliving the same conversation over and over with a new doctor. All I needed was a referral to psychiatry and I’d go into depth with them because ultimately, they’re the ones that could actually educate me on what I was feeling and how to move on.
I arrived early, which is unusual for me. In less than 10 minutes, I was checked in. The nurse got my vitals as usual, and the “Doc” came in shortly after. A captain walked in looking as if he’d just graduated medical school. He sat down and looked over my file. “PTSD? Are you in the service?”
Now, this is when my frustrations started to set in. I got it. I’m a female with PTSD, but you can’t tell, because I’m in civilian clothes and not in army fatigues.
“Oh, nevermind, it said it’s not combat-related. Sorry, your husband is in the service, hence the Tricare.”
I stared at him. “No, Sir, I was in the service and I do have PTSD from a non-combat related incident.”
He raised his eyebrow confused and went back to the chart.
Jesus Christ. “I was raped, Sir.” You don’t have to be “combat” to go through something traumatic. “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Sir.” Then everything went to shit from there.
He scooted his chair closer to me. Wrong, fucking wrong thing to do. He kept telling me how sorry he was and it’s so sad things like that happen, and if I need to just walk in and talk, he’d see me as a walk-in. Talk about a fucking trigger. He then went on to “did he made me uncomfortable for being a male?”
“No Sir, you see my last deployment I was attached to Special Operations and worked with primarily all males. I’m sure you’re familiar with Ranger Regiment and probably see a bunch of those guys for how fucked up their bodies are. But no, males do not make me uncomfortable. In fact, I got a lot of closure from working with those guys because they’re really honorable and amazing at what they do. I owe part of my sanity to that deployment.”
He then went on to tell me how he wanted to go to Ranger School and asked what I thought about women in combat. I just told him I don’t care and I just needed a referral to see a psych. And this is where it gets good! He told me he couldn’t give me a referral, but if my anxiety eases up I should join a gym where they offer yoga and learn how to breathe because that would fix most, if not all, my problems.
I thought I had my anger under control, but my steering wheel felt otherwise. But you see, I’m a trooper, no dumb ass Captain is going to get the best of me, I’m going to get help, you’ll see.
My appointment with the VA finally came up. I got my mom to watch my girls. I was seeing, yet again, another new psychiatrist and was hoping, if not praying, I’d get some clarity. It takes me around an hour to get to the Tuskeegee VA Medical Center. I arrived at the Mental Health Department, checked in, and sat amongst maybe ten separate veterans waiting to be seen by a psych or shrink. Mostly everyone, myself included, had our heads down—most not on their phones, but just checked out. It’s like we all knew where we were, just not the extent of everyone’s emotional stress. It put a pit in my stomach seeing so many people down and out, I felt ashamed there were so many “me’s” in the room. The Doc finally came in and took me back to his office.
Now I don’t know what my luck is, but for some reason, I always get the doctor I can’t understand a damn thing they’re saying. This time was no different. I sat in the chair closest to the desk. I can’t hear worth a shit anyway and stared at him. He stared back. It was like the longest staring contest, lasting maybe 30 seconds until he stopped and started reading the screen and typing with one finger. Any typing in my file makes me sick, but one-finger slow typing makes me want to shoot myself in the foot and head to the ER. But not in Tuskeegee, because they don’t have an ER. Plus guns aren’t allowed. So there’s that. He went over my novel of medications and asked how they worked out. He then went to tell me the medication I was taking, which was prescribed by every other VA doctor was wrong and had been taking it wrong for the last five years.
Awesome, now we’re off to a great start. I went on about my symptoms. He said, “Uh-huh,” as he one-finger typed, and finally stopped and stared at me again. He said, “Okay, here’s what we’re going to do,” and then he rambled on about mood stabilizers and anti-anxieties and anti-depressants. He told me to try this for two weeks and call in to let him know how it went. From my research, I know I didn’t need any of that shit. From what he described, it would just make my symptoms worse. I inquired about pot. He laughed at me and said, “I don’t know anything about it and Alabama doesn’t allow it.” It was just a question, but it must be pretty funny how I don’t want to be doped up on a million drugs that need another million drugs to counteract the side effects of the million drugs he prescribed me.
He finished the conversation with, “Okay, here’s what you need to pick up from the pharmacy.” He listed four separate anti-psychotic medications—none I have ever taken—none that fit the symptoms of my diagnosis. I stared at him. I finally got ballsy enough and told him I didn’t want to be a zombie and live on pills for the rest of my life. He shrugged his fucking shoulders.
So the VA has created this Choice Program, where if you can’t get into an appointment in 30 days, or if you live 30 miles or farther from the VA you’re seeing, you can be referred to a civilian doctor in your area. Perfect. I’m fed up with the VA and want stability and understanding, I want a second opinion and a plan that works. So I got on the phone and called the VA eligibility number and sat on hold for over a fucking hour. Twice. I even went the route of trying to go back to the Military Hospital to get a referral, but they can’t see me for another two months for an appointment. However, I can come in and see Doctor Captain Dip Shit again. NO. NO. NO. Just NO.
I chose to write all this down because this is out of control. This is unacceptable for any veteran—not just me. This is unacceptable for health care in general. Why is it so hard to put in an inquiry for a referral to a doctor of my choosing that will accept my insurance, or if it’s my choice, to pay out of pocket? Why the fuck is that so hard? If you are so backed up, refer your patients out. Stop the selfish bullshit. I thought seeing a doctor, not my primary doctor, the next day would be a great thing. Wrong.
Why do specialty doctors have different ways of prescribing medications and therapies? I know a one-size does not fit all, but for fuck’s sake, I had three doctors tell me for five years to take medication at this time, at this dose, and another tell me, he was sent in to clean the mess up from what these other doctors had created. They’ve been telling patients wrong for years? There’s something wrong with that. There’s something wrong with doping veterans up on medications they don’t need to just get through an appointment. Don’t doctors take an oath before they practice medicine?
We are not whiny ass people. We’re actively trying to get back into society but may need a little push. This is why the stereotype of veterans is so horrible. I’ve read the rants from veterans about their experiences within the VA. A lot of the time people say, “Well get up and do something!” We have! We’ve tried. We offer suggestions. We come in prepared to our appointments and layout who we were and who we are now and what has and has not worked and what we would like to try. But it does not work that way.
If you say one word like “mood” or “sleepless nights,” the first thing shoved in your face is a prescription for medication that will fuck up your brain on an entirely new level. Ask a veteran if they just go home and pop these pills the doctor prescribes. I guarantee they research the hell out of them and may have feelings of uneasiness about what they’re going to endure the next couple of months. It’s heartbreaking.
I know I am not the only one that has gone through the wringer. And I want people to know, we as vets are doing something about our health. We want to get better. We want to be present in the life we live, but we’re being failed by a healthcare system that’s fueled by misdiagnosis and doping up veterans.
Out of this entire experience, I can say one thing. The lady on the suicide hotline was amazing. If you, like me feel ashamed, or if it’s hard to talk to anyone, including fellow veterans, call the suicide hotline. They’re amazing. And sometimes that’s all you may need—a reassuring voice to tell you it’s ok.
This first appeared in The Havok Journal on February 28, 2019.