Tim Lineaweaver gives an unflinching look at guns, PTSD, and addictions and one man’s struggles with the same.
TRIGGER WARNING: Violence, sexual assault, violence against animals
Hockey rink, Anytown New England. Adult beer-league hockey. The goalie, on my own team no less, a fifty something year old, beer-bellied loudmouth, is dissatisfied with my play and we have been intermittently arguing over the past few minutes. He skates up to me and takes the waffle-boarded blocker and slams me straight-on into my un-caged face. Because I was looking away from him, I did not see it coming and so could not defend myself. The force of the blow knocks me off my feet and onto the slippery rock-hard ice. Stunned but unhurt save for a trickle of blood in my mouth which I spit out onto the lily-white ice forming little red spray-drops of blood. I turn to face him and the fucker does the same exact thing with exactly the same results.
What to do? In the immediate aftermath I contemplate various options: The unwritten hockey code would allow me to challenge him to a fight. In this scenario, I would tap him with my stick to get his attention, I would then take off my helmet and drop my gloves and assuming he would oblige, we would bare-knuckle fist-fight until we had vented our spleens. Or, maybe I would switch teams and do my best to gain revenge by scoring on him repeatedly. Immediately afterward, my thoughts are more along the line of breaking my stick over his head repeatedly, until the carbon parts of it were reduced to shards and his head or what was left of it was a bloody grey-mattered mess; the desire and impulse to strike back forcefully are strong in me. But I am tired of these scenes and afraid for what could happen. I am 55 years old and am trying to evolve so instead I skate wordlessly to the locker room, shower quietly and leave the rink.
I have mental illness. I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) years ago. I came by it honestly enough. I suffered abuse of various types through my early and middle childhood: the anal penetration by an older childhood friend while our parents were off doing god knows what, he in turn episodically sexually abused by his older step-brother who was born with a tail (really); the babysitter that played “special games” with my brother and me, (don’t ask).
My father was an accomplished writer and world-class drunk with some undiagnosed mental illness. He brought verbal abuse to a whole new, sneering self-esteem-crushing level. He was intermittently violent, venting his displeasure with a slap, punch or a kick. I can’t leave out his self-destructiveness either: bloody out of context self-hatred and self-violence, acted out in front of the whole family necessitating hospitalizations and hundreds of stitches. My family: a screaming bloody mess.
And, gunplay, lots of it. He was the owner of a Ruger pistol kept loaded under his mattress as well as a 22 Rifle and a two-barrel shotgun. Different guns for different uses: The Ruger was good for short range purposes such as the night when he came home drunk from a party, called our Dachshund Fitzy over, put the Ruger to his head and blew him away. The shotgun was better for broader destruction like the morning my brother and I were laying on the rug watching cartoons when my father came running wild-eyed out of his adjoining bedroom toting the shotgun. For a moment I thought he was going to kill us both, but he ran just a few feet past and unloaded both barrels out through the living room window into some poor-bastard squirrel in the birdfeeder, spraying glass, little grey tufts of hair and wood casing everywhere.
You can look up PTSD in the DSM-IV-TR, the manual for psychologists and psychiatrists that contains the various classifications and criteria for “diagnostic judgments” of all the mental health disorders. There you get the clinical lowdown. For PTSD the list is too long to be fully included here but for my particular brand here is a handpicked list of some of my symptoms:
Difficulty falling or staying asleep
Irritability or outbursts of anger
Exaggerated startle response etc.
Beyond the clinical gobbledygook, PTSD is about various negative and intense mood states. When triggered by an event that may be perceived as like the initial trauma one may go into periods of extreme anxiety and/or anger followed by depression and self-recrimination: Nice combination when you think about it: you perceive attack and respond with some form of defense that is out of proportion to what is really happening: rage or anxiety (fight or flight) and then a sense of extreme guilt in the aftermath.
Not surprisingly, I developed my own addictions. I started smoking cigarettes when I was twelve and later that same year began using alcohol and weed. Probably by my late teens I was an early stage alcoholic. Around that time I started to dabble with cocaine and quickly became addicted. In my early twenties I started to shoot cocaine and then a bit later, smoking it. I will spare the gory details here but wound up in a detox at age 28, my life an ash heap. I was very much my father’s son. But I came through that time and have been clean and sober since. I tell this not as a virtue but because my life depends on it. I am certain of it and have no desire to revisit that particular hellishness.
Eventually, and to the surprise of absolutely no one, my father shot himself. The unholy trinity of guns, mental illness and addiction combined with the death of his marriage, his depression and anxiety all becoming too much for him to bear. It was during a blackout and I happened to be down from prep school with a couple of friends. By this time, my mother had left him after seventeen years of hell and his drinking had progressed to the point where he would stay in his room for days on end, drinking and popping pills, his career and life a shambles.
When I got there he had already been rushed by ambulance to the hospital. My friends and I broke into my locked house; this alone was distressing as there was never a need in our small Cape Cod, Massachusetts town back in the 1970s. We lit candles and headed for my father’s bedroom, which was by now an official crime scene.
By the flickering light, to the right of the bed, was a huge pool of dark red blood, on the exposed wood floors and then two other huge spots on the white sheets of the bed and then another huge pool on the left side of the bed on the floor. Above that, toward where we were standing was the yellow chalk-mark-outline of his body. By the trace of one of his hands, was the phone, still off the hook when he called 911 in an effort to save himself. I rushed to the hospital to learn that the son of a bitch lived despite bleeding-out to almost his very last drops.
I don’t fear death. I don’t mean this in a self-aggrandizing, I am courageous, look at me kind of way. I do fear life. To be incapacitated in some way and not be able have a physical life or to be able to commune with others or to listen to music or read, scares me. To suffer further trauma, the loss of my children, the suffering of my wife, these things scare me more than what I consider death to be, which is an unperceived nothingness. I fear the pain life can bring.
I fantasize about guns. During the worst of my addictions, when I was lost to myself and certainly lost to others I thought regularly about killing myself and for reasons I don’t fully understand now, I wished that I owned a gun. The thought of not existing appealed because the pain of being alive seemed too great and at the time I could not conceive of solutions. Death seemed to be a comfort but with help from others I got through those times and made a life for myself.
My thoughts about guns don’t end there though. When I am triggered into an episode of PTSD, when my rage and fear overwhelm me, when I feel victimized by another, say a hockey goalie run amok, I think of the absolute satisfaction of pulling a high caliber pistol from my waist, pointing it at the bastard’s head, splattering his brains against the wall. To some people, this would be derided as a male fantasy but I disagree. It is a victim’s fantasy. Ask anyone, male or female, who has been raped, abused or violently marginalized, pushed by another’s pure obscenity right up against their mortality, dignity and utter powerlessness and I bet they will identify.
The other persistent gun fantasy I have is a suicidal one. When I am depressed or guilty, after a wrenching argument or as stress accumulates, I still think about nothingness, absence of pain–no depression, guilt, anxiety or strife. I think about the pistol and I put it up to my throat and point it toward the top of my skull and welcome the end of pain.
And so, I do not own a gun and do not permit them in my house. I have made a vow to myself and to the people I love to never act on my thoughts and I have learned to bull through my PTSD episodes and the depression that follows them. This too, shall pass, as they say. Owning a gun for me would put me closer to what I never want to be again, what I will not be again: a victim or perpetrator.
The conversation going on right now about guns and mental illness chafes at me, sickens me. I wonder how many of the pundits, talking heads and politicos have seen first hand what a gun can do to a person. The mental health system isn’t really a system but more a patchwork quilt of niche treatments that can address only a part of what may ail someone rather than the whole person. The length of treatment is frequently woefully inadequate to the illness, making recovery a long shot with the more likely outcome being that people cycle in and out of treatment or jail or both.
As a nation, at least for this point in history, we have lost our compassion and our good sense on the issues of guns and mental illness. I believe it’s time we push past our national paranoia and greed to have a more honest dialogue and that we leave politics out of it.
I could buy a gun but it would only make me less safe rather than more so. I don’t know about you but the biggest threat to me is myself. Knowing and not forgetting that fact keeps me whole.
I ran into an old hockey player friend at my son’s game the other day. He played in the show and he has the scarred face, bad joints and gnarled knuckles to prove it. I hear that in his day he was a policeman, the guy on the team who fought to keep the more skilled players safe. We were discussing coaching and how many youth coaches use yelling and shame as their primary motivational tool. He shook his head and said that this is a wasted opportunity for men to help shape the lives of boys by example. He put one of his huge paws onto my shoulder, gave it a sharp squeeze and said, “We should all be worried about getting up every day and trying to be better people.” If we all did, perhaps things would be better. Or at least I dream it to be so.
Tim Lineaweaver can be reached at @[email protected]
photo: borisvanhotema/ flickr