Crazy vet: ‘Progressive and incurable’, a psychologist called his condition

Fifty years after the Vietnam war, the floodgates have finally opened

| 21 Nov 2023 | 12:15

I was once diagnosed paranoid and/or paranoid schizophrenic. That was a year after I returned from Vietnam.

“Progressive and incurable,” said the psychiatrist. “You will get progressively worse, never better. You will end your days in a mental hospital.”

That made me mad, horrified me, angered, depressed, crushed me. I had been suicidal before. I was suicidal in Vietnam, praying for a rocket to kill me. I had tried opium, maybe smoked heroin too.

First sergeants, you gotta love ’em. Just kidding. But, yes, sometimes you do. “I’ll OK an early out,” my first sergeant told me. Early out! That’s what I was praying for, didn’t I already say that? A rocket, a mortar, a bullet, even friendly fire for God’s sake. Early out!

Instead it was to be a college acceptance. Ha! That lasted a couple of weeks. The nightmares lasted decades. The drugs, well I’m sober now but who’s counting?

Can a diagnosis make you sick? Can a diagnosis kill you? Forty years after the first diagnosis, after I had tried suicide with electricity and drugs, a vet center counselor revises the diagnosis: post-traumatic stress disorder. I refuse to believe him. My fate had been made clear to me. It was terror. I was doomed. There was no escape. I could run, but I could not hide.

But I never quite accepted my first diagnosis. I said it is a mistake, I said it is a prophecy or a curse. Yes, a curse. Maybe karma when I learned that word. I was rejecting the diagnosis – but not completely. After all, it had been a psychiatrist, a doctor. I would never, even to this day, stop considering the possibility he was right. The demon continues to lurk.One day I am interviewed by a VA psychologist for my PTSD medical claim. “Do you know,” he says, “most Vietnam vets with your diagnosis killed themselves a long time ago?” I didn’t know. But I wasn’t surprised. Incurable and progressive. Never better only worse. You’d have to be nuts not to kill yourself or live immobilized by depression or drugs. My two best friends were Jack and Jim.

I like to think what saved me was intuition and experimentation. But mostly it was luck. Pain helped too. Botching a suicide attempt gives pause. What really gave me my life back was words. Forty years after Vietnam, I began to speak about Vietnam. Then write. Then cry. Cry for years. It still brings me to tears.

Now, I can look back on the time I was incurable. I am happier than ever. Call me crazy.