My initial instinct was to put my car into reverse and drive back to my parent’s house as I sat outside the Montgomery County Vet Center in Norristown, Pa. I was to have my first face-to-face mental health counseling session with someone who I had only spoken to over the phone. Yet, I knew that the previous nine months of despair, confusion and frustration had placed me at this precipice. Either I could retreat back into a life that didn’t meet my expectations, but one I just couldn’t escape, or I could leap out into a world where I allowed others to help me.
In the previous nine months, anxiety’s grip twisted my chest so tight that the only relief I could think of was wishing I could trade my body in for a new one. Up to that point, I thought I had no control over the physical torture my body was enduring. Days became tediously long hours filled with waves of vibrations coursing through my system. These weren’t the ones the Beach Boys were singing about, but swells of dread manifested from any sort of outside stimuli. I had returned from my second deployment to Iraq and was attempting to transition, again, back into the civilian world.
At first, I was able to maintain an outward appearance of normal; however, the cap I had on these intense emotions slowly began to disintegrate. “Is everything OK?” people would ask me. The inner turmoil began to bubble to the surface as my facial expressions consistently showed worry, intensity and fear. My once compassionate and patient nature dwindled as I grew easily and intensely frustrated with people close to me over the simplest of things. Doubt, an unfamiliar word to me up to that point in my internal vocabulary, accompanied every thought, decision, or interaction – my entire perspective of life itself. I had once led men in combat, and now, the most mundane decisions riddled me with crumbling worry.
The juxtaposition of what I was and what I had become filled me with embarrassment. How could an educated, trained and capable man not find a solution himself? Avoidance became by coping mechanism as I stepped away work, hobbies and any meaningful personal relationship that I had. The interpersonal interactions within those spheres only reminded me of how far gone I was. However, there must have been some glimmer of hope because I found myself researching mental health professionals, which brought me to the Department of Veterans Affairs website. I didn’t fully understand how the influences of my combat experiences had on my current state, but knowing that there were readily available and free mental health professionals at my disposal was enough for me to make a phone call.
I called the center to seek more information. Immediately, I was forwarded to Allison Stanco-Aguilar, one of the counselors at the center. I explained to her, at least the best that I could, the details of my current state, and how I wanted to start counseling as soon as possible. I also explained that I wasn’t living in the immediate area, but was moving closer to the vet center in six weeks to live with my parents. She explained that it was against policy for the center to conduct phone sessions. This comment made me sink even further as I thought about another bureaucratic policy being a roadblock to my infant journey towards betterment.
The curdling agony starting its brew inside my gut was immediately extinguished when she said that she understood the desperate state that I was in, and that she would gladly do weekly sessions over the phone until I was settled in Pennsylvania. What? Was this someone, who I’ve never met, willing to bend the rules to help me? Was this someone who put the betterment of the individual above the stacks of regulations? I can’t speak for Allison, but this is how I interpreted her actions that day, and can’t quite describe the sliver of hope that opened within me after hearing those words.
Over the next few weeks, Allison and I spoke over the phone. As you may see from the length of this story, I’m a bit of a talker. The phone sessions were a blur as I dumped years of stories, thoughts, theories and emotions through the receiver. Allison would meet me with understanding and patience as she allowed me to vent, which I latter understood as her way of getting to know me – to understand all the variables associated with how I ended up becoming one of her clients. She was a service-member herself, and she was able to identify with unique nature of military life – all its wonderfulness, contradictions, camaraderie, pain and thrill. There was also a practical side of these sessions. Allison explained to me how the cognitive therapy process works, which satisfied my analytical need to understand a system that has proven results. Finally, she provided a neutral and nonjudgmental outlet for me, where I didn’t have to worry about whether I looked too weak or be embarrassed about what I was feeling.
This brings us to back to the beginning of my story. What I’ve learned is that mental health improvement does not follow a linear path where you start off in one state and gradually get better. It’s a process that webs in many directions; filled with progress and setbacks, and small victories and defeats. Sitting outside the vet center waiting to meet Allison for the first time in person, the same feelings of dread and anxiety billowed in stomach and chest. I could’ve easily driven away and never called the vet center to cancel, or pick up the phone if they tried to reach out to me. There was no external consequence if I chose to not continue; no fines, ridicule, loss of pay, no responsibility to others, etc. There was only the internal consequence where I ignored my sole responsibility – to take care of myself.
Only in six weeks was she able to show me that taking care of yourself isn’t weak, but something that’s necessary. You’re only good to others when you’ve taken the time to make yourself better. Allison showed me that we’re capable of altering our perspective – it just takes time, effort and a willingness to give yourself over to the process.
I opened my car door, walked up the flight of stairs, opened the door to the vet center and was greeted by Allison. We’ve been meeting for almost 3 ½ years now. Through the acute training and experience she’s received by being a VA counselor, she’s been able to address my issues stemming from post-traumatic stress. She’s given me homework to do, which keeps me actively engaged in my therapy in between sessions. She’s assisted me in getting registered with the VA medical health system – exposing me to benefits I didn’t even know I was eligible for as a combat veteran. Allison was the prime advocate for me to file disability once I was diagnosed as having PTSD, which was a claim that was closed within 120 days. She’s even provided me information on other veteran outreach organizations in the Philadelphia area.
The partnership that we’ve developed is based upon trust, and the willingness of each of us to come to the table ready to get to work. She’s always demonstrated an incredibly high standard of professionalism, expertise, compassion and patience. I learned that it was my responsibility to be honest and candid while we had our sessions, and to do the work in between sessions that she requested of me.
My VA experiences have taught me that the road to improvement can’t solely be done by others. The veteran has to be an active participant. I was once consumed with so much anxiety that I felt I was completely paralyzed. The VA provided me an outlet to begin to take action – to take control of my life with the help and guidance of professionals that work within the system. I understand that the system isn’t perfect, and there should always be an ongoing process of accountability and improvement, but the sense of empowerment that the professionals at the VA have shown me has been life altering. The VA won’t carry you down the path, but will certainly help guide you down a more positive direction.
I’ve since enrolled in graduate school using my Post-911 GI Bill benefits, started on a promising and fulfilling career path, and have taken on leadership opportunities within veteran assistance organizations. I can’t imagine being here without the help of Allison, the Montgomery County Vet Center, and the host of employees within the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Though I’m far from the crippling symptoms, I still go to counseling. It helped bring me to an even playing-field. Now, I use it as a life enhancer.