Janis Nark, The Right Stuff, and PTSD
“I love my life and feel at peace now. This is a new feeling for me, and I haven’t yet explored all the avenues that have brought me to this intersection in my life. I’m just content to be here for awhile before I journey on.” Janis Nark, LTC. USA (Ret.)
By Janis Nark
A woman’s post traumatic stress
Denise, a sister vet, called to say she had quit her most recent job. She just couldn’t take it any longer. She couldn’t be a nurse anymore, and was, finally, going to seek help from the VA.
She had tried with no success to get into a treatment program for PTSD, (they told her she was functioning just fine) and was now going to seek disability. It was something she had resisted for a long time, and in her tone I heard a strange mix of defiance and defeat. I wrote her the following letter:
Thanks for letting me know you are going before “The Powers That Be,” who will determine your disability status.
All you have to do is tell the truth.
I remember the first time I saw you in DC, you telling about your very first day in Nam…how the soldier’s foot came off with his boot in your hand.
I watched you closely…you laughed…that deep dark laugh those of us who have known trauma are so familiar with.
And I thought, “Wow…she’s got a long way to go.”
As we became friends I paid attention to all the nuances of our conversations and time together, and being a nurse, recognized so many symptoms of PTSD.
Some of those symptoms, actually most, you weren’t even aware of. You were so into being “strong” being so “productive” (being in denial!).
I’ve seen how you have a great need to comfort those who are going through similar pain, while ignoring your own.
I’ve seen you cry at other vets’ memories and anguish, but never your own.
In one conversation you shared with me that you had been smelling blood for days, and couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. It took about five questions before we traced it back to a hand laceration a patient had pushed up to your face…a harmless enough event…unless you’re a Vietnam veteran.
And that’s called an olfactory hallucination.
I was always impressed at the level of “over-achievement” you maintained…working full time, going to graduate school, dealing with one family crisis after another, and numerous other endeavors all at the same time.
What a desirable way to avoid thinking, feeling, remembering.
I’ve watched your personality change dramatically from one beer to the next, and your inability to not have that next one.
I’ve listened as you told me you just couldn’t go back to “that” job.
You can’t have your back to a room, and you always know what’s going on around you…there’s a sense that you are never really at peace…anywhere…ever.
You were smart, as well as lucky, to find a man who knows where you’ve been, what you’ve seen, and what you’ve done; because he was there too. And even him, you push away.
No one can know your pain.
I’ve tried to let you know that you are not alone, that there are those who can help, can give you comfort, can understand the nightmares, the flashbacks, the unresolved memories…and for whatever reasons your demons persist.
I’ve heard your abrupt outbursts…your anger…and that’s good…it’s a start. And you have a long way to go, Denise.
Please know that you are not alone. Just tell the truth to the board, and if you need me for anything, I will always be there for you, my friend. Always.
Janis Nark with Diane Carlson Evans, founder of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Project – after the 1993 Memorial Day service.
“You mean I have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?” I asked. All eyes were fixed on me, and I watched four faces nod up and down. The fifth face was doing the same thing only in double-time.
In 1996 I had received a questionnaire in the mail from what seemed like a reputable organization of trained professionals funded by Harvard, and headed by a Ph.D./RN. They had gotten a grant to study a very specific group of women: Nurse Vietnam Veterans.
“Finally” I thought, and filled out the six pages in some detail. I enclosed a letter volunteering names of other nurse veterans who I knew who had problems dealing with Nam (unlike me, who was fine). I also thanked them for doing the study, because I felt that it was time, and I knew for a fact that there were many women who needed help coping with their feelings, if not their lives.
I received a polite thank-you letter, and was told that they would be choosing “only a handful” of women to study further. “Well, good,” I thought “I sure hope they choose Denise, because she is -really having problems,” and then put it out of my mind.
A few months later I got a letter from the head Ph.D. asking if I could come to New Hampshire, to their lab, for further testing. Oh my God! What did they pick up on? Why are they asking me? What were the red flags? I mean, I knew sort of…nah!! Denial had been working really good for me up until this point…did I really want to screw with that?
I debated it around in my head…what would be the upside…the downside. I didn’t ask Larry, he was never in favor of me doing anything to bring back memories of the war. I spoke with them over the phone, and asked what the testing included.
It didn’t sound too bad…extensive, but not particularly painful. I managed to extract that, no, they didn’t have the authority to commit me anywhere, so I said ‘What the hell,’ and went.
They were testing two nurses at a time, four nurses a week. I met the other nurse when the van picked us up in the morning from our hotel. She was an attractive blonde I guessed to be close to my age. We talked on the way to the lab. She had been an Air Force nurse who was stationed in a general hospital. “Sometimes I feel like I shouldn’t say this, but I had a really good experience in Vietnam. I enjoyed everything about it,” she said.
“I hate you,” I said, half smiling, and wondered if I meant, yeah, she probably had air conditioning, too.
We met our five “testers.” They were all women with enough degrees and credentials to cover more than a few walls. I thought it was a hoot that one of them was Russian. I felt like I was in some sort of spy movie from the 70s (especially when they hooked me up to electrodes for one of the tests). They were all very nice and went out of their way to make us feel comfortable. We had been told our only obligation was to be drug- and alcohol-free. I was going to miss my wine at lunch, but figured I could handle it.
They took our blood, saliva, urine, and vital signs. The electrodes measured my brain waves, skin moisture, muscle tension, and I can’t remember what else. I answered questions on the computer, on paper, by myself, in groups of two, and groups of three. I drew pictures, tried to recall recently learned facts, numbers (forward and backward), and details of stories that were read to me. I was asked to recall combat experiences and civilian experiences of trauma as well as of pleasure. They asked me about my professional life and my personal life and habits.
During my active years as an RN, I worked in many situations especially ER and psych, where we had to be really aware of our facial expressions and body language. It was important to be able to appear neutral, and non-judgmental.
As my life before, during, and after the war unfolded in front of them, I found it sometimes amusing that they had to fight so hard to keep from registering shock, disbelief, amazement, or horror.
I saw their eyes fill with tears. They’d catch themselves, and catch me catching them. They would apologize and I’d say “That’s OK, I guess it sounds a lot worse than I feel.”
In fact every day I was there, I felt better and better. It was very much like intensive therapy. Once I had told the stories, heard myself say the words, or watch myself write them, it was as if I’d given them up.
I’d turned them over to someone else, and I didn’t have to hang onto them anymore. It was wonderfully freeing.
So I looked into those five faces looking so earnestly into mine: “So, I have PTSD…what do I need to do?” The head Ph.D. said, “Actually we think you’re doing incredibly well. We are a little concerned about how much you’re drinking.”
“That’s all?” I asked. Yeah, that was basically it unless I had any questions.
“We can give you the paperwork that documents you have PTSD,” said the Russian.
“Who on earth would I want to show that to?’ I wondered. “So maybe I could get disability from the Army?” I asked hopefully. “Well, that would put you in a different category altogether.” Not wanting to know what that meant, I said, “Just kidding!”
Janis Nark taking a break from her nursing duties in Vietnam.
We all hugged each other goodbye, I told them I felt absolutely wonderful, thanked them for studying me, and wished them well with their research.
One of my very best friends, in fact the maid-of-honor at my wedding, lives in New Hampshire, and she picked me up to spend a couple days with her. As we were drinking champagne to celebrate our reunion on the drive home I said, “Do you think we’re alcoholics?” She laughed and said, “No doubt, no doubt, we’re just lucky. Our bottom is a lot higher than most.”
I’m still thinking about that one.
I’d always kept diaries as a kid. I wrote in them faithfully all through school and into my adulthood when I began calling them “journals.” They held the secrets of my youth…stories of my first loves, first kisses, caresses, and heartbreaks.
In fact that’s about all they held until I became a nurse. Then the pages began to fill with questions as much as statements. I shared the emotions I felt seeing my first patient die.
I wondered in writing about the “rightness’ of easing terminal pain, about the unfairness of disease, about the presence of God amidst so much suffering.
I scrawled with unabashed glee the day I delivered my first baby. I described the happiest of happy times, I wrote poetry. And I wrote when I could barely see the page through my tears.
Ambivalence rarely leads to expansive journalism, and I was rarely ambivalent about anything in those youthful days. All my life I’d take out those old diaries and read them over and over.
I was fascinated with the labyrinth that was my life, where I’d come from, and how I’d grown…and all the insights those pages provided.
When I got married I locked them all away in a trunk, knowing I would never share them with my husband.
And, feeling that I’d grown up, I stopped writing.
I looked in the trunk awhile back. Next to all my old diaries was a box. A blue cardboard box taped all around, over and over with surgical tape. Curious, I picked it up, unsure of what it was. I immediately dropped it back in to the trunk as if it had burned my fingers. The pain shot straight to my heart. Sealed inside that box were all my papers, poetry, letters, and journal from Vietnam.
I locked the trunk back up, and pushed it to the farthest corner of the basement storage area. Giving it one last hard look I said, “Maybe the rats will eat it.”
Janis Nark served as an Army nurse in Vietnam during the Vietnam War, and later served in the Army Reserves, where she retired as a Lieutenant Colonel after 26 years of service. In 2014 she was named VietNow’s Veteran of the Year, and also serves on the board of The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (The Wall).