I’m Not the Only One

“Mommy, mommy, come read to me.”

It’s 2008 and I can hear my son. I think he’s sitting on the couch behind me. The living room is a blur and I can’t remember how to get to him. I can’t remember what to do next. The VA has me on multiple medications, all to combat a mental illness—bipolar disorder—that it later turns out I never had.

My child (who was eight at the time) finds my hand and leads me to the couch. He then presents me with the book he wants me to read. I look at it and the words blend into each other. My head aches and I have the intense desire to sleep.

“That’s okay mommy, I understand.”

But I don’t. I don’t understand at all.

The Lithium made my hands shake so badly that I couldn’t write my name. The Depakote that was supposed to calm my nerves actually intensified my PTSD symptoms. The Aripiprazole increased my anxiety and just might be what made me suicidal.

My first psychiatrist at the VA was wrong about my diagnosis. She took an entire three weeks to decide that I had bipolar disorder and then sent me on my overly medicated way. I understand that mistakes happen. Especially when you only have a certain amount of time to make a decision, and your patient is a veteran. What angers me is the fact that over the next five years none of my VA psychiatrists caught her mistake: they continued her destructive treatment by increasing the dosages of my medications and adding more.

I didn’t get proper care until I was fortunate enough to be seen by Dr. Anna Lembke at Stanford. I consider myself to be one of the lucky veterans: The VA only stole five years of my life. They didn’t kill me.

Twenty-two veterans commit suicide everyday. The veteran community is not getting the care it was promised. The earnest members of congress, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) and many other veterans’ groups want to fix the problem. Which is why the President signed into law The Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act (SAV).

Clay Hunt was a combat-veteran who took his own life. My heart goes out to his family and friends. I understand the idea that annual evaluations of mental health care and suicide prevention are important components to winning the battle of veteran suicides. But, there is more to it than that. We must ensure that only qualified and caring mental health professionals are allowed the honor of caring for our veterans. The stakes are too high to allow just anyone who is willing to take the job.

I got the best of what the VA had to offer and it nearly killed me. Because of the combination of medications that the VA prescribed, I attempted suicide six times. Each time it felt like death was the only path open to me. Because of the VA, the world was a viciously painful place. My brain was confused and haunted by war, and the bipolar medications intensified my anguish.

Unfortunately, I’m not the only one.

We must search out the best and the most qualified doctors for our veterans. If we don’t, more veterans will die.

Sylvia Bowersox first went to Iraq in 2003 as a US Army broadcast journalist. She was stationed in Mosul and Baghdad, but reported from Coalition outposts around the country. A year in Iraq wasn’t enough, so she returned to Baghdad as a civilian, spending almost two years working in the US Embassy as a State Department press officer. Bowersox received her BA in English literature from San Francisco State University, and is currently completing her MA in creative writing at California State University, Chico. She was recently honored by a Pushcart nomination for her nonfiction essay, “This War Can’t be All Bad.” Her nonfiction essay, “The Importance of a Dollar Bill,” has been submitted to the National Associate Writing Program Awards competition. She lives in Chico with her husband Jon, her son Holden, and her service dog Timothy.