Episode 17: Jesse & Lee Thorn
Broadcaster Jesse Thorn and his father Lee discuss the impact Lee’s PTSD has had on them both. Lee served in Vietnam. Jesse is the host/producer of The Sound of Young America, Jordan Jessie Go!, Judge John Hodgman, and many other popular podcasts and shows on public radio and cable t.v.
Welcome to Episode 17 with my guests Lee and Jesse Thorn. I’m Paul Gilmartin. This is the Mental Illness Happy Hour, an hour of honesty about all the battles in our heads, from medically diagnosed conditions to everyday compulsive negative thinking, feelings of dissatisfaction, disconnection, inadequacy and that vague, sinking feeling that the world is passing us by. You give us an hour, we’ll give you a hot ladle of awkward and icky. But first, a few notes.
Thank you for the voice mails you guys have been leaving me. The phone number to call if you want to leave me a voice mail, a question, a comment, a fear, go ahead and call 818-574-7177. That’s 818-574-7177. If you want to do it Skype to Skype, my Skype name is Mentalpod. That’s also my Twitter name and I enjoy getting feedback from you guys on tweets as well. It’s also good if you follow me on Twitter. If I do a little Twitter blast and let you know that - Twitter blast...listen, I’ve made Twitter sound like porno- ‘oh yeah, laid her back and gave her a Twitter blast all over her titties.’ [laughs] If you follow me on Twitter, then I can let you know when I’m doing a fear off with somebody and you can help me by tweeting your fears back to me. I’ve been enjoying doing that. If you want to support the show, there’s two ways that you can do it. You can do it financially, through a donation. I know a lot of you guys don’t have any money. I certainly don’t expect that. But what you can do non-financially to support the show is you could go to iTunes and give us a good rating because that boosts our ranking and that helps bring more people to the show. And that helps me sleep through the night ‘cause I’m a sad individual.
Before we get to the show, I’d like to try kicking things off with a - I don’t know if this is a story, or a confession, or what exactly this is- but one of the few things that give me pure pleasure is playing ice hockey. I’ve done it since I was a little kid, started when I was about seven years old. I’m not a great hockey player, somewhere between decent and good. And I’ve played hockey a couple of nights a week for the last 15 years. And for the most part, I can keep it in perspective. But there’s a part of me that is really attached to winning. And that works great when I’m on a team that’s good but this season I’m on a team that is not good. We’ve got a lot of guys on our team that are my age or older- I’m 48 years old- and we’re playing against teams that have guys that are 18, 20 years old. And I find myself intellectually knowing that this is not important- winning this game is not important- but when you’re getting beat ten to one and nobody on your team is doing what you think they should be doing, I go to this place where I just want to fucking lash out. There’s this one guy on our team- I’ll call him Sam ‘cause I don’t want to use his real name in the event he ever listens to the show. But he’ll know who he is ‘cause he’s fucking fat and slow. He- I swear to God- this guy, nice guy -that’s what bothers me, he’s a nice guy. And I just want to scream at him: “What the fuck are you doing? Move your fat fuckin’ ass. Look up before you pass the puck.” Every time this guy touches the puck he gives it to the other team. And we sit there on the bench in amazement, the entire team going ‘here it comes...look at that, right on their stick.’ I’m almost convinced that what we should do is go up to him and say, ‘hey, pretend that the other team is us.’ And then maybe that’ll work with reverse psychology and he’ll put perfect passes right on the tip of our sticks. But I know the problem isn’t him, the problem is me accepting that this is the way this guy plays. But I just...it’s like you’re playing out there with a fucking mummy on your team. He deliberately - if you were to ask me, ‘hey Paul, how much does this guy weigh and how old is he?’ I would say, ‘he’s 100 years old and he weighs 800 pounds.’ That’s what he is in my brain. He’s a fucking mummy, he’s a pylon. I said the other day to the guys on my bench, “It would be better if we didn’t even have somebody out there.” He’s the Bermuda Triangle of hockey. The puck goes to him and it never comes back. Why is this so important to me? It’s pathetic, I’m 48 years old. And yet I remember being a kid and the only time I ever remember my dad jumping for joy was when I was pitching a Little League game and I was not a good pitcher. I was about six inches tall, I weighed about two pounds and my fastball had an arc. But I managed to get the ball over the plate. I think my pitches were so slow that people were thrown off and that’s why if I ever struck anybody out, it was just because they couldn’t believe it took that long for the ball to get to the plate. Through some miracle, when I was pitching, we beat the undefeated team that nobody could beat. And my dad was a coach on the team, and I will never forget my dad - when I threw that last pitch, we won- and my dad jumped...I don’t even know how to describe the way he ran towards me. It was like a leprechaun. He threw his head up in the air and he was running but he was also kind of skipping and hopping and it was so wonderful and awkward at the same time. And he came over and he picked me up. And I just remember feeling so great. And I wonder if when I’m playing hockey and I’m down ten to one and I’m looking over at Dom DeLuise, I’m just afraid that I’m never gonna get that feeling again, of unconditional love and success.
On an unrelated note, and yet I think this relates somehow. I started reading the book by Jaycee Dugard. She was the girl that was kidnapped when she was eleven years old and was basically in captivity for 18 years with this psychopath and his girlfriend, or wife. And the book is called A Stolen Life and I read the first couple of chapters of it last night. And she describes in horrendous detail what this guy put her through. And there are many things about this book that are fascinating. One, the fact that she can be upbeat about her life and the perspective that she has after what she’s been through. I think that it would have destroyed 99% of the population. But she is able to work through what she’s been through and to have a positive outlook on life. That’s an amazing part of the book.
The other part of the book that’s amazing to me is her describing this pervert having his way with her, and what’s interesting is it’s so obvious that this guy is...it’s an addiction for him, this pedophilia. Because he gets what he wants, which is a girl to be his sex slave, completely captive. He completely controls her, he manipulates her and it’s not enough that he has that. He then begins to get into arguments with her where he always has to be right. He then begins to...his sex begins to get even more controlling with her. And you realize that what this guy is after is really a control of other human beings that makes him feel safe and powerful. And it’s an illusion because there may be that quick hit, when you get that feeling of safety and power and everything’s ok and ‘I’m in charge,’ but you can see as she describes her ongoing hell with this guy, that he needs more and more. That what did it for him the first week of having her is no longer doing it for him a month in, or a year in. And I think what that thing is that we all have in us, is no different- what he has in him is no different than what I have in me, hating mummy man playing hockey with me. I have this illusion that if that guy would just play the way I want him to play, that I would be happy. And there are some nights when things do go well and I am happy but it’s fleeting and then I’m back to living with myself. And how do I feel about myself. Because ultimately, I have no control over people. But it’s so tempting to want to control other people. And I think, at our core, that’s the issue that fucks up most of us- is trying to control other people and get them to do what we want. I don’t know if any of that made sense but it made me feel a little less crazy to talk about it.
Alright, here we go. Here’s a quote I heard that I really like. Somebody posted on my Facebook page, a picture of this phrase spray painted onto the side of...it looked like a garage or shed or something. And what it said was, ‘Speak your truth, even if it makes your voice shake.’ I like that. I like that.
Paul: I’m here with Jesse Thorn and his father Lee. Most of you know Jesse from his shows The Sound of Young America which is a podcast as well as a show on a number of public radio stations. The website Jordan, Jesse, Go! the...
Jesse: Judge John Hodgman podcast...
Paul: My Brother, My Brother and Me...
Jesse: The now cancelled IFC television program The Grid. Of course, literally upwards of six to eight of you may have seen that.
Lee: I saw it Jesse.
Jesse: Thanks, Dad. I don’t think you even get IFC. I think you may be thinking of Web Soup. You may be thinking of Web Soup hosted by our friend Chris Hardwick.
Paul: I was talking to you a couple of weeks ago and mentioned to you that I was doing this podcast and you said ‘well, you know if you would be interested, my father might be an interesting guest for this show because he’s a Vietnam vet and he has suffered from PTSD, post traumatic stress disorder, and I thought, ‘yeah that would be an interesting one.’ And this is my first foray into having two guests on at the same time because I thought it would be interesting as well to get your take on what it’s like living with someone who has this. So, let’s start with you, Lee, you’re how old?
Lee: I’ll be 68 next month.
Paul: 68 next month, so you were how old when you went to Vietnam?
Paul: And were you drafted, or did you enlist?
Lee: Excuse me, 21. I enlisted because I was going to be drafted. I got my draft on a Sim Boot Camp.
Paul: And explain that to me. What is the...
Jesse: What’s the mechanics of it.
Paul: Yeah, what’s the mechanics of enlisting because you were going to get drafted? That went over my head.
Lee: Oh, well you got drafted into the Army and most draftees ended up being infantry and I didn’t want to do that, I was scared of that.
Paul: I see. So you’d be an officer if you enlisted?
Lee: No, in fact, what I did was I enlisted in the Navy. Then I had some adventures after that. [laughs]
Paul: Right. So you enlisted in the Navy, and that got you out of being an infantry person in the Army?
Lee: That’s correct.
Paul: So the theory was that you would see less combat, it would be less dangerous?
Paul: Walk me through your experience from Boot Camp through serving, if you would.
Lee: Well, I went to Boot Camp. I became a platoon leader of my Boot Camp group. I got injured in Boot Camp.
Paul: Excuse me if this sounds like an ignorant question, but there’s a Navy Boot Camp and there’s an Army Boot Camp, and which one were you in?
Lee: I was in Navy Boot Camp down in San Diego. And that was over in a few months, I think it was like four months, and then eventually I ended up in VAW-11, which was a airborne early warning squadron and from that I was detached to VA-55 which was a bomber squadron. And I started out as a clerk but I ended up as a bomb loader.
Paul: So let’s go to your time in Vietnam. When you say that you had PTSD from Vietnam, can you talk to us about that?
Lee: Yeah. I was in the service from ‘64-’66 and I was in Vietnam ‘66. And I was on a carrier, the USS Ranger, in the Gulf of Tonkin, which is just off of Vietnam. And I was both a clerk in the ready room and I was on the emergency bomb loading squad, which meant that every day, because the Captain was trying to set a world record on bombing, every day I would go up and load bombs without training. Which was...because the flight deck of a carrier is the most dangerous place in any war in terms of the percentage of people that get killed, I saw some guys eat it. Four different people. And then on the hangar deck, which is the deck right underneath the flight deck- the flight deck is the top of the carrier and the hangar deck is a hangar, where the planes go down by elevator, and that’s underneath- I saw a guy get cut in half by a rope between our ship and another ship. They were loading weapons. And that was the fifth guy and...then that was pretty bad but ...that I could press down somehow.
Paul: Those five things or the one guy?
Lee: Well, I could press them down. Well, I can’t press them down right now but at the time I could keep them down. Partly because I was going to the flight deck and I had to sort of like...
Paul: Keep your shit together?
Lee: Keep my shit together.
Paul: What do you remember...for instance, the guy getting cut in half by the rope? What do you remember thinking and feeling in your body when you saw that happen?
Lee: It’s a bit like a startle reaction, it’s like some of the reactions you get from PTSD later on. I could just feel my body tightening up...
Paul: Right now or back then?
Lee: Now [laughs] but also then.
Paul: How far away were you?
Lee: Not too close, maybe 25 feet.
Jesse: It strikes me as one of those things, that alertness that goes with PTSD, that hyper alertness is...when you’re doing a job as dangerous as loading bombs, especially as you said with no training, that alertness is normal. It’s required to do that and then horrible
traumas happen from time to time.
Paul: And you’re soaking that in at full, hyper speed.
Lee: That’s right, that’s right. You’re hyper alert.
Paul: Is that one of the things that contributes to PTSD, is the fact that you’re so alert and then this horrible stimulus comes in and it’s completely absorbed?
Lee: It seems logical. The fact is, trauma is trauma, so if you’re in a situation where your body feels trauma, that is, where it feels raw and it’s sort of like being electrified or something. You feel it all over your body. And it lasts from...it doesn’t make any difference how long it lasts. Because it actually changes your cells. So in my case, and this is also the case in many people in the military who saw combat, is this happened more than once. So that’s how it felt. It felt like...
Paul: You tightened up...
Lee: Tightened up, sort of like fried. But then you immediately- at least I immediately- tried to get rid of that feeling because that’s what I did with feelings. So I would medicate myself or I would distract myself and it actually worked. It stopped that feeling. I’d do all the other things too, I’d go to memorial services and study and all that stuff. The thing about it is, that when you’re in the military, your relationships are very strong. Extremely strong. And I loved that. I mean, it was unique.
Paul: It probably saves you from...
Paul: ...this feeling that the world’s going to swallow you up.
Lee: Yeah. And also people are very compassionate toward you when you go through one of these things. Either from their own experience or just because they’re compassionate for you because we’re all stuck in this thing.
Paul: Were there other people that saw that happen and did you talk to them after that about it?
Lee: Yeah...no [laughs].
Paul: Everybody just kind of tucks it away.
Lee: I didn’t talk to those particular people. I didn’t search them out.
Paul: Were they friends of yours? The other people that saw it with you?
Lee: Not on the unwrap. Not when the guy got cut in half. Some of the people on the flight deck I knew, but I didn’t talk to them.
Paul: And were any of the five people that you saw die, were any of those people that you were close to? Not that that makes it any less traumatic.
Lee: Nah, the first thing that happened was this guy getting cut in half. After that I never got close to anybody. I just wouldn’t get close to them. But I had friends but they were drinking buddies, basically. We’d be very close during our hangovers.
Paul: And when you would be drinking and commiserating, did you ever talk about what you were feeling or what you had seen and how it was fucking you up? Or was that just kind of verboten.
Lee: I didn’t.
Paul: Did other people?
Lee: I don’t remember. The image that came to my mind....the other thing is one guy got shot down and killed, one guy became a POW, who I knew. And then this other guy, who was kind of a cocky little bastard, and he came in and he got hit, his plane got hit, so he had blood on him. And he was walking down the hallway with his own blood and I was disgusted by that. Because it was a kind of...I knew what it was like to be around somebody who died for no good reason by that time I understood. That was the final, well I’ll get to that in a minute. That guy just pissed me off.
Paul: Because he was kind of proud of his blood?
Lee: Yeah, he was looking for his medals.
Jesse: There was no institutional support at the time, right? Like chaplains or whatever?
Lee: No, there was no knowledge of PTSD at that time. There had been other names for the circumstance but there was no...
Paul: It was called shell shocked.
Lee: Shell shocked. Yeah, it had a lot of different names.
Jesse: My maternal grandfather was a Korea vet and was described as shell shocked.
Paul: There’s a great documentary on HBO about the history of post traumatic stress disorders starting with the Civil War and I wish I could think of the name of it right now. But it’s really good and it goes through the evolution of how we’re dealing with it. But let’s get back to your train of thought.
Jesse: That might be more challenging than...
Paul: So you were kind of stuffing these feelings and these memories down.
Lee: What I was going to say is that there’s another layer for me, which is that right around that same time as that guy got cut in half, the Protestant chaplain, the Catholic priest and the Jewish rabbi blessed the bombs. So at that point...
Paul: I thought there was going to be a punchline to it. I was like, ‘aren’t they supposed to be in a bar?’
Lee: They would have been a lot better off, as far as I’m concerned.
Paul: Did that piss you off at the time?
Lee: No, it just like pulled the rug out of me. I’d already by that time understood what we were doing- we weren’t hitting anything. We tried to hit this one bridge in Hanoi over and over again, and we never hit it. We just hit civilians. The one time that we confirmed that we hit somebody- this is the unit I was detached to- this guy was laughing because he said ‘you know, I finally hit a vehicle. It was a water buffalo.’ So, you know, and then we were involved in the carpet bombing of a city called Hai Phong in June of 1966. And I had to show those movies four times.
Jesse: ‘Cause you were also the projectionist.
Lee: I was the projectionist as well, and um...
Paul: These movies were for informational purposes, or for morale...?
Jesse: These were like detail movies from the planes.
Lee: Right, exactly.
Paul: You were showing them to...?
Lee: To the pilots.
Jesse: It was like watching game film or something.
Lee: We set the air on fire.
Paul: You did what?
Lee: We set the air on fire.
Paul: What do you mean?
Lee: The dust and the air went on fire. There was so much bombing. It wasn’t just us, it was every plane from Thailand to Guam hitting this one city. A big city. And we set the air on fire - all wooden buildings. So, what happened to me - you know, I kept watching it. That was it for me ‘cause I had gone to Vietnam because I wanted to get away from some other things. But I also went because I was patriotic and I thought that the war was the right idea. And then I thought- well, the church says it’s ok. That was good. And I thought my dad would like me better. Then this thing happens, and I thought- it was another PTSD thing. And, in fact, it was related to nightmares and stuff I got after that. Which, because what it was - it was, ‘you know, the people let me down, my parents let me down, the priest let me down, the military let me down. They’re all liars.’ The whole thing made no sense to me. And I went from like thinking I knew something to knowing I didn’t know anything. And I just felt tremendously let down. I went in the service trying to find some kind of direction that wasn’t a reaction to my parents, basically. And then the same thing happened.
Paul: And then, on top of this, you were in the one war that really got no support from the public. In fact, quite the opposite. You guys go through this thing and you’re the first troops to come home in the history of our nation that are not only not applauded and not hugged but you’re spit at and you’re told that you’re a baby killer, and you’re this and you’re that. Can you talk about that a little bit, what that felt like?
Lee: A little more PTSD there. Well I had actually gone to UC Berkeley then I went in the Navy, then I came back to UC Berkeley.
Paul: I can’t imagine a worse place to come back as a vet than UC Berkeley. For those of you that don’t know, UC Berkeley in the 60’s was really the epicenter of the anti-war movement.
Jesse: Were you already, like, organized by the time you got back to school?
Lee: I didn’t do any organizing on the ship.
Jesse: I know you had changed your mind by the time you were off the boat, but did you know other people that were...?
Lee: What happened was that I came to the campus, literally in the middle of this major demonstration. And over the next couple of weeks, I looked around and I could see the eyes of other veterans. There were very few of us.
Paul: They didn’t have to have a uniform on, you could just see the deadness in their eyes? Or what was it?
Lee: Their long distance stare. The way they were so alert.
Jesse: And this is still relatively early in the anti-war movement. This was 1966.
Lee: ‘66- it was the latter part of ‘66. So we started meeting on campus. Started out with just three of us and it ended up...
Paul: Now would you ever wear your uniform around this?
Lee: Yeah, we ended up wearing uniforms during demonstrations. But I didn’t do it much ‘cause I gave my uniform to the mime troupe.
Paul: That’s another podcast in itself.
Jesse: Yeah, the SF Mime Troupe are this legendary political satire group in San Francisco that are communists.
Paul: They’re known for their tableau trapped in an unwinnable war. It looks like a box.
Jesse: They’re not actual mimes. I just want to be clear.
Paul: Oh they’re not. So when you’d wear your uniform on campus was it to give more credence to the antiwar movement, saying ‘here I’ve been part of the war and I’m against it now so...’
Lee: Well there were these marches in San Francisco and as far we knew we were the first ones to wear uniforms during a peace march. But even as we were in those peace marches, even though we were in our uniforms we still got shit.
P: Like what? Can you describe...
Lee: Well, for one thing we knew more about the war than anybody and we rarely got asked to speak.
Paul: That surprises me.
Lee: Well, it changed after a while. Initially, no, almost all the way through.
Paul: What did you think of the movie Born on the Fourth of July?
Lee: I know Ron.
Paul: You do?
Lee: Yeah, Ron stayed at my place once.
Paul: Ron Kovic is the guy who Born on The Fourth of July was about. He was a wounded Vietnam vet who then became part of the antiwar movement, who was played by Tom Cruise, who actually I thought was great in that movie.
Lee: Yeah, Ron thought he did a good job. I think the part of that movie that sticks with me, first of all, it was pretty accurate about... I knew other guys that went to Mexico. The alienation of a lot of us when we came home was just amazingly huge.
Paul: Can you talk about that specifically?
Lee: We didn’t like anybody very much. [laughs]
Paul: So it was you, you just not wanting to be a part of anybody else, not necessarily them excluding you. It was just...
Lee: Oh yeah, we’d go to these demos. I went to these demos on the Berkeley campus on ‘66-’67 and they were dangerous because people were taunting the cops and the blue meanies came in from Oakland and all this stuff. But it puts you in a kind of space, so it was really funny to watch the vets because the vets would like go into combat mode, not in terms of they’re gonna fight the cops ‘cause they were totally outnumbered. I ran through somebody’s house and out their back window to get away from the place where the cops were. And I thought this was perfectly normal then some of my friends told me, ‘you did what, Lee?’ But there was this atmosphere of people talking about a war that didn’t seem like the war that we knew about. It was a different war because it was based on abstractions.
Paul: In what way? Can you be more specific?
Lee: It was, you know- I’m kind of left, but there was like a left wing fantasy about what the war was like. And, in fact, wars are absolutely terrible always. They’re always terrible. Because what happens is that mostly you kill civilians. And secondly, there’s no winner. ‘Cause everybody gets screwed up by it. Whether you’re active duty or non-active duty. If you’re a civilian or- there are people I guess that cruise through them, but basically everybody gets screwed up by them. On top of which, you destroy the land. And in Vietnam, we especially destroyed the land. We had all kinds of Agent Orange and other agents that we defoliated. We defoliated huge swatches of forest. So we’re killing the animals, too, as well as the trees and the people. And then we’re supposed to get a good result out of that?
Jesse: It feels like part of the thing that people abstract is they tend to think about war as a matter of not just winning it and losing- that there is a winner and a loser- but also living and dying where you either died or you lived as a binary that doesn’t encompass the...
Jesse: ...the continuum of...I don’t mean to suggest that the continuum is between life and death ,but the way that war changes the experience of people who lived, whether they’re serving, whether they live in the place, they’re not in the military and they live in the place where the war’s going on, whatever. Those are the effects that people don’t seem to register. They think of it as buildings and equipment destroyed, people living or dying. And I think that that is an abstraction that is shared both by people who are in support of war and against it sometimes.
Lee: The military right now says one out of four people who served in Iraq came home without a limb.
Lee: One out of four people who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the military, have PTSD.
Paul: Who have probably no interest in inflating those numbers.
Jesse: U.S. military press release: “Top PTSD Rated In Nato!” “Once again US seizes PTSD crown!”
Paul: Maybe this is naive of me or simplistic, but to me it would seem like one of the greatest casualties of war, other than the people that are outright killed, are the people whose experience in war have left them alive but wishing they were dead.
Lee: Yeah, that was the other thing is that when we came back, by 1979, I can’t remember the numbers- I’m no longer good at remembering numbers.
Jesse: I don’t think you were ever good at that.
Lee: Ok...there was a time when I believed I was good at numbers.
Paul: So if somebody is listening to this podcast who has been through a war, or anything that has given them PTSD, what would you say to them? And they’re feeling stuck and they kind of don’t know what to do, what would you say to them?
Lee: You know the latest stuff, the stuff that’s helped me - I went through a lot of talk therapy and I’m not sure how much that actually does anything. It may do things but not for me.
Paul: Talk therapy meaning just going to a therapist and talking about...
Lee: Seeing a therapist or doing groups. I’m sure it might help you open up but it doesn’t seem to change much. Because this really hits you chemically.
Paul: But don’t you think that’s an important part of it? What you’re saying is that’s not in and of itself a single solution to it?
Lee: What I think, yes - what I think is the things that are recently helping me is meditation, walking, exercise and this thing called cognitive behavioral therapy, which is a short term therapeutic technique where you write out your story, you review it and you find those times...you’re better able to identify those times when you react to the world. And then you learn ‘oh no, this is related to something that happened a long time ago’ and you kind of bring up a particular word, which helps you not to react.
Paul: When you say react, you mean react in a negative way to things?
Lee: Yeah, there’s many different ways. Usually it’s anger, or it might be totally misunderstanding something. But it’s mainly about thinking the situation is dangerous when, in fact, it’s not dangerous.
Paul: Can you give us an example of this from the cognitive therapy that you did?
Lee: [laughs] Jesse would probably say it happened every day of his life.
Jesse: [laughs] I was going to say, we’re going to get into the ‘Jesse talks’ portion of this interview.
Paul: Maybe this is a good time for you- to get your viewpoint on this, Jesse.
Jesse: Dad, you have experience both with your own PTSD and other peoples’....what the broad range of symptoms is for people.
Lee: Ok, again this is a memory question.
Jesse: I promise I’ll tell you manifestations in my life.
Lee: Well, I’ve had pretty much all the symptoms but not necessarily still have them all. And they don’t usually happen all at once but it’s things like flashbacks, which is like having a nightmare in the daytime, which seems very realistic, you think you’re someplace else, nightmares...
Paul: What is that like?
Jesse: It’s a thrilling adventure ride!
Paul: No, I mean, do you literally think you’re someplace else, or is kind of you’re half thinking you’re someplace else? Is it a combination of reality and hallucination or is it a full on hallucination?
Lee: Well, I can just speak my experience and I haven’t had one for many years. But what I remember is that I felt really endangered, like I did when I was on the carrier, on the flight deck. And I...got low, I got the center of gravity of my body low, and I was looking everywhere at once, looking from my ear to ear and all in front as well. And...I was hiding. You know, I was trying to maneuver through an area. And it stopped but there was like a hangover. And the hangover, you know my body was, like, electric. And luckily, somebody had told me -this was way early, it was probably in the 60’s- somebody had told me when it happened to them the only thing that helped them was to just walk. So I walked for miles.
Paul: And did that seem to help?
Lee: Yeah. I came down off it.
Paul: Other symptoms then, other than flashbacks?
Lee: Recurrent dreams of some event, which basically they’re nightmares that wake you up, sleep disturbances of all kinds...
Paul: Sleeping too much, sleeping not enough...?
Lee: No, never sleeping too much [laughs]. No, just waking up and not being able to go back to sleep because of nightmares, or just in general. Basically, your sleep gets disturbed. It’s some chemical thing.
Jesse: If you think of it like, in order to sleep you have to have this state of comfort in order to let go of consciousness. You have to feel like no dinosaurs are going to eat you. Sorry, sabertooth tigers. I don’t even know if sabertooth tigers - wooly cave bears...cave bears... there were definitely cave bears and people at the same time...trying to remember what I learned at the La Brea Tar Pits for this example. But because you have to know no cave bears are going to eat you. If you’re not able to not have that vigilance, then what happens is your sleep gets disturbed because your body needs to sleep, so it will go to sleep some, but you will be jolted out of it by a dream or an external circumstance even.
Lee: I’ll give you another example of something that happens, a startle reaction. One time when we were living together, there was a loud backfire in front of our house. It sounded like a major shock, like a mortar or something, and my wife - I’ve been with now for almost 25 years - and I, she had lived through a war herself and we were standing in the hallway, by your bedroom. And we jumped up together, and down. We were so startled, we actually jumped into the air and we were seeing each others’ face as we were going up and as we were going up and as we were coming down.
Paul: Wow. And she didn’t serve?
Lee: No, she was a civilian. Yeah, that’s the other thing that’s very little talked about, especially by Americans, is that people who are - I’ve done a lot of work in Laos, and a little bit of work in Vietnam.
Paul: After the war?
Lee: After the war. And what people don’t seem to talk much about in the United States is that war has tremendously traumatized tremendous numbers of civilians. Because they’re totally powerless in these situations.
Jesse: We used to live on this street, Tiffany Avenue, that was - it’s in San Francisco in the edge of the Mission District- and it ran up into the rear ramp that went into the Safeway parking lot of the grocery store, supermarket. And I remember my dad would literally freak out - I mean, not like screaming and yelling but something that I could perceive- every time a Safeway truck drove past. Because he would sit...his chair was in front of the front window but facing inwards towards the house, and he would be reading his newspaper or whatever he was doing. And I would see him startle. Every time a semi drove past and it would rumble the house a little bit, and he would startle every time. So...[laughs]
Lee: And then there’s the kind of side effects which is ‘I can’t work for anybody else- I just can’t do it.’
Paul: What is it about that? Do you have a short fuse? Or did you need to feel in control?
Jesse: Yeah. It’s kind of like if you imagine those physical symptoms and you transfer them to state of mind, they’re sort of analogous in a different venue.
Lee: Right, it’s just that some of what you get out of warfare is actually useful in some circumstances, like walking down Mission street with your buddies.
Paul: Knowing nobody’s going to be able to fuck with you?
Lee: That’s right. But for most things is totally inappropriate. So...
Paul: Can you expand on that a little bit?
Lee: It’s been so long since I had a real job.
Jesse: I genuinely can’t even imagine you in a real job.
Lee: I can’t imagine me in a real job. What I’ve done for the last 13 years I’ve run this thing called Jhai Foundation.
Paul: How do you spell that?
Lee: Jhai. And it’s a Lao word for when a community feels that they’ve come to harmony, not agreement but harmony. And it’s something I really, I felt there which was like unique for me. At any rate, what we do is we do development work...
Paul: By the way had you been a part of any of the bombing of Laos or had that not happened yet?
Lee: Yeah, most of the bombs I loaded...the bombs.
Paul: And was it not by coincidence that you got involved in...
Lee: It was coincidence in the sense that this woman had called me who’s Lao- American and she asked me to go and I said ‘I will not go. I’m not going. I’m definitely not going.’ And then she kept calling and kept calling and I put these blocks in front, you know. If I can get medical supplies together, in one day I’ll go. If I can do ‘this’ in one day I’ll go. All that happened.
Paul: Isn’t it funny how the universe works?
Lee: So I ended up going and it literally, positively changed my life tremendously. Anyway, I set up this little nonprofit and we do computer related development work in villages. We did the Pedal Park computer, for example. And...
Paul: The computer powered by cycling.
Lee: By a bicycle generator, yeah, many years ago. So I went, and it totally changed my life because of the culture there. Those people had seen so much worse than I had seen. I ended up working in this one village where everybody had been from the Plain of Jars, which is the most heavily bombed place on earth.
Paul: From where?
Lee: Plain of Jars, which is a part of Laos.
Paul: And a great 90’s band.
Lee: [laughs] Yeah.
Paul: They never got into the rotation enough on MTV.
Lee: That’s alright.
Paul: Completely self-indulgent.
Lee: That’s ok. [laughs] Anyway, these...
Jesse: They had one guy from Sonic Youth as I recall...
Paul: That’s right. Nothing like killing a guy’s rhythm for a joke that he can’t even reference. Inappropriate on two levels. I like to, by the way Lee, I like to try to find a one or two places in each podcast where I kill the momentum of it and do something inappropriate and I’m glad today was no exception. So go ahead.
Lee: I totally relate to that. [laughs] I do that pretty much about once an hour. Anyway, I went back, it was a very positive experience because these people let me into their culture. And what I took with me was this long experience -because I had been a consultant for a long time- this long experience of learning how to do participatory planning. And we did that together. The upshot of all of that was that I was able to come to grips because I went to the Plain of Jars, and I was accepted by these people and this one woman, after we did that first little training, was the mother of the woman who got me there, who lives in Ohio, who’s living in this little village. And she said ‘come out to this - come out, I want to show you my fields.’ So I went out to the fields and she said ‘come up here’ and we sat up in this chicken house and [my translator] there was translating for us, and she started to tell me her story. And her story was that she had to leave her ancestral place that they knew relatives had lived for at least 1,000 years. Because of the American bombing. And she’d lost two kids on the way from Plain of Jars through refugee camps, to this place where this new village, which they had actually built by hand on their own after the war. And she’s telling me this story and [my translator] was crying, I’m crying, she’s crying and I’m so honored by her story. And she said ‘you’re my son.’
Paul: ‘You are my son.’
Lee: She adopted me. And it changed my chemistry. It didn’t take all my PTSD symptoms away, unfortunately, but it empowered me because of the compassion.
Lee: You know, she knew I had loaded bombs that landed maybe close by her village, she doesn’t know, I don’t know.
Lee: What happened to me was that...I learned to be compassionate and then I learned to put it first.
Paul: Towards other people?
Lee: Towards other people, the land, and then I saw how most of the world lives by going to Laos and then later to India and to other places. You know, I also found out that when I do service my mind doesn’t overwhelm me. And that I don’t get PTSD symptoms when I’m doing service.
Paul: I have found it to be the best steam valve ever- ever. I can be having the worst day possible and if I go do some volunteer work, or you know, sometimes even just complimenting somebody, you know I’ve been standing in line for coffee and I see somebody’s haircut or tattoo that I like, and I just stop to say ‘wow, that’s a great tattoo’ or ‘that’s a great haircut.’ All of a sudden this energy comes into me that connects me to the world, takes me out of myself, and makes me feel ‘a part of.’ But if I sit and I’m trapped in self-pity or impatience or obsession about the past or the future, I can’t experience any of those things. And what I find so beautiful in your story is something that I’ve experienced doing this podcast, which is if I consider other people in the context of my life, suddenly the tough things I’ve gone through in my life begin to make sense, that they had to happen for me to arrive at this beautiful place. I had to have lived years of being suicidal to have something to say, to do this podcast, and now I get these emails from people that are saying ‘your podcast is giving me comfort, it’s making me feel less alone’ and I realize that stuff that I went through wasn’t for naught. It would have been if I’d never asked for help and I had never gotten out of self-pity and I just tried to do it all by myself, but when I connected to the world I got all these pathways that have led to this beautiful life where I feel this peace and this joy and this comfort now. And your story, again, is just more proof that if we reach out and we talk about what we’re feeling, we try to get help, our past begins to make sense and this beautiful future opens up for us, and this beautiful present.
Lee: I totally agree. I had a kind of tough start in life and I was very suspicious and for a long time and then I went to Vietnam. And then I came home and I drugged myself for, all together, 25 years.
Paul: The definition of spirituality, to me, is that feeling of being connected to other people and being there for them and feeling that they’re there for me and I do not get that sitting on my La-Z-Boy wishing I’m a billionaire. But that always seems the most comfortable place for me to go, is go sit in my La-Z-Boy and think about how can I make a billion dollars and be the most popular person on the planet.
Jesse: I mean, you have made a billion dollars, we should be clear. People are wondering how you afford all this podcasting equipment.
Paul: That’s true. But I’ve bought a billion and one lotto tickets. And that is what sunk me.
Lee: But you do have a La-Z-Boy.
Paul: I do have a La-Z-Boy and it’s so worn out, it’s literally got holes in it and I have to reupholster it. Jesse, is there anything that you’d like to add before we wrap up?
Jesse: Yeah, I mean, I haven’t talked, I’ve only offered sort of little bits and pieces here and there of my experience with this. It’s one of those things. It’s hard to understand what’s going on when you’re a little kid but PTSD is one of the defining characteristics of the way my dad interacts with the world. And it is, even today, as he described, he’s better than ever at managing his symptoms. But when I was a kid I thought of it as- you know, when I was like 10 or however old I was that you have some sense of independence from your parents- I thought of it as like my dad being like a fighter, like an arguer. And that is true, that’s one of the ways that my dad’s PTSD manifests itself in relationships with other people, is that because of the mental version of that hyper alertness, it sort of manifests as kind of like a, I would say, a paranoia but it’s not about ‘oh everyone’s conspiring’ it’s about addressing the absolute worst case scenario and assuming that to be the case, as you would have to if it were a crisis.
Paul: Sure, right.
Jesse: And that is often- if my Dad gets into a disagreement with somebody, he goes straight zero to ten. And I work with my dad sometimes, I work for my dad and I‘m on the board of Jhai and sometimes when there’s like a new person on the board, I have to explain it to them. [laughs]
Paul: ‘Here’s what you should know...’
Jesse: I was Board Secretary for a while and I was bad at that, but what I am good at is sort of like PTSD translator for my dad. [Lee laughs] Letting people know that they’re not having a horrible life and death fight with him.
Paul: Listen, when he calls you ‘fuckface,’ he means ‘friend.’ [Lee laughs]
Jesse: Well, I mean the thing is that my dad is - as you can probably tell- a really smart man and he was a debating champion or whatever in high school, so he can...
Lee: I can win, man. [laughs]
Jesse: He can win, you know, he can. But it took between the age of 12 and 20, something like that, to be able to first understand that intellectually, and second understand how it affected my life. And that was that I would get into these fights when I was a teenager with my dad, the kind of fights that I laugh about now with my brother, but it’s these crazy intense fights where I would just be crying, and I remember- I was joking the other day about not physical fights but we would get into these fights where -one time we were having a fight that I think that was about homework or something and my dad picked up this Ziploc bag off the ground, or off my desk or something, and he said ‘What is this? Is this something, something?’ It was a drug that has not come up again in my life. And I went to Arts high school, in UC Santa Cruz. Plenty of different drugs, a full range of drugs have come up in my life, and I still don’t think I’ve heard of it again. And I’ve never even drank, I’ve been totally straight edge my whole life and I don’t know if my dad understood that to be what was going on, but it was. And I was already like in tears, like I was 15 or something and I was already in tears and it was actually Turkey Jerky.
Jesse: I don’t know if you heard my dad off mike say ‘oh shit, that’s right.’ The other side of that is that even though I did have these totally insane fights with my dad when I was a teenager, I certainly never felt like my dad didn’t - there were times when I thought ‘oh my God, my dad’s a madman,’ but I didn’t ever think ‘oh my dad doesn’t love me’ or ‘my dad doesn’t have my best interests at heart’ or ‘my dad doesn’t want me to have a happy life.’ My parents had a horrible relationship until I was a teenager and then it sort of settled down into a- no relationship at all. [laughs] Which is fine. I never worried about like ‘do my parents care about me? Do my parents want me to have a happy life?’ You know, I got both the intellectual understanding, ‘oh this is a symptom of his condition. This is how he reacts to a threat.’ Even if that threat is a small thing like my son doesn’t do his homework or I told my son to do his homework and he said no. [laughs] Or whatever I was up to, right? And so his reactions to those threats were to go into crisis mode because of the PTSD. He goes into life or death mode. ‘If I don’t win this argument, because of the stakes, the stakes go from zero to 100% instantly.’
Paul: I have a friend who likes to say ‘when I react it is instantaneous, it is inappropriate, and it is excessive.’
Paul: I laughed so hard when I heard that because I was like ‘oh my God, I so relate to that.’ But go ahead.
Jesse: And so, I think I was probably 15 or so when I intellectually understood that that’s what was going on. And that was between when I was like eight or nine or so, was when you were going through the process at the VA to get this diagnosis and get disability and all that different stuff. And you were getting more perspective on it then, too. I mean, I think my dad was in the vet’s movement for 20 years, so had some understanding of what was going on but getting a diagnosis and...
Lee: I was helping those other guys. [laughs]
Jesse: And so then when I figured out what I can do is just not get involved in it when it’s in crisis mode. Just not put myself in that position, just excuse myself. And then because the thing that my dad has always done, and the other thing that makes me feel like I wasn’t traumatized by his trauma, is that even when we would have these horrible fights and would have them repeatedly, regularly, with great regularity, we’d be having one a week or whatever. Often, I wouldn’t say always, but often my dad would, a few days later, take responsibility for his part of it and apologize for it. That’s something that I can only imagine how difficult it was and is. And something that I’ve always admired about my dad and one of the reasons that I suggest that I was amenable to doing this with you guys, as opposed to just ‘what is PTSD’ on your show- is that one of the amazing things to me about my dad is that he- and one of the things I most admire about my dad- is that he has always worked hard to be a better person. That’s something that has inspired me very much in my life.
Paul: That’s wonderful.
Jesse: On a day to day basis.
Paul: That’s wonderful and it seems like when we make that effort to try to become a better person and find out what our truth is, regardless of whether or not it’s gonna be upsetting, the universe has a way of meeting us and helping us, and putting people in our lives and in our path that aid us in doing that. Who is- what’s his name? Joseph Campbell, the- I don’t know what you would call him, a metaphysician- but he has written a bunch of great books. But one of the things he says ‘when we set out to do something with good intentions, for the sake of other people’ (and I’m paraphrasing), ‘the magical guides have a way of assisting us.’ And it sounds a little high falutin’ and new agey but that’s been my experience - that when we set out to do something noble and helpful to other people, you know- to me, you trying to be a better father, trying to be a better citizen, it’s the universe’s...seems like it stepped up and aided you.
Jesse: It’s one of these things where, as my dad said, trauma changes, physically changes your brain. PTSD is a condition that can be ameliorated and can be managed and it’s not a sentence to have a horrible life. But it isn’t something that you can just ‘fix.’
Jesse: So, I emailed you and I was like ‘you know, you should probably talk to my dad’ and I hadn’t talked to my dad about it and I emailed my dad and I said, ‘Dad, you know, my friend Paul Gilmartin, he’s a great comedian, he’s been on The Sound of Young America and Jordan, Jesse, Go! and he hosted a long running television program and he has this show and it’s sort of like part comedy show and part mental health issues show, where a lot of the guests have been comedians and it’s kind of funny but it’s sort of also a discussion of peoples’ mental health issues and I thought you might be a good person to talk about PTSD on it.’ And my dad wrote back this email that was really angry and like ‘I don’t feel comfortable talking about this.’ And then he took it further and was like ‘I don’t feel comfortable with you talking about these issues in public in general, and I don’t want you talking about this stuff on Jordan, Jesse, Go!, etc, etc, etc.’ And I was like, so hurt. I was like ‘oh my God, what the fuck is this? This is like way more than I even- like I was just suggesting because I genuinely thought... I was imagining in my head when I sent him this email, ‘oh and then if we both go on I’ll tell him how much I admire him and love him.’ And my dad sends me back this email, like what I just invited him to do was like...
Paul: Can I shit in your mouth, on tv?
Jesse: A Celebrity Roast of his PTSD. And I was all upset about it, I was really upset about it, and I asked Theresa my wife. I sent her the email and she just goes ‘you know this is just his PTSD right?’ [laughs] And I’m like ‘oh- oh, right.’ And I’ve been like roasting over it for like a day and I didn’t know what to do and then I was like ‘gosh, I don’t know what to send back to him about it that will say ‘I feel like this is just your PTSD and I was actually trying to be generous and I really thought that you could help some people and it wouldn’t be too bad for you.’ And then like the next day, while I was still trying to figure out what response to get from it, I got an email from my dad that said, ‘you know what, when I sent you that email, I don’t think I was being fair about it and I think it was just my gut reaction was negative, and yeah, I think we should probably do it.’
Paul: I’m glad that you brought that up because I’m thinking anybody that’s listening to this podcast that has a loved one- a father, or a spouse or a sibling - who is coming back from the war and has PTSD, your inclination might be to try to fix or change that person and that’s probably the worst thing you could try to do. I think what would be best would be to get help for yourself, get into some type of support group to find out how to recognize what this person is dealing with and how to take care of yourself and give them the space that they need in a loving way. I’m not aware of any places that exist...but I’m sure there...
Jesse: For vets...there’s definitely resources for families of vets.
Lee: Yes, spouses and children even can go to the VA and get some help. I just wanted to say one last thing. I’m very touched by what you said Jesse, ‘thanks.’
Paul: Oh he was kidding, he rolled his eyes after he said it.
Lee: Just send me an email tomorrow.
Jesse: That was what we comedy people call ‘gag praise.’
Paul: It was beautiful, and I really feel privileged to be sitting in on this conversation with you guys.
Lee: Let me just conclude. I don’t know if there’s a way out of PTSD because it has this physical aspect, but there’s a way to live with it, and the way to live with it is to get out of your own way and to accept that there’s something greater than you. I mean, I think if you come at PTSD from an ego place, PTSD’s just going to love it.
Paul: Because you’re playing on its battlefield.
Lee: That’s right. But if you come at it from a point of view of not so much self-help as ‘what can I do today that adds to the general good of this day?’ Even if it’s just looking at the leaves out the window and noticing how beautiful they are. Or if it’s going to a foreign country and digging dirt, or if it’s just being nice to your kid. What can I add to this day? If you had PTSD you’ve been victimized and you’ve done a lot of bad stuff afterwards, like I did, like be a jerk. And that just happens but at the same time, you don’t have to just sit in it. You can be alive. If there’s other people out there who’ve got PTSD, man, hang in. It’s a beautiful ride.
Paul: Thank you. I think that’s a good note to end on, so Lee Thorn, Jesse Thorn - I want to thank you guys for coming on the Mental Illness Happy Hour and opening out about- [Lee laughs]. I know, it sounds like a dramatic title for a show but it made me laugh, and I thought ‘yeah, it kind of describes what my life is.’ I want to thank you guys for opening up and I am sure there are gonna be some people that are going to get help from what you guys had to say, and hopefully the people that didn’t need help were entertained and learned a little bit more about their fellow man. I know I did. And I never get tired of hearing people open up and talk about stuff that’s painful to them. Because it makes me feel less alone. So if you’re out there and you’re stuck, just remember there is hope and you are not alone. Thanks for listening.