I am taking a writing class. One of the books we are using is “On Writing Well” by Williams Zinsser. This is a great book to learn how to write. Zinsser gives the following advice: Writing is hard work. A clear, concise sentence is no accident. Clutter is the disease of writing.
We got an exercise to cut 50% of the last thing we wrote. I did that with yesterday’s email. It took me a long time, but it is much better.
I rewrote some sentences over and over again. I fiddled with it until I came as close to 50% as I could. I cut the piece I sent you from 1742 words down to 982. I promise to do this with all future pieces. Your time is valuable.
I did my best to strip away every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that served no function was erased. I think it’s much cleaner without losing any of the original intent. I am learning that good writing is a craft. Clear writing is clear thinking. I hope you like it. Thank you for taking this journey with me as I learn to become a writer.
I love to write. Learning to write well is the hardest thing. I aim for spare and simple prose like in a children’s book for easy reading. I am happy when I do it well. I try to boil down my sentences without spreading them too thin. I throw out adjectives and adverbs.
I imagine each paragraph like the sound a machine gun or a typewriter- tack-tack-tack, then silence. I begin the next paragraph- tack-tack-tack, period. I want the boat to be steady and deliberate.
I am a historian, but I want to write like a novelist. Good writing is telepathy. I want my readers to “experience” my writing in a mental picture they can see, feel and taste.
Few sentences come out right the first time or the fifth time. Good writing gets great through exhaustive editing. I stick to a daily schedule. Writing is a craft, not an art. The more you practice, the better you get.
I am not a deep thinker. My work has no symbolism or deep meaning. I use my own experience to give credibility to my work. Trying to get names, dates, locations, smells and tastes right is tough. The trick is to pile up items, like bricks, to give a physical effect on the reader with a complexity of emotion.
I want the reader to see my picture in their mind. This is the real magic trick, and it will take a lifetime to master.
I write about two things: death and my dad. He died when I was twenty-one years old. Freud and Dr. Phil couldn’t unsnarl my relationship with my dad. I felt I was never “man enough” for him.
Vince Oto was born poor and hungry in the Great Depression. His parents were immigrants from Italy. His first memories were about work. He woke up at 4am to deliver newspapers with his older brother, he was four years old.
Hunger and poverty-plagued him throughout his childhood. His family never had enough to eat. There were too many kids (11 brothers and sisters) and not enough food or love. He was no intellectual, but he had uncommon common sense. His instinct was what was important. His family was the most important thing.
My dad was not an emotional man, but he felt deeply about the things he thought worthy of his feelings. He cut straight to the core of things. He was charming and generous, but private and distant. My dad only had a few close friends. He loved them for what they were, not who they were.
My dad had an undiagnosed learning disability. He read words and numbers backwards. Later in life, he discovered he had dyslexia. He felt dumb and slow but was a quick learner. He could watch something physical and do it. He could build engines and fix things in one lesson.
He’d watch it, and learn it. He was smart about people. He said, “People are like books. All you have to do is listen.” His disability made prove himself physically. He was an extraordinary athlete.
His experiences made him tough. He fought for everything he ever had. Physical achievement gave him dignity and self-respect. He went to war and came home a hero.
My dad was a real life, Hemingway hero. He was forty-three years old when I was born. Short and stocky, he was a powerful man. He had thick shoulders, arms, and chest from hard, manual labor. I see his eyes looking back at me in the mirror.
My dad had a patchwork of scars from war and construction accidents. His injuries left him crippled and in constant pain. He never complained. Despite the pain, he lifted weights every day.
He was all hard work and manhood. When I asked him about his war experiences, he said, “I did my job.” He didn’t talk about what he did. He was a warrior without a war.
A Gentle Father
My dad was gruff, blue-collar man with calloused hands, but he knew how to love a son. He taught me how to box and shoot. As a boy, we talked girls and lifted weights.
Later, our relationship got complicated. We argued. I loved books more than sports. He tried to nurture my inner athlete. I was a wimpy bookworm. He wanted a buddy to hang out with. My world was books, his was hard work and physical courage.
He loved me and told me so many times, but it never seemed enough. He was not a tough-love dad. He shared his hyper-masculine love by teaching me how to impress women, how to tip waiters, and how to fight. I wanted to win his approval. I copied his mannerisms. I ate what he ate and walked like he walked.
His shadow grew after he died. He defined my manhood.
I joined the Army for him. I spent the next fifteen years trying to be the man I thought he wanted me to be. I became an infantry officer. I did tough stuff because I thought, “This is what he would do.” I was terrible at all of it.
My father was a natural leader of men, not me. I am better at reading history than making it. I was too young when he died. I never knew him as a man. Now, older and wiser, I know he only wanted me to be happy.
I was a terrible soldier, but I loved the amazing people I met in the army. It gave me miles of writing material. I know he would be proud. Writing is a way to visit him, if only in words.
I want to give you some helpful information by talking about PTSD, TBI, and depression. I have all three. In the last six months, I have made tremendous strides to take my life back.
I know a lot of friends and family members who have these issues. Hopefully, reading about them and sharing what I’ve learned will help those suffering.
My goals in this emails to be as honest as I can. Some of these issues are deeply personal and embarrassing, but If it helps only one person, it will all be worth it.
The Black Cloud
I have an amazing life. I have a wife who loves me. I teach the future leaders of the army on my weekend drills. I write for a living, something I love to do.
Despite all these wonderful things I live with depression. Sometimes I am overwhelmed by overly negative feelings and thoughts.
Sometimes something brings it on like the loss of a loved one or a friend. Sometimes nothing whatsoever brings it on, and a black cloud will form on the horizon of a happy day.
Living with depression is disabling and awful. All the pleasure is sucked out things I love to do. I start to leak confidence and become blind to the good things in my life.
I become forgetful. I can’t keep track of my finances, or remember simple appointments because I am overwhelmed by feelings of self-loathing and a loss of self-confidence.
I become a stranger to friends, family and myself. I tell people I am doing well. In reality, I can’t bear to clean the house or simply do the dishes.
The worst thing is I lose all my compassion and become selfish. I feel like a useless, ugly, stupid blob. In this state I become unpredictable, afraid and lazy.
I miss the old me full of energy, brimming with confidence.
Over time I see glimpses of my old self. It becomes harder and harder to get up the in the morning and face the day.
The worst part is how I see myself. I feel like a bad person, a rotten, selfish human being.
I feel like I fell down a black hole. I quit taking care of myself and forget to bath and eat. I feel like I will be stuck here forever.
I lost track of time, each moment feels like forever. I’m completely alone on Depression Island. I am isolated, trapped and nothing will ever be the same again.
It becomes harder and harder to get out this frame of mind, to see any hope.
I am Italian and Catholic- we do guilt, not suicide.
I do know why people kill themselves when they feel this way. It is draining and leaves you so tired you don’t want to go on. You feel once you’re gone you don’t have to feel these negative feelings anymore.
At some point, I decide to fight back. I am determined to be strong and I remind myself I live through this. I usually do something fun to let my feelings flow.
I learned this state of mind has nothing to do with willpower or attitude. It’s like being bald or short. It is what it is.
I have tried all sorts of remedies to relieve my depression: yoga, running, hiking, behavioral, cognitive therapy, regression therapy, group therapy, religion, and meditation.
Some helped, and some made no difference at all.
Sometimes a good night’s sleep was helpful. Sometimes I stay stuck in the hole for a few days. I realized this last time I needed some professional help.
What I learned
Some depression is hereditary like male pattern baldness or brown eyes. I was probably born this way with a temperament towards depression. I think it has very little to do my experiences in the military.
It’s a well-known fact that some families have a disposition toward depression. I am reminded of the “Hemingway curse.” Ernest, his father, his brother, his sister, and granddaughter all killed themselves after suffering from severe manic-depression.
Part of it may be a chemical imbalance in my brain.
The brain is a magnificent organ. It is the command and control of your body.
The brain is very soft. It is the texture of soft butter. Only thin layers of fluid-filled membranes cushion the brain from an impact.
The brain sits in the skull- a hard helmet of bone that protects the brain. The head is full of bony ridges and sharp points. When you hit your head, the brain hits these hard places. These blows cause Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).
My real problems began about a few months after I got home from the last tour in Afghanistan in 2012. I started to slip into a parallel world for minutes at a time. Instantly, I was back in Afghanistan, sometimes Iraq, but mostly Afghanistan.
Sometimes it was in dreams, other times it was when I was awake in flashbacks. I had the same feelings and sensations I felt there. It seemed very real.
Once in a while, I would replay the explosion that killed Bruno. Other times it was stuff that happened in Iraq. I would snap back to a former reality during a deployment and exist in it for a period of time.
The war for all the things wrong with it became the defining experience of my life. There I was loved and had a purpose. I took part in the adventure of my generation.
I started to write down what was happening. It was a repetition that became a compulsion. I began to understand that my flashbacks were an overwhelming need to repeat the experience, to resolve it.
I was replaying the movie in my head to get a satisfactory ending. I just couldn’t let go of it. I was living both a nightmare and a dream. This was PTSD.
TBI is a physical injury. PTSD is the mental injury. The combination of PTSD, TBI, and depression is a “perfect storm.” Symptoms of the three can be overpowering and destructive. Sometimes they overlap.
The rate of PTSD is much higher in veterans who have a brain injury.
In 2005, I was blown up in a small explosion in Iraq where I hit the side of my head. It knocked me out for a minute or two. It was not that severe. It was early in the war.
Three years later I hit my forehead on the steering wheel in the initial explosion that killed Bruno. I hit the side of my head on the door, and the roof of the truck as the truck blew apart and into the air. I was knocked out for 10 minutes. I woke up and passed out twice before Jerry rescued me.
Surviving an Explosion
An explosion does horrible, violent things to the human body. A blast wave is like being hit with a tsunami, then an instant later you are pulled back into the ocean to drown. This all happens in an instant.
A complex pressure causes the explosion. A wall of heat, pressure, and sound hits you at over 700 miles per hour. The blast wave passes through your eyes, nose, and mouth.
Air filled organs like your lungs, and gastrointestinal track lose all oxygen. A fraction of a second later, debris and fragments fly through the air.
I hit the steering wheel with my forehead, the roof, and cab of my truck. I hit my head three times in less than five seconds. Each hit was like getting whacked with a baseball bat. I had major problems.
I smacked my forehead where my prefrontal cortex (PFC) is. The PFC is the part of the brain handles decision-making, planning and impulse control mixed in with depression and TBI. I was a perfect cocktail for a disaster.
My brain injury gave me a lot of problems in the years after the accident.
I can tell you from personal experience, having issues mentally like impulsiveness or memory problems is not lack of willpower or a bad attitude.
Compulsiveness is not about rigid people who are over controlling. Understanding and optimizing your brain is sometimes the missing link to being successful in getting better.
A Brain Injury
My problems came from a brain injury. There was no “getting over it” with willpower or a positive mental outlook. A high-performance car doesn’t run with a busted engine, and a cripple can’t walk with a spinal injury.
When the command and control center of the body is injured, everything else is broken.
I had no patience over trivial things like waiting in line or being struck in traffic. I was anxious or frigidity. I couldn’t talk about happened without getting angry.
I was dealing with the physical and mental scars of war. Things had changed while I was away. I lived in four places in two years unable to settle down.
I knew I had to understand what happened to get better.
The Human Brain
The brain is the most complex organ in the human body. It is made of billions and billions of nerve cells. It is estimated there are more nerve cells in the brain than stars in the known galaxy.
A single piece of brain tissue the size of a grain of sand contains a hundred thousand nerve cells. These nerve cells make up your personality, character, and intelligence. It’s what makes us who we are.
Dopamine, the pleasure and motivation brain chemical, and serotonin, the happy and anti-worry chemical, help with anxiety, depression and obsessive thinking. When there’s too much or too little of these chemicals between connections with nerve cells, things get out of whack.
Anti-depressants get things back on track. They can help to regulate, generate and control the flow of chemicals in the brain. I have seen them help some patients and hurt others.
The brain and body connection is amazing. In Iraq, after my buddy Phil died, I started to lose my hair. After getting blown up in Afghanistan what was left of my hair turned white, and I had an unhealthy skin tone.
In three months after getting home, I put on 20 pounds. The mountain of physical and emotional stress took a negative toll.
When you have chronic physical and emotional pain life is a struggle mix in depression, and life can become unbearable. Everything gets mixed up and seen through the prism of pain and jumbled thoughts.
Pain, both physical and emotional, is a very personal thing. Pain is a monument to wartime trauma. Pain makes you divide time into two parts: before the pain and after.
Bruno died in September, I went to my buddy Bruno’s funeral in October- where I told his loving parents how their brave son died, while I lived- and I watched Phil’s murderer be acquitted in December.
In the last three months of 2008 I aged ten years.
From that day on I grew weary and worn out. The experiences drove me like a stolen car. I was run too far, too fast and never maintained. I was broken.
My own combat experience is what baseball players call a “cup of coffee.” It’s a slang term for a minor player getting in one game of major league of baseball.
I saw enough combat for a “cup of coffee.” I’ve been shot at and mortared but never anything serious. A few frantic, scared seconds with a couple of rounds. It was over before it started.
My issues came from PTSD and TBI. It wasn’t about the duration of the experience, but the intensity. My problems were chronic pain, flashbacks, nightmares, and depression.
My worst symptoms were memory problems. Negative thoughts and images lived in my subconscious.
I would be having a normal day and a damaging thought or image would invade my brain. I’d forget where I was and what I was doing. It was ruining my life.
Last fall, with the love and support of my wife Muna, I decided to get professional help.
Over the past couple of years, but more so in the past 6 months, I really had some problems- physically (knee/shoulder/back pain and balance issues), mentally (lack of sleep, memory and concentration issues), and emotionally (withdrawing, loss of interest in formerly fun activities).
My issues snuck up on me. They were cumulative. Being a soldier is a hard life. Physically, mentally and emotionally it can be draining. The physical pounding of over 20 years in the army started to add up.
My real problems were sleep issues. At first, I didn’t see it. Over the years, five hours turned into four hours turned into three hours and 45 minutes.
Good health begins with a good night’s sleep.
Having chronic pain, with PTSD, TBI and sleep issues is like living in a dumpy third world country with a strange language and unfamiliar culture- everything is hard and crappy.
It was ruining my life. Mix in all the fun of anxiety and depression, and you have a perfect cocktail that drained my well-being. All of it makes you feel worn out and far too old.
In the past five months, I did one-on-one and group therapy. I started eating right, taking fish oil and vitamins, exercising for 30 minutes a day, sleeping for at least 6 hours a night and got better at handling the stress in my life.
I feel younger, clearer and vibrant. The best thing I did was start to write again. It’s what I love to do most. I get joy to help others. I can’t draw, so I write.
It is important to re-enter the world when you feel strong. I feel like I can cope and work through life’s surprises.
Depression is tricky. It can be a one-time event or it can be a long haul, lasting days or months. Either way, you’ll have to wrestle with it or hide it when you have to. Sometimes being positive makes you end up feeling positive.
Getting through depression and my other issues is a big struggle. It’s a victory when you start to come of out it. It’s like winning a title bout.
You may be a little battered and bruised but you’ve learned a few things about yourself and maybe you can help others because who have been there.
Slowly things change. Little things start to have meaning again. You survive a little at a time. Things gradually start to get easier. Maybe you’ll want to help others. Maybe you’ll even learn to love parts of yourself.
I hope this posts helps by talking about these problems. It helped by writing about my struggles with PTSD, depression and TBI. Maybe you’ll have some tools for when it shows up again.