Saturday, May 9, 2009

face-to-face with PTSD

On April 16th, I flew to Reno and was met at the airport by one of the best friends I've ever had, Caleb Schaber. I've known Caleb since last year's Burning Man event in August. We volunteered together on a team to help create the best community newspaper in the world, the Black Rock BeACON.

Caleb and I clicked almost immediately. I helped him with a difficult article he was working on and we got to talking long into the desert nights. Not that Caleb needed much help with writing but he was having a hard time finding the focus and the lead he wanted.

Most people who know me and everyone who knows Caleb would say (and have said) we were the most unlikely pair on the face of the earth to hook up. Yet, we did and it was a source of unbridled joy and unmitigated chaos, often both at the same time. During our first all night conversation in the desert, Caleb shared about his experiences as a war time journalist in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last four years. As the night wore on, he talked about the lasting effects on him, personally.

Caleb was diagnosed with PTSD in June 2008 and received a minimal amount of counselling and a prescription for Lexapro. Because he had been a freelance journalist, he had no benefits and in the United States that is like a death sentence. Due to his symptoms, Caleb didn't have a conventional job - he would go for days without being able to sleep at all due to horrifying nightmares. Then he'd sleep for a whole day at a time. He survived by minimizing his expenses, living in a trailer in Gerlach, Nevada until it was too cold, then he planned to couch-surf with friends across the continent. Caleb was also an exceptional artist who created an online blog for his writing and paintings. He had a loyal audience earned over many years who often sent him contributions.

The contributions were just enough to keep him alive, seeking the truth and challenging power when necessary. Unfortunately, he often didn't have enough money for his medication. He would take it for 10 days then skip a week and then get another 10 day supply (the minimum dispensary amount at Walgreen's). With no further counselling available and not enough resources to stay on the medicine long enough to heal, Caleb's symptoms worsened.

I started buying his art on September 19th when he first put up a sale on his blog. I really didn't know his financial situation between August and September even though we had daily email or chat contact. He was very independent and stubborn. I made it my business after that to try to give what I could. Of course, he insisted on sending me artwork in return.

Caleb's gift to me was the sharing of his sparkling intellect and a sincere encouragement to leave a long-time abusive relationship. He inspired me and bolstered my courage to make long overdue changes. Caleb was engaged in life in astonishing ways. Despite the PTSD, Caleb lived life with a high level of activity, curiousity and ingenuity combined with a playful spirit.

As the weather turned fiercely cold in Gerlach, Caleb caught a really bad cold and was quite sick. He had a project he wanted to undertake to clear his record for a ridiculous event in his past which resulted in a criminal record and prevented him from having a passport to travel to Canada. This happened in Seattle and he needed to get there for the beginning of December to meet his lawyer and go to court for the expungement process.

His infamous Samurai was not in a state of repair to make it to Seattle without new tires at the very least. I sent the money for a set of tires and agreed to meet him in Seattle at the first of December. That's when I met PTSD face-to-face.

We met a couple burner friends, also from the BeACON, for lunch in Pike Place Market. Caleb was antsy throughout the meal and got up and went for a walk twice. After we parted ways with our friends, Caleb and I headed back to the hotel in the Samurai. Caleb turned around very suddenly and headed back to the market to get some cardamon at the Asian spice store.

When we left the store to return to the Samurai, Caleb stood stalk still in the middle of the road and couldn't be moved. He didn't respond until I cupped my hands under his chin. He said everyone had guns and he didn't, where was his gun? It took me twenty minutes to get him to a small green space about 20 yards away. We sat with our backs to the hedgerow looking out at the harbour for three hours before he could finally stand up and leave. The crisis had passed although I did have to learn how to drive the Samurai quite suddenly. A book should be written about that vehicle - suffice to say, it was heavily modified and duct tape plays more than one novel role.

For the next several months, Caleb experienced more and more frequent episodes like this. The following week I returned to Canada to try to prepare for Christmas. Caleb sat outside in the pouring rain for 30 hours hiding in the bushes from imaginary enemies. He was staying with another burner friend for the month of December and together Michael and I tried to keep Caleb fed, watered and safe. On one occasion, by telephone I talked him off the Aurora Bridge and into a nearby Chinese restaurant. The Aurora Bridge was a real threat as Caleb had jumped off it a few years ago and broke his back. One phone call was 12 hours long to talk him back to safety.

I wasn't always there since I had a life here to try to untangle. We did spend several weeks together in four different trips I made to the Seattle area for a couple weeks at a time. And we had daily contact by phone, email and chat.

On Boxing Day, Caleb and Michael got into a playful wrestling match that turned serious after the PTSD took over. Neighbours called the police and Caleb was arrested and jailed for 24 hours. With a no-contact order in place after his release, Caleb was suddenly homeless and very anxious about how this would affect his efforts to clear the old record and get a passport. The shock of jail seemed to open Caleb's independent mind and heart to accepting help. We got a prescription for a less expensive generic version of the drug and got a 30 day supply at a time, rented a hotel room by the week and hired a lawyer. I started looking for a housing situation online and found an old miner's house we could rent in Roslyn, away from the noisy, crowded city starting on January 27th.

In the meantime, Caleb needed to get away from the city and its triggers so we decided he should take the train to Washington DC to go to the Obama inauguration. This would keep him busy, writing and focussed for a couple weeks. On the way home, he stopped for a day to visit his father near South Bend for his 70th birthday. I would have gone to the inauguration too but I had a new granddaughter expected that week. While he was away from Seattle, a major repair on the engine of the Samurai was done.

We met in Seattle on January 27th, picked up the Samurai and drove to Roslyn on the 28th. Back to Seattle for a disappointing court appearance on February 2nd. Then returned for a couple of weeks to Roslyn. On the way back, the rear drive shaft fell off on I 90 and we limped into Roslyn on front wheel drive by disabling the rear wheel drive.

The premise of the house rental for a couple of months was to write the book from his interview notes from the war. This was his idea of a way out of abject poverty but the material was difficult. Caleb took to drinking heavily to shut out the stories. Then he took to watching movies non-stop. He couldn't write and the best we could do was a bunch of needed repair jobs on the Samurai. Caleb couldn't focus on anything for more than a few minutes at a time which made for a chaotic lifestyle. Some parts of every day were blissful joy but often he was tense and erratic in mood.

I returned to Canada on February 14th then back to Seattle on February 27th. I took the airport shuttle to nearby Cle Elum and hitched a ride to Roslyn. Caleb was to meet me but he had fallen asleep after a grueling few days of no sleep. On March 2nd we had a great celebration with a complete dismissal of the charges in court. Things started to improve considerably and for a couple weeks, everything was great. On the day before I was to return to Canada, Caleb was suddenly very moody. He insisted on vacating the house and driving me into Seattle early and he headed off to his next couch surfing/house sitting engagement. I stayed in Seattle that night and flew out the next morning.

Our next idea was to get Caleb back to Gerlach for the beginning of April and to negotiate the lease of the train station there to use as an art gallery/studio. Caleb stalled on leaving the Seattle area for days on end. He hid under a bridge again and I ended up calling the police to coax him away.

I had negotiated with railways before so I was resolved to get Caleb some hope for his dream of the future and that's why I went to Reno on April 16th.

Caleb picked me up at the Reno airport and we had a great day together ending at Gerlach at a friend's birthday party in Bev's Miners Bar. When we left the bar at about midnight, Caleb drove through the back streets to tell me about his town and where friends lived and many stories.

The meeting with the Union Pacific had been set for Friday morning but I hadn't checked email all day so when we arrived at his trailer, we both pulled out our laptops to check email on the hood of the Samurai. As it turned out the meeting was postponed to the following week. I was ecstatic due to a need for a good night's sleep after travelling all day. Caleb suddenly became very restless and started pacing outside. I asked him to show me the trailer and I would make up the bed since no one had been there for four months. We went inside and he lit candles and put music on while showing me the trailer. Caleb said he needed to think so he went outside to pace while I got the bedding ready. I changed to pajamas due to the cool desert night and waited for him to come back. I couldn't let myself sleep because of the candles.

Caleb walked back into the trailer and I sat up to ask him to please blow out the candles if he was going to stay up. He looked right through me as if I wasn't even there. His face was blank, his eyes staring straight ahead. I looked at him and in his left hand were two shotgun shells. I asked him why he had the shells and received no response. As I moved from the bed toward him, he set one shell on the kitchen counter, grabbed the shotgun with his other hand, loaded it, put it under his chin and pulled the trigger.

The last two weeks have been a flurry of memorials in San Francisco, Reno, Gerlach and Seattle. Cards have been sent. There is no other task left but to grieve and to talk loudly about mental health issues, PTSD, the horrid American health care system and the horrors of war. Loudly and often.

Now you know why I haven't been writing here lately. I don't know how long it will take for me to be over this tragedy but it may be weeks or months, I'm sure. I don't think I will ever be the same person. I hope to find a new purpose, one that honours some of the dreams we had for a train station in the desert, teaching young people about peace and sharing Caleb's art and writing.

Caleb and I had a good time mostly but it was a very short time.

Peace be with you, Caleb. May your spirit feel free to visit once in awhile and explore the next world in peace.