• author
    • Tom McMasters-Stone

      Columnist
    • June 11, 2015 in Columnists

    Misdiagnosed, undiagnosed… and moving forward

    TomDogIt has been four years to the day since we put this lovely boy down, Bandit — that’s him on the right, lying there on my pillow with Abbey. His mom gave off great pups; Spencer and Belle are his half-siblings, but there is cancer in the genes. At least two of their littermates are already dead, and Belle is missing a leg. But a brighter, more intelligent canine line could not be found, me thinks.

    It has also been four years to the day since things got bad, really bad. Four years of Groundhog Day. Lather, Rinse, Repeat.

    Up until about six months ago, I was sure I was dying, that I had reached the end of my rope.

    I don’t have some of the basic traits of an alcoholic. I don’t have “triggers,” I don’t have the obsession, both classic signs of alcoholism, but I ended up drinking anyway.

    My 25 years of fire investigation and attention to detail failed me completely. I should have known something else was wrong.

    It was. The main thing is severe childhood PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which often takes off as far as impact at around age 50 — or so they tell me. Hmmm. That timetable certainly fits me.

    I have worked The Steps diligently several times, with excellent mentors, with little overall benefit. It was frustrating to me, and to them and my counselors. The Steps will allow us to forgive those who have trespassed against us, but when their transgressions cumulatively rise to the level of PTSD, more help is needed.

    In the last two weeks, I have seen at least a dozen news segments about PTSD, and its devastating effects. They are preaching to the choir in my case. On the other hand, I am thrilled that neuroscience has caught up with the people who have been suffering for so long, and I lament those that went before us without real help.

    I heard in class last week that 90 percent of people with alcohol and/or drug issues have trauma in their histories. When I read my autobiography a couple of weeks ago, about half the audience had tears in their eyes. One of the comments was “I am amazed you are still around.”

    There were some other, lesser things, too, but finally I think all the cards are on the table.

    I was in a bookstore not long ago, and a friend picked up a book on “Dual-diagnoses,” and said “Hey, Tom, look at this!” I did, and replied “Sheesh, I have four issues I am dealing with.” He grinned at me and said, “Buy two books!” Asshole.

    Of course, dual-diagnoses doesn’t mean you have just two issues. Perhaps it just means you have one or more things going on beyond the alcohol and/or substance problems.

    It was staring me in the face, and I missed it.

    A counselor told me recently that normal people operate “between the fives.” Plus five and minus five. If one routinely strays outside those lines, and gets between 6 and 10, up or down, there is something else going on — and maybe more than one thing.

    There are 7.5 billion brains in the world, and we all only really know how one works- or doesn’t. The DSM V (yes, we are up to V now) gives guidelines for diagnoses of mental health issues, but there are no checklists. These diagnoses are based upon behaviors, but the diagnoses are always probabilities, and there is some trial and error involved in treatment strategies.

    From a layman’s perspective, what do these brains look like? I would put forth batteries for your consideration.

    TOmbatteresThat’s right, common, everyday batteries.

    Batteries of today are more complex and numerous than even 10 years ago. Brains are not more complex now than they always have been, but since we now know so much more about them, they certainly seem so.

    D cells, C cells. A, AA, AAA. Watch batteries, cell phone batteries, camera batteries, fire truck batteries, and even the silent-running batteries for submarines. 9-volt batteries, where the poles are very close together and pointing in the same direction.

    What was called Manic Depression could once be described, as, say, a bulldozer battery — big, bulky, and a long distance between the poles — and way outside the “fives” at both.

    Of course, the operating median between the poles, on any battery- in any brain- where people routinely reside is almost never in the middle.

    Some batteries are fully-charged, but many are not. Some are rechargeable, some aren’t, and the terminals certainly need cleaning on a great many of them.

    It would be nice if we all had one of those motion-powered generators we had on our bicycles when I was a kid, attached to our feet, that would boost our batteries every time we put one foot in front of the other. We do, to a certain extent, as exercise almost always improves things, but rarely is the total solution.

    Now, Manic Depression is called Bi-Polar, and it is no longer just the wildly-swinging condition it once was. Now we know that many people “just” have slices of the original disease, and sometimes suffer less because of it — but they suffer nonetheless.

    As far as my own PTSD, I don’t feel misdiagnosed, just undiagnosed. And while I wish it would have been four months of hell instead of four years, I am grateful that it was not 40 years!

    These issues are not individual issues, either, they are family issues. I have spent this week as a client peer for Family Week, one of five people assigned to provide insight to the families of the other clients about what it was like for us. The fears, desperation, frustration, bewilderment and even anger were palpable from the first day, and the focus is on the family members healing and taking care of themselves.

    I am in Oregon now, and will be here indefinitely. I sometimes think it would be easier to just stay here for good, and settle in. It is difficult being the Elephant in the Room amongst your friends and family, especially in a small town.

    Not that people are not supportive — they are, and at some level it is fear. Winters has already lost one former mayor and a retired fire chief way too early, and they don’t want me to follow.

    I do know this is it for me. My wife and I had a very practical discussion about it. I think I am going to be okay, but I don’t know. Now that I have everything on the table, and am feeling better than I ever have in my life, I’m very optimistic, but this is all new ground.

    I do know I am exhausted, and I can’t go through this anymore. If this doesn’t work, after having spent two months at two of the finest facilities in the country, my next — and last — stop will be a hotel in big-city downtown. My wife and I had a very practical conversation about it, and we are in agreement.

    Is that going to happen? I doubt it. I am doing great, I feel great, and I always have some baseline of gratitude and optimism, no matter how bad my day is. My health is great, and my relatively-brief sojourn has not left any physical problems. My recent lab work was stellar.

    Tomorrow, I head to Winters for a brief overnight visit, to pick up the van and the canoe, and come back up here. Dinner at the Buckhorn is on the agenda, of course, as is walking the dogs.

    Can’t forget my golf clubs. My first round in Oregon cannot possibly be as bad as my only round in California.



    • May the next four years be the upswing. I wish you WELL, my friend. Just keep going! Ok, roll “Eye of the Tiger” now!


      • Madgew

      • June 11, 2015 at 7:51 am
      • Reply

      So happy to hear. One of my friend’s wrote a book on dual diagnosis. His name is Dr. Dennis Ortman. Is this the book you read??? I am homing you and your family in the light that Oregon helps you stay healthy.



    • Good to hear, Tom! That baseline of gratitude and optimism is important.


      • Maya Spier Stiles North

      • June 13, 2015 at 7:49 pm
      • Reply

      I have lived with PTSD probably since early childhood. Behind the closed doors of our very nice house, my parents were passing on the abuse they also got as children. Then I spent seven months in a juvenile institution, which sealed it into the toxic mess it is now. At least I know that’s what it is and, for some reason, I haven’t ever really been pulled to any sort of substance abuse, but it’s an agonizing rollercoaster nonetheless. I am so glad you are getting the right help, at last. You deserve to be happy. You really, truly do.



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