The walk-in psychiatrist in the mental health clinic wasn’t available, but helpfully there was another on call in the E.R.: the kind-eyed man on whom I would soon puke. I hadn’t seen a regular doctor since leaving the Navy, so before he and I got started, the psychiatrist recommended a short physical and a blood draw: No time like the present to check for any surprises, he said, and I agreed. As my blood squirted into tiny plastic vials, I breathed easy. It was nice to feel taken care of. Minutes later, in the psychiatrist’s office, I was doubled over vomiting and collapsing out of my chair. On the bright side, there are worse places for this to happen than an E.R.
The panic I felt at night had bled into my days, and everywhere I went — work, restaurants, the park — an overriding feeling of dread followed.
In the hospital bed, my face was pale, and my blood pressure was low — alarming, because during the physical it had been high. An hour passed, though, and I didn’t get any sicker, so the incident in the doctor’s office was chalked up more or less to a mystery. I was discharged, with an antidepressant prescription in hand. Then, in the V.A. pharmacy, I fainted again.
Back in the E.R., I was put on an IV and fell deeply asleep. When I woke up, a young doctor with shoulder-length hair asked about my lifestyle and how things had been going lately. My voice wavered when I said, yes, I had been very stressed; it felt indulgent to say so plainly. Then she asked how I’d felt in the hours before I fainted. Relieved, I said. Relaxed for the first time in a long time.
There was no saying for sure, but she suggested that my body had gotten used to operating at an extremely high stress level. At the hospital, I dropped my guard, and that stress diminished rapidly. Combined with the blood draw, this may have triggered a kind of system crash — what would be called a vasovagal response. Put simply: I became so relaxed so quickly that I puked.
I was discharged a few hours later and this time successfully made it out of the building. I slept well that night, in my bedroom that was always scattered with uniform items, because after my move from Japan, I had simply never known what to do with them.
As a person who never expected to spend a career in the military, I had always assumed the transition out would be seamless — a course correction, as if the Navy had been a mere diversion. So when I faltered, I gave little thought to what all that stress and panic and social difficulty had to do with the military. Nothing, I probably would have said before my visit to the V.A.