Episode 10: Therapy
Justin Hudnall: Welcome to Incoming, the series featuring the true stories from the men and women of America’s military, told in their own words, straight from their own mouths. I’m Justin Hudnall.
Lisbeth Prifogle knows herself by a couple different names. “Libby” is the name she’s given to the softer parts of herself she worries she’s lost in Iraq. The Marine Corps.’s Captain Prifogle was a creature of perpetual physical exertion, running miles every day along her base’s landing strip, training in martial arts for hours, and working the rest of the time until she was exhausted enough to fall asleep without the energy to think. Now that she’s back home, with all the time in the world for her brain to do what brain’s do, Lisbeth has returned to the writing she pursued before joining the Marines, and I find her exceptionally skilled at articulating the disaffection and anger many veterans I know feel towards the civilian world they come home to, in a way that’s both unapologetically honest vulnerable. But let’s see what you think. Visiting us here in San Diego at our KPBS studio all the way from from Louisiana, here’s Lisbeth Prifogle. #00:01:08-4#
Lisbeth Profogle: “Therapy”, San Diego, California. June, 2013. #00:01:10-9#
I accidentally started therapy a year ago.
“Let's talk about grieving,” my therapist says from across the room.
I smile, a trick I learned as a shy child. Being a thirty year old combat vet in therapy hasn't changed my best line of defense. In fact it’s made it more convincing – it’s no longer an innocent kid hiding behind a sweet smile, but a woman who is disarmingly quiet with a thousand yard stare, all masked by a practiced response. Unfortunately, this doesn't work on my therapist the way it does to strangers in dim-lit bars.
I thought she was a vocational counselor when I met her at a mandatory Individual Ready Reserve muster two years after I left active duty. The following week when I walked into her office and saw the fake plants and heard the soft sounds of crashing waves from a hidden stereo, I realized she wasn’t going to help me with my resume.
As I stare and smile, shadows from the late afternoon sun pass through the soft, iridescent curtains into the sterile room. She's added plants and soft lighting, but it's still a government owned facility. She waits for a response to regain control of the conversation. I wait until she looks down at her notes trying to figure out a different way to ask me the same question.
“I went to a memorial service when a Marine officer was killed in Iraq,” I blurt out like a child running through her day’s events at the supper table. “I didn't know him, but the whole base was invited so I went.” I leave out that I pretended to be an investigative journalist to pass the time during the quiet deployment. I even kept a blog about life in a war zone for a handful of followers who stumbled upon the page, but the most interesting subject I was allowed to write about was my ongoing obsession with running. I don’t tell her that I took a massive, digital SLR camera to the memorial service to play this pretend role, and capture this side of war. I hold onto my secret. I didn't feel grief, but such shame that I left as they sang the last hymns and said the last prayers. I had never met him, but saw this as an opportunity to run for my pretend Pulitzer Prize.
That week, I blogged about the marathon I was training for.
She doesn't say anything. A moment passes and she looks down at her notebook again.
“About a year ago, a captain that I used to hang out with died in Afghanistan. I didn't really know him either, but he was the housemate of an ex-boyfriend. I didn't go to any memorials or anything, but I remember reading about it online. It still seems strange that I knew him and now he's just gone.” My voice trails off as I watch her entire body relax. This is the most I’ve ever revealed during a session. “That's it really. My dad's mom passed recently, but I never met her. All my other grandparents and family I do know are all still living. People always tell me I'm lucky, but it's not luck. They're all going to die someday. Waiting isn't lucky.” I catch myself rambling and shift my posture to cross my legs and arms.
At my first appointment, I actually had a copy of my resume in hand. For the first six months, she helped me navigate the VA disability claim process – not a small feat. Then it was just habit to make my next appointment at the end of the hour. She tells me she’s treating me for “transition disorder,” even though I returned from Iraq more than three years ago.
“Are there any other relationships that ended and you had to grieve? Boyfriends or friends?”
I think of my past relationships. They never lasted long and usually ended in an unspoken mutual agreement. Friendships and boyfriends all come in and out of my life quick and quiet. I recognized that our roles in one another’s lives had been fulfilled.
I sit and study the mundane, government furnished carpet, forgetting to answer her question. The office buildings on base were covered in the exact shade of cobalt blue carpet.
“No?” She asks.
The fake birds chirp from her cd player and a little patch of sun hits my bare thighs and draws my attention. I notice goose bumps popping up on my soft skin like tiny sand dunes emerging on a barren landscape. I scratch at them.
When I finally received my disability letter from the VA, we both cheered in her little office. I remember thinking afterwards what a funny thing to cheer about. My final diagnosis was: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (also claimed as depression and anxiety). Getting the government’s recognition was a bittersweet victory, especially considering the hours spent submitting medical documentation and sitting with various doctors reliving the trauma.
“Well, I want to specifically talk about a loss of oneself. Do you think you are the same person you were before you joined the marines?”
“No. Of course not,” I unintentionally roll my eyes.
She wants to save me. I can see that she feels like she can save every veteran if given a cape, the ability to fly, and all the time in the world. I respect her for her sincere passion and dedication, but I don't want to be saved – not like this.
“Ok, good. Do you like the person you've become?”
I fight the urge to become hostile. “What the fuck kind of question is that?” I want to snap like an angry teenager, but she has never been anything but kind to me. Instead, I simply shrug my shoulders and say, “I am who I am. It simply is what it is now.”
I hate the cliché phrase that has become an answer for everything, from the meaning of life to receiving a moldy pastry at a café. I hate that while it has become an everyday phrase, it’s true – it is what it is, I am who I am now.
I don't like who I have become. I don't like the chemicals I was exposed to, the vaccines they injected in my bloodstream, my acceptance of killing another human being in the name of war. War. For an act so big, the word just seems too small. No, I don't like Captain Prifogle who sits in therapy out of habit. I like Libby, but she's a POW or MIA. The war has long since ended, but I'm still waiting for the body to wash up on shore so I can give her a proper burial.
She pauses and lets me reflect for a moment. I let the silence wash over me like a crashing wave on jagged rocks. The cold discomfort of who I've become envelopes my skin, seeping into my bones. I catch a glimmer of the emotional being I once was and a chill runs down my spine. My whole body trembles like I'm having a petit mal seizure as the wave washes Libby back to sea. My stomach burns as sand enters the cracks and crevices of the stonewall Captain Prifogle pretends to be.
What she doesn’t get is that I need to be the hero of my story, not a damsel in distress needing rescue by a motherly shrink.
“You need to mourn the person you were,” my therapist interjects, ending our staring contest. “You can never be that person again and you need to mourn that loss in order to accept who you have become.” She starts reading the names and definitions of the universal stages of grief. Her voice is flat, like I just need to put a check in each box and move on to the next: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. She makes it sound like a simple equation: giving up 24 years of being Libby + stages of grief = moving on.
I wonder if this will last forever. Will she just keep making appointments in a sad attempt to rescue me? Will I just keep showing up because of my OCD we haven’t discussed yet?
“You're so much stronger now,” she says with a go team go flare.
Everyone says this. When I jolt up from nightmares and reach for my pistol, or have a sudden unexplainable panic attack in a crowd. “You’re so strong now,” they tell me like it's a goddamn consolation prize. “You’re so strong,” they say, but what they really mean is, “you’re a Marine, I thought you were supposed to be tough and fearless.” They always use that word, strong.
Yes, I’m stronger now. The Marine Corps made me tough. Strong enough to stifle the emotions that used to make me human. Tough enough to beat out the individuality that made me Libby. Yes, I'm fucking strong. I'm “step right up and see the strongest women in the world” strong. But nobody tells you what the cost of this strength is. Nobody tells you that you have to be stronger than who you were so you can kill her. I was tricked. Now I have to mourn the person I was and I didn't even give her a fighting chance. She had strengths too, they were just different.
I’m waiting on her to give up on me. I’ve withdrawn so much that everyone else has given up and moved on, why can’t she?
I think about Libby. The girl who dyed her hair purple because she thought it was pretty and brought out her green eyes. The girl who didn't walk through the grocery store, but tap danced through the aisles for no reason other than she really liked to tap dance. The girl with so much energy that her dad nicknamed her Tigger. Libby, the girl who was brave enough to move to Scotland and then later to New York City; both times she was flat broke, but fearless and faithful. She knew the universe would provide and she was grateful that it always did. Happy, but physically weak and emotional.
I think about Captain Prifogle. The woman who joined the Marines because her dad told her she wouldn't make it. The woman who learned military tactics and how to give a five paragraph order like she was ordering a meal. The woman who led Marines in a combat zone; who shouted “kill” over and over and over again until killing another human being wasn't questioned by her instinct for survival of the species. The Marine who runs marathons, lifts weights, has a sculpted body, knows how to kill someone with just her hands and given the right circumstances would execute without a second thought. She appears strong and callous, but is broken and sad. Some days the weight of her decisions and the things she saw are too heavy to carry and she can't get out of bed. On those days she thinks of the rock biter from the NeverEnding Story. She remembers the scene after The Nothing swept away all of his friends and left him helpless and alone. He looks at his hands and says, “They look like big, good, strong hands, don't they? I always thought that's what they were.” The Nothing has taken Libby and no matter how resilient Captain Prifogle appears to be, she's left with nothing but big, lumpy, rock hands.
But I am strong now.
“We’re not the people we used to be and we need to accept who we are,” my therapist says as a soft acoustic guitar plays over a flowing river in the background. She likes to remind me that she is also a veteran. I like to remind myself that she was in civil affairs and instead of trained to kill, she was trained to help.
I bite the side of my tongue because the pain occupies my mind and stops me from crying. I don't want to mourn the person I was before the Marine Corps. I knew and liked her. I don't know this person that wakes up every morning at 0430 and inventories the lines on her face. Who is this person who goes to work in drab colored clothes and does what she's told in order to collect a paycheck? I don't like this woman who can't remember the last time she sat with her sisters and laughed until she snorted, or tap danced through the grocery store.
“Ok, I think that we've gone over enough today, when do you want to make your next appointment?” My therapist closes her PTSD guidebook and opens her monthly calendar. I take a long, deep breath, and let out a sigh of relief. I schedule my next appointment to visit Libby in the cold, dark prison holding her on an indefinite sentence.
She walks me to the front office. I say goodbye to the veteran, student-workers at the front desk who look younger and younger each month. They all smile too.
I drive home breaking the speed limit and swerving in and out of lanes. What I don't say in therapy is that sometimes I wish I had died in combat. I wake up. I go to work. I do what I'm supposed to do, and in the quiet of the afternoon I daydream of a world without me. Who would fill my position at work? Would my boyfriend be dating someone else? How would my life be memorialized on Veteran's Day in my small, Indiana hometown? I dream of a world where I died as a hero. A world where my life had purpose. I dream about how others would grieve me - not the woman I've become, but the girl they knew. The girl who didn't train her mind to kill in the name of war. The girl who laughed, explored, and wrote obsessively in her journals. If I die now, I'll be a blurb in the San Diego Union Tribune and the lives of those around me.
Of course, I’m not waiting for my therapist to give up on me. I’m waiting for Captain Prifogle to give up on Libby. Why won’t she accept that Libby is never leaving the internment camp holding her?
I make it home safe in spite of myself. I open a journal I haven't touched in months. I write the date and time and scribble out my answer:
I can't grieve the person I was because she’s still out there. Everyone else has moved on so it’s up to me to find her...
The following month, I forget to go to my appointment. My therapist never calls to reschedule.
Justin Hudnall: First question I like to ask everybody is, tell me about the decision to join the corp. You mention in brief that it was a way to prove to your father that you could do it. Expand on that for me? #00:13:51-8#
Lisbeth Profogle: It was a really hard time in life. I had just gotten back from New York, after college. My whole life, all I wanted to do was move to New York City and be a writer. And so I did that, and after sleeping on couches and floors, I decided, that’s not what I wanted to do anymore. And then when I came home, I’m in the middle of five kids, it was a very bad transition. I didn’t have a car, my parents live out in the middle of cornfields, I rode my bike fifteen miles into town for a job interview and ended up getting hit my a van. And so after all of this, I got in a fight with my dad who told me that I was worthless and I should join the military but they wouldn’t take someone as worthless as me, which is completely not my dad, we’re really, really close, so when he said that it triggered this instinct in me. I went up, straight upstairs, had to log onto the Internet using dial-up still, entered into the Google search, just went, “Marine Corp, Army, Air Force) and just entered my information, and the Marine Corp. was the one that kept calling me back even though I was ignoring their phone calls, and I just followed it thorugh. #00:14:57-8#
After I initially met the recruiter, it took a full year to actually go to officer candidate school. There were many times I would start to doubt myself, but it was more of a, “I can’t do this, I’m never going to make it, so it doesn’t matter,” because unlike enlisting, Officer Candidate School, you can quit, or you can get dropped, or or you can break. There were fifty-nine women who started in our platoon, twenty-eight of them graduated, and the whole time I was at OCS I was like, “I’m not going to make it. Eventually someone will see that I can’t do this and I’ll be dropped.” And I just kept making it through each step of the way. #00:15:30-8#
For a long time I wanted to, more than anything, go to Infantry Officer School, which at the time, seven / eight years ago, I guess longer than that, ten years ago, was not an option. Now women, they are taking volunteers. So that was a driving force. I am a women and I want to do this. #00:15:50-8#
Justin Hudnall: Back in the cornfields of Indiana, tell me about what were you reading, what were the books that got you into writing. #00:15:58-1#
Lisbeth Profogle: I was always the student who never read what I was supposed to be reading in class. I remember in college I picked up a copy of JD Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye,” I remember reading it in my computer science class, and that was my favorite book, but never had to read it for an English class and if you told me I had to read it I wouldn’t have read it. I remember reading, “The Things They Carried”, was a big one, on just his style, and voice and thoughts on the military and philosophies. #00:16:20-1#
Justin Hudnall: Tell me about how it played a role after the enlistment process. #00:16:27-1#
Lisbeth Profogle: Everyday, when I was struggling mentally to get through it, I told myself everyday, “you’re only going to have this experience, this day, today, and you can write about it later.” And I kept journals throughout the process, even though I don’t read them. The harder it got, I just kept telling myself, “this is an experience you can write about, you can use this for your writing.” And so I just created, in my mind, there was the marine and there was the writer, and I just kind of separated the two, and then kept pushing forward with my potential career in the military. #00:16:57-0#
Justin Hudnall: Do you remember when the idea of leaving the military and coming home began to produce anxiety rather than a sense of comfort? #00:17:05-5#
Lisbeth Profogle: The whole deployment we had a countdown. Everyday we were counting down to the next- in OCS you had a countdown until graduation, and throughout my entire military career there was this countdown. I remember when I arrived back in San Diego, I didn’t have any family, I had a couple friends that met me at base. But it wasn’t until I drove back into my old neighborhood, and went into the Ould Sod, our local watering hole, and I realized that I was never going to be the same person I was. And it was kind of that moment that I realized that wow, this going to be hard. And so the whole deployment I was looking forward to that moment, and then you walk into the bar and you’re like, wow, this is not who I am and how am I going to adjust. And that’s when the anxiety struck me all at once. I think there’s this expectation that veterans should talk about there experiences. I know, I do it to my grandparents. I’m like, “oh, Grandpa, if you want to talk about it…” But writing is really a way that veterans can really express the emotions and the experiences without directly talking to someone, and so I think that’s an extremely helpful tool, but there’s this expectation that, “oh I’m a stranger I don’t know you but here, let me ask you these really personal questions about an experience that’s just completely unworldly, and I expect you to be completely comfortable and personable and tell me all these things that you really have no business telling a stranger to.” And I think the expectation that by talking about it you’ll get over your PTSD is probably the most infuriating thing that civilians try to push. #00:18:41-5#
Justin Hudnall: It comes from a good place but it’s misguided. #00:18:43-9#
Lisbeth Profogle: It does, and I try to remind myself that. #00:18:45-6#
Justin Hudnall: What was the process like of forgiving civilians? #00:18:47-0#
Lisbeth Profogle: That one… Just time. It took a lot of time. Coming back, seeing children who— I remember this little girl. Gorgeous until she smiled. All her teeth were rotted out. Her mom was… her dad had been killed her mom, I don’t even think she had a mom, complete orphan, she wasn’t allowed to go to school. She was probably seven years old. And then to come back here and hear people talk about their problems here in America, it’s like, you have no idea. I think it just took time to kind of re-assimilate. This is what life is like here, and we’re grateful, but if you haven’t experienced seeing someone without you really have nothing to compare it to, and that’s not their fault, that’s just their experiences. I think it just takes time to get reacquainted with this world. #00:19:31-7#
Justin Hudnall: You’re so good about writing about being angry, now that you’ve been back a little while and you’ve had time to think about it, do you have a kind of acute sense of who or what it was directed at? #00:19:46-2#
Lisbeth Profogle: I think most of the anger, and I didn’t know how to express it at the time, was at the system: the Marine Corp, the government, for putting us in that situation to begin with, and you have no way to express that. The whole system’s broken, and so it just comes out at innocent bystanders asking you, “how was your experience, let me try to come up with a conversation where I can relate to you.” And it wasn’t their fault, but just mad at the fact that we were there, that I was there, and then mad at myself that I put myself in that situation to begin with. I think a lot of anger was for that, a lot of it toward myself. #00:20:27-3#
Justin Hudnall: Talk to me about running. #00:20:28-5#
Lisbeth Profogle: In college I would run, I would get up at 6am before any of my classes, I would run 6, 7, 8, 10 miles some days. I mean when I say I was obsessed, I was obsessed. In Iraq, I ran everywhere between 7 to 20 miles a day. And it was out there, the only time I ever felt comfortable a) being myself, and b) being alone. Because everyone I went on base, somebody was watching, somebody was taking note of who I was with, who I was talking to, just because I was a woman and I’m taller and stand out more than other women, so I would go running on base. I wouldn’t have a weapon, I wouldn’t have any protective gear at all. I would pass by Ugandan guards that guarded the gates to and from the flight line, and every morning I’d pass by them and be like, “jambo!” They were the nicest people in the world, but at the same time, every morning I would look at them and be like, there they are with a loaded AK-47, and here I am in shorts and a tank top, but it’s ok. I think it was way of daring fate. If something’s going to happen, if somebody’s going to bomb this base, then I’ll show them. I don’t know who I thought I was going to show and what I was showing them, but it was my way of taking control of a situation I had no control over. I was one of three women in my unit, and the other two I didn’t work with. One of the two outranked me so we could’t really be “friends,” so to speak, so I was just out there by myself. I had my female staff sergeant, I had my marines that we all worked together and knew each other very well, but really didn’t have anybody I could talk to, or confide in, or be friends with, because the rumors would be, “you’re a female, he’s a male, obviously something is going on.” #00:22:09-7#
Lisbeth Prifogle knows herself by a couple different names. “Libby” is the name she’s given to the softer parts of herself she worries she’s lost in Iraq. The Marine Corps' Captain Prifogle was a creature of perpetual physical exertion, running miles every day along her base’s landing strip, training in martial arts for hours, and working the rest of the time until she was exhausted enough to fall asleep without the energy to think. Now that she’s back home, with all the time in the world for her brain to do what brain’s do, Lisbeth has returned to the writing she pursued before joining the Marines, and host Justin Hudnall finds her exceptionally skilled at articulating the disaffection and anger many veterans feel towards the civilian world they come home to, in a way that’s both unapologetically honest and vulnerable.
See More From Incoming:
- The Incoming Radio page
- KPBS' Incoming podcast page
- Incoming on iTunes
- Incoming on SoundCloud