Om Nom Nom Blog

Dec 19

What to Know about Mental Health in the Military (if you’re not in it)

My parents had some very strong preconceived notions about military men, which they were not shy about sharing with me when I told them I was dating one. They were concerned that I had fallen into the company of a heavy drinker and partier who enjoyed physical violence and would expect me to stay home and have lots of babies. I don’t know where they got these ideas (TV, I’m guessing), but it was pretty hilarious to watch their reactions when they met SSGT James Gillooley—the opposite of their assumptions.

I enjoyed riding on my high horse until it occurred to me that I, too, had colored my thinking with anecdotes from my favorite shows. The more I got to know James, the more I realized how incomplete my understanding of the military experience was. We have been together for almost two years and it’s still not complete, but James patiently answers all of my (probably stupid) questions and explains the complex, confusing, and often bewildering military universe. We talked about the status of mental health in the military—what it means to be afraid, what resources are available, and what really happens to your mind when you spend a year in the Iraq desert getting shot at. I thought I had a pretty good idea of what the experience was like; I do watch a lot of TV, after all. Turns out I was grossly misinformed.

***

Don’t ask if they’ve killed anybody.

Awkwardly enough, I’m pretty sure I asked James this question on our second or third date. For some reason he still agreed to go out with me again afterwards. I had never been in the vicinity of anyone who had pulled a trigger before and had a morbid fascination fueled by too many episodes of Law and Order. James told me that it was mainly people in his home state of Florida who asked him. None of his family ever did—“I think they knew better,” he explained. “I don’t think my mom would want to know the answer.”

Why not ask, though? Isn’t that reasonable to assume that a kid who was given a gun and trained how to use it might have to? Didn’t they know what they were getting into? It turns out that “killing someone is not a pleasant act for most people. People act like they might enjoy it, but it’s a very traumatizing event.” Maybe it’s just an unfortunate part of the job, like when a boss has to fire employees. Or maybe it’s an experience civilians can’t begin to understand.

I still wanted to understand, though. If I were going to be telling this man all my personal stories and character-building incidents (like the time I racked up $200 in charges from a psychic hotline when I was in 6th grade) I figured I deserved to know his. But when servicemen are asked if they have killed anyone, they know that “people can brand you a murderer or just brush it off.” After living through such a trauma, neither response puts a full stop to the anxiety hanging in the air when someone like James says “yes.”

Servicemen go through an extensive array of mental health assessments before they come home.

According to the internet, what happens when a serviceman comes home is that he meets his significant other at the airport and there are tears and hugging and falling to the ground with joy, sometimes there’s a baby he has never met before, sometimes there’s a dog who cannot contain his bladder due to excitement. We then assume that happy people go home and heroes are honored and we can feel good about looking at these pictures, and then we go look at something else on the internet.

It turns out that before they even leave the country to which they were deployed, servicemen go through a barrage of tests and see at least three different psychotherapists. They retake the cognitive function tests and baseline mental status assessments they completed before they left for deployment to see if there are any significant changes. They answer “a million” questions about “what you went through, how you felt about everything, what you thought of it—being there, being attacked, having to do that job.” Every answer, every word, is written down and put into a medical file that says “you’re good to go, you’re not crazy, you’re not suffering from PTSD.” Then, at the home station in the US, servicemen go through another evaluation with the same questions to gauge any longer-term after effects.

The process of coming home doesn’t end in the tearful pictures at the airport.

***

There are scarier things than being shot at.

Fear is an interesting subject for the military. I certainly describe James as “brave” and “courageous.” That’s ostensibly a good thing, but how can you admit to being afraid when everyone describes you as brave?

I asked James when he really felt fear when he was in Iraq, expecting it to be your usual special effects-laden scene with fireballs and bullets and high-speed chases, or even something involving camel spiders. (For those of you who have not seen a camel spider, this is a camel spider:)

Instead, James told me this story:

“We were driving through a small city just north of Baghdad. All the street lights and house lights were on. It was the middle of the night. As we were entering the main part of the city, all of a sudden all the lights went out. Some people were moving around outside. We just sped up and moved out of the city as fast as we could. That one instance of all light and then complete darkness just made your heart stop.

I was shot at and blown up, but when that happens you’ve got your adrenaline pumping and you know what’s happening and what’s coming at you. When it just goes completely dark, you’re left anticipating what could happen.”

What I thought were instances of fear and trauma were physical expositions, palpable and describable occurrences that were the dictionary definition of “scary.” Axe murderers wearing hockey masks, aliens with sharp probes, camel spiders. Defining bravery in the face of those things is pretty easy—punch the murderer, zap the aliens, squish the spider before it eats you and everyone you love. But how can you be brave when facing complete and consuming darkness?

The worst part of being deployed is not what you think.

Were you thinking camel spiders? So was I. (DID YOU SEE IT? IT’S LIKE A CARTOON VILLAIN). According to James, though, it was actually the never-ending days that made it hard to survive. “A normal day would last anywhere between 18 and 24 hours for us. We would start at noon on one day and not end until 3 in the afternoon the next day. One day right before we left Iraq I was up for 54 hours straight.”

We know what fatigue does to the human brain. Lack of sleep can cause impairment similar and just as dangerous as inebriation. But when there is a job to do, like delivering cargo on which lives depend, you are not allowed to be tired. You are not allowed to experience normal biological reactions to your surroundings in a combat zone, which I imagine is more difficult than ducking when a bullet flies by.

PTSD is as hard to gauge as any mental illness.

In Grey’s Anatomy, one of the characters comes back from war and has vivid nightmares of his experiences; he reacts violently toward his girlfriend and becomes a grave and serious man. I assumed this was the diagnostic criteria for PTSD, since the show is about medicine and they must check their facts. James worked with a man whose symptoms were just as terrifying but less predictable:

“Before he left I heard he was a pretty normal guy, maybe somewhat of a goof. Once he was deployed, he experienced something that messed him up somehow. When he came back he was even weirder than normal. He would black out, not remember driving somewhere or how he got somewhere.

One time, the office couldn’t get a hold of him. He had been assigned a bus and was supposed to take people downtown. Apparently he dropped them off and then blacked out. They found the bus in the middle of a bad part of town and he was passed out on the floor of the bus. Another time he was supposed to pick up a general but he never showed up. They found the car he had been assigned abandoned, doors open, keys in the ignition, and him nowhere to be found. A few hours later they found him sleeping on a park bench, in full uniform.

They never told us what was wrong with him, just that he was fine before he deployed and after he came back he had all these blackout spells. He actually got discharged because of it.”

***

It is sometimes pretty damn glamorous being on the arm of a veteran. For example, on our first Valentine’s Day together, James took me to Marcel’s, a French restaurant in downtown DC that always graces the Top Ten lists of dining in the area. He wore just a normal suit, along with his Air Force tie pin. We were seated and soon after engaged in googly-eyes at each other. A few minutes later the sommelier came to us and said “The couple at the table over there would like to buy you a bottle of wine to thank you for your service” and proceeded to deliver us a merlot that far surpassed the 2-buck Chuck I was used to. It was the coolest thing that had happened to me in a long time and I told every person I knew that story.

Other times, it is less glamorous. I dragged James to the National Mall to watch the fireworks on our first Fourth of July together—he had been out of the country for the past few Independence Days and I thought it was unacceptable for a veteran to not witness a celebration that was put on largely thanks to work like his. We spread our blanket out and laid back to look at the sky, and I clapped my hands and squealed as the explosions echoed off of the Washington Monument behind us. I turned to James to see how he was enjoying the show, and his eyes were squeezed shut. He was breathing heavily. He grabbed my hand and clutched it tightly.

It never occurred to me that the fireworks would bother him. When we talked about it later, he explained “It feels like there should be adrenaline running through my body, but there isn’t. I guess it’s some subconscious reaction to getting blown up. I don’t know how to explain it really.” When I asked how I didn’t know that he felt that way earlier, he told me that he puts effort into not letting his experience bother him much, and that he avoids situations that cause him to “freak out.” When I asked if he had flashbacks or dreams, he said “I don’t remember my dreams. If I did I’d probably wake up screaming.”

***

There are plenty of mental health resources available for servicemen. The problem is getting them to use them.

On deployment, the first line resources for struggling airmen were the chaplains. There was a clinic on most of the major bases that you could go to if you “really, really needed a doctor’s help.” Airmen were encouraged to talk to their leaders, and if the leadership saw something that indicated ongoing problems then they could force an airman to seek help.

At home, there is a lot of support. However, while the military is definitely putting in significant efforts to lessen the stigma behind seeking mental health support, there is still an underlying fear that asking for help could destroy your career. As James explains, “If you get command-directed [ordered by your leadership] to seek mental health support, it will go on your record. That could keep you from taking certain assignments, it could keep you from reenlisting or it could get you kicked out.” In an effort to combat that, a new entity has been created that allows airmen to speak with family counselors who don’t put the accounts of their meetings in the airman’s record and it will not impact an airman’s career.

James thinks that people are using the resources more now. The military is campaigning about talking to chaplains and leadership about issues before they become serious problems. They’re trying to make sure that people aren’t afraid to seek help. They’re increasing available resources outside the normal clinic. Recently, a new system of “decompression” has been put in place for airmen returning from deployment where, before returning to the US, the airmen spend three days in Germany going through classes on how to deal with life back home, doing relaxing things like sightseeing, and taking time to adjust before they’re actually back in the mix of family, friends, and all the responsibilities that resume.

At the same time, however, it can be difficult to utilize the resources available when you’re an airman working full-time. “It’s still hard because everything takes time out of your work day,” James says. “Even if you want to go to the counselor, people you work with are going to know where you’re going. It’s hard not to think your coworkers are going to assume that you can’t do your job or that you’re going to go crazy in the middle of work.” In addition, despite all the campaigns to assuage the stigma of mental illness, there is a persistent “macho” attitude that a strong man doesn’t need help.

***

You and your mind don’t belong to yourself—they belong to the military.

There are obvious stressors associated with military service—the physical danger, the long hours, the goddamn camel spiders. But even outside of a combat zone, you are still not quite allowed to be totally human. “Everything within your personal and professional life, every decision you make, every action you do, can have an impact on what you end up doing—or, rather, what they end up doing with you,” James tells me. Cheating on your wife can get you court-martialed and dishonorably discharged. Missing a credit card payment can go on your permanent record. Get a speeding ticket and you can get demoted.

“It’s scary,” James continues, “because you have to watch what you say, how you say it, on and off duty, whether you’re on or off base. If you have a flashback or get jumpy and go off in the middle of a bar while on vacation, that’s still going to come back and impact your career.”

We joke all the time about how James should skip work and come hang out with me instead. He playfully responds “Ok, but they’re going to send the cops after me.” And I shoot back “Well, they can take the issue up with me! You belong to me.” He teases me and says that that’s not entirely true.

James is proud of his service, and so am I. I have his official portrait, him in his dress blues and all his ribbons (he has a lot), framed on my night table. We go months without seeing each other but we Skype every day. I’m happy with him and he makes me feel secure. He’s healthy (except for the loss of hearing in his left ear, which is from driving armored cars in Iraq while grenades explode around him). He’s well-adjusted (except for the crushing anxiety from large crowds or brightly-colored displays of patriotism on the 4th of July). He’s free (except for his body, mind, and soul, which he has signed to the military until 2017).

Mar 11

Brunch for the Unbeautiful People

My boyfriend came up with THE most brilliant idea ever in the history of the universe. It was National Grilled Cheese Day. And I fucking LOVE me some grilled cheese, y’all. So he gets home from work, and I greet him at the door just repeatedly screamed “NATIONAL GRILLED CHEESE DAY NATIONAL GRILLED CHEESE DAY NATIONAL GRILLED CHEESE DAY” and it took several minutes for me to calm down. Unfortunately, we had no bread. James bakes and offered to bake some bread from scratch, but I couldn’t wait that long and I started screaming again so he says “Ok! ok! I’ll figure something out!” James found a package of crescent rolls in the fridge and used them in rectangle form as the bread. It was the best thing I have ever put in my mouth. [full stop]

The point of that story is that it pays to have a package of crescent rolls hangin’ around in your fridge. You can make an awesome brunch casserole with them, and then all you’ll need is champagne and orange juice.

Ingredients

  • 1 package crescent rolls
  • Veggie sausage
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 1/2-2 cups mozzarella cheese
  • 1 roma tomato, diced
  • 1 green pepper, diced
  • Green onion, diced (sense a theme)
  • Salt ‘n’ Pepa, oregano, basil, thyme

Let’s Get It On

  1. Heat the oven to 425. I didn’t even know my oven went that high.
  2. Grease a baking dish and spread out the crescent dough on the bottom. Smush the holes together (that’s what she said.) Sidenote: I recently saw at the grocery store that Pillsbury is selling just sheets of the dough instead of perforated sheets. I’m not quite sure why it took them so long to think of this idea (“Wait a tick, let’s NOT punch holes in our product!) but it’s brilliant. If you can score some of that shit, you won’t have no holes to smush.
  3. Cook the veggie sausage in a pan over medium heat and then chop up into crumbles. Another grocery store opportunity: they do sell sausage crumbles (instead of the whole composed thing). But, I mean, come on. If you’re going THAT far to buy stuff to save you steps, why are you cooking at all?
  4. Spread the sausage crumbles out across the valley of crescent dough. Sprinkle your vegetables and onions across. If you like a kick in your brunch, try some jalapenos. I personally don’t like the feeling of my tongue melting off, just as I don’t like scary movies because, like tongue-melting, fear is not a pleasant emotion and I don’t get people who go out of their way for that shit. But we’re getting off topic.
  5. Sprinkle the cheese across all the vegetables. 
  6. Beat the eggs with the milk and add the spices to the eggs. Rain down the eggs on the helpless village beloooowwww
  7. Bake uncovered for about 12 minutes, or until the edges of the crescent dough are brown. If you don’t have edges poking out, take the pan out and look in the bottom (if it’s clear, obvs) to see if the dough has baked all the way through. Let it cool for a few minutes before serving so the eggs can set.

Happy Endings

Goddammit, now I really want mimosas.

Mar 09

We sell forbidden objects from places men fear to tread… we also sell frozen yogurt, which I call “frogurt”!

I was driving back from tutoring a high school student for the SAT today, and all of a sudden the back windshield flew off of the Impala in front of the car in front of me, whipped into a pole in the divider, and shattered into one trillion pieces, many of which hit my car. I broke my Lenten promise to stop swearing and yelled “HOLY FUCKING SHITNUTS! THAT WAS AWESOME!” I didn’t even know that could HAPPEN, and I did NOT expect it to shatter like that.

The same thing happened when I made this banana and peanut butter ice cream/frogurt. When I put the frozen bananas in the food processor (which, incidentally, makes the lights in my Revolutionary War-era apartment flicker every time I pulse it) I did NOT expect the creamy, incredibly flavorful result. FEAST YOUR EYES, MINIONS.

Ingredients

  • One mature banana
  • 2 tablespoons peanut butter
  • cocoa powder (optional. I didn’t use it, I don’t really like peanut butter and chocolate together. Blasphemy, I know)

Let’s Get It On

  1. Slice le banana. Spread the slices out on a plate and put in the freezer for 2-4 hours.
  2. Drop the frozen slices into a blender or food processor and pulse. Things will get really creamy really fast, and you’ll be all “woahhhh I didn’t know bananas did that!”
  3. Add the peanut butter and cocoa powder if you’re using it. There’s sugar in the peanut butter (and natural sugars in the banana, I suppose. But I don’t count those as real because they don’t fatten you up all nice-like), so you don’t have to add any more.
  4. You can eat this right away, as it will be cold from le frozen bananas. I scooped it all into a bowl and put it back in the freezer for 20 minutes because I like my frogurt a little firmer. Like my men. And my mattresses.

Happy Endings

So this recipe and the last one both used bananas. That’s because every time I get a bunch of bananas, I’m all “Oh yeah I’m gonna eat like 5 bananas a day and be all healthy and stuff” and then I remember that I live next door to a Dunkin Donuts and my bananas turn brown. EVERY TIME. This recipe is way better with the older bananas, since they’re softer and that’s what you’re going for. So when someone comes into your house and sees your browning bananas and starts giving you the stink-eye, tell them “I’m actually ripening those to make homemade ice cream, you hoity toity prick.”

Mar 08

Holy Crap These Pancakes are So Easy, If you Screw them Up then We’re not Friends

Funny story about the coffee mug: When James and I went to Florida for his best friend’s wedding, he left me with his family for 3 days while he went off and did bachelor activities (he swears there were no boobies). The first two days I hung out with his sister on the beach and was all “damn Titusville, you fine!” and then it was the Lord’s Day. Now, I am no stranger to church. Far from it— my family is Catholic, so besides being solemn every single week, we frequently have multi-mass weekends of aerobic services (stand up, sit down, stand, kneel, shake hands, walk to communion, squat and clean 50 kg, kneel, siiiiing!). But I was not prepared for the First Baptist Church of Aurantia. I was there for FOUR HOURS: first we had “band practice” (because this church has like, a full symphony orchestra), then bible study (where the women and men were separated), then two hours of church in which we sang songs that were very catchy and rhymed a lot and had our lyrics projected on two enormous screens on either side of the altar. Afterwards, one of the ladies from the church approached me and gave me this mug, which was filled with coffee samples, sweetner, a CD of religious spoken word, and confetti, all wrapped up in plastic and tied with ribbons. I was like “Ohhhh that’s so nice but… I’m already buds with the J-man…”

Long story short, I drink my coffee out of this mug every single day. This morning, I drank it with these banana pancakes which are literally the easiest and coolest thing ever, not to mention insanely healthy— no carb, no sugar, and only negligible fat if you use butter.

Ingredients

  • One banana
  • Two eggs
  • NOTHING ELSE SERIOUSLY OH MAAAN

Let’s Get It On

  1. Mash the banana in a bowl. Crack the eggs into the bowl and mix together thoroughly.
  2. Spray a griddle or pan with Pam, or grease it slightly with butter (if not a nonstick pan. The butter makes it taste good but really negates that whole “healthy as shit” thing I was just bragging about). Pour a small amount of batter onto the griddle/pan. It’s better to make a bunch of small pancakes than larger ones because there’s no flour to hold them together, so big ones will break easily.
  3. Brown on both sides. If you can flip them all fancy-like, DO THAT. If you’re like me and just end up with a pile of pancakes on the floor and a very angry cat who was just hit in the face with a pancake, probably just use a spatula.
  4. OM NOM NOM

Happy Endings

Because I’m currently a sad lonely cat lady, I just made one batch. one banana and two eggs made six small-medium pancakes. They’re a little thin, again because it’s just bananas and eggs. I suppose you COULD add flour, but oh my GOD how many times do I have to tell you how healthy this can be?! WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS TO ME? This is why I drink.

Mar 05

Fried Vegetables are Still Vegetables and Thus are Healthy

On Saturday we went out to this place that is apparently known for its amazing unique hotdogs. So I’m sitting there, bein’ all vegetarian an whatnot, while all my friends and hangers-on are deep throating the most incredible-smelling hotdogs I have ever encountered. The buns are toasted, the dog is sticking out both sides as it should, and all I can do is just mutter “pig anus…pig anus…pig anus” to myself to stop me from diving across the table and taking that delicious mess out of that Indian guy’s roommate’s girlfriend’s mouth.

Which brings me to this recipe: sometimes even vegetarians need delicious fried goodness. We just take issue with the pig anus. These fritters are totally anus-free.

Ingredients

  • 1 package frozen spinach, thawed and drained
  • 1/2 zucchini, 1/2 yellow squash
  • 1 shallot
  • 2 eggs (apparently they only have brown eggs in Boston? I DON’T UNDERSTAND THIS CITY)
  • Chopped chives
  • Lemon zest or splash of lemon juice
  • Salt ‘n’ Pepa
  • 1 tablespoon butter

Let’s Get It On

  1. Shred the zucchini and squash on a grater. Or flail wildly in the general direction of the vegetables with knives.
  2. Mix the shredded veggies with the spinach. Squeeze out and sop up as much moisture out of the vegetables as possible. If you have flour lying around (as we all do), sprinkle a little over the vegetables to soak up some more moisture.
  3. Add the chopped chives and chopped shallots to the other vegetables. Chop these bitches coarsely. No time for sissy brunoising. Sprinkle all the vegetables with the salt ‘n’ pepa, then push it! Push it real good!
  4. Beat the eggs in a medium-sized bowl along with the lemon zest or juice. Add the veggies to the eggs and mix well.
  5. Melt the butter in a large pan over medium-high heat. Drop rounded tablespoons into the pan and squish down with a spatula. This will make them ka-rispee! Leave the mounds frying there for a while; if you turn them too soon, they’ll fall apart like your future loveless marriage.
  6. If you’re making a large batch, do three at a time; once they’re frittered put them under the broiler for a few minutes while you fritter the next batch. 

Happy Endings

Hey, remember that time a few weeks ago when I taught you to make tzatziki? These go great with those. And there’s no cheese in them, MISS SARAH.