Her father’s despair seeped into every waking moment, poisoning the family. By age 5, Christal Presley routinely barricaded her dresser against her bedroom door. He could go from fetal position to fury. “I’m going to the river, and I won’t be back!” he would yell, grabbing a gun.
“For the first two years of that, I was especially traumatized, and I was afraid he was not coming back,” Presley, now 35, said of her father, who threatened to kill himself twice a week. “As a young teenager, I used to pray that he would just do it. When you grow up with that, you’re faced with that fight-or-flight feeling every single day.”
It would be years before the source of her terror had a name: PTSD. And it was hers — for having grown up subjected to her Vietnam vet father’s post-traumatic stress disorder. Presley thought, “That’s crazy, how can I have symptoms of a war I never fought in?”
Upon turning 18, she fled for Virginia Tech, and for the next 13 years she did not talk to her father. Years of therapy later, and by then an instructor in the Atlanta public schools, Presley “got this idea I called ‘The 30 Day Project.’ And my Mom was so excited, because finally [he and I] were going to talk.”
Presley began a half-hour daily call with her dad, pressing him to share his Vietnam experience, a form of talk therapy now published in Thirty Days With My Father: Finding Peace With Wartime PTSD. Along the way, she sought help for herself by creating a website called United Children of Veterans, which offers resources for children of veterans with PTSD. At first, when word of the site seemed to spread virally, Presley said she found the thousands of e-mails from veterans or their children overwhelming. But it’s grown into a connection of solace and friendship. She has traveled with a group of veterans to Vietnam, and they visited what is now a memorial to victims of the March 1968 My Lai massacre.
Delmer Presley was at the South Vietnamese village, an Army infantryman drafted at age 18, and on the front lines by 19. Delmer had been a happy laid-back youth, his parents told Presley. In combat, he was barely older than the students Presley works with. Like others in his hometown farming and mining community, he had only twice ventured farther than the county line. “Now he was in a foreign place, in a war that he didn’t understand,” his daughter said. He was not involved in the infamous My Lai attack, but his unit was assigned to count the bodies of the victims: 300 apparently unarmed civilians including women and children. Like so many war veterans, Delmer Presley witnessed unspeakable things.
He returned to small town Honaker, Virginia, and, after a few months of dating, married Judy. In 1978, they had a daughter they named Christal, who would be their only child. Presley recalls being in kindergarten when her father snapped. He was on the road to work when he came upon his co-worker and best friend in the world, dead in his truck.
“He stayed locked in his room after that. He was mostly lying on his bed, in a fetal position,” recalled Presley, “and when he came out of his room, he was very easily agitated; if a truck backfired down the road, or a plate or glass broke, he would fall down on the floor in war mode. Sometimes he came after me, and he never hurt me. I just was never sure what he’d do next.”
Presley buried her emotions in high school. When friends would share where their families had vacationed or their holiday traditions, she initially she made up stories of a happy home life. Then she stopped talking to her classmates.
“In our community, you prayed to God for help,” Presley said, “and if nothing changed, you weren’t deserving. You were obviously not a good person.”
It was 11 years ago this month that the U.S. sent troops to war in Iraq and Afghanistan. While the stories of veterans struggling with PTSD are well-documented, little is known about their children’s battles with the same affliction.
As many as 5 million kids are estimated to have had a parent or sibling serve in Iraq or Afghanistan since 9/11, CBS correspondent Martha Teichner reported.
Ron Avi Astor, professor of social work at the University of Southern California, told Teichner: “The vast majority of the kids and families … about 70 percent or more, depending on the issue you’re looking at, are doing fine.”
The other 30 percent — up to a million-and-a half kids — are doing quite poorly, said Astor, who told Teichner that he studied 30,000 high school students in eight California school districts. Particularly troubling: Astor found one in four military kids is likely to consider suicide.
The Veterans Administration is doing little to help these children of veterans, Astor said.
The VA spent almost $500 million in 2013 for PTSD treatments for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. But their family members may receive counseling only “if determined to be essential to the effective treatment and readjustment of the veteran,” the VA told CBS.
They are, like Presley was, largely on their own.
By college, Presley knew how to function in a fight-or-flight state, but not in ordinary social dealings of university life. She coped with things in her dad’s fashion: isolating herself, disconnecting from people, unable to sleep, rages, spending most of her time with her dog. Campus counselors prescribed medicine for depression that made her sleepy, or agitated, but she rarely saw one student therapist long enough to feel trust.
It got better when she changed her major from animal studies to English — she found her place in writing and literature when the stress of keeping up with the science curriculum took too great a toll — but the darkness lurked. She got married and that failed. She wanted to write but assumed “nobody would want to read about the life of poor people who never went anywhere and just lived in a trailer park.” She traveled to India to have experiences to write about. But the narrative of her life was stalled before she was diagnosed with PTSD.
That Christal Presley’s story went unheard so long — that a succession of counselors did not recognize the nature of her psychic wounds — is not at all surprising, said Dr. Christine A. Courtois, a Washington, D.C., -based psychologist and national clinical trauma consultant for Elements Behavioral Health. Her story “is very familiar. [Generational PTSD] was not recognized enough at that time,” Courtois said.
Through the years, Judy Presley hung in there, never knowing a name for her husband’s state, Christal said. Her mother told her any attempt at help would prompt doctors to institutionalize him. Besides, the nearest therapist was 70 miles away, she added, incredulous that her mother, now 60, had endured her father’s mental illness.
“We were the bearers and the sharers of a secret that only we knew: that my father had PTSD so severely,” Presley said in an e-mail. “As a young adult — and onward — I grew resentful of her because I thought she should have protected me more. I never understood her situation either, just as I never understood my father’s, until very recently. She hasn’t been diagnosed with PTSD because she’s never seen a therapist, psychiatrist, or any other mental health professional in her life. But I’m certain she has it.”
Ultimately, medical ailments drove Delmer to the VA, and even when he was finally diagnosed with PTSD, he didn’t find medication helpful and abandoned it.
He learned to play guitar and music proved powerful therapy for him. Word of his skill spread, Presley brags, and he began performing at local churches and events. He recorded two CDs and at least one song about Vietnam. That song was featured, along with the Presleys, in a lengthy CBS News segment about PTSD timed for the March 16 anniversary of the Iraq War. Thirty Days With My Father was mentioned.
Christal Presley believes the daily conversations brought healing and peace for herself and for her father. Their first day of talking ended abruptly with him hanging up. But Christal persisted. That her father thought the book was very good marked its most important review. Others say her best-selling work opened up a conversation internationally for second-generation sufferers of PTSD. A few glowing reviews:
“A harrowing portrait of the past’s ability to haunt the present … Presley has found stability in her father’s story, and her willingness to share it — as well as her own revelations — will be appreciated by readers who deal with any form of wartime PTSD.”
Thirty Days with My Father is an important addition to the literature of trauma psychology, shining a beacon of hope for transformation and healing.”
—From the foreword by Edward Tick, PhD, author of War and the Soul and founding co-director of Soldier’s Heart.
Presley blogs regularly on United Children of Veterans. “I believe stories can change the world. I always have and I always will,” she wrote. “Stories have the power to help us face our truths, to make us better understand each other, and to teach us the morality by which to live…. I wrote my book to share with you a different kind of war story — a story to make you feel something deep within your stomach because I need you to truly believe how the invisible wounds of war can go on and on, and how there can be peace and healing. I’m asking you to take a journey with me — a journey through a thick forest of family secrets, war trauma, and stigmas — a forest where everything’s really quiet, except for a sound that’s been impossible to hear until now: The sound of a little girl named Christal who is still trying to save herself with a story.”
Epigenetics of PTSD
Presley said she learned only three years ago about epigenetics and PTSD — a relatively new area of study that says a severe stressful event can produce an alteration in genetic information that is passed on to one’s children. But she had already decided that certain indelible PTSD characteristics left her ill-equipped to be a mother. The trait of hyper-vigilance “makes me a really good teacher, because I’m aware of everything going on with my students, as soon as they walk in the room,” Presley said. “But I decided that I just don’t think I could cope with [having] children. I love kids, I teach kids so I get my kid fix through that. And then I go home. I don’t think I’d be a good parent. I can be incredibly disconnected, and I need a lot of alone time to refuel myself.”
Bringing great joy to her life now is the family bonding for which she grew up longing. She talks “all the time” with her mother and her dad, who is now 64. He sells her books — and his own music CDs — from the trunk of his car, Presley said. He told CBS News that it was important to him that Christal knew he had always loved her.
When she went home at Christmas, though, her father had some bad moments, with the over-stimulation that comes with the holidays: numerous people, crowds, noise, music, children laughing and screaming. “He had episodes where he was just mean, but you know, it was short-lived and it went away, and we know now it was my dad’s illness, not my dad, and why he locked himself away in the first place. He could feel the mean coming on.
“But” she added brightly, “we’re much closer than we were, for sure.”