Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a condition that many soldiers suffer from after serving in a war. We don’t often heard about the children of those soldiers suffering from the same condition. However, growing up with a parent battling flashbacks, rages, suicidal tendencies, and other trappings of PTSD can sometimes cause kids to develop their own symptoms.
Such was the case for Christal Presley, author ofThirty Days with My Father: Finding Peace from Wartime PTSD. Presley’s book chronicles the 30 days in 2009 that she spent talking with her father in an attempt to heal and recover their relationship, years after her grueling childhood. Her memoir gives not only a detailed account of the ripple effects of PTSD on children, but also an inside look at the recovery of a father and grown daughter.
Delmer Presley served during the Vietnam War and returned home a changed man. Riddled with nightmares, flashbacks, and suicidal thoughts, he was often an unpredictable father. Christal Presley writes that bad memories of her father’s outbursts taint her thoughts of childhood. She has many memories of her father grabbing his gun and leaving the house. Presley describes the upsetting experience: “A man on a mission, his rifle cradled against his chest like an infant and his pupils so dilated you could hardly see the whites of his eyes, he would march back through the house and out the door, but not before uttering a single sentence: ‘I’m going to the river to kill myself.’”
The author’s mother was of little comfort to her. She would tell Presley that if she prayed and was good, god would help them. Over time, Presley began to resent her mother and build up a hatred toward her father. No one outside of their family knew what was going on, though—Presley became very skilled at acting happy and putting a smile on her face, especially when they were at church. But her father’s behavior was damaging.
Presley left home at 18, and spoke to her father very infrequently over the following 13 years. Then, in 2009, while Presley was at a writing workshop, a speaker asked, “What if you wrote about the thing you fear most?” After Presley had struggled with her own happiness for years, never quite dealing with her childhood or father, she thought that perhaps getting to know her dad and learning more about his experience in the war would help her. And she decides to embark on a 30-day, therapeutic conversation.
Toward the beginning of the book, Presley conveys her strong apprehension and anxiety. On the first day of what is supposed to be the 30-day period, her father retracts his agreement to participate in the project. Presley hangs up on him. This is not likely the way she wanted to start the process.
In day seven, Presley has an interesting revelation during a conversation with her therapist. She says that she is conducting the project to get to know her father, and her therapist responds, “There are many ways to get to know a person. And many ways to forgive him.” Although Presley thought she had already forgiven her father, she writes, she begins to question whether she truly had.
Over the course of the 30 days, happier memories begin to break through the surface as Presley and her father trudge along together. They begin to realize how many things they have in common, aside from both experiencing PTSD. For instance, Delmer relates to his daughter that his guitar is his main therapeutic tool. Playing the instrument calms his nerves, makes him feel at peace, and makes him feel good about himself, he tells her. Presley’s tool, meanwhile, is her writing, which makes her feel the same things that her father feels when he plays guitar.
On the last day of the project, the author returns to her parents’ home for Christmas. Rather than being struck with flashbacks as she was accustomed to, she recalls a memory from when she was five: being in a school play and running and leaping into her father’s arms at the end. She recalls how happy she was and how proud she was that he was her dad. “There was a time before, a time I thought I’d lost,” she writes. “It’s coming back.”
Presley has a wonderful written voice. She is articulate, emotional without being overly dramatic, and insightful. She weaves her story with such clarity that it is easy to get lost in her rhythm and words. I found myself wanting to cheer for her and her father as their relationship progressed. She also shares stories of talking with veterans at VA hospitals, which are at times both heartwarming and heartbreaking. They carry a strong message, too: that veterans continue to need support. As for Presley’s own journey, I wish only that she had continued the story a bit longer, just so I could know how her relationship with her father is today.
Thirty Days With My Father: Finding Peace from Wartime PTSD
Health Communications, Inc., November, 2012
Paperback, 264 pages