How To Answer That Awful Question, ‘Do You Have PTSD?’

“Oh, you’re a veteran, huh? Do you have PTSD?”

This question, asked often but most recently slurred from the mouth of a 37-year-old man in a bar attending a mutual friend’s birthday, triggered an involuntary eye roll. I took another sip of rum and gave a tight-lipped smile.

“You’re single, huh?” I asked. “Do you have herpes?”

He stammered, “What the hell kind of question is that?”

“I’m sorry, I thought I was clear — it means that asking very personal medical questions of strangers is rude. You aren’t my friend; in fact, I don’t know you at all. I’m certainly not going to talk to you about things I don’t even like discussing with my mother.”

His question, while idiotic, wasn’t too hard to rationalize. In his mind, every veteran has PTSD. What he didn’t understand is most of us don’t want to be defined by the condition or any other, and we certainly don’t need to discuss that condition within three minutes of sitting next to someone making idle conversation.

Related: 8 common myths about PTSD debunked »

Here’s the rundown, as I broke it down to him: Yes, I do have PTSD. It came along with my Purple Heart, free of charge. Yes, many military personnel return home from a deployment or even from service transition with adjustment or other anxiety and stress issues, and some with straight-up PTSD. It’s the nature of the business. But, we don’t all have it, and if you want to understand it, don’t just ask a stranger in a bar if they fit your stereotype. Learn instead about who a veteran is, about what resources we have available to us, so you can have an intelligent conversation about the concepts and issues and not just someone’s medical history. Empower the veterans you meet by treating them as humans instead of asking a question that is so loaded with assumption and judgment it makes my hands itch.

In that bar, my palms were actually itching. It’d been three years since I left the Army after my decade of worldly travels, and I fielded this question more often than any other. I think as soon as people realized how annoying it was to get asked, “Did you kill anyone?” they switched to the backup question, PTSD.

I couldn’t blame this drunk guy in the bar, of course; I was one of the first veterans he’d met in his life. What does he see, after all? 22 pushups, complete with hashtags, all over social media. News reports of congressional bills examining veteran suicide. Veterans bringing guns onto bases and into homes, polluting newspapers with tragic headlines.

What he didn’t see was the Kaiser Family Foundation-Washington Post poll about how 85% of post-9/11 veterans polled feel positive about their mental health condition, even though over 50% know someone struggling with or losing to suicide. He doesn’t hear how 22 isn’t an accurate number, or about how many of the suicides are from older generations, or how many of those are also homeless or have been sick for years without treatment.

So he does what the same people who believed everyone in Vietnam was a babykiller did years ago — he assumed all veterans fit into the damaged category. Asking about PTSD was more of a statement of category than a question, so it wasn’t personal.

This behavior reminds me of something my 2-year-old nephew does. He’s learning to categorize, too. He thinks every large, red vehicle is a fire truck and shouts “fie, tuck!” every time a red pickup rolls past.

Now in my wisdom, I know that a truck is either a fire truck or it is not. You can throw some water in the back and a ladder on top, but you may not make it a fire truck, even though both are red and have a truck frame. But with gentle correction, he is learning what a fire truck looks like, and he can categorize it and move on to shouting at ambulances. We as humans categorize because it makes our brains work faster, learning from an early age how to identify things with similar properties as the same and make distinctions for others. We did it to form packs we could trust as we evolved, and some things never change.

So what was my new drunk friend doing? He was sorting. He needed to figure out to what category I belonged so he could quickly determine if he could trust me. Only he was shouting, “Fife, duck!” because he has yet to learn that not all trucks are fire trucks and not all veterans are veterans with PTSD. No one taught him otherwise; everyone was all too busy shouting “22” and “save us” to shout “empowerment” and “mental rehabilitation.”

And I couldn’t be too angry anyway. After all, even my fellow veterans categorize. Some of my brothers and sisters have trouble rationalizing my combat experiences with their perceptions of women in the military, asking if I got a paper cut to receive my combat awards. Worse yet, someone struggling to understand how I could have a VA disability rating for PTSD once asked me if I was raped. We categorize each other between grunts and POGs, Special Forces and infantry, soldiers and Marines. We are so busy sorting and excluding and defining our groups, we sometimes forget that we are all veterans, just like all fire trucks and pickups are still trucks.

And those of us with PTSD can, with help, throw off the weight and make our designation just “veteran.” We aren’t PTSD victims, we are veterans. Imagine if all people did that, able to realize we aren’t even veterans or civilians, but Americans; or even just remember we are all humans. The military would be put out of a job, but it would be nice.

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