The Stress of Life, written by Hans Selye, was required reading in graduate school for me. This text book is what caused me to become interested in the field of stress, aside from the fact that my mother used my head as a pugilist’s speed bag when I was eight years old but, that’s for another time.
In my doctoral program I continued my interest in stress and my doctoral thesis became titled, The Fear-of-Bodily-Injury And The Locus-of-Control: An Analogue Study, in which I stressed thirty undergraduate Reserved Officers Training Corps (ROTC) students so badly, I had to first have my study cleared by the Human Subjects Committee prior to my collecting the research data for my dissertation.
I showed each one of these subjects color slides I had acquired from forensic dentists who took color photos of victims of plane crashes, particularly pilots who had their faces ripped open by their “joystick”, the control column they used to steer their aircraft. These slide images were so gruesome they made almost anyone feel the need to throw up. After all, I couldn’t create real life trauma in these students. They would’ve been damaged forever just as veterans were when they came back from World War I and II, the Korean War, as well as the most unpopular Vietnam War when soldiers returned home in the late 60s to early 70s.
Instead, I had to inflict in my male cadets an attenuated, but still traumatic stress reaction, so they wouldn’t be harmed forever. The thirty cadets in my control group were simply shown photos of my wife and small son walking along the beach.
For my doctoral thesis I had to initially decide what I wanted to do my research on and because of my mother’s abuse and having been required to read Hans Selye, I thought I’d do my research on something stress-related. I had to write a proposal and this was the first three chapters of my dissertation.
The first chapter was a discussion or exploration on the subject of post-traumatic stress or, why the topic was important enough to warrant anyone’s scholarly attention. The second chapter was as much history of post-traumatic stress as I could muster from all past research on the topic and, terms used in earlier wars, such as, “shell shock” and “combat fatigue,” in twenty to thirty pages.
The third and last chapter of my proposal was my research design or, how I was going to carry out my research or, its methodology, and what I was going to do to my research subjects to induce and measure attenuated trauma or stress in them without destroying their mental health permanently like combat did to our real life veterans.
After I randomly selected, randomly assigned, scheduled, tested, as well as stress my vulnerable cadets, I had to analyze all my data by using a multi-linear regression equation to factor analyze the variables pertinent to my proposal. And, this is what I hypothesized; that anyone with a high fear of bodily injury and an external locus, or location of control, such as Christians, as opposed to those with a low fear of bodily injury and a more internal locus of control, such as Special Forces, would more likely develop post-traumatic stress reactions. (This is by no means an indictment against either Christians or members of the Special Forces).
So, my hope was to provide the military with psychological tests to determine who could be sent into combat and, who shouldn’t be. And, when subsequent researchers might further study traumatic stress and, if it could possibly prevent future military personnel from being traumatized in future wars, then this would be a productive endeavor.
Now, back to my mother. When I was eight, I lived with her in the housing projects of East Tampa. My father was never around because he and my mother never got along and they had a long history of fighting. So, my mother hated my father and when I was born my maternal grandmother gave me my father’s first name. He wasn’t there anyway.
Shortly after my eighth birthday he came for a visit and they got into another argument while I was sitting in the back seat of his old ’43 Ford coupe. I begged them to stop and my mother spun around and slapped me so hard I fell backward and it left a giant red mark on my cheek. I cried out but, she only jumped out of the vehicle to rush into our cheap, dirty little apartment where we had lived for almost two years.
My dad takes me back to Georgia to stay with him and his older sister, Martha, who was a rather obese and uneducated woman much like my mother. Long story short, the arrangement doesn’t last long with my father’s drinking and, he ultimately leaves me on the side of a deserted rural, highway in south Georgia at the tender age of eight.
From there, a kind and slightly-gruff but, affable Scottish Greyhound bus driver spots me on the side of the road sitting on my green metal suitcase with me hoping that my father was coming back for me but, he doesn’t. Somehow though, the anonymous bus driver manages to get me back to my mother’s home in East Tampa where he drops me off and she slams the door in my face without saying a word to me.
I wander from her home, scared, and not sure where I was going to sleep or eat but, I keep going until I come to a rugged Cuban neighborhood called Ybor City which had been annexed by the city of Tampa many years before.
I live on the streets for about five months, sleeping in a Dempsey dumpster and panhandling, begging for spare change from strangers. I also, sneak into the old Ritz Theater, still there by the way, which is how I found my escape from reality and my love for the movies. Once inside, I eat hot dogs off the floor because I’m so hungry I could eat the hair off of a dog.
Seems someone spots me roaming the streets and calls the Department of Family and Children Services (DFCS) so, a social worker, Antonio Alvarez, eventually finds me and asks me if I’d like to have a place to live and, with my eager and affirmative response, he places me in an orphanage called The Children’s Home on North Florida Avenue. All those years of abuse and neglect left me with horrible nightmares, exaggerated startle responses along with flashbacks during my early years that I naively didn’t think about until I am in my forties. Not sure how that would’ve escaped my attention after my doctoral research and my post-doctoral treatment of veterans and accident victims in my practice but, I guess we can’t all be objective about ourselves, can we?
Following my living in the orphanage for nine years, I graduate high school and go off to college in Tallahassee, Florida. My high school sweetheart moves to Gainesville to attend the University of Florida while I study music education at Florida State University and join the karate team where I excel in the martial arts. However, she comes to visit me because I have to wait tables to make ends meet and to watch me train for and compete in intercollegiate competitions.
We take turns visiting each other for two years but, she ultimately meets another guy who also attends college in Gainesville which is more convenient for them but, devastating to me so, I fall into a major crisis. Being alone and terrified of losing the only family I ever had, I foolishly seek help at the local student counseling center on campus but, as a substitute to assigning me to a counselor to talk me through my crisis, they assign me to see an elderly retired psychiatrist who only gives me his samples of mind-altering drugs, which makes me even more “psychotic” than I already feel in my horrified state of mind from losing the love of my life.
Stupidly, in my dazed, drugged state I decide to purchase a gun to kill myself but, unfortunately and tragically, I travel to her family’s home in East Tampa by, ironically, a Greyhound bus and, when I get there its 2 a.m on Christmas eve or, early Christmas morning. I look for and find a key to get in through the kitchen that was kept under a doormat that we used in high school when we were late getting back from a date.
I slowly and groggily stumble down the hallway to her room which is on my right and her parents sleep in the room across from hers. I enter her very dark bedroom and stumble, sitting down on her bed. This awakens her with a start and she lets out a soft yelp which awakens her father.
He rushes into the dark room not realizing it’s me so, he heroically grabs me and we begin to struggle. I use my martial arts training to throw him off me, not wanting to hurt anyone but myself and, when I do, I find myself sitting on the bed again. I feel a metal object, the gun which had fallen out of my waist belt, beneath my left hand. I jump up and her father leaps upon me again, still not realizing who I am.
I try to run but, he’s all over me and I hear the gun go off and, see a flash of light during our struggle but, it’s too dark to know where the shot lands. I continue down the hall and I’m ultimately able to shuck him off my back and when I get to the Florida room I realize that I came in the side door to the kitchen. When I realize my error I turn back towards the kitchen but, he’s still barreling down on me, the intruder, heroically fighting for the life of his family.
I love this man, this very kind man who sat with me for coffee in this very same Florida room, this loving man who always called me “young man.” I am in agony and I feel the panic of the moment. In my stupor, I shoot him in the upper-right shoulder and then, in his outer thigh to avoid hurting him in spite of my crazed, drugged mind-set and him trying to protect his home and family.
After getting away from this hero-of-a-man and dashing out the door I came in earlier, I continue to stumble out onto the streets to only pass out a few blocks away. The next day, I wake up on a “friend’s” couch in Orlando, not sure how I got there. A few days after that, a knock comes at the door and my “friend” answers it. He comes back and says, “these two men in suits are asking for you.” So, I go to the door and I’m promptly arrested and flown back to Tampa to stand trial for attempted murder, or “assault with intent to kill”. Again, to make a long story short, I plea guilty, because I am, and I feel so badly about what I thought was a bad nightmare, I am sentenced to fifteen years in prison. However, I didn’t spend much time in jail because I’m transferred to a state prison on the panhandle of Florida where I’m approached after a few months of working in the prison’s business office by a balding, slightly blond prison guard.
That day, a good man, Sgt. David McCord, comes to asks me if I’d like to be on the canine squad due to the length of my sentence and my good behavior. So, I become a “dog boy,” a trustee, who tracks down and captures escaped prisoners who sometimes shoot at me because they’re dangerous and desperate to get away. After two years of doing this, I’m granted early parole, released back to Florida State University to complete my education where I change my major from music education to psychology.
While graduating, triumphantly walking across the stage, I see a number of people in the crowd who have helped me along the way. I later go on to graduate school from Georgia State University and then a few weeks after that begin my doctoral training at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg.
Following the earning of my doctorate, I continue helping others to avoid the mistakes my high school sweetheart and I made in our youth, and in 1993, Florida Governor Lawton Chiles grants me a full pardon, which brings me back to my original premise about what stress in your childhood can do to you, especially if you are abused, neglected and your head is used as a pugilistic speed bag.
I become a fairly effective doctor, a good father and husband for many years and I thank God every day for the opportunities I would never have had if people hadn’t believed in me, helping me along the way like, Antonio Alvarez, the social worker, the wonderful prison guard, Sgt. David McCord, the anonymous Greyhound bus driver and the orphanage as well as the Governor who believed in me.
In thirty-two years of clinical practice, I never once referred anyone to a psychiatrist for medication.
Because, in these times of gun violence and mental illness, “this is a story that needs to be told,” Angelo Pizzo (Rudy, Hoosiers) said to me in an email back in 2010 after reading an article in the Indianapolis Star News, “Noah Rode Out Storm To Thrive” (November 27, 1998). He had his protegê initially write the screenplay but, it didn’t work out because he was too young, too inexperienced and, messed up the script.
Now, I’m going to thank all of you for reading this.
You can reach Dr. Kersey via his email, [email protected]