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Teacher shares memories of father's post-traumatic stress
Christal Presley
Presley

"Thirty Days with My Father: Finding Peace from Wartime PTSD" can be bought on Amazon.com.

Christal Presley thought she had found happiness, including life in Atlanta and her career as a middle school educator.

But she came to wonder “what’s wrong with me? I should be happier somehow,” she told an audience Thursday at the University of North Georgia’s Gainesville campus.

“I was still dealing with waves of depression and anxiety,” she said. “This doesn’t make sense for somebody who had the life that I had — that is what I kept telling myself.”

Turns out she still was struggling to overcome childhood experiences in her rural Virginia home, where her father suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, the result of his military service in the Vietnam War.

“Through writing and more therapy and deeper reflection, I realized that I probably should reach out to my father, someway, somehow,” said Presley, 35. 

Presley, who has written a book about her experiences, “Thirty Days with My Father: Finding Peace from Wartime PTSD,” shared her ordeal as part of UNG’s Visiting Author Series.

She opened by reading the book’s prologue, which describes a fantasy of early life in which she describes a pleasure-filled trip to the beach. The day ends with her father rubbing aloe on her burned shoulders, kissing her forehead and tucking her into bed.

“In my dreams, my family is whole,” Presley said, reading from her book. “In my dreams, there was no war.”

In reality, her family life was much darker.

Her father arrived home from war and threw himself into his job as a welder on mining equipment. He soon married, then he and his wife had Christal, their only child.

At first, he “was completely silent,” Presley said. “He tried to assimilate in total silence, without talking to anyone about what happened (in Vietnam).”

Even at 5 years old, Presley noticed something odd about her father.

“He would lock himself in his room a lot,” she said. “He was not able to participate in family functions.”

He did that “because he knew he could be unpredictable,” she added. “He was trying to protect me and my mother, but back then ... I thought he simply hated me.”

As a teenager, she resented her father. When she graduated from high school, “I literally ran to college and never looked back.”

But she found life difficult not having to live “in survival mode,” Presley said.

She worked through her struggles by undergoing psychotherapy, taking part in yoga and meditation, and through reading and writing.

To repair the relationship with her father, she developed a “project” in which she called him on the phone for 30 days to ask questions about the war and “who in the world he was.”

“I didn’t really know who I was because I didn’t really know who he was,” Presley said.

Then came the breakthrough: He agreed to the conversations.

“My dad and I had these intense and very amazing 30 days of conversations, which became the book,” she said. “And I’m happy to say I came to view my dad as somebody who was just like me.

“And I realized I was just like him in a lot of ways.”

Their relationship budded.

“By the end of the book, my dad is calling me his buddy, his pal, which really took some getting used to,” Presley said. “He is currently selling the book out of the trunk of his car.”

She later went to Vietnam, where, with a guide, she retraced her father’s wartime steps.

Her journey took her to the ruins of a helicopter landing zone.

“I found myself walking across a thin slab of asphalt and looking at the tank tracks embedded within them, and it was the most profound experience of my life,” Presley said.

Presley also spoke Wednesday at UNG’s campus in Dahlonega.

Austin Riede, co-chairman of the university’s Visiting Authors committee, has said that with UNG being a senior military college, PTSD is “something that is affecting many of our students.”

“We think (Presley’s book is) a very important story,” Riede said.

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