SHREVEPORT, La. (KTAL/KMSS) – A Shreveport Army veteran who lives with the remnants of physical and emotional abuse as a child and racism as an enlisted soldier shared his journey to understanding and taking control of his mental health.
Everett Smith was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), major depression, and anxiety in 2016. He says a mental health provider at the Veterans Administration provided him with a report as thick as a small book chronicling Smith’s underlying and unaddressed mental illness and the potential root causes.
Born in Shreveport, Smith spent much of his youth in Los Angeles, California where he says his mother and stepfather, who was a pastor, were strict and used corporal punishment to keep him in line. Smith says the harsh treatment he received as a child made him fearful, withdrawn, and angry.
“Mothers can bare children, but that doesn’t make them a mother. She would protect me from other people who may want to harm me, but she also abused me,” Smith said.
Smith didn’t know it then but his fear, withdrawal, and anger were early signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a disorder that many think of as something war veterans or first responders suffer from.
At 17 years old Smith convinced his mother to sign a parental consent form allowing him to enlist in the United States Army.
“I joined the Army because I wanted to get away from them (mom and stepdad). I had no idea that I was trading one heavy hand for another.”
Smith recalls the difficult time he had adjusting to basic training. On a call, he told his stepfather that he could not finish training and wanted to come home. A request he now says he is grateful his stepfather was unable to fulfill because his time in the military made him grow into manhood quickly.
He says racism was rampant among the ranks and coming from California he was not accustomed to being called “boy” or the “n” word, both words he heard frequently during his military service.
Smith says he was reprimanded through Article 15 several times for addressing blatant racism and disrespect.
His time in the Army was short-lived and left him with negative feelings about his service time.
When he ended his enlistment, Smith returned to Los Angeles he had been married since he was 17. The marriage ended not long after he returned from overseas duty. He left after learning his wife had been unfaithful and left the home. He said he would rather live in the car than return home, and he did off and on for several years.
Smith’s bouts with homelessness lasted off and on for 16 years. He says his time spent living transiently was mostly caused by undiagnosed mental illnesses. His mental health issues caused problems in each of his three marriages and with his children.
As a father, Smith says he was often short-tempered with his children and yelled at them frequently. Actions he adopted from his own childhood.
Before he was diagnosed with multiple mental health disorders Smith says he was always angry. He says that a friend once told him that his fuse was so short and was easily provoked. Before then Smith says he believed that anger was “just a part of who I was”.
Smith injured his shoulder and decided to go to the Veterans Administration Hospital in Los Angeles rather than the county hospital where he would have had to pay. Before the injury, Smith says he avoided the VA.
That visit in 2016 is what led to Smith’s mental health evaluation and subsequent diagnosis. During the course of treatment Smith has been on medications to treat his mental illness. Smith says he fell several times because the medication made him feel like a zombie.
“The meds were more of a hindrance than a help, so I don’t take them,” Smith said.
Smith is a regular at the Shreveport Vet Center. A place where retired, reserve troops, active duty military, and their family members can seek help in the form of group and individual therapy sessions. He and others served by the Vet Center have found community there. A place where people who have similar backstories can share without shame or lack of understanding.
He no longer blows up when he feels the up-and-down sway of major depression. He no longer overthinks when his anxiety starts to build. And when a PTSD trigger is struck – he no longer goes into survival mode.
“I go to Walmart, the Boardwalk, or the casino. I’ve learned that hearing people speak, their accents make me laugh – I guess the sounds of these people diffuse my issues in some way,” Smith said.
The process of healing his mind has not been easy. Some of the relationships that were badly damaged through years of Smith’s internal suffering were not salvaged through his personal healing.
“I’ve apologized to my kids for the type of parent that I was. I knew something was wrong with me then but I just didn’t know what.”
Smith has a love for music which he says started when he taught himself to play the organ by ear in his youth. While stationed in Germany, he took on the DJ booth and found a home away from home. Now he produces beats, plays multiple instruments, and arranges music for his company Swang 2 Records.
Smith says he finds peace making music and getting people on the dance floor, and in those times his anxiety and PTSD are at bay.
“Giving people joy – it’s different. I’m a performer,” Smith said.