Archive for June, 2012

How do you talk about war?

For war survivors and loving families, knowing what to say or how to say it can be overwhelming. Do you talk about the war? Do you ask what it was like? Isn’t it best if the vet shares all that stuff with you? Or should you just leave it alone?

Survivors wonder, too. They balk at the idea of talking about gruesome experiences. They live with the images in their mind and dreams constantly; putting it into words just relives it. And then there is the fear of breaking the precious innocence that loved ones have intact. Survivors wonder: Will people still love me if they know what I know? Will they still love me if they knew what I had to do to survive or achieve my mission? Would they still love me if they saw the dark side of me that I saw? Would they want me sitting at the dinner table if they knew the stuff crawling through my mind?

Much of war gets trampled underneath when a soldier comes home. The initial homecoming period wears off, spouses and partners become casual again, the energy of the home moves back to daily routines, paying bills, and social demands. Survivors who may feel like talking often remain silent, not wanting to disrupt things, and afraid of how loved ones will respond. They may just want to ‘put things behind them.’ Spouses feel uncertain of what to say, how much to say, or even if they really want to know. Survivors soon get trapped in a cocoon of isolation that is both comforting and extremely lonely.

Should you talk about the war?

Yes.

Why? Because sharing pain, guilt, loss, fear, uncertainty, and what it was like breaks the isolation survivor’s live in and lets others in to support healing. War isn’t meant to be carried alone.

How do you talk about war?

There is no easy way. And there are no rules. What I have found is that war is so big and so deep and experienced so intimately that only when we have a profound respect for a survivor’s pain, can we give them the kind of open acceptance that fosters sharing.

That means the pain has to be sacred ground. Not a space to be trampled on, dragged out, or examined under a microscope. Not a place for merely the curious. A survivor’s war is sacred ground. The naked ground where life and death have been faced, met, and known. The survivor is the only one who has the right to touch that ground.

Survivors need to believe they are safe and accepted to invite you into their war-ground. And you need a reason to be there. If genuine compassion and support aren’t your motivating factors, then you have no reason to ask and no right to hear it. Imagine for a moment, the most embarrassing, painful, or humiliating experience you’ve ever had. Something you wouldn’t want anyone you love to know. Now imagine sharing it with your spouse who was not there, didn’t know you then, and has no way of knowing all the little details that surrounded the experience. Imagine talking about this openly. Who would you trust? The people closest to us are the ones we are most afraid to share our secrets with. Why? Because it involves the most risk. Can you see then why a spouse may be the hardest person for a survivor to share an experience with? What loved ones think matters most. Your opinion outweighs everything else. You have the ability to reject him or her and risking that rejection may not be worth it. They’d rather suffer in silence. (Another reason survivors turn to war buddies. There’s no fear of rejection.)

Survivors wonder who to trust. How do you know who really is supportive of you, who can handle it, how do you know if they will still accept you once they know how things really were?

Look for someone who has some familiarity with war, death, and suffering. Someone who knows how to listen. Consider the person’s motivation. Why do they want to listen to you? Have they offered? What would they be able to do with the information? How would knowing about your pain change your relationship with them? Have they been supportive of you in the past? Do they have some background that gives them insight into what you might be going through?

It may not be anyone in your family. It may be a friend. You may want to start with a trauma therapist. Contact a hospital and ask to speak with a grief counselor. They may be able to connect you with people who are genuinely caring and receptive. Or, perhaps you may feel safest by just starting to Blog or journal your experiences in private.

Bottom line: the people a survivor trusts with war experiences need to show a history of being extremely patient, openly caring, non-judgmental, and be willing to face the dark. There is no other way to put hell into words.

Read more about Talking About War in Close to Home, pages 29 – 35.

Whether or not you were physically wounded in battle, you are wounded. Deeply. And your wounds are real. It may take some time for you to become aware of it. In fact, war wounds are often buried deep inside. That’s where that inner sense of being shattered comes from. That’s why the fear exists that you’re not really quite as okay as everyone thinks you are.

You expect to live normally in peaceful conditions at home, while your soul and body are still enmeshed in war. Your system has adapted to spending time in combat and survivor mode. It feels almost normal to you now if for no other reason than that’s what your body has been used to. Remember, though, that war—despite our system’s amazing ability to adapt and become conditioned to it—is not a normal state of being.

In Bosnia, I spent my days putting victims and survivors excruciating stories into English words. I grew accustomed to writing about atrocities, body counts, groups of fathers, sons, and husbands shoved alive off five hundred foot ravines. I became so familiar with the existence of genocide, concentration camps and mass rapes that the words rolled lifeless off my tongue.

Along with my blindness to the fact that the situation I was living in was not “normal,” came a deep fatigue. I wrote it off as culture shock and just kept moving forward. Without a second thought, I expected my body, mind and soul to perform perfectly and lost sight of the fact that being wounded—emotionally and spiritually—under such circumstances was normal. What my body and spirit needed was compassion and understanding, recognition that I was appropriately hurting. Not a rap on the head and a “what’s wrong with you?!” crack.

Your body is no longer a machine or a weapon. Take a moment and think about that.

Your body is you. Your cells constantly reflect every stress and emotion within. Your body, mind and spirit have imbedded wounds. You are depleted. Your muscles have soaked up more stress than they can carry, your nervous system rails from extreme overdrive, pumping Adrenaline and Cortisol through inflamed arteries; your skin has taken a beating, your eyes are worn out, acid has eaten away your guts, your cells have suffered from lack of true nutrition, your lungs have been cramped, your ears damaged. And if you have been physically wounded, you have added pain and suffering.

Imagine a child you love having been through what you’ve been through. Would you expect that child to simply arrive home after months in such conditions, change clothes, take a bath, sleep for a couple of days and go back to school? No. Would you expect this child to never cry, break down or show sadness? No. You would know that your child needs rest, deep rest, and you would not expect him to simply ‘get on with it.’ You would know deep within that your child needs everything possible—every ounce of nurturing and love and tenderness and compassion to have the best chance to heal from such a horrific ordeal. You would make sure your child has the best food, rest, medicine, a soft place to sleep and the freedom to cry in your arms.

You are somebody’s child. And you deserve just as much compassion—from others and from yourself. Give yourself permission to be gentle with your body. Lower your expectations and demands. Don’t berate yourself if you find simple things drain you. Your body needs time to recover and it may take years before you are physically restored or adapt to permanent wounds.

Don’t expect your body to act as if everything is fine just because you’re home. The damage has been done. This goes for your sex life, too. It’s normal to not have the drive you once did or experience dysfunction. It’s also normal to be on sexual overdrive. The point is that we need to recognize that our bodies need time, gentleness, rest, and the chance to adjust without the expectation that it will happen fast.

Loving partners and families need to realize this, too. Even though a survivor may seem fine, war stress has impacted his or her body. Understand that it is going to take a long time to physically recover or adapt. We know war survivors endure trauma and so we tend to focus on the psychological impact. We forget that this stress is carried, literally, in the body. Wounds to the spirit also manifest in the body, so it’s not just injury or physical exhaustion that we’re dealing with. If your loved one says he doesn’t have the energy for something, believe him. He doesn’t have the energy. The body needs nutrition, rest, massage, exercise, sexual release and affection. It needs to be deeply and tenderly nurtured.

(excerpt from Close to Home, pgs 19 – 20.)

Most veterans and families after war focus on going right back to work. Financially, it’s usually necessary. If you’re a National Guard member, you’ve left behind a job or your own business that is most likely waiting for you. If you’re like many vets, though, the economy and your absence has left you without a civilian job to return to. Finding a job after war can be a frustrating and conflicted experience.

Going back to work isn’t just a matter of finding a job so you can pay your mortgage or rent and ease the money burden on loved ones. Going back to work is part of leaving your war duties behind, adapting your skill sets to civilian tasks and creating a new life. All of which is easier said than done. While it is usually necessary to get back to work as quickly as you can, it isn’t something that you should just take lightly and not give any thought to how it affects you mentally, physically and spiritually. And if you don’t have to go back right away, you may be wise to give yourself some time.

Work itself can be a good thing. It gives you something mentally and physically to do, uses up energy, lets you earn money and it sets you back in a social network. But it can also be detrimental if it causes you to avoid dealing with your emotions, memories, or if you find yourself without any “space” to reflect on where you are in life now and how you have changed.

Work is Not a Sign that You’ve Moved On from the War

What many people mistakenly assume is that the primary task of a veteran after war is to “return to normal” – to go back to who and what they were before war entered their lives. For many people, going back to work is a sign that this is what the veteran is doing. And the veteran may think so, too.

The reality is that “going back to normal” isn’t possible. Why? Because you have changed. War has impacted you in many, many ways and ultimately, you cannot go back to who you were before war. The real task of a veteran after war is to look at the pieces of himself, and begin to fit and form them into a new sense of identity, meaning and purpose. Yes, there’s much of you still left that carries on – but there’s much that’s going to be different. (Even if it was possible for war not to cause emotional trauma, it would still change your perspective just from having lived and worked in another culture with different viewpoints, impressions and experiences.)

So work itself can be a mixed blessing and a curse. It can feed and support you or deplete you. It can stifle you or open your eyes to what you really want. Work may magnify a sense that “you don’t belong” and that feeling of not belonging may make you start to question what you’re doing and where you do “fit in.”  While you may feel that you are the one who’s “not normal anymore” – in reality, what you are experiencing is normal for someone coming home from war.  Give yourself the grace of knowing and believing that. Just don’t make the mistake of assuming that going back to work is the answer to everything.

You Jump Right Back Into a Job That’s Waiting

If this is you, people may be telling you how lucky you are to have a job. And you are grateful, but you may be so focused on dealing with the job tasks at hand that you forget that you need to give yourself some grace and patience to adjust to civilian life. The job itself may not give you time, and you most likely will feel pressured to “catch up” on what you’ve missed and what has changed while you were gone. Because you feel fortunate and blessed to have work when so many others are struggling to find it, you may also not feel comfortable admitting it if the job doesn’t feel right to you anymore, you’re not interested in what you’re doing, or you’re struggling with missing the battlefield and grieving over friends and relationships left behind.

Colleagues aren’t going to know how to relate to you fully. They’re going to relate to the person they knew you as last and may not have any idea of what you’ve really been through, what you’ve had to do during war or why you may find civilian work unfulfilling and dull compared to what your war-time tasks were. Bosses may give you some leeway, or they may not, expecting you to buck up and get on with it. Depending on your company and responsibilities, you may find yourself pushing what’s going on inside you further and further back into the darkness.

It’s okay if you’re struggling. Don’t keep it a secret. You can be grateful for the job you have and still want something else. And ultimately, your sense of fulfillment is what matters – not the economy or what other people will think. You know your financial circumstances, but you also know how precious life is and how short it can be. So don’t be afraid to let go of a job or sell your business if it’s just not who you are anymore or who you want to be. Your perspective has changed. Others may not understand, but they don’t have the experiences you have to see through your eyes. Don’t be afraid to take command of your life and redefine who you are.  Money will find a way of working itself out.

You Need to Work, But You Don’t Feel Motivated and No One ‘Gets It’

Many veterans struggle to find work, especially in today’s economy. Everyone expects that you the foremost thing on your mind is to get a job or go back to college and so you update your resume, search job banks and apply. You don’t get interviewed. No one calls you back. You’re just one more applicant out of hundreds, sometimes thousands. So, you keep trying. Months go by, you start to wonder if maybe it’s you. You may get depressed. And people start wondering it it’s you, too.

What you aren’t telling anyone is that getting a job is the last thing you really feel like doing. Nothing excites you. You miss your war-zone friends, you miss the consistent routine of military life, you miss having a goal with clear objectives. The war feels close to you, closer maybe than anything else, but you’re not going to tell anyone that.

Why aren’t you motivated? Civilian work is supposed to be the answer, right? Your gut tells you it isn’t, but what else are you going to do?

It can be very hard to feel motivated or excited about civilian work when you come home from war. It may seem pointless, dull, boring – and ultimately, purposeless.

You know what this tells you? You’ve changed. You see the difference between what was once interesting to you and a horizon out there where new meaning lies. The fact that you are asking questions means you are seeking answers – and that’s a good thing. Be open to change. Be open to doing something radically different for your line of work. You may find you want to go back to college, train for something that gives you a sense of purpose. My dad graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history/physical ed. Then he went to the Korean War. He came back and went to med school and spent the rest of his life as a physician. War changes what matters to you.

You have a wonderful opportunity to change course. And you have the opportunity not to spend the rest of your life stuck in a field or job that doesn’t bless the world with your unique gifts and insight.

You’re Desperate for Work, It’s All You Can Think Of

What the economic crisis of the last few years has done for many Americans is redefined how we think about money. It’s opened many people’s eyes to the energy of money and how it can empower or disempower your life. At the same time, veterans have gained powerful insight into the preciousness of life and the unparalleled personal freedom that our country offers. Veterans have the unique insight and experience to know that while money is a necessary energy of life, it is not the be-all and end-all of what life is about. You can’t stare death in the face and not know that, compared to death, very little else is actually a “problem.”

If you’re feeling desperate financially, I encourage you to pause and take a deep breath and know that deep within yourself is an incredible power to create not only the life you want, but the necessary money-energy you need to live that life. When you shift from thinking that others hold the power of money over you to realizing that you have the power to create money in your life, everything changes. I know that these words mean little if you don’t have the money to pay your bills or for food or your kid’s toys or for a date. But money isn’t something we should allow to scare us that much.

When we stop being scared of “what ifs” and we start to reconnect to our sense of inner power to create – we calm down enough to see opportunities around us for where money may enter our lives. You may have to think outside the box of traditional employment and start thinking of being your own employer. You may need to take some calculated risks and take some ideas seriously – but don’t give your power away when it comes to money.

The reason money causes so much worry is because we fear ‘the worst’ happening financially. What is the worst that can happen to you financially? You lose a home? Move back in with your parents? Live in low-income housing? Go on public assistance? Work a minimum wage job?

Let me tell you this: as long as you have your health and people who love you, you have everything. The worst can happen to you financially and you know what? You will recover. So don’t allow fear over money to control you or make decisions for you. You’re going to be all right.

Let Work Bless Your Life

The path to finding a job and a job itself can be a wonderful blessing if you let it. Use this time to really ponder what you want out of life. Use this time to give yourself some breathing space. Use this time to change what you believe about money. An know, that no matter what, you have the power within you to move toward healing, wholeness, purpose.