One of the most challenging aspects combat vets face when coming home is the gap between who they are now and who their loved ones expect them to be. Warriors say that you can’t translate much of what they’ve been through, because there is no substitute for being there. And there is deep truth in that. No one will ever understand you like your brothers and sisters who were there.
But they’re not here. And you are. And now you’re with a partner, parents, siblings, and friends who expect to know you well. And they don’t so much anymore. You’re familiar, but not the same; they look around for the person they knew you to be, they wonder at what you’ve experienced, and they get scared when they don’t recognize parts of you. Relationships are built on how well you know someone. When you think you should know someone and you no longer do, it hurts.
So much of the pain of war is amplified by the loud silence of not being understood by those you feel should understand you. It goes both ways. The gaps exist on both sides. And the results can be heartrending.
Separation and distance in relationship are part of the energy of war. Not everyone can overcome it. Not everyone is able to bridge the gaps and mend and re-discover each other. Some lose patience. Some can’t bear the pain of what’s been lost. Some can no longer love who you’ve become. Some have changed too much while you were away and have already moved on. Some just can’t take the places in you that they’ll never be able to know. And some don’t know what to do and so they pretend everything’s fine and hope you just “get over it” like you might get over a broken heart. If only.
You come back carrying a lot of weight on your heart. It gets expressed or hidden. Angry outbursts, irritability, silence, withdrawal. Your energy is not the same as it was before. Your behavior seems odd. Staying up all night. Avoiding large get-togethers. Being tense, nervous, on edge, on guard. Half here. Half not. Half, well, they’re not sure where you are. All they know for sure is that you’re just not yourself.
Yourself. (If only you knew who you’re supposed to be now, right?)
They wonder if you killed anyone, because killing someone must be the worst thing you can experience in war (it’s not.) They imagine that yes, it was horrible, but like in the movies, you came out the victor (you’re here after all) and like all movie-heroes, you’ll just carry on and be fine and go back to whatever it was you were doing before war. Or like some movie-heroes, you come home, regroup, and head back out unfazed, no worse for wear. Some may resent that fact that you left and keep leaving, that anything could possibly be more important than they are to you. Some resent the bond you have with your brothers and sisters. Some may feel such deep pain at what war has done to you that they don’t know how to relate to you anymore. They want more than anything to support you, but you’re not talking about it and won’t talk and so they hit a wall (especially true for parents and spouses).
The wall keeps them out and you in. You think that wall protects your loved ones from the darkness inside of you; but in reality, it just keeps you dark.
No one teaches you or your loved ones how to navigate life after war.
You bring whatever is left of you home. You face whatever others have become. Or un-become. Hearts break in what is left unsaid. Patience unravels when you don’t get better (as if you had an illness you could recover from). People aren’t able to accept that maybe this is just who you are now and who you’re going to be. They aren’t able to accept that there is no going back. They don’t accept that the war is forever theirs now, too. Only now instead of praying that you’ll survive and come home, and be fine, and the war over and done and forgotten — now they have to carry the war in you. If they aren’t able to carry it, they leave. Either physically or emotionally. Some signed up to love you no matter what and they will; some didn’t sign up to love you after war’s had its way with you, and it’s more than they are willing to deal with. They want to be happy. And it’s hard to be happy when so much of what war leaves in its wake is grief and sadness and loss. Who can you blame for this? War breaks things. War breaks people. War breaks relationships.
What usually happens? You try to make it work. You suck it up and do your best to seem “normal.” You may be dying inside but at least you don’t look it. You live half here, half back there. You carry the weight, only it seems to get heavier as time goes on. You feel restless. You look for satisfaction. You look for meaning. You keep in touch with your buddies, they give you a breath of fresh air, with them everything feels “normal” again, you are heard, understood, they get you without you having to say a word. Then you part ways again and you’re back in your life. You try to get help. They give you meds. You may drink, you may take more pills. They say you have PTSD, or not. They don’t really care if you do or you don’t. Just one more veteran to process through the system. You try a therapist. You sit in the lobby waiting your turn, wondering what the other patients are there for, knowing they’re wondering the same about you. You enter, the clock starts, you’re supposed to spill your guts to a stranger who gets paid to listen to you, who may or may not know what the hell you’re talking about. But what the fuck, right? You try. You talk. The therapist listens, takes notes, keeps an eye on a clock you can’t see. Asks a few questions. Makes a few more notes. Tells you you’ve made good progress (progress to where?). Schedules another appointment. Gives you some homework. You exit. The next patient enters. And you know he’s going to go through the exact same routine. One after another after another. (Can anyone even see you?!?)
No one talks about the things you think about.
Like how killing was easy and not that big of a deal. Watching your buddy bleed out, screaming, as you and a medic were helpless to save him, was. You miss war. You hate it. You’re tempted more often than you care to admit to just take someone out. You feel unbelievably fragile sometimes. You get “this” close to breaking into a million pieces. But you don’t. You can’t. There was no time to fall apart then, there’s no time to do that now. And besides, if you did, what would it change? You’d still be you, this “stopped time of war” would still be yours to carry. What’s the point? So, you stay silent. You try to hide what you can. Try to make excuses for what you can’t. Try to downplay just how lost and how broken you feel. Try to stay busy. Try to stay distracted. Try to do anything that keeps you seemingly “normal.”
What if, instead of suffering silently, you could find a way to help others understand you better? Not all the way, but better? People can be incredibly giving, generous and accepting when they have the opportunity to understand the reasons for someone’s pain and suffering. That doesn’t mean you have to sit down and open up right away. Sometimes other people can put into words for you, what you can’t say. (Which is one of the reasons I write these posts – to help you be heard and understood.)
So, if this article resonates with you, print it off or forward it to a loved one and tell them that by reading it, they’ll get a better idea of what it’s like for you.
Then do the same with Part 2.
And if you want to vent or share what’s on your mind, reach out. I’m here to walk with you.