You come home from combat angry.
Stupid shit sets you off. You lash out at people you care about only to see pain and fear flash through their confused eyes. Sometimes you start fights on purpose. Usually, you just react. A stupid driver makes you snap, before you know it you’re in a blind rage. In that moment, you don’t feel anything else and you don’t give a fuck. When you manage to be in a good mood, one small attitude, a word, a tone from someone flips the switch and there you are again.
Why the fuck are you so angry? After all, you made it home, you’re supposed to be all right and happy now, right? Isn’t that what everyone around you thinks? It hurts to know that you’re causing people pain. You don’t mean it, but they don’t understand that you don’t mean it. And you don’t know how to stop being this way. That anger keeps pushing people away from you. It’s natural for people to retreat from your anger and self-protect. Or get mad back and then you’re trapped in a cycle of conflict where no one is happy. They point at you and say it’s your fault because you’re so damn angry all the time. And you blame them because they seem to make you angry. And before you know it, you’re left alone in your world.
One of the most painful things about coming back is not being able to recognize yourself because what you feel and how you act now is so different from who you used to be. And so different from who you want to be. The softer and more tender your heart was before combat, the harder it is to not hate yourself for this change. I have talked with many vets who tell me that anger is one of their biggest problems, yet they don’t seem able to connect the dots back to where this anger comes from. Or know what to do with it.
So, let’s explore.
First off, why are you so angry?
Let’s get one thing clear: it’s not the people and things around you now that are the true cause of your anger. They are triggers. They could be anyone or everyone. They can be intentionally hurting you or they can be loving you. But they are not the source of your deep anger. Even when unkindness, selfishness or lack of understanding causes them to treat you without regard, the intensity of your anger is still rooted elsewhere.
It’s about power, control and vulnerability…
The deepest root of your anger comes from having been ultimately powerful and utterly powerless in the face of life and death. It comes from having lived with the energy of death and death itself. From having had your life threatened, from having ended people’s lives and from having killed parts of yourself in the process. At a very deep level within you, you carry the spiritual responsibility of having been a death-bearer and that responsibility has a lot of implications for your spirit. It changes how you relate to the world.
What happens in combat is that you are up against the ultimate extremes in power, control and vulnerability. Anytime we human beings feel out of control over things we believe we should be able to control, we get angry and/or depressed. The decisions that get made in combat and the circumstances you find yourself in test your power, control and vulnerability to the limits. And it’s not all about killing. You can be just as angry at the suffering you have witnessed –suffering you may not have caused at all– and feel a sense of responsibility because you weren’t able to prevent or stop it. This includes issues with bad leadership and internal bullying as well. The less control you felt you had the angrier you will be.
- What to do about it: You need to recognize that you’ve experienced these intense fluctuations of power, control and vulnerability. Spend some time thinking about what was actually in your control and what wasn’t. What do you feel you should have had control over? Where and when did you feel powerless? What do you need to own as your own responsibility and what are you owning now that is NOT yours to own? The anger will persist as long as you are holding on to beliefs that you could or should have had more power and control than you did. So, the ultimate goal to walk toward are beliefs that allow you to accept that the energy of war was stronger than you.
It’s also about grief…
I’ve said it many times and I will keep saying it: combat veterans are primarily grieving when they come home. Grief causes anger. Not intentional anger, but anger that accumulates and erupts because the pressure of grief has to go somewhere and it tends to go to tears and anger. You’re not just grieving the loss of people you loved, you’re grieving at a much deeper level of humanity… grieving the power, control and vulnerability issues, grieving the loss of innocence to the darkest parts of humanity within yourself, grieving from the suffering you caused and witnessed, grieving the loss of the beliefs and concepts that shaped your worldview and perspective on life, grieving time lost with loved ones, relationships and trust lost, loss of your military career (in many cases), loss of a culture and way of life you’re used to, and loss of yourself.
All this grief hurts. It feels like pain and depression, sadness, numbness, emptiness and… anger.
- What to do about it: Our society is not going to give you the recognition or permission to grieve. You’re going to have to do that yourself. Which means you step back and realize the depths of what you have lost and you stop telling yourself that you shouldn’t be this way. Then you give yourself permission to know that it is okay and right that you allow yourself to grieve. If you try to suppress it, hide it, push it deeper down inside you, ignore it… it will just keep erupting as anger. It’s not going to go away on its own.
And it’s about physical changes in your energy, body and lack of sleep…
If you feel as if your nerves are frayed and worn thin, it’s because they actually are. The stress and reaction patterns that your body underwent in combat create changes in your energy and body. PTSD involves biological changes where your nerves have been rewired to react to threats. This creates changes in your emotional energy system as well. Those changes are real. Physical pain eats away at emotions. Sleep is also directly tied to emotional control. And we all know how well most combat vets sleep… erratic, short bursts with very poor quality due to nightmares, drinking and meds. Lack of sleep makes it very hard to control emotions. (Think about little kids, when they get crabby they’re usually overtired. Same thing happens to adults.)
There are other causes of anger, but these are the primary ones that most combat vets experience.
So what do you do to deal with your anger?
Let people near you know why. You don’t have to tell them the details, but you can’t hold people accountable for what they don’t know. And if they don’t know that you lost buddies you love and are grieving, they won’t be able to offer you compassion or see you in a light that allows them to understand. Now, I know many of you say you don’t want anyone feeling sorry for you. Allowing people to offer their support by giving them a chance to understand what’s going on with you, is not a sign of weakness. I know most people are not going to get it, but if they never know, they most certainly will never get it. Tell your closest ones that your anger comes from feeling bad about what happened in the war and because you miss the buddies you lost. You don’t have to share details, but give them something to work with. Same for colleagues. This way, if you break down at work (and it’s gonna happen), they’ll have some context as to why.
Find a constructive way to vent. Anger is energy. And you need to move that energy out of you consistently. Don’t go walking down the wrong side of town looking for a fight. Find something physical to do that is safe and do it on a regular basis. Buy a punching bag, chop wood, take a sledgehammer to scrap metal, work out, play sports, learn martial arts… anything that will let you safely express that energy. Sometimes you also need to vent verbally…stop screaming obscenities at your loved ones, find a buddy you trust and vent. If there is no one, remove yourself from the scene and take some time alone. Learn how to calm yourself down with breathing techniques so you can think. Try writing shit down. Open a Word doc and just vent. The point is the more you express the stuff underneath your anger, the less need your spirit has to erupt and explode to find relief.
(You have a choice: numb it out or get it out. You numb it out you’ll feel better in this moment. You get it out, you’ll feel better long-term. The choice is yours.)
Let yourself grieve. Expressing your pain hurts. Don’t be scared of it. It seems as if it will overwhelm and crush you, but that’s only if you don’t find ways to get new perspectives on it (which is the true value of good counselors). If you feel like crying, cry. Yes, I know it’s embarrassing if you tear up at work or on campus, but it happens unexpectedly. Take a few moments for yourself alone and let the tears fall. Those tears are a natural part of the healing process. They relieve pressure and move the energy of sadness and pain out of you. Crying doesn’t come easily to many of you, but it’s a human emotion and a necessary one. And your spirit needs it to heal.
Identify triggers and find work-arounds. If you can figure out what triggers you, look for things that would help distract you in those moments. If you lose sight of what matters most to you while you’re driving, try putting a photo of what you stand to lose on your dashboard. Find an object that helps you ground (by grounding, I mean reconnect to this present moment) and keep it with you. This could be photo of a loved one, a small stone, a bracelet, a pendant/necklace. If you know certain situations trigger you and they are ones you don’t have to keep getting into, avoid them. If Facebook posts keep setting you off, unfollow those who post them. Look for what you can control, take that control and own it.
Decide to let go. Eventually, you’re going to move through enough time in the grieving process where you’re going to face a decision to either hold on to the pain and grief, or let go and move on. This isn’t something you can do until your spirit is ready for it — so don’t think I’m telling you that you can just decide to stop being angry and it will work. That’s not how it happens. You won’t get to this point until your spirit has absorbed all the meaning that your pain has to offer and, like someone who has been carrying a heavy weight, you will realize that you can actually choose to set that weight down and it won’t mean that the weight isn’t valuable and it won’t mean that you’re “forgetting” or saying that it didn’t matter. You will be able to decide to set the weight down and leave it there and you will know that it’s okay to not carry it anymore. It can feel scary at this point, because you won’t really know what happens if you don’t pick it up again, or who you will be if you’re not carrying that weight…you choose faith and trust here and the relief your spirit and entire being will feel, will encourage you forward.
Remember you’re not a bad person because you’re angry. You’re a wounded one. Your heart hurts. You carry a spiritual (not religious) understanding and weight that the people around you do not. Trying to act as if you don’t have all this pain and grief in your being only makes things worse. If anger makes you feel ugly, it’s because you can’t see past it into your essential being… which is love and light and a relationship with dark that only warfighters understand.
Finally, get help. You didn’t get into this condition on your own. You won’t get out of it on your own. You need to get help. And if you don’t find it at the VA, don’t give up. You can work through your grief, PTSD can be treated, your heart and spirit can heal. It takes acting with courage and determination. And support. That’s why I’m here. To walk you through this journey and to not let you give up.
The first step, though, is to decide that you’re not going to stay stuck here anymore.