It is almost February 2nd. Time for more reruns of the Bill Murray/ Harold Ramis classic movie. It is a movie that works on many levels for many of us. In thinking about this movie (it is a favorite of mine) I found an interesting parallel to post military life.
Speaking for myself, when I first suspected I had PTSD I did what most of us do — I told myself that it wasn’t so. I managed to dodge reality for quite awhile (I was an officer. I can be very convincing and still be wrong). But when reality would not be put off any longer I found myself in Groundhog Day. Nothing much changed. I got up, got angry, went to my job, felt pointless, wanted to be somewhere else, wanted to be dead. I kept talking to people and mimicking right answers, funny jokes, etc. and complained about everything and everyone all with the vaguest hope that one day I would wake up and it would be magically different. No matter how much I tried to show normal, I just wasn’t feeling it. Mostly I wasn’t feeling anything and when I did it was pretty bleak.
Just like Bill Murray’s character I did things that were increasingly risky with less and less thought about consequences because after all I would wake up tomorrow and nothing would have changed. I was stuck in Groundhog Day. Sound familiar?
But the metaphor is incomplete without the resolution. That is the best part of the movie. The character in the movie is stuck for exactly that reason. He works on just stuff- things that amuse himself or impress others. They are heartless and meaningless acts essentially. But at one turn in the plot he starts doing things for others. He stops a kid falling out of a tree. Helps some old ladies change their tire, and does a few other random acts of kindness. He makes it his purpose to help others. This progresses to an interest in making himself a better person. At that point he wakes up on February 3rd.
It is a new day at last.
That was me too. PTSD and readjustment blues (sounds like it should be a song, yeah?). It is easy to be stuck in Groundhog Day. Nothing changes. Meds, VA, friends pretending it’s all good, or nagging you about getting something new started. You want it all to go away but the regularity of it all becomes its own kind of weird comfort. The dullness keeps some of the rage and anxiety at bay so you tolerate it and tell yourself that you are getting there or perhaps that it doesn’t matter at all and soon you’ll be dead. If you stay here you are gonna die. It will either be a suicide or worse- the slow emotional death that perversely proves that you were right and life is not about anything and never was. It is a truly dark place we travel through to appreciate what light is.
If this is where your story is then please let’s do something about it. It does not have to be. Bill Murray did not stay in Groundhog Day forever. It changed when he decided what life was about and that he would dedicate himself to pursuing that. In the movie, he discovered (just like I discovered) that life is not in fact pointless. It is all about how we relate to others. For me that took a decidedly Christian path. Yours may be different but a philosophy that keeps you isolated and makes life pointless is a guaranteed Groundhog Day. It will never be different.
We are relational creatures. That is how God made us. We are made for one another. This implies certain responsibilities. First it implies that we have to make ourselves into something that can support that. Then we have to find people we want to serve who have a cause we believe in. This stuff is not new to military folks. It’s why we served.
It is who we are.
Be who you are. Get busy working on yourself to get to a place where you can fulfill that mandate in your soul.
Being stuck is a normal part of life. It happens sometimes. You get in a rut. Partly, your current rut is normal. It is amplified by the medical conditions related to trauma. Those may be permanent to a degree, but your rut need not be. One thing that I have learned that I hope you do too is that God has no zero and no max.
That means whatever time you have left is enough time to do what we were meant for. It also means if you want to wallow in your trouble there is not truly a bottom. My friend Britta Reque-Dragicevic has an interesting way of viewing this in her blog here. She details her own struggles with depression due to physical problems. She says that you have to choose to fight for your own life every day. I agree with that. You can get to a point where that is not daily, but you will still have to visit that choice at regular intervals.
Life changed for us. We went to war. Much of what we experienced was not a choice, but at this point in your life you must make that choice. February 3rd will not roll around by itself. It has to be invited in. That’s good news — at last you finally get a choice about what happens to you. This is not an IED or ambush. You can make this decision toward your own life.
This isn’t me painting a rosy picture. Nothing erases what you did or what you saw, or how you got blown up. I still have days when I wish I was dead and past it all, but they are getting fewer. Here is the million-dollar question: What if you woke up tomorrow and you weren’t pissed off? What would that mean to you? What if you did not feel like you were in a box that was getting smaller? You felt like you could make some future plans that might work? What if your emotional rucksack just felt 10 lbs. lighter? Heck when was the last time you really laughed with someone? Don’t you miss that? Brother, you can get to that day but you have to make that happen. You can. It is scarier than your first jump out of a perfectly good airplane but it is just as big a rush if you truly commit to it.
Step one is to reach out to someone. Anyone. A spouse, parent, friend, clergyman, your general practitioner, Britta — heck, I will talk to you if you think it will help. This is not negotiable, remember we are designed to be relational creatures. Isolation does not serve us well. Adam had a date before the end of the second chapter in the Bible (Genesis 2:18 …”it is not good for man to be alone…”). Everybody needs somebody. Even you. Pick someone you think you can trust and lay it out.
I know trusting your issues with someone else is hard. They might be shocked. They might not believe that people are capable for doing those things to one another. They might judge you and what right do they have to do that? They did not go over there! I was worried that my wife would hate me if she knew some of the things I did in combat. She did not. It took me years to tell her. When I did she thought I had pulled off some brilliant plays. Believe me, I get that you are scared. You are going to keep being scared if nothing changes. You ask, “what if talking is a mistake?” Ask a different question “What if it helps me get where I want to be?”
Disclosure makes you a bit vulnerable but, honestly, you are very vulnerable now in your isolation so that is not working either. And if nothing changes then you will always be isolated, vulnerable, and scared. Change something, man. Find a confidant. Connect with Britta or reach out to me. Open up a bit. Work on yourself so you can get back to the business of doing for others because that is who you are. It is why you fought.
Get to February 3rd.
Joe DeCree is a Maj. (Ret.) US Army, Green Beret, 19th SFG (A). He works with returning veterans and lives with his family in Montana. You can contact Joe directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 406-871-0638 MT.