Archive for the ‘Coming Home’ Category

Finding purpose after the military feels almost impossible, doesn’t it? It’s not that you don’t have skills to translate into civilian work. It’s the underlying sense of why you are doing it that feels so off. Once you’ve been responsible for life and death, millions of dollars worth of equipment, or leading others into and through combat — well, compared to that, most civilian jobs fall flat. They feel insignificant, meaningless, boring. You feel restless, unsettled, empty.

You can’t take someone who has been trusted with life and death, put them in a mundane job and expect them to feel satisfied, right?

Maybe. Or maybe you can.

What if there’s a way to feel purposeful in any job you work? What if there’s a way to live so that it isn’t the job, but you personal mission in life that gives you purpose and meaning?

The only way to find true meaning in work and life is to live your life in a way that serves the greater good.

That’s right. Service. Living an other-focused life.

And you know what? Most of the angst you feel around not having purpose outside the military is because you are no longer living a life of service. That higher mission, that higher calling, that sense that you exist to serve the good of many is missing.

It’s time you put it back into your life.

I don’t care why you joined up or how disillusioned and angry you may be now with the government and society, until you decide to put your life back into service for humanity, you will remain stuck and purposeless.

Why? Because you are a soul who was designed to serve.

You entered the military with a much deeper spiritual calling on your life than you realized. You came here to this earth to allow your life to be used for the good of humanity. When you chose to be a warfighter, you took on some of the greatest depths of experience and responsibility a human soul can agree to. You signed up to be a death-bearer in this world for the purpose of protecting the innocent. And that’s what you did.

But your spiritual calling to serve is not over.

It’s precisely because you have been an instrument of destruction that you have the potential to become a powerful instrument of good, love, life, creation, beauty, joy. You may not feel that you are wise or have a lot of depth and you may not feel any of those things right now (you can get there) — but you know what? You already have what it takes to be this person, right now, in you.

You know more about what makes Life, life — than anyone. Because you were death, you know what life is in ways no one around you knows. Because you have lived through hell, you have the greatest potential to lead others to life. What you have to give to others is an enormous gift of insight, wisdom, understanding, a willingness to be real, to get to the depths of life that so few are willing or know how to dare enter.

You can relate to those who are suffering and in pain. You know how to listen to the deeper truths that can’t be put into words. You know how to be present and show up and talk someone out of fear and into battle.

You know how to be a warrior of the soul. For the soul.

Can you imagine how valuable you could be to someone who is going through a life-threatening time? The kind of support you could give to someone battling cancer, for instance? Or how you could teach your child how to persevere and talk herself into courage when things are tough? Or how you could help teenagers grow into stronger versions of themselves? The possibilities are endless.

But it’s not what you do that matters, it’s why you do it.

To get to living a life of purpose, you have to decide who you are going to be in this world.

How do you make this life I’m talking about?

  1. Own your life. No more excuses. No more blaming. No more self pity. No more bitching. No more complaining about how life sucks. No more toying with the idea of suicide. No more waiting for someone else to make your life better. You were not killed in combat. You are still here.
  2. Decide who are you going to be in this world. Positive? Negative? A believer in good and possibility? A force for life or a hindrance? You going to build or destroy? Look at life with strength and courage or whine and blame and wallow? Brave or coward? The one who makes your life happen or one who waits for someone else to make it happen for you? A leader or a follower? You have to decide these things. They’re your choices. (If you’re too depressed to believe you can change, try to remember what it felt like before you joined the military and you weren’t quite sure you could become what they said you’d become — that’s where you stand right now. You can change your life when you decide to do so and when you take action to change it.)
  3. Face the truths about where you’re at. The only way forward is to start where you are. That means you accept the truths about where you are at right now. Do you have PTSD, a TBI, depression, are you suicidal, do you drink too much, are you abusing drugs, do you have physical injuries that need medical attention, do you need to break up with your partner or turn to them and ask them to help you figure this out? You can’t move forward if you are living in denial or unwilling to move toward healing, wholeness, and wellbeing. Take a small step toward moving your life toward healing. Talk to me if you need guidance on how to do this.
  4. Start retraining your mind. We often think that we have no control over our minds. They do what they want. But while that is true to a large degree, we DO have control over what we believe about life. Our perspective on life, our attitude, is the one thing we can control. You can say no to your mind. You can choose to not go down that familiar path of fear, self-blame, self-abuse that leaves you feeling worthless and wanting out.

    It takes effort, it takes the same determination as working out to build your muscles — you have to commit to it and do it, over and over. When your mind starts heading down that path, become aware of it and say no. It may take weeks, it may take months, but minds can be retrained. Old beliefs can be dismissed. New beliefs can be embraced. Freedom comes when you realize you get to choose the beliefs you’re going to have in life.

  5. Put your life into service. Re-enlist your life into one that exists to serve humanity. This is where you find your purpose. Not your job – your purpose. The why you are here now. Make it your personal mission to be a force of life, of love, of kindness, of generosity, to add more life to this world, to be gentler because you’ve known rough, to be kinder because you’ve known cruel, to lead others to courage. You start with the people you interact with every day. Your mission is to be life in this world now. You are done being death.

When your mission is to be life, to be love, to be kindness, to be courage — then your purpose is to be that. No matter where you are. No matter what job you have. Your purpose will come from within you. And this sets you free to do any kind of job out there that you need to do for financial reasons.

A Marine brother once told me that it doesn’t matter where the government sends you, what battlefield you’re on, where you’re deployed – what matters is that you’re a Marine. Your job is to serve and love your brothers.

You do that wherever you are.

 

 

 

 

You miss warfighting. Miss war, miss your team, miss having life and death within your power. Miss the cohesion, the shared misery, the trust. Life was simple, fucking hard, and combat required all of you.

Now nothing requires all of you.

Warfighting is a spiritual calling, which means that tug on your soul doesn’t go away just because circumstances prevent you from continuing. I see so many combat veterans looking for a way to keep fighting — angst and anger at the government and system, hatred for civilians who just don’t seem to “get it” — there are justifiable reasons for the frustration, yes, but at the end of the day, it comes down to what demobilized warfighters have gone through for millennia. Not being able to accept that their warfighting days are done and not knowing who they are supposed to be now.

When your spiritual calling is to defend, protect, destroy, fight — not being able to eats away at you. Life goes on, much of your energy is spent trying to suppress the inner knowing that you’re no longer doing what you are here to do. Trauma from combat fuels much of the negative emotions and symptoms you have, but a good portion of the weight gain, turmoil, anger, feeling lost, reliance on pills and alcohol — comes from not being able to live your calling anymore. It takes a ton of energy to deny what your soul knows to be true for you. And many of you are killing your Selves because of this. Some of you with weapons, most by staying in relationships that no longer nurture who you are, accepting mediocre jobs that require little of you, overindulging in anything that numbs you out, and complaining and bitching about what’s become of “the country”.

This is NOT who you are. You are better than this. And you are meant for more.

You are people of honor, individuals who are willing to act with courage, and do what most people can’t. You know what true strength is, endurance, the fragility and value of life, you know power.

So, why is it that you get out and turn into whiny, disempowered people who can never be pleased? (sounds a lot like the civilians you rail against)

I know why. It’s because you are stranded out here without a fight that you know how to fight. You assume that the way you were trained to fight is the only way there is, and now that you can’t, you don’t know what to do. You feel disconnected from who you know you can be, who you feel you are, and what you can actually do about it in your life now. Some of you have been warfighters in past lifetimes as well as this one, it’s a role you feel natural in because it’s what you have known for a very long time.

So, where does this leave you?

Let’s look at things a bit differently.

What if your spiritual calling isn’t to the physical act of fighting, but to fighting for something, in general?

What if you can still find a way to live out that calling, if you realize that it still takes the same energy, passion, devotion, sacrifice and drive to fight for something on this earth whether the enemy is human or deeply ingrained beliefs that keep people stuck and small?

What if you are still meant to be a warfighter, it’s just that the way you fight has changed?

The blatant drive to destroy and kill is the basic level of true warfighting. It’s time you level-up.

The more advanced forms of being a warfighter shift you from extinguishing life to fighting the thoughts, lies, and beliefs that keep humans disempowered and disowning their ability to create a meaningful life that aligns with their soul. Advanced levels require spiritual, emotional and mental agility and stamina to recognize how fear deceives us all to destroy our belief in our own power. It is a fight that you have had a taste of now in this post-combat life as you have come up against thoughts that are powerful enough to convince a person to put a gun to his mouth and pull the trigger. This is not warfighting for the faint of heart or for the easily discouraged. You get to this level and the whole game changes. And life is on the line.

Maybe it’s time you up your game, retrain, and  fight for Life and true freedom, not political freedom? Maybe your mission now is to learn how to fight at the advanced level for your own Life so you can be ready to carry on the greater mission of this lifetime? There is no doubt that we need you here.

Warfighters are called and driven to serve the greater good. This self-based, poor-me life that you’re living right now doesn’t feel good, does it? Of course not. And it never will.

You are meant for more. You are meant to stand tall with the humility of true leadership among the rest of us, to carry the wisdom and weight of warfighting along with the wisdom of what living truly means. You have already proven your ability to face Death, you have already met your own strength. We need that from you still.

Shift your perspective. Own your sense of self and your calling. Stop trying to deny what is an essential part of who are. Realize that you don’t need to be less of who you are. You need to be more. Understand that until you stop fighting what is, until you stop denying the fact that the way you need to fight has changed, you won’t move forward and you won’t be of the value you can be in this world. Change, transformation, evolution is how Life works. A calling to serve, to stand for something Greater Than Ourselves may last an entire lifetime, but how it is expressed will and must change for us to be who we are meant to be and have the impact we’re meant to have.

Don’t let the fact that the game has changed convince you that you no longer have a vital role in it. In life, just as in war, you adapt and up your skills to be of maximum value to the mission.

Life is asking you to be more. Rise.

We spend a lot of time thinking that we need to let go of the past. “Let it go” (oh, god, don’t get me started on that refrain, lol!)…is what we hear over and over. “Move on.” “Leave it behind you.” “Try not to think about it.” “That’s not who you are anymore.” These are phrases that are well intentioned and often eventually work for broken hearts, break-ups, job losses, and personal disappointments.

They don’t work for combat vets.

So much of our healing efforts to “move on” from the past revolve around assuming that we need to separate ourselves from what happened back then and make it less a part of who we are now. The only problem is this doesn’t work when your job was to kill and maim people. Or when you’ve created or witnessed desecration. Or when you’ve been the perpetrator or victim of torture or abuse. War is ugly, it’s rank, it’s humanity that has lost our sense of our Selves, a time of suspended perception and surrealness. To anyone outside the warfighter community, war is something to run far away from.

Not to warfighters.

To be a warfighter is a spiritual calling. It’s not just something you do, it’s who you are. You decided before you were born into this lifetime that you would accept the role of warfighter, that you would carry the burden of being a death-bearer, that you would carry the weight of that level of spiritual responsibility.

It’s not just something you do for a few years and then “leave it behind.”

Why? Because it is part of who you are in this lifetime and may very well be part of who you have been in other lifetimes.

What happens usually? Warfighters come back from combat, are done with their active roles as warfighters, and settle into the boring routine of civilian life. It’s unsatisfying, even though you know you are grateful and you should be content with peace. You try hard to convince yourself that you need to move on. Your therapist works with you to “let it go” and most everyone assumes when you take off your uniform for the last time, you transform into a civilian. Yeah, right.

You’re here, but not here, aren’t you?

You know how you spend so much time lost in thought, remembering war? How easy you slip into who you were then, those experiences, those memories, those feelings? People around you say you seem like you’re somewhere else? And the past feels so much more real than the present?

I know you know. It’s so easy to slip into that past life.

Civilians and many therapists do not realize that you’re not just remembering, you’re re-experiencing. You’re back there. Every part of you. You feel who you were then, you feel that identity, you feel the emotions, it’s all right there, in you. You move back and forth between that past life as a warfighter and your present life now. One warfighter put it this way: “It’s as if I turn my head to the left, I’m fully back there. If I turn to the right, I’m here. It’s that easy to go between two very different realities. And it’s even harder yet to realize that they’re both the same me.”

The reason it’s important to distinguish this is because the idea of “letting it go” or “moving on” assumes that you can separate yourself from yourself. This is not a memory issue, guys, this is about who you are. Your identity.

We need to stop trying to push the past away, stop trying to exclude it from our sense of Self and do the opposite. Expand and widen our concept of our spirit/soul so that it’s vast enough to include the past and the present as valid parts of who we are.

Healing is not about getting rid of all the pain, it’s not about shedding your sense of identity, it’s about becoming whole.

Whole equals the sum of all parts. Whole contains the dark AND the light. The joy AND the pain. Who you were then AND who you are now. Realize that you are an eternal being that encompasses all of the experiences you have ever had and that, despite and because of it all, you are here. Those painful memories hurt, but if the actual events didn’t destroy you then, the memories sure as hell can’t now. You don’t need to fear them.

What you do need to do is realize that you will always be a warfighter by calling. It’s who you are. You may never experience combat again, but that doesn’t mean you are done fighting. Integrate this part of you, don’t try to eradicate it.

Look for ways to put the spirit of fighting for something to work in your current life. This is about energy. Focused energy that challenges your limits, stretches your beliefs in what you can do, and gives you a sense that your presence here still matters. The past is always going to linger, it’s going to pull you into it, it’s going to be a part of who you are. But the past is not ALL of who you are either.

We need to remember that we are still here because we need to live the life we have now.

And that’s the hardest part. Sitting in the present when you feel so disconnected. When everything that happened back then feels so much more real and vivid and meaningful than where you are now. (This feeling, by the way, is hard for families to understand because to them it feels as if you don’t value them enough. I wish families of warfighters could understand that in so many ways warfighters feel as if there are two versions of themselves. And that isn’t because there is something wrong with them, it’s because the nature of being called to carry the weight of a warfighter’s life is not something you ever just “move on” from or “let go” of. It’s seared into your soul’s DNA.)

You have a life to live now. You don’t have to have it all figured out. You may be stranded, wondering what’s next in terms of career, relationships, purpose. You may be reeling from the intensity of your combat experiences and just beginning to edge toward sensing that you are actually here and now.

You need to find ways to come back to the here and now. We can do this by becoming mindful and grounding. To be mindful, you intentionally focus on the present. To ground, you can do a variety of techniques. For example, choose an object — a stone, a photo, something that connects you to your life now –and focus on that object. Pick it up, feel it, notice it — it will bring your attention back to the present. When you do this, take time to name several things you are grateful for. This will help you to start feeling more emotionally connected to the present. (To learn more on how to ground, see Grounding Techniques)

It’s time to stop believing that you have to let go of your past in order to be who you need to be now. In fact, your past is the most valuable thing you possess. It is yours alone, unique to you. You need it, to be you in this world.  To fulfill your soul’s mission in this lifetime. So focus on accepting your past as part of your soul’s journey and let it teach you about your Self. In the big picture of this lifetime, what happened is part of your Story. Your Story doesn’t own your life, you do.

It’s time to see the past and the present in a new way.

 

Okay, so the words themselves mean the same thing in your mind. Fucked up. Pain. Shit. Issues. Doesn’t matter what you call it, right? Who cares?

What if how you think of it is keeping you stuck?

No, I’m not being “a writer” here and picking on words. On the surface, it doesn’t matter how you refer to the changes in yourself after combat. What matters are your beliefs about those changes. And your beliefs about those changes often show up in how you refer to yourself.

So, what I’m really after here is this: do you judge/blame/hate yourself for the changes in you? If so, you’re gonna stay stuck.

Why? Because as long as you judge yourself and feel like you should have been stronger, that you’re a pussy for letting anger/anxiety/distrust overtake you, that you should somehow have been able to avoid getting hurt, and be strong enough to overcome this alone now — you’re going to hold yourself away from healing.

As long as you think of yourself as fucked up, instead of wounded, you’re not going to give your heart/mind/body/spirit the acceptance and grace and support it needs to transform, heal and release you from the pain.

It comes down to what you believe. Judging/hating/blaming yourself for being wounded means you don’t really believe you should be affected by what you’ve been through in combat. You may know logically that war should change a human being, but you hold yourself to a standard that makes you feel weak or like a failure for seeing those changes in yourself. If this is you, you have a hard time not feeling ashamed for the pain and struggles you experience. Thinking about it doesn’t just hurt, it makes the cruel voices in your head start calling you names and bashing you for being “fucked up”. You think of your wounds, and your sense of self-worth plummets. The weight of feeling like a failure hurts more than the war itself. So, you try to avoid this by avoiding anything that reminds you that you’re not okay.

That keeps you from the liberating self-acceptance you need to heal.

Those of you who grew up with fathers with untreated PTSD, grew up walking on eggshells, yelled at, sometimes beaten, scolded for being soft and not stronger, disallowed to show “weak” emotions like crying, and promising yourself that you would never be like him. Some of you even joined the military subconsciously wanting to prove to yourself (and him) that you were indeed tough, that you “are a man”, that you could take it, and that you could be stronger than he’d been. The challenge wasn’t just something you craved, your sense of self-approval depended on it.

So, to see the same rage, anger, distrust, anxiety, fear of crowds, avoidance of people, strange sleep patterns, drinking, startle reflex, and insecurity now in yourself is excruciating. And you hate it. And you hate yourself for being this way, for being “weak.” For being changed.

But you don’t know what to do or how to change it. So you do your best to manage, try to not think about it, and withdraw into a world where you cut out anyone or anything that reminds you that you’re “fucked up”. Yes, you avoid the sense of failure, and you live increasingly alone in a disconnected world. Resigned to spend the rest of your life just putting up with this shit.

See what I mean by stuck?

By contrast, if you see yourself as wounded because you are a human being and war is supposed to hurt, you remove the judgment. When your wounds are not tied to your sense of worth, you do not blame yourself for your condition, and you open yourself up to the forces of healing.

Every warfighter worth his weight should come home with deep spirit wounds. If you didn’t, you haven’t truly known combat.

Being changed by war is a sign of honor. There is no weakness in it. Yes, it fucking hurts your heart. Yes, it changes your sense of self. Yes, it creates problems you never imagined you’d have to endure. Yes, it leaves you different than the civilians you now live among. But shouldn’t it?? If you took on the call of a warfighter, and you went through hell, why would you expect anything less than to come home with scars?? Scars whose very existence is because you acted with extreme courage and selflessness. The only way for you to have avoided being wounded by combat is to never have been in it.

(Our society’s attitude toward warfighters also fuels a sense that there’s something wrong with you; we should be embracing warfighters for the beauty of their scars.)

If you change how you think about your pain, and stop believing that you should have been stronger (what would that have meant anyway?) you create a place within you where you can begin to heal.

How? By accepting the fact that you are not fucked up, you are wounded. Wounds are not failures. Wounds are not to be ashamed of.

You didn’t get wounded because you were a coward or weak or failed. Quite the contrary.

It’s OKAY to be wounded.
It’s what you should be if you’ve been in combat.

There is nothing weak about you.

In reality, wounds are opportunities for growth, for transformation, for healing. Will you always be scarred? Yes. But scars are signs of growth, survival and life. Wounds can heal when you stop judging yourself by them.

You need to see yourself with compassion.

You wouldn’t judge a buddy for being in the pain you are in. You wouldn’t shame or blame or call him a pussy because he witnessed and created some of the most intense suffering in humanity and came home angry and grieving and changed. You wouldn’t write his nightmares and anxiety off as being “fucked up”, would you? No. You’d love him. You’d be there for him. You’d remind him that he’s no less the warfighter now than he was then.

This is just a different battle, guys. And it’s one you can transcend and win, when you choose acceptance and realize that only by understanding and believing that it’s okay to be wounded, can you get unstuck.

From the time I was five, I have lived with a body that subjects me to pain. Severe headaches at age five, joint pain that kept me on the sofa at age nine. Then an adolescence of debilitating fatigue, sensitivity to sound and temperatures, allover muscle and joint aches, flu-like symptoms. It would last for weeks, months at a time, then just as quickly leave. My physician father took me from specialist to specialist who ran blood tests. They kept telling me the same thing: there’s nothing with you. It must be all in your head. They ruled out a variety of illnesses and that was that. Bless my father for never giving up, even though the answer would not be found until after he had passed away when I was 18. Even the Mayo Clinic was clueless. Especially when I passed my psychological tests and they ruled out depression.

What was wrong with me? To the world, I looked fine. But I didn’t feel fine. I got anxiety every time I visited a doctor, knowing how I would be judged. I had told my story over and over and no one believed me. Even my family had doubts. They thought I was making it up, being lazy. I started to doubt myself. Was it all in my head? What did that even mean? It wasn’t until I was 22, after having been bedridden for six months with fatigue so severe that it took all my energy just to take a shower then I’d have to go back to bed, that I met a doctor who had the courage to defy her colleagues and believe me. She was on the forefront of what they were just starting to understand: fibromyalgia. Her faith in me changed my life.  (And I am grateful to say, aside from chronic neck pain and migraines, all my other symptoms receded completely.) But I know what it’s like when there’s something wrong with you and no one believes you. I know what it feels like to have people judge and question your integrity and sanity. And when you don’t get better within the timeframe they believe is reasonable, they dismiss you and often give up on you.

You know how this feels, don’t you. I know you do.

PTSD, spirit wounds, depression, and illnesses that run ahead of medicine’s understanding… people just don’t get it. They think that you’re making it up, that you’re lazy, that you’re just not sociable, that you should be able to overcome and get on with a life that feels right to them. They don’t see you. They see your symptoms and behaviors. And that’s it. When it’s trauma related, as PTSD and most spirit wounds are, they don’t understand how you just can’t let go of it and move on. Just like that. They knew you when you were strong and the idea that you can’t overcome this is difficult for them to believe. If you’ve tried for years to get better and haven’t progressed, they often tend to see weakness (instead of the incredible tenacity and strength it takes to deal with and manage that level of pain for that long).

It hurts to not be understood. It’s lonely. It ruins relationships. It splits families. It leaves you feeling ashamed that you’re not stronger and doubting yourself. The sad part is that if your wounds or illness were visible, if you had cancer or had lost a limb, people would be more accepting and empathetic. (Just to a point, though, people seem to be very quick to dismiss others if they do not recover fast enough. I know those who have visible wounds and illnesses also get “left behind” when the suffering continues.)

Why is it so hard for people to understand?

First of all, let’s be clear. I’m not talking about wanting pity or sympathy. You are tough, you’ve been through hell, you have higher thresholds for suffering and pain than most people will ever comprehend, as well as tenacity and endurance. You don’t need someone to feel sorry for you. Quite the contrary. You need someone to see beneath the pain and remind you of your strength and courage and ability to persevere.

But what happens when you have invisible wounds, is you come home and your loved ones start to see how those wounds manifest in your mood, your decisions, your ability to be close to them, what your attitude is… and what they see is someone they don’t recognize. That scares them. They keep believing that these wounds will just go away, or worse, they don’t believe that your pain is or should be as bad as you make it out to be. If you lose your job, you become a loser. If you don’t attend parties and social events, you become antisocial. If you shutdown Facebook because you can’t stand “the noise”, you become unfriendly and out of touch. And on it goes.

People hope that you will return to who you used to be. As time goes by and anger and symptoms become increasingly difficult for them to live with (cause it is damn hard to live with anger and rejection), their hope starts to fade. You do need to understand that your behavior feels personal to them — especially if they don’t know what you have been through*. You are angry because of what you’ve been experienced, but to them, if feels like you are just constantly angry at them. Anger hurts and it pushes people away. And over time, if people do not have a context to understand why you are angry, they assume they are the problem and they withdraw.

(I don’t want any family member who reads this to think that I don’t understand how painful and stressful it is for you to care for someone with PTSD and spirit wounds. It is. It takes a deep toll on you. The depth of these wounds is so deep that it hurts you, too. These are some of the most intense wounds that human beings can experience. We don’t often acknowledge that, but we need to, otherwise, we risk thinking people who have PTSD/spirit wounds are lazy, incompetent, weak, or uncaring. They’re not.)

What often happens is that people assume these wounds are temporary. That healing is fast. That there is some quick fix. When the reality is that these kind of wounds fundamentally change who you are. And that change (not the symptoms or the pain) is permanent. Unless that fact is accepted, there is no room for healing, growth, transformation, becoming someone stronger, wiser, and more whole. (All of which are possible when pain and wounds are validated and accepted and become the place to start rebuilding a sense of self and purpose.)

If you are a family member or loved one of a someone suffering from PTSD and spirit wounds, you need to realize that these wounds are deep and life-changing. There is no going back. You can only begin where you are and go forward. These wounds are not something that anyone would choose to have. They are sustained because your loved one was acting with extreme courage, willing to risk his or her life for someone else, and/or surviving.

I truly believe that if we make an effort to understand, to stop judging and try to imagine what it would be like to experience what each other has been through, more relationships can be healed. And the wounded can get that life-affirming belief in them that allows them to stop trying to justify why they are wounded and to focus on finding a healing path.

*If you don’t know what your loved one has been through and they can’t or won’t tell you, do some research on what people in similar circumstances have experienced. There are many stories out there that will help you to get an “inside” view and perspective. Know that everyone experiences trauma differently, but taking the time to imagine what it would be like will be helpful to changing how you perceive your loved one.

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.

 

 

 

You came back different. Changed. You can’t really describe  it, but you’re not yourself. Not who you used to be. You’re angry. Blow up at stupid shit. Lack other emotions. Feel numb. Tired. Disinterested in stuff that used to be interesting. Tense. Sleepless. Have nightmares that scare the hell out of you. Forget shit. Can’t focus. You miss your buddies. Miss the war. Miss the ones you lost. Miss feeling like you used to feel. Before.

He came home. Different. Instead of you being able to step back and let him take over sharing the household, childcare and financial responsibilities, you have to take care of him now, too. He’s angry. Silent, except when he’s mad. He can’t remember shit. Seems unmotivated. And distant. He’s up all night; keeps you up all night. Spends more time on the sofa than in bed. Keeps loaded guns around the house. Is edgy. Drinks too much. Seems obsessed with weapons and war. Wakes up sweating from nightmares. Says he loves you, doesn’t act like it.

Sex? Ha, not the same.

You lose interest in the midst of it, your body’s just not working the way it used to. And god damn it, you’re young. You’re supposed to be a sex machine at this age, right? She doesn’t understand. This isn’t by choice. You’d give anything to be the best lover she will ever have. Doesn’t she know it hurts like hell to disappoint her? You know she has expectations. She’s young, too. And your worst fear is that she’ll get her needs met somewhere else. But you can’t help the way you feel now. The way your body won’t respond, won’t let go, won’t. Just won’t.

He says he still loves you, but when it comes to sex, you’re not so sure. When it does happen, it’s too fast. His mind seems elsewhere. Or he just can’t get it up. When you do manage to get him in the mood, shave your legs, slither into lingerie… you wait. Minutes turn to half hour, turn to one hour, turn to 4:38am. He hits the bed, zonks out. You cry yourself to sleep. It has to be you. You’re not attractive enough. You’re not good enough. He doesn’t want you anymore. He. doesn’t. want.you.anymore. It slices to your soul.

She used to look at you differently. Like you were a man, not some exasperating child. She has no clue you are barely holding it together. How dark your thoughts get. How you wonder if you just might snap. How you imagine killing again and how good that would feel right now. She tries to be supportive when she’s not exhausted from the kids. But she’s angry, too. Why can’t she understand that you don’t want to be this way? You’re not some child, even though TBI fucked up your brain and now you can’t do half the stuff you once did. Why doesn’t she understand how humiliating that is? She reminds you constantly of what you need to do, when, where, checking, double-checking. When you don’t remember, she gets frustrated. As if you could remember if you just tried harder. Why can’t she realize that the part of your brain that’s supposed to remember is gone. Fucking gone. Trying harder isn’t an option. It’s never going to be an option. This TBI shit isn’t going away. It’s who you are now. And underneath it all are deeper wounds…

He’s more like a child these days than the man you married. You can’t trust that he’ll be able to handle taking care of the kids alone. What if he forgets something important? Like that the baby’s in the bath? Or the stove is on? Or that he is even supposed to be watching the kids? You are so tired. So fucking tired. You’re more caregiver than wife. More mother than lover. And he just sits there, in that chair, unmoving for hours, cleaning his guns. Lost in a world that you know hurts him. You know you’re supposed to be patient, kind, understanding. Not lose it. Remember that he’s a warrior. A wounded one. A hero of our country. You’re supposed to realize that he can’t fucking remember, because it’s the TBI, not him. It’s the PTSD, not him. But you forget. And it is him. This is who he is now. Who are you supposed to be?

He can’t do the things you used to enjoy doing together. He panics in crowds. Hates being around your friends and family. You make excuses for him. People are starting to wonder. He keeps to himself. Overreacts. Blows up at the kids. You’re walking on eggshells, trying to keep him calm, trying to keep the kids calm, trying not to fall apart from it all. Will you ever get relief from this pressure you’re under?

Doesn’t she know you miss “you” too? That no one ever prepared you for this. That all the training in the world never prepared you for this life now. That most of the time you are barely here. That you never wanted to be a burden to her. That you hate knowing she’s carrying all of the load. That you never thought PTSD/TBI would mean this. Half alive. Half dead. A warrior at heart. Always. A body that says you’ll never have the life of a warrior again. Sometimes you wonder if she’d be better off without you. Because, well, she would be better off without you. Free. Not having to be your brain. Not having to put up with your shit. She’d be better off, but what would you be?

Doesn’t he know you miss “you” too? That no one ever prepared you for this. That all the experience during deployments, all the fear, all the worry, all the prayers, all the promises you made to God if He would just bring you home, never prepared you for this? That most of the time you’re not sure where you are anymore? That you’re stressed to your limit. That while he no longer has the stress of combat, your battle has never ended? You went from fear and being brave — so brave– handling it all, the kids, the house, the finances, work, the mortgage, family, Christmas, birthdays, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, month after month, year after year… alone…and it has never stopped. He came home and the war came with him. And all this time you’ve been strong. Holding it inside. Putting on a brave face. Because you had to. And falling apart wasn’t an option. Because you couldn’t breathe while he was gone. And somewhere deep inside you, in the pounds you’ve gained, the ache in your back, the band around your chest…it’s all still there. Fear. And now, grief.

Grief? You think about them all the time. How one moment they were there, the next gone, and you had to keep going. Shove it all aside. There was no time for grieving. They’re gone. These brothers. The ones who knew you better than anyone else. The ones you would have died for. Except you lived. Did you do enough? If you had just… why them? Why not you? You’ll never know. You see the faces of the dead. You close your eyes. They’re there. You miss them.

You watch her. She’s so beautiful. Such a great mother to your kids. You don’t know how she does it all. How she puts up with you. You wish you could tell her. You wish you could feel beyond the consuming rage. You wish you could make her know that you’re just lost and broken and you don’t know what to do. That all this time you’ve been strong. Holding it inside. Putting on a brave face. Because you had to. And falling apart wasn’t an option. Because you couldn’t breathe while you were gone. And somewhere deep inside you, in the pounds you’ve gained, the ache in your back, the band around your chest…it’s all still there. Fear. And now, grief.

You watch him. He’s so beautiful. Such a good daddy to your kids. You don’t know how he manages. How he puts up with the hell that PTSD and TBI put him through. You wish you could tell him. You wish you could feel beyond this tightness in your chest, this fear that life will always be this hard and that you won’t be strong enough. You wish you could make him know that you’re just lost and broken and you don’t know what to do.

I don’t know what to do.
I don’t know what to do.

###

And so here you are. Run over by the energy of war. Fighting each other because there is no enemy to fight now, only fear and self-doubt and shame and uncertainty.  Expecting life, expecting yourselves, to pick up where you left off and continue on. Only he’s changed. Only she’s changed. You’re relating to each other based on the last version you knew of each other. And it doesn’t work. He’s changed. She’s changed.

So where do you go from here?

You start by looking at yourself and determine what you have do have control over and what you don’t. Then you decide that for the things you have control over, you will own your power to make choices.

(You remember, too, that the only thing we ever truly control is our perspective. And you give grace to the reality that PTSD and TBI make choosing a perspective more challenging.)

You start by looking at your relationship today and decide, together, that you are not each others’ enemy. That, if you are going to make it, you’re going to have to be on the same team. Standing side-by-side, looking out at the world, together. Even if that means the one with PTSD can’t do more than what he’s doing now. Even if that means the one without goes to the PTSD support group.

You start by accepting what is, now. You grieve the loss of the hope and belief that the permanent changes will go away, as you focus on the good and beauty and joy that remains.

You start by stepping back to realize the extent of what you have each been through. That means you realize the layers of fear, grief, exhaustion, and the depth of emotion that is held within each of you and you find a way to start gently releasing it. Write. Paint. Journal. Cry. If you can’t talk to each other about the parts you want each other to know, message each other, write each other a letter.

You start by realizing you will never fully know the parts of each other that are hurt the most. His combat. Her homefront.

You start by recognizing that you are each grieving. And you give yourselves permission to grieve.

You start by deciding to be gentle with yourself and kind to each other.

You start by accepting that your roles have changed. And you find ways to give each other space and time to do the things that nurture you independently.

You start by choosing to believe that Love is stronger than Death. That Love is stronger than life with PTSD. That Love is stronger than life with TBI. You choose to believe that you will be given the strength you need, in the moment  you need it, and not a moment before.

You start by shrinking the big scary future down to the sizeable now of today.

And you reach out for support. You band together with those who are walking the same path and you let them become your family, your source of strength, the ones who fill in the gaps and help remind you that you are stronger than you think you are. That you can do this. That when the struggles are thoughts and beliefs, thoughts and beliefs can be changed. That when you just need to cry, you can cry. That when you have a hell of  day, that tomorrow can be better.

And sometimes, you start by understanding that not every marriage has the foundation to bear the weight of war. And if that happens and your heart breaks, you are not to blame. There is nothing, nothing in this world that proves that human beings should be stronger than the destructive weight of war. Sometimes, a marriage just won’t be.

And all you can do then is make life-giving choices. And remember that as much as it hurts to lose someone you love to war, it doesn’t mean that you are unlovable. Another love can find you still.

The Wounded Warrior Project says: “The greatest casualty is being forgotten.”

We live in a society that has a super short attention span. Maybe it’s because we’re inundated by a constant stream of headlines that bullet-point and define where our attention goes, and we allow it. The stream becomes white noise; part of the daily mindscape that feeds us distraction. Maybe it’s because most people have enough to do to keep their own lives on track, and most people are scared, and anything that seems “too real” just makes them more scared. I don’t know.

People don’t intend to not care. They don’t intend to forget. They don’t intend to make you feel invalidated or forgotten. They’re not used to engaging in anything that doesn’t personally impact their own job, relationships, and social circle.That’s not wrong, per se; it’s human nature. Most of us can only handle our immediate sphere.

So what does this mean for our warriors?

You don’t need sympathy or pity, I know. You don’t want it. You don’t even need thanks (though it’s nice when it’s genuine).

What you do need to know is that when you put your life on the line for the sake of your fellow citizens, it better fucking mean something to them. What you need to know is that sacrifice, death, and giving up your own mental/spiritual peace so that others can live these oblivious lives and not have to focus on national security, is worth it. (Protecting and defending your brothers and sisters in arms? Always worth it.)

So what does it say to you when you get back from deployment and no one has skipped a beat?

(It could mean you’re doing such a damn good job that, because of what you’re doing, the rest of your fellow citizens haven’t been disturbed by terrorists and devastation. But that’s another point.)

We’ve been at war continuously for more than 10 years. We’ve had men and women deploy and redeploy, we’ve had (though we rarely see) the fallen return to be quietly buried and held close in heart by their family, friends, and the brothers and sisters who knew them better than anyone else. Lost indefinitely from our consciousness.

We’ve had you come home, and pushed you quickly (a few days should do it, right) to look more like us so that we don’t have to deal with your pain, or the thorny issues of what it means to take human life, or even have to remember who you’re actually fighting “over there” (wait, where is it again? oh, yeah. Syria now, right??)

We think Veteran’s Day is about store-wide sales and discounts/free lunches for military personnel. (Yeah, that feels good. We’ll post those patriotic Facebook posts all day, and comment “thank you” in every veteran’s post we come across. Hell, yeah, we’ll buy that Thanksgiving turkey and that 60″ TV while it’s on sale…)

We’ll start up more miniscule non-profits than we can possibly count, with very good intentions, then fight and bitch over territory and funding, and get lost in endless bureaucracy to “serve vets.” But when a vet actually needs a bit of cash to help out until he can get a job, well… “we don’t do that. talk to the VA.”

We’ll put stickers on our cars to “Support our Troops” (they’re a little faded now) and we’ll stare at a uniformed warrior waiting for the next flight at the airport, more than fatigue drawn across his sleeping face; and maybe, just maybe we’ll wonder what his eyes have… (oh, shit, they switched my gate…)

We’ll learn that our neighbor, co-worker, classmate is a combat vet and look twice, wondering if she has that mental disorder that veterans get (what’s it called again? PT…PT something) and when we see her up most of the night, night after night, TV on — well, she must be an alcoholic or druggie. We’ll warn our kids to stay away from “that house.”

We’ll turn out in droves for the Fourth of July, set off round after round of fireworks and never even connect their sound to the sounds of war, or realize that the guy standing next to us will never not hear the sounds of war. And if he seems to be a bit on edge, or chooses not to attend the neighborhood celebration we’ll wonder “what’s his problem?” and question his patriotism. “What kind of American doesn’t celebrate the 4th, right?” Right.

We’ll see the names and faces of the latest casualties from Afghanistan on the nightly news and not even register that their deaths have anything at all to do with us (wait — huh? soldiers are still dying there??)

And you hope that we don’t forget you.

What we should be worrying about is if you forget us.

Because you are our guardians. You carry a knowledge and understanding that we no longer know how to embody or even recognize that citizens should. You feel as if you don’t belong anymore among us. You’re right. We don’t have anything to offer you that you don’t already know. You belong to the few who carry freedom on their backs and on their hearts. You don’t fight “for us” – you fight for freedom. You don’t fight so that we can sleep well at night, safely tucked into our beds, you fight so that we have the choice to sleep in beds or not.

It’s true, we’re not easy to like, we’re not easy to put up with. We try your patience. We ask stupid questions. We forget you’re human and we don’t know how to talk to you. The things you know scare us. We like to live on the surface where we don’t have to look at the dark and you’ve become an expert at living in the darkest depths. We aren’t even sure what being a warrior is or what it means (something like Call of Duty, right?) or what it should mean to us.

And you hope we don’t forget you.

When you come back and no one has skipped a beat, it isn’t because you don’t matter. It’s because we don’t know how much you actually do. We trust you. You’re always there. You’ve always been there. Like a child who trusts a parent to do their work and then come home. We can’t imagine not having you.

So, yes. We’re gonna forget your pain, your sacrifice, your loss… hell, in a dozen years, we’ll have forgotten Iraq and Afghanistan even happened (we don’t even remember Iraq too much now). It’ll be your generation’s war, one fought by just a few. Its meaning and importance faded from our memory as we move on to new threats, new enemies, new distractions.

You can’t stop us from forgetting. It’s how we are. What you can do, is know that at that time, in that place, when we were all lost and confused and disillusioned, you were there. Our guardians.

And that fucking matters.

 

 

 

 

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.

If you haven’t read Part 1, please do. This is part of a discussion designed to help combat vets help others understand them better. If this article resonates with you, pass it along to a loved one.

Here is what I hear from vets and what they are often unable to share with others:

1.) We can be strong, resilient and broken at the same time. The human spirit has the same rules as matter: it can be changed or transformed but it cannot be destroyed. So even when we’re most broken we have an underlying resiliency and ability to find ways to continue. Human beings are of Life and Life-giving by nature. We naturally seek life. It’s when pain and perceptions are not examined and released that life gets blocked. No matter how broken we seem, we need you to honor our spirit for the resiliency it has and is. We need you to see beyond our pain and remember that we still want to the strong one for you. We need you to know that there’s a reason we’re struggling and it’s not because we’re weak. You may need to remind us of that sometimes, too.

2.) We love you and want to protect you from the hell we experience and know. We just don’t always know how. War puts us in the most vulnerable and the most powerful positions at the same time. We had the power to take life and we were utterly powerless to stop death. We don’t know how to make sense of that. We don’t want you to have to know that kind of mental and spiritual torture. We want you safe, we want you whole, we want you untouched by war. And it hurts us like hell to know that just by being ourselves, we contaminate you with it. We wish we were stronger. We know you want to love us, we know you do love us, and we don’t know how to keep the things we carry separate from our relationship with you. But we try. Because we love you. Not because we don’t.

3.) Talking about it is one of the most terrifying things you can ask us to do. We know you’re curious and you want to know what we went through because you want to know us. But being pressured to talk about the things we’ve seen, done, and experienced – it won’t help us until we’re ready. We may never be ready to share it with you. (See #2). Not because you’re not important to us, but because you’re the MOST important to us. What you think matters more than anyone else. And we don’t want to risk you not understanding all the factors and influences that went into those moments that put us at our most vulnerable and still haunt us. We need to know that you’re there, but when we’re ready. If we’re ready, which we may never be ready.  But at least, to know you care enough to be willing to listen.

4.) We talk with our buddies. You don’t understand why we’d choose to talk to our buddies instead of you. But these brothers and sisters were the ones who had our backs and went through shit with us. That level of trust can’t be forged anywhere else. It doesn’t mean we love you less. But it’s a bond that no one, including you, will ever replace. If you can accept that, and make room in our lives for these people, it would mean a lot to us.

5.) We’re grieving. We don’t always think of it that way, but we are. We miss the ones we lost, we carry guilt, we aren’t sure how to reconcile it or how to let go of them. The date and time they died is seared into us and it doesn’t matter how many years ago it was, when that day rolls around, it hurts all over again. Much of what “the war” is that you see on us is actually grief. If someone would just realize that, we might be able to give ourselves permission to mourn and work through it. But we’re not supposed to be sad, so we try to hide it from you and everyone else. Except our buddies. They know.

6.) Some of us have PTSD, many of us don’t, all of us will never be the same. If we have PTSD, we’re not crazy. We’re not “mentally ill” either. We’re wounded inside and our bodies and minds have been through too much shit and can’t figure out why, just because we changed geography, we’re suddenly supposed to be “safe” now. We’re not monsters. We’ve been trained to react this way. We don’t understand ourselves now either. We want to. We want someone to make sense of it all. We don’t like living this way. We feel as if we’re having normal reactions and the only thing that’s abnormal is the fact that we’re not in a war zone anymore. Many of us don’t have PTSD. You think we went through war unscathed. Hell, sometimes even we think so. But we have questions, too. And our experiences have also changed us. We’re trying to make sense of it.

7.) We miss war. We know that sounds crazy, especially if you see us suffering. But we miss aspects of it. We were at the top of our game. There’s nothing like the adrenaline rush of combat. You are never more fully alive than when you’re facing death. We don’t just miss that rush, we miss the cohesiveness, we miss knowing one hundred percent who has our back, knowing who we could trust.  We miss having nothing to worry about except the moment in front of us.

8.) We have a hard time finding college or civilian jobs fulfilling. We’ve lived through too much, we’ve matured beyond our peers. What seems like a normal career path to you may not be all that appealing to us anymore. Many of us need more challenge than that. Some of us will start our own businesses because of the challenge and because we have no question that we can do anything we set our minds to. We’ve been tested. We won. What interested us before may no longer. There’s nothing wrong with those old paths, we’re just different now. We have incredible potential and leadership skills and even if we don’t have it all figured out, we sure as hell are going to try. Because if war can’t stop us, then why would we let little things like money, loans, and taking a few risks do so?

9.) We don’t want your pity. We want what has been promised to us. We don’t want charity. We’re tired of being seen as victims and helpless. We’re tired of being “supported” by countless nonprofits who take good people’s money in our name and do little to impact our well-being. We need healthcare. We need benefits. We need the checks to arrive on time so we can pay our bills. We don’t need you or anyone else to feel sorry for us. We need to be heard and seen and appreciated. We need someone to see us as strong and whole even when we are still struggling to remember that. We need someone to hold that vision of ourselves up before us and remind us of our own power to become that. You could do that for us.

10.) We will always be warriors, but war will not always define us. We’re still changing; we may seem stuck at times but we keep seeking peace. We will always honor the warrior within, but we will not always let war define who we are. We’re greater than that. We’re stronger than that. Sure, we may need some guidance and a lot of patience to find our way, but we’re determined to figure out how to make sense of our experiences and live strong. We need you to start seeing us for what we can be. We need you to remember who we were. We need you to remind us that change comes from making choices and that mountains are climbed one step, one breath, at a time.

Oh, and did we say, we love you.

If you want to vent or share what’s on your mind, reach out. I’m here to walk with you.