Archive for the ‘Families After War’ Category

This is an issue many of you, and especially me, are dealing with. I’m going to flat out tell you right now that I’m just beginning to truly understand the importance of true intimacy… I’m a novice at this, guys. Maybe we all are. God knows how many ancient walls guard my heart….or what it takes for someone to be let through. So, I know that this is a tough topic. It’s not easy for me…. but it’s important.

I’ve been thinking about how we can be surrounded by people who love us and yet we don’t “feel” the love. We blame it on our walls, right? And yes, our walls are a good part to blame. But I think part of the reason is also because most people who say they love us actually love how we make them feel. They love our energy. They love what we do, how we make life feel safe or good or easy or just better for them. They love their idea of us. Their love for us makes them feel good. To them, their love for us is as real as it gets. And their love is real. Love is love. All love is real.

So why don’t we feel it? Because being loved for how we make others feel and being loved for who we really are, are two very different things. Two different types of love.

If we don’t feel truly seen, heard or understood for who we really are on the inside, if we aren’t able to really talk to and confide in the people who love us, to feel perfectly safe sharing our selves — we aren’t known for more than our surface. We can’t FEEL loved unless we feel truly seen, heard and known BENEATH the surface. We can KNOW we are loved, but we won’t feel it. Or, at least I don’t. Why?

Because to feel loved we need intimacy. The deep trust and safety of another’s spirit that allows us to be vulnerable, that sets us free to fully be who we are, that makes us feel known on the inside, safe to express our real feelings and know we will be allowed to feel whatever we feel: our fears, our dreams, our hopes, our regrets, our desires. Intimacy makes us feel connected. Intimacy deeply entwines our roots together.

Being loved for how we make someone feel and intimacy are two very different things.

Being loved for how we make people feel is the love of basic friendship, fans, colleagues, teammates, followers, supporters, clients, it makes us popular among people who enjoy our energy or who need us in their lives in order to satisfy their need for safety or comfort. Being loved for how we make others feel is surface love. Surface love has roots but they are not entwined.

Intimacy is the love of marriage, deep friendships, parents and children, warfighters, life partners, soul mates.

Perhaps this is why relationships that require intimacy and don’t have it don’t last? The demands of these type of relationships are so heavy that unless intimacy is the foundation and maintained over time — unless our roots are thoroughly entwined — no other kind of love is strong enough to support the weight of it.

Because what we all really want is to be known, seen, understood for the broken, evolving, growing, scared, brave people we are.

We get surface love and intimacy mixed up sometimes. I have. I have accepted and given surface love instead of demanding intimacy where intimacy was required. We think that spending time with someone, living with someone, being around them day in and day out is intimacy when all it really does is let you get to know their behavior. (Think of two trees standing beside each other, they spend all their time together and know their surfaces, but their roots are not entwined. They are together, but each remains separate and alone.)

If you don’t have intimacy and if you aren’t sharing your inner worlds with a trust and shared, equal power and support — if you’re not talking to each other about your real selves (entwining those roots) — all you know is their behavior, their tendencies, how they react. How they react is often very different than how they feel inside. And if you don’t have their trust enough for them to share with you how they feel, you do not know them. You do not have intimacy. You have surface love.

Of course, relationships are complicated and there a myriad of factors that play into them, this certainly isn’t the only one. But at its most basic core, doesn’t the success of a relationship come down to whether real intimacy exists or not?

I haven’t been good at intimacy in this lifetime, not at requiring it nor in giving it. My walls are thick, I’m well armored. Only a couple of people have emerged in the last few years who have had what it takes for me to let them in. They taught me that it IS possible. Finding out that I CAN be vulnerable and truly feel seen, heard, understood and accepted for who I am, made me understand just how much it deeply matters. Life-changingly so. I’m not going to go into details out of respect for my husband’s privacy, but waking up to this (along with other reasons) has resulted in my decision to peacefully end the marriage, a process we’re still moving through.

I don’t have the answer to “how do you let yourself be intimate?” I will, no doubt, be writing more about my own discovery of that, and part of my own process is for me to be more vulnerable with you and write about my own journey in a way I haven’t done before.

But I will say, that even if you have walls as strong as mine, it’s not ONLY about your walls. We instinctively know when we are in the safe energy realm of someone who makes us feel seen, heard and understood. It’s about the type of love, the energy dynamics, the fears and maturity of both people. Because the right person with the right energy CAN come into your life and move past your walls as if they were paper-thin. I’ve experienced this myself (which, when you have walls like mine, feels nothing short of miraculous) and I experience the blessing of being that person to so many of you every day.

 

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.

 

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 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.

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.

Trevor sat down in the lunchroom with his colleagues. He’d been back at his civilian job for the last three months. Things were okay. Not great, but okay. It’d taken a while to get used to the routine and some of the policies at his company had changed in the fifteen months he’d been deployed. He looked around. Men and women were chatting, laughing, talking about weekend plans. Their lives seemed carefree. Trevor felt a pang of envy. He wondered what they’d think if they knew the kind of things he thought about. Besides combat memories, there were the questions. So many questions.

When war takes you apart, you are left to put the pieces back together, to discard what no longer fits and to recreate, with the Universe’s help, a new sense of wholeness. Questions begin the process, but when you’re steeped in their depths, they can seem like they’re all that exist.

Hold on and don’t give up. There is another side to this and you will find your way to it.

As you search, keep this in mind: no one can give you the answers. You have to find and create your own answers to the questions running through you. You will eventually pick and choose, discover and accept new ideas, beliefs, and pieces that make sense for you and fit your new concept of what life and death mean.

Religion

If you were religious before war, you may or may not be afterward. Likewise, if you weren’t religious, you may have discovered a new faith. War challenges every religious tenant of every faith. The stark contrasts of war’s devastation, mindlessness, chaos, and the randomness of death, along with what it is like to create death, put most religions on shaky ground. Some people manage to hold on to their faith—and some people’s faith is what gets them through. Other people feel betrayed by their faith, reject God, and everything they’ve ever believed.

Religion/spirituality is such a heavy topic and so key to so many of our most basic beliefs about life, that I’ve devoted a separate chapter to it. But for now, understand that religious questions, anger at your God, feelings of betrayal, and rejecting faith are common reactions to war and its aftermath.

It’s hard for families to grasp this and you may find that your rejection of faith causes them to reject you or pressure you. Remember, your family does not have your experience. They do not have the same questions you have. And there is no way for them to know what you know. Try to understand how your feelings about faith may feel uncomfortable to them and their perception of life.

Good and Evil

Closely tied to religion, our concept of good and evil is also thrown askew during war. We see good people do very bad things and some bad people do surprisingly very good things. We also find that there are often no clear good versus bad guys in war. All sides have their truth. When you are living intimately with death and mutilation for prolonged periods, it’s hard to see or believe in the existence and power of good. Your own experiences during the war will impact you most with this. In the enormity of the ‘evil’ done in war, losing faith in the existence of good is a common response. It takes time and a rebalance of being exposed to the ‘good’ in non-war environments to rediscover your faith in humanity.

Questions about good and evil also underlie how we interpret war and the actions we and others take during war. Does evil exist on its own? Or is it the result of human intentions born out of fear, insecurity, and a desire for power? What causes people to commit atrocities? Are people ‘evil’ or are they merely human beings who fall prey to their environments and weaknesses? Where does morality come from? Are people basically good or are they inherently bad? These questions abound during and after war.

Meaning

What is the meaning of life if it can be taken so violently and at any moment? What’s the point in existing if you can lose everything that matters in a moment’s notice, without any rhyme or reason? What is the meaning of life if you can take it from another and not really feel anything while doing it? Why should you have survived when others didn’t?

Why are we here? If the future does not actually exist (it’s a concept in our minds based on expectation, but in time and physicality it does not yet exist), then life becomes a matter of living in the here and now, because now is all there is. What does this mean for you? For your children? For the decisions you make about what kind of life after war you want to have? What is the point of life for you? What matters now?

Safety

The questions about security and safety are some of the most challenging. What is safe? What does it mean to feel secure? We imagine that we can shield ourselves and loved ones from danger by our stealth, but is there really such a thing as security? What do you put your trust in? Your weapons? What keeps us from death?

When you know that the answer to that last question is nothing; it may seem that there is no solid ground underneath you anymore. And fear can become what you live by.

After war, nothing much is going to feel safe for a long, long time. Your concept of safety has been destroyed by gunfire, IEDs, mortars, landmines, lack of sleep, the possibility of sexual assault and many other situations that taught your cells to be on guard. It’s been destroyed by never knowing who was safe and who wasn’t, who to trust and who not to. The safety you feel now, is based on your ability to defend yourself, not what once would have been a natural trust in another human being to not harm you. Your body has gone through actual physical/chemical changes that have altered how you react to your environment. It’s going to take time to transition from feeling threatened because people were really trying to kill you, to recognizing that feeling threatened now is a conditioned response. It’s hard to remove the actual threat from your mind. And harder to remove it from your body’s learned responses.

You may perceive far more danger in civilian life than there actually is. And because you know how easy death comes, you may also be far more protective of your loved ones than they think is appropriate. It’s hard to let go. It’s hard to understand that you’re not in control. Being protective gives the only sense of control that you know—because protecting and defending yourself and your loved ones on the battlefield was the only safety you knew. There was nothing else. Nothing was safe and nothing much feels safe now.

Take a deep breath. No matter how hard you try to protect your loved ones, nothing will ever be enough. You are not in control of their destiny. And that’s terrifying when you know just how easily and unexpectedly death comes.

You can’t protect yourself from being devastated if you lose your loved ones. You may never trust life again. But the reality is that we have no control over fate’s hand. It’s going to take your body awhile to let the rationale part of your mind help determine whether or not you are safe. What you know and what you feel will be two different things until the body has time to release the energy it has stored for protection and allow you to rest in the decisions your mind makes.

One thing you can start doing is questioning the beliefs behind your thoughts. Look at what thoughts you are believing that make you feel unsafe. Ask yourself why you feel or think that way. Questioning thoughts can help us uncover our beliefs. And beliefs are what form our sense of reality.

I’ve found it helpful when fear or anxiety threatens to overcome me. I take a deep breath and ask:

  • What am I thinking? I’m specific and write it down. I look at each thought, then ask one by one:
  • Why do I think this?
  • What am I believing that makes me think this?
  • Is it true?
  • What would it mean to me if this weren’t true?

It helps me when I realize that many of my thoughts are based on things that I believed in the past; at one point, those beliefs served me. They helped me at one time in my life. But while my life and I have changed, I often find that in the process I simply carried old beliefs with me and never took the time to see if they still fit. So, the next question I ask is: Is this belief/thought still serving me? And if it’s not, I choose to let go of that belief.

I’m not saying that this will work for all anxiety or fear—a professional counselor can help diagnose whether or not your anxiety or fear needs more medical care. I have found though, that for me, taking the time to question the beliefs behind my thoughts has really helped me change how I see and experience life.

(Excerpted from Close to Home Chapter 7.)

We are often unaware of how powerful our thoughts can be.

We feel something, get in a mood, dwell on a thought that creates negative emotions and don’t know how to get ourselves out of it.

We aren’t taught growing up that thoughts are actually what create our emotions, drive our beliefs and determine how we experience life. We usually think life just happens to us  (and often it seems to) – and that we’re left to just react to it.

What if we could change how we experience our lives? What if we could have the power to actually create our lives?

Most of us follow a path that has been laid out by culture, society, our family’s expectations, circumstances. And we admire those few who seem to find the strength to rise up and do something different. Break the pattern. Break the mold. They seem to drive their lives instead of letting life drive them.

How do they do it? They’re not smarter, better, luckier or have more advantages. So what makes them different?

Their thoughts.

They chose to focus on what they do want  and not on how things are now. They start to think new and different thoughts. Thoughts they haven’t thought before. Thoughts no one around them may have had or been allowed to have. Those thoughts lead to new possibilities as they re-imagine what is possible for them.

They start to dwell on what is possible. Open to something bigger, better, more rewarding in life. And as they focus on thinking thoughts that support that possibility, they start taking steps towards it. One step leads to another and soon they are creating a new experience. One that they want.

This is how you change your life.

Not by wishing and then convincing yourself why it’s not possible.

By thinking. By choosing to think new thoughts. And by choosing to let go of limiting thoughts.

What are limiting thoughts?

Those thoughts that keep you where you are, where you’ve always been and that keep you in the status quo. Thoughts that rise from the limit of beliefs the people around you in your upbringing held. Beliefs about what is possible and what’s not.

We often see a belief as something stronger than us. A belief is just a thought that you keep thinking. And you can change what you think.

How? By paying attention to the thoughts that are creating your life now.

  • Begin by taking time to reflect on what it is you are thinking about around an area of your life you’d like to change. Ask yourself: what thoughts do I have about this? Write down on paper a list of every thought you have about that topic. All the reasons you can or can’t change. What you heard as a child about it. What your neighborhood tends to think. What your religion says about it.
  • Examine each item on your list and start asking questions. Ask yourself: how do I know this thought is true? What if it wasn’t true for me? Where did this thought come from? Is it what I really believe or what I was raised to believe? And ultimately, does this thought still serve me and the life I want to have?
  • Make a list of new thoughts. Write down what you would like to experience. What would you need to believe to experience it? Start asking: “what if” for all things positive. Instead of immediately assuming it can’t happen or you can’t do it, start counter-attacking those thoughts with: what if I could? what if it happened easily? what if it was like ‘this’ [fill in your desired experience]?
  • Pay attention to how each thought makes you feel. Does the thought make you feel empowered or powerless? Does it make you feel lighter or heavier? Thoughts that feel good and create a sense of positive feelings  are ones that are life-giving to you.
  • Start focusing on what you do want to experience, not on what you don’t. Imagine it just as you would like it to be. Vision it for five minutes or so each day. Pay attention to those limiting thoughts and when they come up, say “thank you, but no thank you” to them and then choose to replace the thought with one that supports what you do want.

The old thoughts are going to keep raising their heads because they want to keep you safe and resist change. Keep working through them. Know that it’s normal to experience resistance and those old thought patterns are strong because they’ve been practiced so much and are easy to think. Don’t give up. Keep replacing them with thoughts that support what you want to experience. Keep choosing your new thoughts and beliefs.

Do not dwell on how things are now or the fact that you are not experiencing your desired state right now. Thoughts vibrate as energy and they attract like energy to them. That’s why when we think one discouraging thought, pretty soon we find ourselves in a bad mood and thinking more thoughts that make us feel even worse. And that’s also why it’s so hard to get out of a bad mood. We’ve “pulled in” thought after thought that supports the energy of the first thought. Breaking the mood takes stopping the thought pattern and choosing a different one.

Does this process take some effort? Yes. But far less energy than it takes to keep feeling stuck and discouraged and powerless.

Does this process work on trauma? Trauma can alter the way the brain experiences emotion and thought-processes. But much of traditional therapy approaches focus on treating the patient in a dis-empowered state and do not connect the traumatized person to their own inner power and ability to create. Trauma is powerful and must be respected, yes. But I believe the human spirit is yet more powerful. I believe nothing can be lost and perhaps everything be gained by examining what it is we think and, therefore believe, and choosing to change our perspective to one that allows us to experience a life that feels better.

Shifting thought patterns can open up new worlds of possibility and new states of being.

For more information on how to shift your thoughts and how thought works to create experience check out Mike Dooley’s life-changing book Infinite Possibilities.

The cost of war to the human spirit can be summed up with one word: loss.

The loss of sanctity of life, boundaries, safety, control.

The loss of relationship – with ourselves, others, loved ones, our jobs, who we used to be, the future we planned.

Loss holds the wounds of war in its hand.

We see physical wounds of war and we often perceive spirit wounds, but we do not look at life after war as a time of grieving what has been lost. Medicine attends to the body, therapists to the mind. The heart is left on its own.

And what the heart feels at the root of trauma is loss.

As a society, we don’t give veterans much space to actually grieve. We hardly even acknowledge that they are grieving. But they are. You can’t avoid it. And veterans aren’t the only ones grieving. Families of vets grieve, too.

What is lost?

  • Relationship. To yourself, comrades, people who’ve died, people you’ve killed, your past, future, loved ones, community,  work, faith, worldview, purpose in life.
  • Time. With family, friends, loved ones, children, careers, passions, important events, self.
  • Expectations. Of yourself, friends, families, loved ones, communities, employers and employees, your future, dreams, abilities, innocence, power, morality, ability to be understood.
  • Belief. In yourself, country, work,  purpose, worldview, religion, goodness, place in this world.

What can you do to grieve?

  • Acknowledge that it’s okay to grieve. Give you and your family permission to do so and understand that this is an appropriate response to what you have been through.
  • Don’t hide your feeling under the rug. Sadness, emptiness, restlessness, anger, depression, numbness – these are all part of grief.
  • Don’t let someone tell you you shouldn’t feel the way you do. Even if you didn’t lose or kill someone, the energy of war affects you, too. It takes an emotional, physical and spiritual toll.
  • Create a sacred space to grieve. Honor your service by giving yourself the space you need to grieve. Even if no one else respects your losses, you can. You know they’re real. Find space where you can process your feelings. Accept that it is normal to be grieving and to need time to find a new sense of wholeness.

One thing that cannot be said enough is that your journey in life after war is not to recover, but to become.

You are tasked with taking all the pieces that are left and putting them into a new sense of meaning and wholeness. You cannot go back to who you were before war, but you can find a new sense of purpose.

Learn more about Loss in chapter 5 of Close to Home.  DOWNLOAD the PDF VERSION FREE.

 

How do you talk about war?

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

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

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

Should you talk about the war?

Yes.

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

How do you talk about war?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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