I have been dealing with the effects of Post Traumatic Stress over 3 ½ years. In that time I have had my struggles going ranging from falling into the abyss to a measure of recovery and occasional relapses. It has been a difficult time which has stretched me in ways that I never dreamed and given me perspective on what it is to live, to have faith and to experience life in ways that I could not have imagined before I deployed toIraq.
Within a few weeks of beginning therapy I was asked by my therapist what I wanted to do with my experience. I really didn’t know, I was in the midst of a complete emotional breakdown and crisis of faith. When my therapist asked me “well Padre how are you with the Big Guy” I could only answer “I don’t know if God exists anymore or if he does if he cares about me.” My therapist was the first person that asked me about my spiritual life after I returned. No clergy of any kind asked that question. I guess that they assumed quite wrongly that I hadn’t really changed. There is a tendency among clergy to ignore the obvious when a colleague begins to fall apart.
In fact it is really a cultural problem. Often the advice to someone dealing with trauma and the experience of grief which often compounds traumatic experience is to “forget about it” or “put it behind you and move forward.” Some therapists and pastors seem to have burying the experience, reliving it time and time again until you are numb or simply try to expunge it from memory as their goal.
The problem with all of these “methods” is that they label the person who has been traumatized and the complex grief that they experience as a result of the trauma as ill, damaged or broken. But it the opposite is true, people that have experienced trauma especially in a combat zone are simply having a normal reaction to experiences that are not normal.
We adapt to war and the experience becomes part of who we are. It is a survival tool that humans have had ever since the first skirmishes between primitive tribes. However primitives actually have an advantage over the modern human. They went to war to defend their families and homes. The warriors would be sent out with fanfare, religious ceremonies and ritual. When they returned they would be brought back into the tribe, new warriors who had distinguished themselves would be noted, sometimes marked in some physical manner. Rituals marked the re-entry of the warriors and they would be reincorporated into the community. Some societies would incorporate rituals for individuals to do as they re-entered the community. Their stories would become part of the tribe’s oral tradition and passed down to successive generations.
Today’s modern American warrior doesn’t go to war with his neighbors. These warriors go to war with men and women that come from many parts of the country, US territories or immigrants and when they leave service they often return to neighbors, friends and families that care about them but do not understand them or their experience. The reactions that they developed in combat and their response to perceived threats are considered dangerous or abnormal. People tell them that they need to go back to what they were before the war experience but they can’t because they have been changed by their experiences.
We live in a culture of denial. All too often it seems that society simply wants the traumatized and grieving veteran just be quiet, see a shrink, go to a PTSD group and “get well.” Many times churches and religious institutions treat the problem as some kind of spiritual shortcoming. Many Christian veterans come home and find that they are shunned because they have doubts or because they don’t “get better” after people pray for them. I was reading a faux news article which was more like an infomercial for a CD that promotes a method as “Be still and know….” It was developed by a reserve Army Chaplain and Christian therapist. It is designed to make it all go away. Do the method right and you get better, God heals you and you live happily ever after until something breaks the cycle of denial and you crash. I do believe that God heals but I don’t believe that God makes everything magically go away like it never happened. Such a belief is not supported in Scripture, the testimony of the early Church or for that matter most of the Christian tradition.
This week I was being filmed for a Department of Defense program called The Real Warriors Campaign http://www.realwarriors.net/which is designed to de-stigmatize Combat Stress injuries including PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury. They picked up the article that was written about me in the Jacksonville Daily News in April of this year and asked if I would be willing to participate. http://www.enctoday.com/articles/cmdr-89433-jdn-stephen-military.html
It was a hard week for me. I went to a functioned hosted by our hospital Wardroom at the base Officer’s Club Saturday night and while I enjoyed myself I hit sensory overload. When I got hope I was pretty edgy and to add to the situation we had some Marine helicopters flying in the area I live that night. As I tried to calm down I realized that I was going to be interviewed Tuesday and the thought scared the shit out of me. Yes I had agreed to do it and yes I thought I needed to do it but my heavily introverted and relatively anti-social personality type now seasoned with reactivated PTSD symptoms couldn’t handle it. I couldn’t sleep and had the firstIraqrelated dreams I have had in many months. I did not even open the front door of my place on Sunday. I couldn’t sleep Sunday night and got permission of my boss to get some assistance. Since I couldn’t get a no-notice appointment with my current psychiatrist I called my first therapist and he was helpful. I went to a ball game and that helped calm me down. I was still anxious but functional.
The two days of filming went pretty well for me, although I know with the possible exception of “COPS” there is no such thing as reality television. This was not “reality television” but the goal was to try to show how I live life, work and relate to people after deployment. The crew was really good and handled things professionally but even so it was packaged and things had to be have lighting, have different camera angles and required me to repeat things sometimes because of the privacy issues of patients in the hospital. But it is what it is. By the end of the two days I was pretty wiped out and simply rested last night.
However on Monday night before the interview I had an epiphany. That simple illumination came from an episode of Star Trek the Next Generation called Tapestry I won’t ruin it for you but the final segment of the episode is linked here:
The epiphany was very simple. All of our life, the good, the bad, the enjoyable and even the traumatic are part of a rich tapestry. Those painful threads, the ones that we cause ourselves or the ones that are the result of trauma, grief and loss are part of who we are as human beings. If we try to remove them we damage the tapestry and if we try or are persuaded by those that deny the reality of pain and suffering to remove the really painful and deep hurts, those which are the most tightly wound into the fabric of our lives, especially for the combat veteran we risk long lasting damage to our very soul.
The challenge is not to be “healed” or to compartmentalize the trauma and put it in some deep closet in our brain. Nor is it to deny the trauma or for that matter keep trying to relive the trauma so that we are desensitized to the pain. The real challenge is to allow our experiences of war, grief, loss and trauma to have their place in our lives knowing that without them we are not who we are.
I’m not saying that I have any real answer to what all of us that experience combat stress injuries deal with. All I know is that I just want to be real and there are risks in opening up to people and reaching out to get help. At the same time it is important to find a way to get help so we can adapt to our new reality.
As for me I went through some terrible times that still affect me. Yes I went through a period of profound spiritual crisis and even a loss of faith and when I began to recover faith people that had been okay with me being broken ended up asking me to leave my church because the faith that I have now didn’t fit the narrow box that defined that church.
All that being said I am glad that my therapists or my supervisors allowed me and continue to allow me to work through the issues that still impact me and my ability to function in society, deal with others and even effect my marriage. I wish every combat vet and survivor of trauma had that support. I just hope that I can be worthy of the trust that they have place in me and that I will care for those entrusted to me with the same care and compassion that I was and am being shown.