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The Poetry of Fear: Nightmares and Moral Wounds

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Tombstone at the British Cemetery, Habbaniyah Iraq

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Stephen King wrote: “Nightmares exist outside of logic, and there’s little fun to be had in explanations; they’re antithetical to the poetry of fear.”

I prefer physical pain and physical injury to moral, emotional, and spiritual injury. I agree with Alexander Dumas who wrote in the Count of Monte Cristo“Moral wounds have this peculiarity – they may be hidden, but they never close; always painful, always ready to bleed when touched, they remain fresh and open in the heart.”

That is how I feel over ten years after returning from Iraq in 2008. No matter how well I am doing there are times when things going on in the present fill me with terror and evoke the ghosts of my past. As much as I want to put my war and other wars in the past I see American political leaders, propagandists, and religious leaders doing all they can to bring about new wars abroad and divide us at home.

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I find this deeply unsettling and it causes great anxiety, especially when I try to sleep. On Saturday night I had terrible nightmares of war with superiors trying to force me to commit war crimes. Four times Judy tried to wake me as I screamed and fought and I couldn’t pull myself out of the dreams. Thankfully I did not end up throwing myself out of bed and causing injury as I have done before. Likewise the Papillons, including our youngest boy, Pierre, now know to move to a different part of the bed when I am so unsettled.

Guy Sajer wrote in his book The Forgotten Soldier, “Only happy people have nightmares, from overeating. For those who live a nightmare reality, sleep is a black hole, lost in time, like death.” United States Army General Gouverneur Warren, a hero of many Civil War battles including Gettysburg wrote to his wife after the war “I wish I did not dream so much. They make me sometimes to dread to go to sleep. Scenes from the war, are so constantly recalled, with bitter feelings I wish never to experience again. Lies, vanity, treachery, and carnage.”

In my dreams I remember everything about the war like it was yesterday. The images are vivid: wounded Marines, a wounded Iraqi boy with his father, a rocket flying just a few feet above my head, taking small arms fire in Ramadi on the ground and aboard an Army helicopter which returned fire as we took off from Ramadi, destroyed cities and villages, destitute and terrified people, and refugees.

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But those dreams and nightmares blend reality with unreality, real places with imaginary places, places that I’ve been to but are not the same as they are in the real world and they frequently show up. You think that I would be used to them; but no matter how often I have them I never get used to them, and I can’t really explain them, I only try to survive them.

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Ramadi, January 2008

One of my favorite actors, James Spader, plays a character named Raymond Reddington on the television show The Blacklist. During one episode he told another character something quite profound, something that if we actually embrace it can be somewhat comforting. “There is nothing that can take the pain away. But eventually, you will find a way to live with it. There will be nightmares. And every day when you wake up, it will be the first thing you think about. Until one day, it’s the second.”

Anyway, I have spent my evening watching the musicals Chicago and Mama Mia in order to take my mind off of all that is going on in the world. Now it is time for bed and the world of dreams and nightmares. Thankfully I will get up in the morning and carry on with life, even joyfully.

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under iraq, life, mental health, Military, PTSD, Tour in Iraq

It’s Not You It’s Me: Firing Your Military Therapist

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Another week, another therapist… At least that is what it seems like to me. Those who have been following my writings for any length of time know of my struggles with PTSD and its associated maladies, as well as my struggles dealing with the military mental health system. This week is no different.

Last week I got a new “bungee-therapist” who I would have had less than three months before his rotation at the clinic is done. He is a nice young man, only 32 years old, I have been in the military longer than he he has been alive. He still in his residency; well trained, but not very experienced and it shows. Truthfully, though I don’t have as much specific education in psychology as the provider, I do have more clinical experience working with trauma and PTSD than the young man.

So on the second appointment I fired him. I think the biggest issue was what I saw as a lack of continuity in care and the mismatch in age and experience.

I was really anxious about the visit. This was based on an experience with another young provider last year. That experience caused me to crash and have some troubling thoughts about offing myself. Since I love life and am not a fan of taking the eternal celestial dirt nap; which some readers assure me will have me taking the eternal vacation on the Lake of Fire, but I digress….

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Like I said I was anxious due to the previous experience. But, the two of us handled it very well and it was an amicable parting, a clean breakup if you will. I even used the George Costanza tested “it’s not you it’s me” breakup line. But hey, Ces’t l’apres-guerre… (such is life after war)

My plan now is to get with a senior shrink that I know and have worked with to help get me someone more compatible for what I need at this point in life. I just hope that by “breaking-up” with my therapist that I won’t get shafted by the institution.

But I have learned to live with this; I realize that the military mental health system is not in the business of trying to get you better, it is in the business of trying to return young men and women to be able to go back to war. If you actually get better in the process that is kind of a twofer. Honestly I could have gone back to war with  a year of coming home. Going to war is easy, coming home intact is not.

Do not get me wrong, it is not that there are not providers willing to help; there are plenty of them. But the system , crowded with people who need more help than it can provide and without with ever shrinking budgets; almost makes it impossible to get help. If you can be patched up and sent back out, they have done their job, if you crash after you leave the service not their problem. Sadly, I have lost too many friends, some to suicide after they left the military, including men whose credentials as real American heroes were unmatched. This is not a new issue, ask any vet who has dealt with getting post-service care at the VA or anywhere.

Likewise, if you remain in service and have a chronic-long-term condition, of any kind, physical or mental the attitude seems to be “fuck you.” If you get the label as a “broke” Marine, Sailor, Soldier, or Airman your career is pretty much over, unless you are one of the lucky few like me who had some superiors who looked beyond that and protected you. I know that because it is not just my experience but the experience of hundreds of combat vets that I have dealt with.

I can live with this as long as I am on my meds, and have friends and beer, but then I am an old guy looking at retirement at the end of this tour. If I were a young guy, with my whole career ahead of me I would be fucked. So when I retire I will be a pain in the ass to the system to ensure that the young guys who will be fighting our wars in the future as well as those who are out of the military gets the care that they need.

But as far as my condition goes, I am oddly comforted by the words of Raymond “Red Reddington (James Spader) in The Blacklist:

“There is nothing that can take the pain away. But eventually, you will find a way to live with it. There will be nightmares. And everyday when you wake up, it will be the first thing you think about. Until one day, it’s the second.”

Many things haunt me; but unlike many people who have little self-awareness I might have just a bit too much. I have talked about the nightmares, night terrors and insomnia that I have many times following my return from Iraq. I used to believe, at least back in the first year or so after I returned that I thought that eventually I would get over it. I don’t believe that anymore, now I just believe that I will find a way to live with them.

I guess that is the secret to life. Instead of wishing that something would miraculously take way the pain, I guess that it is better to find a way to live with it because one day something else will replace it.

Is that an ideal way to deal with life? Probably not, but I know that I am an idealist anymore. I used to be, but that was a while back. It took time, but war and the lies of men that I voted for, men who I trusted because they professed my faith, my love of country, and some who even shared my vocation as a priest and chaplain took that from me.

Some experts call this “moral injury.” For me it is connected with my tour in Iraq, PTSD and what I experience when I came home from colleagues, and people in my former church. Betrayal and abandonment is a terrible thing, but I am learning to live with it. It is not pretty but I am learning with every passing night and morning. Alexander Dumas wrote in The Count of Monte Cristo:

“Moral wounds have this peculiarity – they may be hidden, but they never close; always painful, always ready to bleed when touched, they remain fresh and open in the heart.”

My life is full again, there is meaning and purpose, but it is tempered by realism and the expectation that every day I will wake up and still think about those painful memories until finally something else takes their place.

I guess that the secret to living with darkness and pain is simply to live with it because the saying that “time heals all wounds” is a lie, it is the fabrication of people that don’t want to deal with the real world. God might heal, but then God may not. I have learned to be okay with that. I know that there are some Christians who might disagree and even say that I do not have enough “faith,” whatever that means, but I can live with this.

So I will live with it and in doing so I will continue on and in the process hopefully be there for others that also struggle with pain that does not want to go away and nightmares that never seem to end. As the late Henri Nouwen wrote: “Ministry means the ongoing attempt to put one’s own search for God, with all the moments of pain and joy, despair and hope, at the disposal of those who want to join this search but do not know how.” Not exactly perfection, but it will work.

This now is my goal and my prayer: God grant me the courage to change the things I cannot accept; Serenity to accept the things I have changed; And the wisdom to know I’m different. Amen.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under faith, healthcare, mental health, PTSD

There Will be Nightmares: PTSD & Memories of War

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I’m really very tired today so another short post. I haven’t slept well in several weeks, part of this of course was the worry I had regarding my wife Judy and her cancer diagnosis, surgery and recovery. As she has gotten better I have been dealing with stuff from my own closet of anxieties. Those who have been reading my articles here know that I deal with PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injury and moral injury from my time in Iraq, and my return home.

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Last year I went through a very difficult time dealing with the military mental health system that I never want to repeat again. I hope I don’t have to, but I may. My therapist who I have had since last summer took a new job thousands of miles away and now I am going to have to find another therapist. I am hoping the man I see for my medication management can get me referred to someone good, because I do not want to be thrust back into the system and take the luck of the draw. That scares me to death, and since I found out my therapist was leaving and that I will not see her again I have been trying to keep my anxiety under control and not to panic. Awake I do pretty well with this, but when I try to sleep, all my Iraq stuff, plus all the very real and bad experiences that I had with the military mental health system last year flood my psyche. The night terrors are back, the terrible dreams and fears. It is not fun waking up in the middle of the night in a state of terror. Last year, after dealing with a number of providers and administrators I was nearly suicidal. It took the intervention of a former commanding officer who had been recently selected for promotion to Admiral in the Medical Corps to get me listened to and to get me the help that I sought.

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But I know that I am not alone, I will get the professional help that I still need and I do have some friends I can talk to about these issues. Likewise I know many combat who veterans deal with similar issues related to their service, as well what happened to them when they returned home from Iraq or Afghanistan. The return from war is often worse than actually being over there, few people really understand, unless they too have been there.

Guy Sajer wrote in his book The Forgotten Soldier, “Only happy people have nightmares, from overeating. For those who live a nightmare reality, sleep is a black hole, lost in time, like death.” General Gouverneur Warren, a hero of many Civil War battles including Gettysburg wrote to his wife after the war “I wish I did not dream so much. They make me sometimes to dread to go to sleep. Scenes from the war, are so constantly recalled, with bitter feelings I wish never to experience again. Lies, vanity, treachery, and carnage.”

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I am a realist about this. I know that there is no magic wand which will make it all go away and I don’t expect any therapist, or even God to cure me. I can understand why Alexander Dumas in the Count of Monte Cristo wrote, “Moral wounds have this peculiarity – they may be hidden, but they never close; always painful, always ready to bleed when touched, they remain fresh and open in the heart.”

That is true and I know to some people that may sound like I have given up, especially because it runs counter to the snake oil salesmen who write self-help books which promise to heal you in whatever number of steps or exercises; especially the ones written by preachers. But that is not the case, despite everything I still have a love of life and lust for learning. Except that now I just have moved to a new level of understanding concerning my own dark places, and that pain that manifests at night as I try to sleep. Since nothing will take it away I need to live with it and realize that it won’t always be the first thing that I think about when I wake up in the morning. That my friends is the essence of hope. 

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One of my favorite actors, James Spader, plays a character named Raymond Reddington on the television show The Blacklist. During one episode he told another character something quite profound, something that if we actually embrace it can be somewhat comforting. “There is nothing that can take the pain away. But eventually, you will find a way to live with it. There will be nightmares. And every day when you wake up, it will be the first thing you think about. Until one day, it’s the second.”

I think that is why I can continue and at the same time seek to be available to those who suffer similar afflictions, and thankfully, I do still have those opportunities and as the late Henri Nouwen wrote, “Ministry means the ongoing attempt to put one’s own search for God, with all the moments of pain and joy, despair and hope, at the disposal of those who want to join this search but do not know how.”

Anyway, have a nice night.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under Loose thoughts and musings