Tag Archives: reactions to ptsd

Faith and Doubt: A Reflection on Christmas

“God weeps with us so that we may one day laugh with him.” Jürgen Moltmann

There was a time in my life that faith in God, for me the Christian God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit was something that I pretty much took for granted until I had my own crisis of faith when I returned from Iraq in 2008.  It was that crisis where for all practical purposes I was an agnostic trying to believe while feeling abandoned by God and many of his people.  That crisis has etched a permanent scar in my soul which has led to some fairly major changes in my life but even more so forced me to actually enter what Saint John of the Cross called the “Dark Night of the Soul.”  Not that that is in any way a bad thing as difficult as it is.

I will not tell of how my great spiritual disciplines helped me get through this as they did not. I found it hard to pray or believe in anything for nearly two years as I struggled with abandonment. I felt that God, the Church and the Navy had abandoned me.  I was losing my battle with PTSD during that time, depressed, anxious and despairing I threw myself into my work among the critically ill ICU patients and those that cared for them.  Christmas Eve of 2008 was spent in despair as I wandered through the darkness on a cold night after leaving Mass because I could not get through it.

Though I found a community and camaraderie among those that I worked with and tried to provide spiritual care for my own condition grew worse, so much so that my clinical duties had to be curtailed in September of 2009.  I still stood the overnight duty and filled in for others as needed but for a number of months I had no ward assignments.  On one of the on call nights not long before Christmas I received a call to the ER where I was called to give the last rites to a retired Navy Medical Doctor who was a true Saint, faithful to God, his Church and the community where for years he had dedicated much of his practice to the poorest members of the community to include prisoners in the Portsmouth City Jail. He breathed his last as I prayed this prayer following the anointing of the sick:

Depart, O Christian soul, out of this world;

In the Name of God the Father Almighty who created you;

In the Name of Jesus Christ who redeemed you;

In the Name of the Holy Spirit who sanctifies you.

May your rest be this day in peace,

and your dwelling place in the Paradise of God.

Something happened that night and by Christmas Eve I realized that something was happening to me. As I wrote in Padre Steve’s Christmas Miracle on Christmas Eve of 2009 following an incredibly busy day full of life and death situations and ministry which amazed me:

“Mid afternoon I was walking down the hall and I experienced a wave of emotion flood over me, and unlike the majority of emotions that I have felt in the past couple of years this was different.  It was a feeling of grace and I guess the presence of God.  I went up and talked with Elmer the shrink about what I was feeling and the experience was awesome, I was in tears as I shared, not the tears of sadness, but of grace.  I am beginning to re-experience the grace of God, something that has been so long absent that I did not expect it, at least right now.  I didn’t do anything differently; I certainly was not working extra hard to pray more, get more spiritual or pack my brain full of Bible verses.  I was too far gone to do those things.  It was all I could do many mornings just to get out of bed and come to work.”

Since that time I have continued to recover faith and belief. I cannot say that it is the same kind of faith that I had before Iraq. No this was different, it was faith born of the terrible emptiness and pain of abandonment and despair, a faith that is not content with easy answers and not afraid to ask questions.  It is a faith in Jesus Christ, the crucified one who’s image we see hanging from the crucifix and adorning icons of the Crucifixion. It is as Jürgen Moltmann wrote in The Crucified God:

“The Symbol of the Crucifix in church points to the God who was crucified not between two candles on an altar, but between two thieves in the place of the skull, where the outcasts belong, outside the gates of the city. It is a symbol which therefore leads out of the church and out of religious longing in to the fellowship of the oppressed and abandoned. On the other hand, it is a symbol which calls the oppressed and godless into the church and through the church into the fellowship of the crucified God”

My Philosophy of Religion Professor in seminary, Dr. Yandall Woodfin told us in class that until we had “dealt with the reality of suffering and death we were not doing Christian theology.” At the time the words were offensive to me, but by the time I had graduated and also done a year of Clinical Pastoral Education they became a part of my experience, but even then that did not prepare me for the darkness that I lived in from February of 2008 until that Christmas Eve of 2009.  I would say that in addition to grappling with suffering and death that one has to add the abandonment of the outcast to the equation.

It is from this perspective that I will look at an ancient document that for many Christians is their Baptismal statement of faith or Creed.  ‘Credo in unum Deum’ “I Believe in God” is no longer for me simply a theological proposition which I both ascent to and defend, but rather an experience of God born out of pain, despair, anxiety, doubt, unbelief and abandonment finding almost no Christians willing to walk through the darkness with me, including clergy. It was if I was radioactive, many people had “answers” but none understood the questions and until my therapist Dr. Elmer Maggard asked me “how I was with the big guy?” and Commodore Tom Sitsch asked me “Where does a Chaplain go for help?”

When I finally collapsed in the summer of 2008 and met with Dr. Maggard I made a conscious decision that I would not hide what I was going through because I felt that if someone didn’t speak out then others like me wouldn’t seek help. In the nearly three years since I returned from Iraq I have encountered many people, men and women, current and former military personnel and families of veterans who came to me either in person or through this website.  Included were military chaplains also experiencing life and faith crisis. Most said that I was the first Chaplain or minister that they had met or read who said that he struggled with faith, belief and didn’t know if God existed.  In each of those encounters there was a glimmer of hope for me and I think for them, for the first time we had people that we could be open with.  Co-workers and others said that I was “real” and I certainly do not boast of that because it was painful to try to be transparent with people while in the depths of doubt and despair while hoping that somehow God would touch them with some measure of grace when I found it hard to believe.  I guess it was the fact that I was willing to walk, sometimes in unusual circumstances and locations with them even if it meant facing my own pain and doubt. I was learning something about being what Henri Nouwen called a wounded healer.  Nouwen wrote:

“Nobody escapes being wounded. We all are wounded people, whether physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. The main question is not “How can we hide our wounds?” so we don’t have to be embarrassed, but “How can we put our woundedness in the service of others?” When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers.”

In the past year I have still had my times of struggle but have also found others that have gone through similar times.  People like me that have experienced the terrible effects of a crisis of faith that leads a person into despair of even to the point of life itself and all that is good. I am fortunate. I was talking with my Bishop recently in regard to the struggle that I have had in recovering the disciplines of the spiritual life. Thankfully she does understand and was encouraging. I guess that is why now when I have more compassion for someone when they tell me that they “lost their faith” especially those that have been changed by their experience of war or other trauma. I don’t necessarily have all the answers for them because I am quite obviously still figuring it out myself. However as I found sometimes it is not the person with the answers but simply the person that takes time to listen and care that is more important to a person when they struggle, especially for those that before the traumatic event had been strong believers.

I’ll write a bit more about Christmas and faith but not tonight.

Peace

Padre Steve+

3 Comments

Filed under christian life, faith, Pastoral Care, Religion

Introduction to “I Believe please Help Me Believe: The Apostle’s Creed for those Who Struggle with Faith”

“God weeps with us so that we may one day laugh with him.” Jürgen Moltmann

This is the first of a series of essays on the topic of doubt and faith related to the Apostle’s Creed.  There was a time in my life that faith in God, for me the Christian God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit was something that I pretty much took for granted until I had my own crisis of faith when I returned from Iraq in 2008.  It was that crisis where for all practical purposes I was an agnostic trying to believe while feeling abandoned by God and many of his people.  That crisis has etched a permanent scar in my soul which has led to some fairly major changes in my life but even more so forced me to actually enter what Saint John of the Cross called the “Dark Night of the Soul.”

I will not tell of how my great spiritual disciplines helped me get through this as they did not. I found it hard to pray or believe in anything for nearly two years as I struggled with abandonment. I felt that God, the Church and the Navy had abandoned me.  I was losing my battle with PTSD during that time, depressed, anxious and despairing I threw myself into my work among the critically ill ICU patients and those that cared for them.  Christmas Eve of 2008 was spent in despair as I wandered through the darkness on a cold night after leaving Mass because I could not get through it.

Though I found a community and camaraderie among those that I worked with and tried to provide spiritual care for my own condition grew worse, so much so that my clinical duties had to be curtailed in September of 2009.  I still stood the overnight duty and filled in for others as needed but for a number of months I had no ward assignments.  On one of the on call nights not long before Christmas I received a call to the ER where I was called to give the last rites to a retired Navy Medical Doctor who was a true Saint, faithful to God, his Church and the community where for years he had dedicated much of his practice to the poorest members of the community to include prisoners in the Portsmouth City Jail. He breathed his last as I prayed this prayer following the anointing of the sick:

Depart, O Christian soul, out of this world;

In the Name of God the Father Almighty who created you;

In the Name of Jesus Christ who redeemed you;

In the Name of the Holy Spirit who sanctifies you.

May your rest be this day in peace,

and your dwelling place in the Paradise of God.

Something happened that night and by Christmas Eve I realized that something was happening to me. As I wrote in Padre Steve’s Christmas Miracle on Christmas Eve of 2009 following an incredibly busy day full of life and death situations and ministry which amazed me:

“Mid afternoon I was walking down the hall and I experienced a wave of emotion flood over me, and unlike the majority of emotions that I have felt in the past couple of years this was different.  It was a feeling of grace and I guess the presence of God.  I went up and talked with Elmer the shrink about what I was feeling and the experience was awesome, I was in tears as I shared, not the tears of sadness, but of grace.  I am beginning to re-experience the grace of God, something that has been so long absent that I did not expect it, at least right now.  I didn’t do anything differently; I certainly was not working extra hard to pray more, get more spiritual or pack my brain full of Bible verses.  I was too far gone to do those things.  It was all I could do many mornings just to get out of bed and come to work.”

Since that time I have continued to recover faith and belief. I cannot say that it is the same kind of faith that I had before Iraq. No this was different, it was faith born of the terrible emptiness and pain of abandonment and despair, a faith that is not content with easy answers and not afraid to ask questions.  It is a faith in Jesus Christ, the crucified one who’s image we see hanging from the crucifix and adorning icons of the Crucifixion. It is as Jürgen Moltmann wrote in The Crucified God:

“The Symbol of the Crucifix in church points to the God who was crucified not between two candles on an altar, but between two thieves in the place of the skull, where the outcasts belong, outside the gates of the city. It is a symbol which therefore leads out of the church and out of religious longing in to the fellowship of the oppressed and abandoned. On the other hand, it is a symbol which calls the oppressed and godless into the church and through the church into the fellowship of the crucified God”

My Philosophy of Religion Professor in seminary, Dr. Yandall Woodfin told us in class that until we had “dealt with the reality of suffering and death we were not doing Christian theology.” At the time the words were offensive to me, but by the time I had graduated and also done a year of Clinical Pastoral Education they became a part of my experience, but even then that did not prepare me for the darkness that I lived in from February of 2008 until that Christmas Eve of 2009.  I would say that in addition to grappling with suffering and death that one has to add the abandonment of the outcast to the equation.

It is from this perspective that I will look at an ancient document that for many Christians is their Baptismal statement of faith or Creed.  ‘Credo in unum Deum’ “I Believe in God” is no longer for me simply a theological proposition which I both ascent to and defend, but rather an experience of God born out of pain, despair, anxiety, doubt, unbelief and abandonment finding almost no Christians willing to walk through the darkness with me, including clergy. It was if I was radioactive, many people had “answers” but none understood the questions and until my therapist Dr. Elmer Maggard asked me “how I was with the big guy?” and Commodore Tom Sitsch asked me “Where does a Chaplain go for help?”

When I finally collapsed in the summer of 2008 and met with Dr. Maggard I made a conscious decision that I would not hide what I was going through because I felt that if someone didn’t speak out then others like me wouldn’t seek help. In the nearly three years since I returned from Iraq I have encountered many people, men and women, current and former military personnel and families of veterans who came to me either in person or through this website.  Included were military chaplains also experiencing life and faith crisis. Most said that I was the first Chaplain or minister that they had met or read who said that he struggled with faith, belief and didn’t know if God existed.  In each of those encounters there was a glimmer of hope for me and I think for them, for the first time we had people that we could be open with.  Co-workers and others said that I was “real” and I certainly do not boast of that because it was painful to try to be transparent with people while in the depths of doubt and despair while hoping that somehow God would touch them with some measure of grace when I found it hard to believe.  I guess it was the fact that I was willing to walk, sometimes in unusual circumstances and locations with them even if it meant facing my own pain and doubt. I was learning something about being what Henri Nouwen called a wounded healer.  Nouwen wrote:

“Nobody escapes being wounded. We all are wounded people, whether physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. The main question is not “How can we hide our wounds?” so we don’t have to be embarrassed, but “How can we put our woundedness in the service of others?” When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers.”

My journey through the words of the Apostle’s Creed will be less of a doctrinal exposition than a pastoral narrative of rediscovering faith. It is my hope and prayer that this feeble and imperfect attempt to experience the Apostle’s Creed will be of help to people.  People like me that have experienced the terrible effects of a crisis of faith that leads a person into despair of even to the point of life itself and all that is good.

Peace

Padre Steve+

6 Comments

Filed under christian life, faith, Pastoral Care, philosophy, PTSD, Religion

Survival on the Home Front: Dealing with Other People’s Reactions to My PTSD

081

Being in Iraq  was in Many Ways Less Frightening than Being in the USA

I find it interesting and sometimes painful to see how institutions and some people within the institution will label those of us who have gone to war and came back as gooned up with PTSD.  The biggest tension and issue, and I admit it as my own is that we get stereotyped and sometimes viewed as “broken.”  I admit that I have issues, in fact a lot of frickin’ issues and I have a pretty good awareness of them.  I see Elmer the Shrink to help me through the rough spots but there are times when I bump across those that appear to use my condition as a weapon against me.  Whether it is intentional or not, it is not fun to deal with.  I’ve had it happen a few times since I have started getting help last year and every one of the people involved were people who have not been to combat to use a pejorative term from Vietnam they are REMFs .

I know several others who have experienced this mentality.  We all feel really vulnerable because all of us have opened up to people, or to use the Star Trek analogy to “drop our deflector shields.”  Pulling down shields makes you vulnerable, if you do it because you think you are in a safe area.  When you take “friendly fire” is really sucks. It is actually easier in theater.  If I was sent to Iraq or Afghanistan today I would be back in my element and probably suffer little from PTSD symptoms.  Sometimes I wonder if the Navy would be better off to ship me over again.  Admittedly with the health of my parents and a position at my medical center that is important for me to remain in for the time being, there is something that says at some point I need to go back, maybe not now but later.  See out there the PTSD defensive reactions fit.  There are bad guys and good guys, friend and foe and the body and brains’ reaction to real or perceived danger are natural.  I am wary of people until I figure out if they are friend or foe. When I make a mistake in my IFF it usually bodes ill for me.

When you come back out of that environment you find that even though you are “home” that you have changed and nothing is the same as it was before.  Your body and brain have divided the world into two camps, friend and foe or safe or unsafe or maybe even secure versus dangerous.  In my life I notice this with people as well as situations such as being on the road in our nutty Hampton Roads traffic which by the way even if you don’t have PTSD is quite the adventure I have become a very offensively minded defensive driver with faster reflexes and reaction time than I had before I went to Iraq.  I have to say that I am now a very aware person to perceived threats and actually that is not a bad thing of itself.  In Iraq I was probably operating at a 9 or 10 of ten on my perceptions of and reactions to real and perceived danger.  Since I have returned and gotten some therapy I probably operate at a 3.5 to 4 most of the time and depending on the situation move up higher sometimes being very aware of possible danger and hyper-vigilant .  Before I went to Iraq I probably operated at about a 1-2 on the scale of 10, pretty oblivious to danger and not too worried about it either.  Truthfully I am happy at an increased level of the 3.5-4 and maybe on occasion 5.  I don’t like getting up above 7-8 because it really makes a mess of my nerves and general requires that I take my docile pills.  Recently I’ve had a few of those days.  Trust me it is no fun to have a nervous tremor.  When that happens I feel like Gene Wilder’s character in Blazing Saddle’s Jim the Waco Kid response when Sherriff Bart (Cleavon Little) questions him:

Jim: Look at my hand.
[raises hand and holds it level]
Bart: Steady as a rock.
Jim: [raises his other hand, which is violently trembling] Yeah, but I shoot with this one.

Although I can occasionally find some morbid humor in what is going on with me I can’t say that it is any fun.

There is a perception by some, which I think is often systemic in parts of the military that people with PTSD are “broken.” Some in the system as well as others who have been granted the privilege of knowing your vulnerability consciously or unconsciously sometimes use it against you, I personally think it is intentional when this happens but I try to give the benefit of the doubt to the offender.  Like I said before this has happened to my on a number of occasions and in every instance I have felt attacked, devalued and re-traumatized and I don’t like that feeling and it takes me a while to get back through all the crap.  When it happens to me I get angry, defensive and now as opposed to my pre-Iraq life will shoot back.  I’ve stopped rolling over and letting people get away with this behavior and when I see it happen to others I get equally pissed.  Unfortunately I have a number of friends who have had similar experiences and as we share our stories we realize that some people or even the system in general will write you off as damaged goods.  What is the bad thing is that the worst comes from people who have not been in harm’s way.  Likewise, if they went to a combat zone never left one of the big FOBs and never had to deal with the danger of being outside the wire. Nor have they experienced what many medical personnel who remained on the big FOBs experienced in dealing with never ending trauma of dealing with the death, wounding and suffering of young Marines, Sailors, Soldiers and Airmen.  Another group are the men and women who perform the tasks of getting the fallen back home.  One of my Chaplain friends had this job in Kuwait and had to meet every aircraft with the bodies of the dead leaving theater performing memorials and conducting honors all the time caring for those who cared for the bodies of these Americans and came back in pretty bad shape.

What saddens me is that this still attitude of men and women dealing with PTSD being “broken” or as one called me a “shipwreck” happens even though we have been making the conscious effort since Vietnam to treat people traumatized by war.  The end result is that those who are traumatized are again and again re-traumatized by the system as well as individuals in it.  I have seen enough of this to make me throw up. Thankfully the Navy as a whole does better in this than the Army, Marines or Air Force but there is a lot to be done.   When I have a REMF screw with me or my friends it does get to me and I can say that I get angry and the person moves out of my “circle of trust.”

Likewise I get discouraged and when I see my countrymen from both of the major political parties, elected officials and regular party members tearing themselves and the country apart because of the hatred that they have for each other and each other’s positions on the issues that face our nation.   I came home at the beginning of the 2008 primary season and within a short time became quite disheartened by what I saw on both sides of the line.  There is no civility in the land and no peace at home for those of us coming home from war.  We come back and see our brothers and sisters, fellow Americans all saying and doing things doing things that can only in the long run further divide and destroy the nation.  I can understand the anger that the returning German soldiers and sailors of the First World War came home to in 1918-1919.  It seems that the only thing that we lack to be like Weimar Germany is for right and left wing militias begin fighting in the streets, killing each other and trying to take over power by force.  As it is these are fighting at political rallies and raising the invective to frightening levels.  In the case of one protest men brought semi-automatic assault weapons to protest outside of a venue the President was speaking at.  They said it was a Second Amendment rights protest but all that is needed is for one deranged individual to act on a homicidal urge to blow the whole damned place up.  I have seen the results of such folly in both the Middle East and the Balkans and I just don’t get it, it is frightening to me and the extremists on both sides of the political spectrum seem like they are doing their damnedest to destroy the country that I love so much and went to war to serve. Regardless of what extreme they are on I just say a pox on them all.

I have been asked a number of times why I would open myself up and show my vulnerability on this website.  It is certainly not for fun when I deal with this subject because I am really wound up in it.  When I write I often have to live the experience again. While many times this is emotionally draining it is something is something that I know that I have to do.  I know so many vets from the current wars and Vietnam who struggle with some of the very things that I do and often a lot more but do not have the ability to really share their stories.  The Marines who fought at Hue City are a group that I still have contact with as are people from my last base chapel job, the Vietnam Veterans of America men who man the beer stand at the Church of Baseball Harbor Park Parish, Wayne the Army Chaplain and decorated Vietnam infantry scout who dealt with his own PTSD and helped me in my discernment process to become a Chaplain.  Likewise I have this connection with my brothers and sisters who have served in Iraq and or Afghanistan.  In a sense what I want to do in my articles about PTSD as well as those about my tour in Iraq is to help people who have not been or not experienced this to get some understanding of what happened to me and to many others.  I don’t want guys to fall through the crack like in Vietnam and I think that educating the public is the best way of raising the issue and helping people care for us.  So I guess this is my “cause” and maybe even a crusade.  I hope and pray that those who love and care for our combat veterans who read this will take the time to learn, take the time to care and take the time to be with us as we walk through the often dark places that we walk.

Today was not a good day for me it was very painful but at least I was able in this post to use it to help explain what we who deal with our return from war go through.  I guess that the Deity Herself knew what she was doing today.  Pray for all of us who live in the surreal world of PTSD as we pray for you and our nation.  Pray for me a sinner.

not a happy camper

Peace,

Steve+

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Filed under iraq,afghanistan, Military, PTSD