Tag Archives: trauma

Recovering: Calmer but Still Anxious, yet Determined

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today has been a day of recovery from the physical and emotional stress of being run off the road last week. Despite having dealt with the effects of PTSD for almost a decade and pretty well versed in what happens in the brain and body during a traumatic event, but it has been a long time since I have actually been through something this traumatic.

It’s funny, when it happened I was pretty much pumped up on norepinephrine and cortisol. They control the  fight or flight response, and norepinephrine is similar to adrenaline. When I pulled my damaged car into the grass median I didn’t have anyone to fight. So the initial rush wore off and my anxiety and fear began to build. Since I went over that yesterday, I’ll move on.

Judy was a tower of strength to me over the weekend. She understood and even this morning was willing to take me to early fat boy PT, then to the Naval Medical Center for my other appointments and the pharmacy. I thanked her but said I needed to do it on my own. I was nervous on the road, but extra careful. I gave myself lots of time, kept good following distances, and kept a sharp eye out.

My early morning PT was good for me, as was the aquatic physical therapy. I think they helped release some endorphins, which combined with some time in the sauna calmed me down. Of course I had to wait an ungodly amount of time at the medical center pharmacy for my antidepressant prescription, but such is life. But, I was able to get my paperwork to the orthopedist so he can approve me to take the Physical Readiness Test this fall.

The past two PRT cycles after the fall that injured my knees, ankles, and hip, and has resulted in so much pain and inconvenience as I tried to recover, I wasn’t cleared to participate. The injuries, the failed treatments, and failed meniscus surgery left me unable to physically do much, so I gained weight and got depressed because I saw no hope in sight. I could only walk with the aid of crutches or a cane for months. Of course I gained weight and came in over my maxim body fat allowance.

Since then things have changed. I was switched to aquatic physical therapy and the orthopedics Department Head made me his patient. Despite the injuries to my knees, I am not yet a candidate for knee replacement, so he decided a last ditch effort to relieve my pain, which had been a consistent 7-10 on the pain scale for months. He decided to repeat the gel injections in both knees before trying any other surgeries. This time they worked and soon I was walking relatively normally without the aid of crutches or canes, and the pain level went down to the 2-3 range. I do a lot of walking and swimming and since the first week of June have lost about 17 pounds. My goal is to lose another 10-15 pounds by the 15th of October. I am now up to walking, on a good day, 8-10 miles. I hope  by eating nothing but soup, salad, fruit, and low carb/calorie yogurt over the next week that I meet my allowed body fat allowance by next Monday, on the next “fat boy” weigh in. I think I need to lose about 5 pounds to make it. That won’t stop me from working to lose all I need for my last official weigh in before retirement. If I don’t succeed, under the revised regulations it could screw up my retirement. I won’t let that happen, even if I die in the attempt.

So until tomorrow I leave you with less anxiety, more determination, and a desire to kick ass and take names. I’ll start catching up with current events tonight and tomorrow.

Until then,

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

 

 

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Music, Liturgy & the Relief of the Soul

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Friends of Padre Steve’s Word

Something a little bit different. A while back I was asked to write and article for a periodical called “The Liturgical Singer” which is published by the That National Association of Pastoral Musicians. The article came out only in hard copy and at the request of a couple of friends I am posting it here. Have a great night.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

“And whenever the evil spirit from God came upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand, and Saul would be relieved and feel better, and the evil spirit would depart from him.” 1 Samuel 16:23

When I was in seminary one of the most valuable courses I ever took was an introductory course in Church Music. The course opened my heart to music in the liturgical setting. Now I am not a musician, I play the radio and sing monotone. Like many pastors, priests and theologians I am a word person; written, spoken I am a word person. That being said I learned early on that music can be a balm for the wounded and suffering soul.

Sadly, I don’t think that many priests or pastors truly understand this. I am a Priest and Navy Chaplain. But, I am one of the wounded. I suffer from severe PTSD, anxiety, and more often than not I find going to church often makes things worse. As an Iraq Veteran I can somewhat relate to King Saul. Sometimes the effects of PTSD feel like an evil spirit, and when I came home from war I went through a spiritual crisis that was so bad that for nearly two years I was for all practical purposes an agnostic hoping that God still existed.

Hans Christian Anderson wrote that “Where words fail, music speaks.” All too often our worship, even in liturgical churches focuses more on words, than it does the healing property of music.

Those who suffer from trauma of any kind, including PTSD, or who suffer from anxiety, depression or other afflictions of the soul don’t usually come to church to see a show or to get yet another self-help lecture baptized with a few selected Bible verses. They don’t come to be entertained. They come for solace, they come to encounter God as do most regular churchgoers. But a recent Barna survey noted that less than 20% of regular churchgoers feel close to God on even a monthly basis. Martin Luther, who suffered from tremendous depression and despair for much of his life wrote “My heart, which is so full to overflowing, has often been solaced and refreshed by music when sick and weary.”

One has to ask why this is. I think one reason is that in many churches, even liturgical churches music has become entertainment. While this is pervasive in our American church culture it is not new. Erasmus of Rotterdam wrote:

“We have brought into our churches certain operatic and theatrical music; such a confused, disorderly chattering of some words as I hardly think was ever in any of the Grecian or Roman theatres. The church rings with the noise of trumpets, pipes, and dulcimers; and human voices strive to bear their part with them….”

As entertain it really is no longer part of liturgy, which is by definition the work of the people. I think the type or style of music is less important than the message that it conveys. I honestly believe different types of music touch our soul in different ways. That being said I think that the message of the music should lead people into the presence of God and to do that church music directors and liturgists need to back off of the culture of entertainment that has invaded the Church. I can say that there are songs, hymns and psalms of almost every musical style which reside in my heart. In the midst of my spiritual crisis I found that some of these songs stayed with me. One verse of Abide With Me was one of my prayers during that time:

Come not in terrors, as the King of kings, But kind and good, with healing in Thy wings, Tears for all woes, a heart for every plea— Come, Friend of sinners, and thus abide with me.

I have found that when a liturgist leads a people into the presence of God it is that the songs, hymns and songs they use actually allow the people to participate in the liturgy. The songs speak of God’s presence even in the midst of suffering, they allow those who suffer a measure of hope, even in the midst of what St. John of the Cross referred to as “the dark night of the soul.” When this happens the music becomes part of the participant’s experience of God, it takes up residence in the depth of the soul and there it remains reminding the person that they are not alone. Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote that “Music, when soft voices die, vibrates in the memory.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Traumatic Truths

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A few years ago I attended a conference about spirituality and trauma conducted by Dr. Robert Grant. I highly recommend his book The Way of the Wound if you have either been affected by trauma in any way, or if you deal as a professional counselor, therapist, or pastoral care giver. The fact is that we all experience difficult times and very often trauma is at the heart of them.

During that seminar he went through a number of things and going back through my notes I decided to pull some of them out, you can note some of my dark humor and sarcasm, not that there is anything wrong with that…. But really all kidding aside these are abiding truths and they can be both uncomfortable and comforting at the same time. To me they actually help make sense of the world.

Back when I was in seminary and in  my early years of ministry, in fact up until the time I landing in Iraq, I was filled with a lot of certitude. I can’t say that now, I have faith but I doubt at least as much as I believe. As baseball great Earl Weaver said: “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” 

So here are some truths, and as Oscar Wilde noted “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

Everyone Dies…. We can’t get around this one a recent study said that 96% of Americans will die someday.

Despite my snarkey comment the fact is that we live in a culture that denies death, while death is such an integral part of life.

No Guarantees…. We are not guaranteed anything in this life. You can live right, maintain good health, treat others right but still can meet with tragedy, betrayal and abandonment. 

We all know people, very good people who do all the right things and despite that still experience trauma and tragedy.

No one can cover all contingencies…. No matter how well we plan there will be unanticipated events in life that shred our plans.  The old saying that “no plan ever survives contact with the enemy” is true.

Now be assured I do believe in planning, including thinking about contingencies, and I do this pretty well. That being said there is seldom a week that goes by where I do not experience something that gums up my plans.

The things that we sometimes believe are solid and long lasting are often transitory in nature…. Even things that we think are solid and will last to the end of time change, deteriorate or dissolve over time.

Need I say more about this?

We and our world are finite…. We have a beginning and an end and our finiteness is sandwiched between the creation and the consummation. Dietrich Bonhoeffer talked about “living in the uncomfortable middle.” Bonhoeffer was right, we don’t know the beginning because we were not there and we do not know the end because it has not yet happened.

This thought by Bonhoeffer one drives a lot of people crazy, especially religious people who have to try to prove things that they cannot prove.

Evil and malevolence exists in individuals, organizations and systems, even those that we esteem highly…. One only has to look at the number of trusted people and organizations that have perpetrated and covered up their own evil acts to know the truth of this. 

I believe in the goodness of most people, but I am also a realist, evil and malevolence is all too real and all to much a part of our world. Until we get that, we will never understand those that commit evil, especially those that do so in the name of God.

So anyway, since we are getting ready for another big winter storm I will close for the day. Tomorrow we’ll see what I put out, until then I think that I just might drink beer instead.

Peace and blessings

Padre Steve+

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Writing My Way Home: Iraq, Faith PTSD and Life

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“Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening.But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God, either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God, too. This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life, and in the end there will be nothing left but spiritual chatter and clerical condescension arrayed in pious words… never really speaking to others.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Since I returned from Iraq I have grown weary of Christians that have all the answers and are more interested in promoting their agenda than actually listening or caring for those wounded in spirit from various forms of trauma including war. I returned from Iraq and went through what amounted to a crisis in faith, belief and experienced what I felt to be abandonment by God and many Christians.

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As such I elected to travel down a path that has been one of paradox. I have benefited from this but the path has been filled with much difficulty and pain. I walked through the psychological, spiritual and physical effects of my time in Iraq as well as the moral injuries that I incurred.  Over the years I have seen the effects of these crisis on my life and relationships. It has become important to tell my story, in as sense as a Canadian Chaplain in our Pastoral Care residency said to “write my way home.”

After Iraq I began to write. I did so initially because it was therapeutic and helped me to begin to start sorting out what was going on with me. It also helped me, especially when I went public on this site about my experience to get outside of my normally severely introverted self. As I began to write regularly it became a part of my life as I struggled to deal with PTSD and the spiritual and emotional crises following my tour in Iraq.

I began to understand the importance of my stories, in fact all of our stories in the way that we understand reality what we believe to be true and what really is true about ourselves and the universe that we are a part.

I experienced this to some degree in my own pastoral care residency at Parkland Memorial Hospital in the 1990s. My supervisor challenged be to stop living in the past and begin to imagine a future that was not a prisoner of my past disappointments and failures. That was a watershed experience for me and I began to realize that I did not need to live my life in a constant repetition of the past. That realization did not always find a place in my life but in a gradual process I began to escape that past and begin to live in the moment with an eye to the future.

Iraq changed that to a large degree. What I experienced there and upon my return to the States shook many of my beliefs about the world, faith and life. The images of American Marines wounded by IED attacks, wounded children and destruction of vast areas of cities, towns and villages coupled with having HUMMVs and Helicopters that I traveled on shot at and having rockets fly over my head changed me.  That was magnified when I saw how the war was being covered by both the liberal and conservative media which bore little resemblance to my first hand observations.

Even worse was the feeling of being isolated and abandoned when I returned home.  I experienced a crisis in faith that left me a practical agnostic even as I desperately prayed for God to show up.  In fact my psychotherapist was the first person to even address my spiritual life after my return.

When Elmer Maggard asked me: “How are you and the big guy?” I could only say “I don’t know I don’t even know if he exists.”

For a priest and chaplain that was a harrowing admission. I had entered a world of darkness that I did not believe was possible. I would struggle for another year and a half until during Advent of 2009. It was then, after what I refer to as my “Christmas Miracle” that things began to change and I began to sense the presence of a loving God again.  My faith began to return but it was and is not the same as before I went to Iraq.  I still struggle at times, though not as much. I still question God, the Church and faith in general. I believe and often must pray “Lord help my unbelief.” My faith is still in the realm of Christian orthodoxy but more negotiable.

This might sound confusing so let me explain. I admit that I do not have the answers that I used to think that I had. The late great manager of the Baltimore Orioles, Earl Weaver once said “it’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

The fact is I know a whole lot less than I used to. This has made me more apt to actually listen to people when they tell their stories and when they ask questions that I can’t answer I say “I don’t know” or “I struggle with that too” people trust me with their faith struggles or even the existence of God.

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I refuse to pass judgment on someone’s faith journey, even if they question God’s existence because I have been there and it is not a comfortable place to live.  I am far more willing to walk with someone thorough that valley of doubt or unbelief because I lived in that valley for over a a long time and sometimes pay it a return visit.

I don’t like to attribute normal experiences in life to being “God’s will” or “an attack of the Devil.” I recognize that as human beings that we live in a fallen state and that sometimes things just happen. To put in in the vernacular “Shit Happens.”

That being said I believe that the real miracle is that God can give us the grace to go through the most difficult times even when we have no faith at all.  I think that the experience of Jesus on Good Friday and the testimony of many saintly people tells me that this is true. The miracle in my mind is not being “delivered” from crisis or unbelief but making it though the crisis and return to faith, even if that faith takes a different form.

For me the act of writing both about my experiences, writing about history, faith, ethics and even baseball has been therapeutic and forced me out of my comfort zone.  When I  began to tell my story my friend Elmer the Shrink asked me if I was really sure that I wanted to open up and become vulnerable.

I said that I thought that I needed to because people needed to know the reality of what many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans experience.  He told me that what I was doing was risky but let me make the call. Almost 1500 posts later, not all of course dealing with what I and other veterans have gone through I can say that it was the right decision.

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My story is paradoxical. I am a man of faith, a Christian and Priest. I believe but I also question and doubt and sometimes still feel a twinge of agnosticism. I am much more prone to give the benefit of the doubt to people who struggle with life, faith and the existence of God. Andrew Greeley wrote that is was possible for a priest to lose their faith “no more often than a couple of times a day.” I figure that God is big enough to handle doubt and unbelief while still loving and caring for the person experiencing them, even those whose beliefs that may not fit the definition of Christian orthodoxy.

I am a passionate introvert in an extroverted world both in ministry and the military. I am an intuitive “out of the box” thinker and somewhat a rebel. Yet in spite of this I willingly volunteer to serve the church and the military. It is interesting because both institutions prize loyalty to the institution, obedience and staying within the lines of prescribed beliefs and traditions. I believe yet question.

I think that there is a healthy tension in this type of life. Though I fully subscribe to the Creeds, the first 7 Ecumenical Councils of the Church an Old Catholic understanding of the Christian faith tempered by some Anglican flavors, I am not a legalist when it comes to faith.

This also applies to the rest of life because I don’t think that faith should influence how we treat people, even in politics. I cannot allow any political ideology to hold my faith captive, nor can I cast aside the essence of the Christian faith even when I doubt. My political views could be described as a moderate progressive liberalism tempered with the demands of the Gospel, the top two commandments that Jesus talked about, the whole love God and love your neighbor thing.

I have discovered that for the most part I can comfortably live in this tension and actually believe that writing about it has been a big part of my recovery. The fact is that I think that it is okay to live life in balance and with a health appreciation of creative tension.

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I continue to emerge from the darkness of my post Iraq experience and I know that I am still wounded. I still struggle but I now see this as a gift from God. My faith is not the same as it was and I am not satisfied with simplistic answers or the party lines of people that only care about their agenda especially when they decide that their agenda is God’s will, even if it has nothing to do with the Gospel. That may sound snarky but I really want to be an authentic Christian not some caricature that is more a picture of the American perversion of the faith than anything found in Scripture or the 2000 year history of the Church.

I believe but I struggle. I will listen to other points of view, including those of people that are not Christian. In fact when I was in Iraq I found that my Iraqi Muslim friends were much easier to dialogue with and have deep and respectful theological discussions with than many American Evangelicals. That was a watershed moment.  T. E. Lawrence wrote in Seven Pillars of Wisdom that “The Beduin could not look for God within him: he was too sure that he was within God.” After having been with the Bedouin I think that I understand.

This is the dialogue that has been going on in me since my return from Iraq. I know other Chaplains and other people of faith that have returned from Iraq or Afghanistan who have experienced similar feelings.

Unfortunately many do not have a safe place in their churches to heal and are afforded little time to do self care. I am concerned for our caregivers that care of veterans like me.  I wonder how many can be real in their faith community without having people run away from them as if they were radioactive, a feeling that many veterans and other trauma victims experience when they attempt to tell their story.

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I just hope that I will be able to be there for others who are wounded and suffering as a result of what they experienced in war. T. E. Lawrence wrote: “The rare man who attains wisdom is, by the very clearness of his sight, a better guide in solving practical problems than those, more commonly the leaders of men, whose eyes are misted and minds warped by ambition for success….”

Maybe that is why I went through what I did in Iraq and after my return. If that is the case it is a good thing and I will continue to write.

That is all for tonight.  Blessings and peace my friends,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under christian life, faith, iraq,afghanistan, Military, Pastoral Care, Tour in Iraq

The Omega House Rules: Mitt the Bully and Other Bullies

“You’re all worthless and weak! Now drop and give me twenty!” Doug Neidermeyer Animal House

Neidermeyer, Marmalard and Omega Bullies

I can’t stand bullies. I did’t like them when I was a kid and I don’t like them now. When I first heard about and read about Mitt Romney leading a mob chasing down, pinning and forcibly cutting the hair of a gay student at his exclusive prep school I was disgusted but not surprised. (See http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2012/05/former-romney-classmate-describes-bullying-supreme-a-pack-of-dogs-who-targeted-differentboy/ )

You may want to know why I am not surprised. I just see this action as part of a pattern. During his career as a venture capitalist at Bain Capital he specialized in buying up, parting out and for the most part destroying companies while shipping the jobs overseas.  He can boast that he helped some companies but for the most part his actions as a businessman only benefited him and his stockholders. He preyed on the weak as a businessman and was quite successful in doing so. Mitt was a Bully again during this year’s Republican Presidential primary campaign. He carpet bombed his opponents, notably Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum with a nasty, negative ad campaign that even left many conservative Republicans crying foul.  I wasn’t a big fan of either Newt or Rick but Mitt’s destruction of them was the work of a bully who obviously relished his work. I lost whatever respect I had for Mitt during those primaries.

Mitt Romney reminds me of Greg Marmalard and Doug Neidermeyer, the leaders of the elite “Omega” Fraternity in the movie Animal House. They were rich, sanctimonious and polished bullies that attempt to bully and brutalize the socially unacceptable students over at Delta House.  Mitt has  serial bully who loves to destroy those he believes might become a threat even if they are weak and underfunded.  However he seems to be afraid of the bullies of the Religious Right, but since he needs their support he is willing to let them dictate his decisions. This happened most recently when he appointed an openly gay man as his foreign policy spokesman and then tossed him under the bus after being excoriated by Bryan Fisher of the American Family Association. Fisher then mocked Mitt for buckling to him, a self described “Yokel.”

Bullies are not tough guys, they prey on the weak or those they perceive to be weak while inside they are spineless and soulless.  Maybe that’s why he is on three sides of every issue and was described as an “Etch-a-Sketch” by one of his senior campaign aides during the primaries.

Mitt sort of apologized in a non-apologetic way today saying “I participated in a lot of hijinks and pranks during high school and some might have gone too far and for that, I apologize.” That was a crock. He claimed not to remember the incident and I almost want to believe him, simply because I see the bullying trait as part of who he is, he probably doesn’t remember because the incidents all kind of run together.

However, if one is basically a peaceful person that does not habitually engage in physical or emotional abuse of those that you deem less than yourself you tend to remember violent acts in your life. It doesn’t matter if you participated in something that you later regretted and didn’t repeat because you knew that you were guilty of something that was wrong, immoral and against your moral code or if you were the victim of someone else. Violent and traumatic acts burn themselves into our memories.

When I was a kid I was not very big and was pretty much always the new kid in town. As a result there were some places where I got picked on or bullied. I was an easy target for some. I remember every fight that I got into, where I got hit and the emotions that I felt when bullied, the fear of wondering if someone else was going to bully me. In every case I fought back against bullies or groups. My first fight was when I went to the aid of a neighbor kid that was being beaten up by the block bully, a kid that was older and bigger than the kids on my street. I got the worst of it and the fight was broken up by adults. My new school jacket was ripped and I had a black eye and was grounded by my parents for getting into a fight. However the bully didn’t bother my neighbor or me again. I could give details of the others but it would pretty much be the same story, except I was the kid getting bullied and decided to defend myself. There was one event in 4th grade when I transferred mid year to a school in a different state and two in Junior High School.  Those in Junior High were against kids that were much taller and bigger than me, one who had bullied me for all three years before I knocked him down hard with an uppercut to the jaw.

Those incidents are burned into my memory. If Mitt was not a serial bully who whether it was the rich kid that picked on those he deemed unworthy of being in his privileged prep school, those that he destroyed as a venture capitalist or his political opponents I think that he would remember details. But then maybe he does remember and like so  many other things in his campaign he is simply trying to lie his way out of it, giving as ambiguous apology as he can without admitting any real guilt. Romney denies knowing that his victim in prep school was gay, but others say that he knew.

One thing that I learned in all four incidents was that bullies like to pick on those smaller or different than them. Those that the perceive as weak and those that they think they can dominate. They seldom feel guilty for their acts or have any empathy for their victims.

Mitt is now supported by various leaders of the “Christian right.” These men and a few women are mostly minsters or heads of para-church and allied organizations. All are associated closely with Evangelical Christian groups conservative Catholic ministries not directly connected with the Church. They include on the evangelical side Bryan Fisher, Peter LaBarbera, Tony Perkins and Gary Bauer, Franklin Graham, Bill Donohue and Randall Terry. These guys don’t seem to mind bullying those that they see as different (Moslems), inferior (Women) or believe that God particularly hates (Gays).  Of course it’s okay because they believe that the Bible or Church Tradition gives them that right. Of course they almost always ignore the parts of the Bible and Church Tradition that don’t agree with their position.

I find that bullies are bullies and always will be bullies. They prey on those different than them, they prey on those smaller and weaker than them and they will use whatever rational they need to use to justify behavior that is unjustifiable.

Why is an incident that happened nearly 50 years ago important and relevant in the election of a President? Because it demonstrates a lack of character and willingness to victimize the weak. It is important because it shows that his business practices and his treatment of his fellow Republican primary contenders. It important because he seems to think it is not important and even chuckled as he apologized. It shows that appears that to believe that different rules apply to him.

Mitt Romney seems to be an unrepentant and unabashed bully. He is a real life Greg Marmalard or Doug Neidermeyer.

The Omega’s will rule, unless the Delta’s fight back. If we don’t we’ll all be on our knees saying “Thank you sir may I have another.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Night Terrors: Padre Steve’s Closet of Anxieties

There are times that I know that I still have issues.  One of those times is when I wake up screaming in the middle of the night.  It is a reminder that there are dark recesses in my mind that I do not and may not ever understand. While I may find some of the meaning of these dreams and images through symbols and remembrance of things that have happened in my life they are on the whole rather outside of the world that I try to live in.

Most of the time I do not sleep well.  Ever since Iraq my sleep has been mostly troubled and seldom good.  However with that being said it is only on rare occasions when images become so disturbingly lifelike that it seems that I am actually in the middle of a real fight and wake up screaming as I attack imaginary intruders.  When I am at home this is no comfort to Judy and Molly who are awakened by me attacking the lamp on my side of the bed or some object.  When I am away and wake alone up in a cold sweat with my heart pounding I long to be able to feel Judy alongside of me or have our dog Molly come to me and try to make things better.

This was one of those weeks. My sleep has not been good and on Monday I had one of those less frequent but most terrifying of dreams where I was fighting to defend my family against a hostile and malevolent intruder.  It is always a similar dream and has haunted me since we were held up at gunpoint outside of Arroyo’s Cafe when it was still on South Center Street in Stockton California back in 1979.  It began to surface much more frequently in Iraq and since I returned home in 2008.  I love how one traumatic experience can be amplified by new traumatic experiences and how the anxiety related to my experience in Iraq is increased by things that I see happening in this country and around the world.  PTSD is such a joy to live with as almost every hour I wake up scanning for the enemy.

I understand from reading that I am not alone in this struggle and veterans that I spend time with often have terrible sleep disturbances related to wartime experience or other trauma.  Nearly four years after returning from Iraq I still experience flashbacks during waking hours and sometimes relive my experiences when others tell me of theirs. That is easier to process than what occurs at night.

Thankfully the prayers from the office of Compline do help when the terrors come as does the Prayer of Saint Michael and Saint Patrick’s Breastplate, but even still it is a battle to have restful sleep.

* Save us, Lord, while we are awake,

guard us while we are asleep;

that, awake, we may watch with Christ

and, asleep, may rest in His peace.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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The Tapestry of Life: How PTSD and Combat Stress is a Part of Who and What We Are

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:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hZeGzaJiP6g&feature=related

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.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under faith, Military, Pastoral Care, philosophy, PTSD, Religion, star trek, Tour in Iraq