In the process of dealing with recent life events and the death of a friend I found myself striving to grasp grief. I wanted to try to understand it and control it. I quickly realized that isn’t going to happen. But I realized something else about grief. Grief is a huge part of the PTSD process that people seem to get lost in. We constantly want our “old” or “normal” way of being back. We grieve the loss of brother and sisters-in-arms. But we feel that we can never let go of their death because somehow we would be letting go of our war or being dishonorable to their memory. We grieve our life before deployment, missing it everyday that we are gone and creating a new reality in our heads; only to realize that the world kept moving forward while we weren’t there. We miss the adrenaline of life in combat; we miss living in crappy conditions close to our brothers and sisters, knowing that we all understand something about the human condition that most people will never glimpse let alone grasp. We grieve the persona that the uniform allowed us to live. When we leave a deployment or leave the military there is a tremendous sense of loss, an end to a part of who we are. And yet no one acknowledges this transition as a loss. No one allows us a moment in time to grieve this loss of lifestyle, persona, and camaraderie. We are expected to celebrate being free of the military’s constraint, and simply fit in to the civilian world we are then thrust into.
I think that another huge issue in coping with PTSD is addressing our feelings of shame and vulnerability. “Shame is about fear, blame, and disconnection,[i]“ That sounds like a spot on secondary definition of PTSD in my opinion and experiences. I feared the unknown of what I was struggling against, I feared not being able to fit back into society. I blamed George W. Bush, my commander, the Army, Iraq, and society for not understanding or being sympathetic to what I was experiencing. I feared being judged as “broken” or weak. So to deal with this overwhelming fear and blame I shut down. I disconnected from the world around me. If I didn’t let them in then I wouldn’t be hurt any more. No one could tell me I was damaged.
After a few years of being alone and severely depressed I realized that I could not continue to live life this way. I had to change something in order to change my self and the situation that I had created. I had to be vulnerable and open myself up. Though I didn’t identify it as vulnerability at the time. As I slowly let my counselor glimpse my self-perceived weakness I was able to start regaining control in my life. By confronting the pain and rage and exposing my raw nerves to someone else, I was able to finally start to heal. 5 years ago I started doing a lot counseling. Talking about all the gory details of my time in Iraq. In one scenario my counselor and I spent several sessions going over ever sight, smell, touch, and emotion from the night that I dealt with two dead bodies for the first time. For years I had carried so much shame and so much fear that maybe I could have done more to save them. I use to lay awake at night and picture their bodies in the vehicle where they died. I couldn’t let that night go, I carried too much shame. But the more the counselor and I talked about that night the more I began to see, and slowly believe, that I did everything I could have. There was truly nothing in my realm of control that I could have done to save either man’s life. My heart still hurts for their families. But the pain, shame, and fear of that night, the burden on my back, I have since let go of.
Since those early sessions of delving into my inner most pain I learned that my counselors didn’t think any less of me as a person, I was not weak, crazy, or un-savable. As I slowly shared some of my deepest fears with other veterans I found out they were feeling the same things. Now I am to a point in my journey that I am willing to tell my story to anyone who wants to know. The more I have openly confronted my fears of being rejected because I am damaged are the moments I am actually the most loved and supported. I hate to cry because I feel weak and shameful for being vulnerable. But I have recently learned that others see my vulnerability as a sign of my courage. “Courage is telling our story, not being immune from criticism. Staying vulnerable is a risk we have to take if we want to experience connection.[ii]”
Recovery from PTSD is a long difficult process. To learn to feel “good” again we have to face everything “bad” at its most raw and exposed level. We have to let go of the shame, grieve the change, and be completely vulnerable to those that we want to reengage with. I truly believe that all the years of exploring my own trauma (and the continuing work I do) has helped me to conquer my PTSD in a way that leads me to growth, empathy, purpose, and joy in my life. As painful, damaging, and unforgettable as those moments in Iraq were I would never give them back for they have become the foundation of me, and are ultimately making me stronger.