by John DeCree
This first appeared in Britta’s blog, “Life After War” on January 28, 2020, and is republished with the author’s permission.
Most of us experience fear. We all experience it uniquely. For some, it is paralyzing. For others, it is energizing. We see scary movies, ride roller coasters, and visit haunted corn mazes at Halloween. Fear. We like it. When I went to airborne school, an experienced jumpmaster got angry with me. He asked me in typical drill sergeant fashion if I was afraid to jump out of a perfectly good airplane. In proper Army fashion, I told him not no but heck no.
He told me that I had better be afraid; that fear would keep me from doing something stupid. Fear he said, “was healthy.” Apparently, we like fear or it is good to experience sometimes. Only sometimes.
So let’s look at healthy fear. You are driving in a convoy through the desert and you get that cold spot between your shoulder blades. The hair on your neck goes up for no reason and your eyeballs dilate so that you can see everything in slow detail. That is healthy fear, right? After all, it probably happened and you are reading this now. You see your child getting ready to dash into the street without looking to retrieve a ball. You yell at them to stop because you can’t not yell right then. That’s healthy fear. Healthy fear helps preserve life. We need that.
Unhealthy fear is when you sit alone with your thoughts and you feel the fear coming on like whatever first caused it just happened yesterday. Then it goes from fear to terror as you try to not experience it. The walls look like they are closing in. You sweat and shake and you try to hide. Maybe you hide in a room, maybe in your truck. Maybe in a bottle. You might lose color vision and see only gray scales. You might hyperventilate. You certainly don’t like it. This fear preserves only itself. It does not keep people alive. Perhaps it was that kind of fear when you first felt it but now it only serves to perpetuate itself. It keeps us up at night. It interrupts sleep, focus, food, sex, relationships…everything. Fear.
Cpl. Omar Montanez, a food-service technician and Passaic, N.J., native with Battalion Landing Team 1st Bn., 2nd Marines, stares intently in the direction of Hit, Iraq, as he mans an M-240G machine gun atop a seven-ton truck during a convoy, 30 March 2004 (Source).
Soon it becomes a fear of those feelings. It is the fear of the fear itself. FDR’s maxim comes true, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” He had a point. After a while, we simply fear the fear. That is the point where it feels that we have no hope. Anything can set it off like fireworks on the 4th of July, blowing sand or snow across a road, a trash pile, sudden noise, anything. So how is this fear different than the movie or the roller coaster? Here is the key, one we control, one we do not. We can pause the movie or walk out of the theater. We know it resolves in some way. The roller coaster will end in 3 minutes. Its genesis is up to us. We initiate the movie by going into the movie and sitting down. We end it by leaving or waiting for the credits. The roller coaster we initiate by getting in line and sitting in the ride. The other fear came from memories. Weird, we weren’t scared in combat. At least we were not too afraid to do the job. We were not paralyzed by it. But it evolves in us. It was the fear of dying and failing our brothers. Then it was the fear of memories. Now it is just the fear of fear.
What do we do with that? How do we manage that irrational fear of the fear? Instead of watching the horror movie, we are now in it. Well first things first, if you are on prescribed medication for anxiety be very honest with the doc about how it is working, not working, or otherwise affecting you. Also, if you are on these medications DO NOT DRINK OR USE POT. At a minimum, they will mess up the efficacy of the prescription stuff and at worse you could end up in the emergency room.
Second, it is time to start facing the fear. This should be done with help, like a counselor or a pastor, and people around you who care but ultimately it happens when you say. This ability to initiate a response begins to take back our control over it. You can do this in chunks or by degrees or you can “rip off the band-aid.” You decide but either way, do not go it alone. This is called ‘desensitizing’. It literally means to make you less sensitive to the things that bother you. It works. The military did it to us in basic training, by the way. You may not have been a morning person either but that went away. You may have thought a no notice 10-mile ruck at 0 dark 30 was not doable until you had done a couple of 2 milers, a 5-mile ruck, and maybe a 7-miler. Heck, what is another 3 miles to us? So the technique is sound even if it is a bit frightening.
If you are seeing a counselor, then tell them honestly that you are going to try to start confronting the beast. Let them help you and take their direction. It is ok to go slow. By that I mean once you make some strides take a break from the confronting for a few days or even weeks. Then try again. In between we manage the symptoms and the days until we are ready for another push. Just like working out, you won’t get it all back in one day and you cannot max lift every day. The same principle applies-make some gains, consolidate them, go back to your reps for a bit, then max lift again. Don’t be discouraged by your perception of failure. First of all, it is probably not accurate. After all, we are living in our heads too much anyway, right? Remember the weightlifting analogy, sometimes failing on a lift tells you better where you are in the program than getting it.
Third, get spiritual. All healing is spiritual at some level. In case you did not notice, there are no pharmaceutical cures for what we have. Prescriptions, even medicinal marijuana, is only a management tool, not a cure. Get your relationship with God or your higher power, the Creator, or whatever you call the Governing Force of the universe in order and ask for His help. I highly doubt this is going to be a one-and-done. Stick with it. Military people are notoriously impatient but we need to develop that muscle too. Perseverance and persistence will greatly aid our spiritual side. They are our force multipliers. Our spiritual side will also help us keep some semblance of positive orientation. PTSD, PTS, ASD, GAD, addiction, and depression are no picnic but nothing is unbeatable.
God did not bring you home from the fight just so you could sit around and be miserable for the rest of your life. A good buddy once told me “Sometimes you have to turn around, square up, and face the darkness coming at you. What you find is that it is far more grey than black.” That man had PTSD way before I even knew what it was. He was right. His name is Kevin. He spent 5 years on Mount Ararat looking for Noah’s ark and was dodging shells between the Turks and the PKK the whole time. He showed me how to face fear.
The key to not losing it is to stay connected with people. Drinking, smoking pot, using harder drugs, and just being angry all the time keep us isolated from those who are trying to help. It is this isolation that kills us. The method we use is secondary to isolation. When we feel no hope, no love, nothing but the fear we isolate ourselves. Once that happens we are in dire straits. Those connections are the lifelines out of the fear. Keep hold of them. Eventually, you will gain a foothold on it and every grunt knows what happens next; breach, secure, reinforce, and exploit the breach. We were not made to live in fear and we don’t do it very well.
As the Voice of the Veteran Community, The Havok Journal seeks to publish a variety of perspectives on a number of sensitive subjects. Unless specifically noted otherwise, nothing we publish is an official point of view of The Havok Journal or any part of the U.S. government.