by Britta Reque-Dragicevic
This first appeared in Britta’s blog, “Life After War” on May 3, 2014, and is republished with the author’s permission.
“I will never be as good at anything as I was at war.”
“I don’t think this pain is ever going to end.”
“It’s been years now. This is just the way it is.”
“People would be shocked if they knew how dark my thoughts get.”
“It just fucking hurts. All the time.”
I hear these things often. They are said by courageous people hoping that there is still hope. People whose lives feel like a daily battle, who exist between fighting the mental and spiritual pain and giving in to it. People trying to manage the darkness of their own thoughts, unsure if light exists anymore.
I’m not going to fuck with you, this isn’t a battle for the fainthearted.
You weren’t trained for this type of warfare.
Most of you experience life after war with emptiness, a sense of pain, loss, not being understood, anger, frustration, and the sense of being lost and broken. Very rarely do you step back to look at yourself as you would a loved one who had been through what you have. Your life feels like it’s just “your life” and you are conscious of the pain and bad feelings, but do not really give yourself the grace of looking at what’s behind all that hurt. When you see only the forest and not the trees, it’s hard to know how to distinguish what you must fight against and what you must accept in order to win control of your life and create a sense of well-being.
So, let’s take a look at some of these “trees”:
Post-traumatic stress disorder is not a mental disease. It’s a normal survival and healing reaction to life-threatening situations where fear was the predominant emotion. It can cause startle reflex, mood swings, short tempers, irrational fear, reliving of the event, and a general overwhelming anxiety that you’re not safe. PTSD causes your body to react physically without your intention. And because of that, you do not have control over how the symptoms manifest in your life.
Traumatic brain injury is “the signature wound” of OIF/OEF combat veterans. This wound in itself is life-changing. If you had taken a bad fall off your bicycle on a quiet, friendly neighborhood street and suffered a TBI, you would have a major life-changing event to deal with that would change the course of your future. But, most of you guys take TBI in stride as just part of combat and do not realize how significant this is medically. What does TBI do? It damages the nerve tissue and functions in the affected area of your brain. That damage is usually permanent. It causes memory loss, headaches, concentration problems, inability to fully control emotions, anger, and frustration. It can also cause difficulty in reading, comprehending information, and expressing your thoughts. A brain injury is one of the most challenging, life-changing injuries people can experience because it impacts not only your physical well-being but your sense of self and ability to relate to others.
Missing loved ones and life.
Most of the combat veterans I know have lost buddies they loved. That loss doesn’t just go away. The traumatic nature in which they died makes it an indelible memory that feels as real and fresh today as it did a year or 10 years ago. That loss is often compounded by a sense of guilt and “I hope I did enough” and feelings of powerlessness and anger and wondering why you’re here and they’re not. Grief over buddies is significant and intense. It’s not “just part of combat” to your heart, as much as your mind tries to explain that it is. You loved these people, they loved you, they died and you miss them.
But you are not just grieving the loss of buddies. You have multiple losses. Many of you lost marriages or trusting relationships, a sense of belonging, jobs you loved, a culture you felt part of, your sense of self-pride and achievement, purpose, respect, and your sense of control and well-being.
Training may make killing easy and routine for your body and mind. Not so to your soul. You cannot take such an intimate role as a death-bearer without it having a significant impact on your soul and spirituality. Killing raises big questions and issues, but it manifests in angst and feeling as if you no longer are part of the human race. Death-bearing sets you apart spiritually. It is a role that very few people are willing to discuss, examine or even admit exists. Guilt, shame, remorse, or the lack thereof all play into this.
Who are you now? If you lost your military career or miss it, you may not even want to try to find a new sense of identity. Going back sounds appealing, but may not be possible. You try college or various jobs without any clear sense of what you want to do in life now. The past feels more real than the present. You don’t even know where to begin or what you are capable of contributing. You feel lost.
What do all of these have in common? Loss. Compounded by loss upon loss.
Which is why recovering from combat is actually a journey of grief.
It is a continuum that you are on between accepting what cannot be changed and changing what you can. And that is why I maintain that to heal from war you must journey through grief. Not in a “sit down and cry” way (though you certainly may cry and probably would feel better if you did) – but in a way that recognizes and honors yourself as a human being who is going through loss and needs compassion, gentleness, support, and understanding.
You need to give yourself permission to grieve and take the time you need to move toward acceptance. Grief has five statuses: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. You bounce back and forth among these as you move toward acceptance to create a new sense of well-being. It feels like hell and you are going to continue to feel lost as you move through grief until you get to a point where you feel more acceptance than you do denial, anger, or depression. One thing to remember: you’ll struggle more if you haven’t fully surrendered to the process.
What do you have to accept and what can you change?
- PTSD symptoms can be eased and diminished as you address and express grief, fear, and intense emotions in mindful ways. Through writing, art, painting, music, physical work, and exercise, anytime you tie your grief and anger to something that gets the thoughts outside your head — you start taking your power back.
- TBI symptoms can be recognized for what they are, coping methods can be learned, you can adapt to the best of your ability; ultimately, you have to accept that this is a permanent wound that you will have to manage for the rest of your life.
- Soul damage and loss of identity. These are based on thoughts and beliefs. Thoughts and beliefs can be changed.
You cannot change physical damage, loss of loved ones, or the facts of what you have been through. You can work to change your thoughts, beliefs, and perceptions of who you are now and who you can become.
You are fighting a battle that is fought in thoughts, feelings, and spiritual energy. Recognizing that you are in the midst of a grief journey is the place to begin. The second thing to do is to stop believing that there is something “wrong” with you when what you are going through is very normal and very necessary. I see combat veterans come home to a world that doesn’t understand them and doesn’t even try to. There is this perception that you “get” PTSD much like you might get “AIDS” – there is this stigma, this concept that it is a mental weakness and something bad. But PTSD is only ONE of the ways your body tries to protect you. And it is not the only thing that is going on with your heart and soul. (This is why you do NOT have to have PTSD to be impacted deeply by your combat experience.)
I don’t have to tell you that this warfare is intense and real. The stakes are as high as they can get. But I will tell you that with support, you can fight your way to acceptance. And acceptance is where peace is.
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.