“I Didn’t Deserve It”

One of the more distressing issues I face when working with veterans is their belief that they don’t deserve help.  They often tell me that they really weren’t in any danger.  “My service was all stateside,” or, “I didn’t see any real action.”  Then there’s my favorite, “No one even shot at me!” 

Frankly, that attitude surprises me.  I can think of no one more deserving than the men and women who have laid everything on the line and placed themselves at risk in the name of freedom. 

 Enlisting or being drafted into military service carries with it certain inherent risks.  You might luck out and not be sent into an active warzone, but there is always that chance that you could end up right in the middle of it. 

 That risk is the contribution you made for your country.  And that risk was real.  Yes, you may have been fortunate enough to dodge a bullet (pun intended) and not see active service, but don’t minimize your role in helping to purchase freedom.  Understand that those of us who have not served want to make sure you are repaid for the risks you took. 

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Making a Case for Change

As I was growing up, I often found I would become so narrowly focused on finding a solution to a problem that it would become almost impossible to resolve.  I’d approach the situation thinking, “Surely this will take care of that issue…” but when it didn’t, instead of changing tactics and trying something new, I’d do the very same thing again that I’d done before.  And the strange thing was I expected it to work this time.  I’d think, “I must not have done it right or been forceful enough,” so I’d have another go at it with even more determination.  And the odd thing was I’d actually be surprised when the same solution that didn’t work before didn’t work again!

Then I’d usually beat myself up for not finding an answer to the problem when I’d only tried one solution.  I’d end up generalizing: “I’m a failure and nothing I do works – I’m hopeless!”  The solution may have been staring me right in the face, but I was so focused on my original attempt at solving the problem, that I wouldn’t look any further.

Thankfully, I’ve pretty much grown out of this nonsense!  I’ve learned I can’t be afraid to let go of the things that don’t work and try something else.  One veteran told me he would push himself when he started to hurt in hopes that if he ignored his pain it would go away.  Instead, he’d end up in terrible pain for days afterward.  Once we were able to identify that he was using the same tactic that didn’t work in the past, he realized that taking a break when the pain first started might work.  In fact, it did!  It allowed him to come back with renewed strength without the pain backlash from doing too much.

Learn to work smarter instead of harder!  Listen to your body and the messages it’s sending you.  Pain is not weakness leaving the body!  Pain is a sign that damage is occurring and you need to slow down and give yourself time to heal.

“I Can’t Believe I Did That!”

As much as they are plagued by the horror of the things they saw in their wartime experiences, some veterans are consumed with guilt over the things they did.  Guilt, whether justly deserved or not, unleashes its own set of demons.

One veteran told me he could not forgive himself for the things he did while in the service.  “I killed people!  How can God forgive me for that?”

What surprised me most was that he had not come to terms with his feelings forty years later!  How long does it take to find forgiveness?  As I am not a priest, I could not offer absolution.  All I could do was point out that wartime puts us in situations where we do things to stay alive, and we do what we’re told to do.  Everyone does things he or she is sorry for, and most of us aren’t programmed to be a soldier and to follow orders.  Because he had already introduced God into the conversation and had told me he was Christian, I pointed out that Jesus even forgave those who crucified him; surely it wasn’t such a stretch to think he could also forgive one hurting soldier.  Unfortunately, forgiving ourselves can be harder than forgiving someone else.  Sometimes we hold ourselves to a higher standard than we do others.

I hoped my words comforted him.  I think guilt is a worthwhile emotion to an extent.  There would be much more crime, pain and anguish without any guilt to inhibit people, but there comes a point where it’s counter-productive.  When it becomes a cancer that eats at you and consumes you, then it’s just a burden and does no good.

 Does anyone act normally when they are in a life-and-death situation?  What part does conditioning play in programming a person to do things he or she wouldn’t do in a “normal” situation?  And, I even have to ask, is conditioning all bad when it keeps you alive?

 If you did things in the heat of battle that you’re feeling guilty over, what can you change?  Is there anything you can do to make amends?  Do what you can and then forgive yourself.  You’ll feel better for it.

The Choke Hold

The worst thing about Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is that it affects every area of your life.  Emotional numbing makes your relationship with your spouse and children uncomfortable, at best.  Flashbacks force you to relive the horror.  (It’s no wonder you’ll do just about anything to avoid bringing back those painful memories.)  Hyperviligance results in isolation thereby destroying any social life you might have.  And then there are the sleep problems: the inability to sleep, or falling asleep but not being able to stay asleep through the night…it can leave you exhausted and struggling to find any peace or joy in life at all.

And is that enough?  Unfortunately, the answer is often no.  Many times the difficulties you’re going through have a direct impact on those closest to you.  One soldier’s wife told me she would lie in bed at night burning to get up to use the bathroom, but she didn’t dare.  She was afraid it might trigger a flashback for her husband and he would attack and beat her.  The pain of the beating wasn’t what was so distressing to her though — it was seeing the horror on his face when he realized he’d been betrayed by his own mind and had hurt her that kept her motionless and suffering.

The tendency with PTSD is to avoid anything that brings back those painful memories, but avoidance does little to exorcise those memories from our psyche.  “Talk Therapy” is one of the most successful methods of treating PTSD and it’s just what the title implies: talking to a trained counselor about those memories can drain them of their poison, a little at a time.

As we discussed last week, there are several forms of treatment that can be used successfully to cope with PTSD.  You have to keep looking for the one that works for you.  The thing is, doing nothing and hiding from the memories simply allows them to maintain their hold over you.  Reclaim your life.   Happiness is worth fighting for too…after all, what’s freedom without happiness?

Several of the veterans I work with have said the best thing they’ve done is take the Anger Management Course offered by the VA.  Have you found that to be helpful?  Why, or why not?