Military woman

Remember Them, Even When They Are Back Home

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I have lived in a dark place, a place where there is no sun, and the pit is deep. And try as I may to climb out, the earth keeps giving way beneath my fingers. But what I have not done is lived in a dark place with memories and images etched upon my delicate brain. I have not closed my eyes and frequently seen things too graphic to be drawn,
and I have not seen faces, situations, or places I would rather forget. I am not often afraid to close my eyes, wondering what will be on the other side of slumber. And the tears I have shed have not been for “brothers” and “sisters” whom I have lost.

I have heard noises that are too much for me to bear when I am trying to shut the world out. But the noises have been high-pitched squeals from my healthy children or music that just does not allow me to concentrate. What I have not done is hear noises that bring me back to a place I would rather not be. I do not go to sleep and hear cries that do not exist nor do I hear gunfire. I do not remember the screams of those lost and hear the sounds of war. I do not open my eyes in panic because explosions have resounded in my head. And I have never associated a slamming door with prisoners being taken away or tanks I must enter.

I have lost my appetite and said things I probably should not have while struggling to get a handle on my depression. But what I have not done is lost my appetite and refused to speak of my struggles. I have never had to walk around with the stigma of being a soldier who should be “tough enough” to handle her feelings. I have not had to bury my heart deep in my chest for fear it may seem that I am not “strong enough.” I have never had the pressure of feeling I cannot “burden” others or deal with the struggles I am trying to cope with.

And I cannot imagine that life. I cannot imagine removing myself from reality and then trying to enter back into reality as though there was never a time when I was gone. I cannot imagine removing myself from family and then not having family understand why I have changed while I was away from them. I cannot imagine having all of my senses be awakened by a nightmare and then feeling I cannot talk about the nightmare itself. I cannot imagine giving myself for people who do not know me and then wondering if those people even care about what I have done for them.

So this Remembrance Day, I will adorn my jacket with a poppy. But more than that, I want our veterans to feel that when they are home, we will embrace them back as different and changed and new. PTSD, depression, anxiety, or whatever may come home with them in their back pack of possessions, is ok. And we will welcome them back with open arms, regardless of whatever they may be afraid to unpack.

Let us stand up for our minute of silence but help them break their silence. Help them feel safe, and be compassionate because the trauma of war does not end when they return home.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255

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Thinkstock photo by alek seykh

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To the Veterans Who Feel Like They Can't Talk About Their Struggles

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You are more than just a number. Your life matters. You trained for countless hours, invested time, suffered casualties, lost loved ones and grieved. For those who are too young to be married, you sacrificed your youth to serve your country. You took an oath to protect and serve, to sacrifice your own life for that of your country. Hardly legal age you do not fully know yourself, yet and you are asked to leave the life you knew and to build a life in a combat zone or as a base operative.

For those who are married you are often separated from your spouse. If you have children they will at times be raised away from you. The stress of the military on a marriage, a family and a growing child is a real struggle. The hope is that you will serve your time, overcome these challenges, and be able to mainstream back into the life you once lived. The hope to reconnect with loved ones and be there when your child takes their first footsteps or needs help chasing the monster from their bedroom. Your life, both the good and bad, shapes who you are as a person. The civilian world is so different, as it lacks the same structure and hierarchy. The transition back to civilian life is incredibly difficult as you carry scars. These scars could be a physical manifestation of combat or they could metaphorically represent all of the struggles and challenges you try so desperately to lock within. If you are female you may carry issues of sexual harassment that you feel you are unable to speak about. It is a secret you lock deep within.

Making friends and allowing others in is an incredibly difficult challenge. From your time in combat, you have lost friends and grieved deeply. Having connections with others requires vulnerability and you’ve hardened yourself to survive. Suicide is something you have seen, maybe even contemplated.

Terms like post-traumatic stress disorder has been explained to you, but it’s just a label. You can understand it on one level — but the goal is to survive. You think serving means keeping these things in, pushing forward and being a good solider. In doing this you forget you are unique. You choose to sacrifice your life for others and have experienced so much of the world to ensure the safety of your country. You are afraid to share these things because it seems less heroic, as you are just a number, no different than others who have served. There is strength in numbers and you have proven yourself to be strong — but you as an individual carry so much value.

By taking the time to share these struggles, you form connections with others. You do not want those who serve after you to became a statistic, so becoming a mentor and pushing yourself to share your experiences will help the solider following you. It will help them realize that individually they have value, and a voice that needs to be heard. Continue to share your struggles and experiences, as this will allow others to grow from you. Take a veteran under your wing and validate the importance of them sharing their struggles, as they will be an inspiration to the world around them.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

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3 Pieces of Advice for Veterans Transitioning Back to Civilian Life

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This article was originally published by Active Minds and was written by Bryan Adams, a member of the Active Minds Speakers Bureau who speaks to schools and groups nationwide about his military service and his struggle with mental health issues once he returned to civilian life.

Through the drones of machinery and roaring turbines, a calm voice came over the loudspeaker of the C-141 troop transport plane: Please prepare for landing. I had been in Iraq for over a year on what seemed like a dark and twisted Groundhog Day. Stepping off of the plane in Germany was a surreal experience. The lush green hills and puffy white clouds draped against the blue sky were a far cry from the deserts of Iraq. I had never felt so relieved in my life.

After being wounded during an ambush, I came closer than I had ever imagined to dying. My life as an Infantryman in Iraq was a mix of long hours and overwhelming boredom, peppered with brief moments of pure terror, racing adrenaline and extreme focus. Conversations with friends ran the gamut of pop culture, politics, sports, music and goals. There was a lot of time to think about home, about family and friends, and about what I wanted to do when I got out of the military.

The first few months back in the United States I was riding an almost euphoric emotional high, spending time with family and friends and enjoying the freedoms our country has to offer. For me, trying to settle back in to civilian life was the priority. Eventually the newness of it all faded away and I was left with the realization I had no real plan. I was 21 years old and had spent three of my formative early adult years in a highly structured environment where “right place, right time and right uniform” was the overarching mantra to the lower enlisted soldier. Having choices and excessive free time were a welcomed, yet unfamiliar luxury.

I became consumed with anxious thoughts that kept me awake at night. Depression crept in as the reality of what I had lived through began to fully sink it. The guilt of surviving, while other soldiers who were stronger, faster and more proficient did not, was hard to digest. Frustration permeated my daily life as the larger questions loomed over almost every moment of my existence.

Admitting I needed help was one of the toughest realizations I came to in my life. Stigmas are a very real barrier to mental health treatment. From my personal experience, they are even more pronounced in the military, where not being able to pull your weight can lead to mission failure or getting someone killed. Through supportive friends, family and caregivers I accepted the realization I wasn’t able to do it on my own, and I sought treatment for what was eventually diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder.

After years of focus, time and hard work, I was able to fully appreciate and respect the importance of mental health. I felt the need to educate others, to change the conversation about mental health. That is what lead me to Active Minds — their mission is to eliminate stigmas on college campuses.

I found myself working to raise awareness for mental health treatment through speaking engagements and publications; my current duties also include working in veteran’s services at Rutgers University, where I have learned a lot about the reintegration process and mental health. I do not however, consider myself an expert; I feel I am more of an observer and fellow traveler on the journey. I want to share some of the practices which I have seen as effective not only to my personal situation, but for many returning veterans.

Below you will find three recommendations I have for you to keep in mind if you are a transitioning veteran or working with transitioning veterans.

1. Have a plan:

  • Develop a concrete plan of action several months before leaving the service. Smaller goals are an easy way to measure progress and build confidence.
  • If you plan on attending college after leaving the military, it’s a good idea to start researching schools up to a year in advance as many have early admissions deadlines. Learn about their rankings, majors, accolades and veteran programs. Start contacting them with any questions you may have; there is no such thing as a dumb question.
  • If you are looking to start working immediately afterwards, take advantage of the career and professional development resources available to you as a veteran. Veteran friendly companies, job fairs and job placement companies for veterans are all great resources. A simple internet search can yield local and federal hiring events that could connect you with Human Resource professionals and hiring managers.
  • Much like in the military, you should dress for success. Make sure you prepare for your interviews by practicing with others. Do research on the company, its goals and major initiatives. Tailor your resume to the specific company you are applying for and utilize resources available to translate your training and experience into civilian terminology.

2. Take Care of Yourself: Maintaining a healthy mind and body will make your ability to deal with stress, change and adversity more manageable. It has been shown that as many as one in five adults have some form of diagnosable mental health disorder. The Department of Veterans Affairs offers a variety of treatments and psychiatric services which can be tailored to your individual needs. You can also file for disability claims for any injuries or illnesses you believe you may have developed as a result of your service. You may be eligible to receive financial compensation as a result. If you’re going to file a disability claim, I recommended seeking assistance from a specialized claims officer or veteran’s service organization. If you have private insurance you can utilize providers within your network who may have specializations in working with veterans.

There are many other holistic approaches which you can take advantage of as a returning veteran. Mindfulness practices, meditation, yoga, outdoor recreation, regular exercise regimens and group activities which promote healthy coping mechanisms have all been proven beneficial. A service animal can also act as a day-to-day support mechanism to help you navigate through life. Seeking treatment should never be viewed as weakness; it takes a strong person to take the tough steps necessary in recovery.

3. Continue to Serve: As veterans we are used to having a mission and serving the country for the greater good. This sense of service runs strong in us all and it is important that we continue to fulfill this need. Community service and helping others is one of the highest forms of self-actualization one can achieve. There are many opportunities for veterans to give back to their communities and country. We can use our skills, knowledge, and experience to improve the lives of others who are less fortunate.

This piece originally appeared on the Active Mind’s blog.

Image via Thinkstock

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To the Veterans Who Feel Alone in Their PTSD

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To the veterans who think they can’t talk about their struggle with PTSD,

We’re not as different as you may think. You have PTSD from the wars you’ve fought, the things you’ve seen and maybe even the things you had to do. I can’t say I’ve been there. I can’t say I’ve shot at anyone, seen someone die, have been horrifically injured or God knows what else happens when you’re a combat veteran.

I don’t know what it feels like to wear boots, carry M-16s or eat MREs (Meals Ready to Eat). I don’t know what it feels like to take fire, take orders or take lives. But, I can say this: I know what it feels like to have memories rage inside of you at the things that have happened, and things you have done. I know what it feels like to be ashamed that you can’t fix yourself on your own. I know what it feels like to wake up in the night sweating and swearing and crying at memories you cannot control. I know what it feels like to have triggers that set off a plethora of violent and horrible emotions inside of you — emotions you can’t stop no matter how hard you try. I know what it feels like to be scared to love someone, because you know how much your past could hurt them. I know what it feels like to take all of your rage out on the people you love, because they are the safest place to let it out.

Our PTSD may not have the same origins, but it has many of the same effects. I know what they feel like. And so, I must tell you, you are not alone in your struggle.

My PTSD spawns from rape. Yours spawns from war. But we probably both feel the same thing: that we are weak for not being able to beat the memories on our own.

But, you see, that just isn’t true.

You are not weak. You are not unfixable. You are not crazy.

You are wounded, just like me. And wounds can heal.

So, to the combat veterans who struggle in silence with their PTSD, I encourage you to reach out. Just because someone hasn’t physically been to where you’ve been, doesn’t mean they can’t feel what you feel. You aren’t as isolated as you think.

There are people out there who want to help. There are people who value you and all that you’ve done for this country. And there are people who understand how it feels to have your struggle, even if they haven’t been exactly where you have. There are people who care.

The more you keep those memories bottled up, the more they will eat at you. They won’t just go away the harder you try to hold them back. They need to come out.

Your story is important and your emotions are valid. Don’t be afraid to reach out. There are helping hands all around you. Talk to someone. Talk to me. Talk to anyone.

The path to healing is right in front of you.

Simply the fact that you are a veteran says you have courage. You are not weak for being unable to control your past. In fact, your ability to voice your struggles only shows how much inner strength you have. It takes courage to heal. It takes courage to share your story. It takes courage to battle PTSD. So, for those veterans struggling with PTSD, I encourage you to get help. Talk. Connect. You are not alone.

I want you to heal.

I want you to live.

I want you to love.

And, so, I dare you to speak.

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You Know Me, but You Don't Know I Have PTSD

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You know me.

I live in your town. I work in your community. I play sports, I support local charities, I work hard and play hard and you say hi to me at the supermarket.

You know me.

You know I never served in a war, but you don’t know about the trauma that changed my life.

I’ve never been in a war zone. Except for the one going on in my head.

The war in my head is where my own body becomes my enemy as I struggle to slow my breathing, calm my shaking hands and stop the panic that invades every fiber of my being.

I couldn’t hold a gun even if I wanted to.

I know the science. Inside out, back to front. I know my body is responding physiologically to a perceived threat. I know that right now, in this moment, there is no threat.

But try telling that to my brain.

My brain is firing on all cylinders. It’s searching for an enemy, sweeping the room for dangers, calculating the safest course, identifying potential exits.

But the enemy it’s seeking out is itself.

My brain is telling my body to go into red alert. Fight, flight or freeze. Fight. Or flight. Or freeze. I can’t choose. I am captive in my own body. And I can be stuck in that mode for days.

You know me.

But you don’t know and you can’t possibly know I haven’t slept properly in five days. If you did know, you’d tell me to get some rest. Switch off. Relax.

What you don’t know is that I can’t. Because my brain is telling me to be alert, stay alert, be hypervigilant. Because science.

I know my reactions to seemingly unrelated issues or stressors can seem excessive to you. What you don’t know is that I know that too. And while the fact that I know this may frustrate you, it is precisely this realization that decimates me every time. And even though I know my reactions are excessive, there are days in my life that I simply cannot control my physiological symptoms.

And you. You don’t even want to go near my head.

Because when I finally found the words to adequately convey my brain processes so you could comprehend the scale of my terror, your eyes widened and your mouth dropped. You responded: “Wow. It’s noisy in your head. I don’t like it here. I want to go back to my own head.”

And you are someone who knows me. You love me. You love me despite knowing that sometimes I can’t talk. You love me even though I sometimes can’t get out of my bed. You love me even when I can’t be the friend or sister or daughter or aunt or colleague people need me to be. You love me even though sometimes all I can do is just breathe.

I know you find it difficult to comprehend. I know you find it excessive. An exaggeration. An impossibility. That if I truly was experiencing these physical symptoms and thoughts for extended periods of time I must surely explode?

But I don’t explode. I implode.

I disappear. I hibernate. I cease to be. I become nothing more than my illness. It consumes me.

And what you don’t know is that I loathe it.

I loathe this label, this illness, this utter lack of control. I loathe the fact that my misplaced sense of invincibility from my younger years led me to make choices, trust people and trust myself when I shouldn’t have.

What you don’t know is that I still find it hard to trust. It’s been 16 years since the event of my trauma. I’ve spent most of my adult life unable to maintain a healthy, positive relationship.

And no, I don’t loathe the human who violated that trust. I only mourn the loss of the person I used to be. But I do not feel anything for that person. I am numb.

You know me.

You might even know that from time to time I have episodes of manic depression. You might have noticed there have been times when I have simply vanished. From my home, my job, my life.

Or maybe you didn’t notice I was gone. Maybe you noticed when I came back that you hadn’t seen me in a while. You might have noticed I seemed quieter, flatter, cautious.

What you don’t know is that even in these times when I am back — when I’m good, functioning and contributing — there is a tiny part of me that is still scanning the room and checking the exits. Sometimes I don’t even realize I’m doing it. It’s that ingrained in my psyche.

And even when I’m managing and am “well,” I’m always waiting for the next trigger, the next episode, the next failure, the next loss. The loss of friendships, relationships, work, control, my independence and my financial stability. The loss of what it is to be me. The loss of emotion. I am numb.

When I’m in the fog, I can’t find my way through because it’s thick and all consuming. But I still look and search for the sun. When it’s sunny and there’s not an iota of a sign of any inclement weather, I’m scanning the sky, almost obsessively, for any sign of the fog descending. And sometimes, I cannot predict its arrival. Suddenly I will turn a corner and will be consumed by the fog. Other times it creeps up and I slowly disappear into it. Fighting, kicking, screaming. Other times silently and without a struggle.

And at these times, you may know me but you don’t see me. You can’t see me. Because I have spent the last 16 years trying desperately to not be seen as a victim, or an illness, or a survivor, or a failure. I try to be seen as me.

Just. Me.

You know me.

I live in your town. I work in your community. I play sports, I support local charities, I work hard and play hard and you say hi to me at the supermarket.

You know me.

And I have PTSD.

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PTSD Does Not Just 'Go Away' Over a Certain Period of Time

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Some people think that after someone is out of the military for any period of time (no matter their discharge status) a “switch” flips over reverting their brain back to civilian mode, ready for life outside of the military. What they fail to understand is the military does not teach our men and women how to switch back and forth between “soldier” and “civilian” between deployments. Many soldiers (especially those on the front line) leave the military with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). My husband (an infantry combat vet with three deployments under his belt) can tell you his PTSD is something that is not going to just “go away.” For him, every night is a nightmare.

My husband has been out of the U.S. Army since 2006… nearly a decade. Initially, he enlisted as National Guard. After four months, he went active duty as infantry. This was before the horrific events that occurred on 9/11/2001. He wasn’t deployed for his first tour to Iraq until 2003. Two more deployments followed: one to Iraq and one to Afghanistan. He was on the front line, patrolling some of the danger zones in both countries.

Many vets return from deployments with varying degrees of PTSD. It’s not just modern day vets either (though PTSD was not an “official diagnosis” until the DSM-III in the 1980s). It’s vets from the Vietnam War, the Korean War, WWII, etc.. PTSD does not discriminate. The stigma attached to it has come and gone over the years, causing a lot of vets to self-medicate to avoid being labeled with a psych disorder.

There’s a lot of stigma attached to mental illness and PTSD. If you are diagnosed, then you are “crazy,” “unstable,” and “unpredictable.” In all actuality, this is not the case. These men and women are on high alert, looking for anything that may potentially threaten their safety (or the safety of others). They’re mentally preparing themselves for danger and triggers.

Our vets don’t deserve to be judged for the horrors they endured while deployed. Really, no one deserves to be judged for having PTSD. No one but them (and their families to an extent) know the hell they deal with day after day. PTSD is real, and it’s scary, and it’s awful, no matter what the cause.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page. 

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Thinkstock photo by Highwaystarz Photography

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