There’s a Stranger in My House

“My loved one went to war.  Someone else came home.” 

 Post traumatic stress has become a familiar term.  It is still difficult for family and friends at home to understand what happened to a person, a “personality,” as a result of combat.  Often spouses and other family members simply do not have a context for what actually happens to a combat survivor.

A warrior returning from combat is changed in a number of ways.  One part of the change is the psychic / emotional numbing that happens in combat.

Anyone who returns from combat and isn’t depressed just wasn’t paying attention.

Depression is part of emotional numbing. As a combat survivor from Viet Nam the problem I had with depression was that I did not know that I was depressed. This is not uncommon.

Boredom is an emotion that goes with depression.  Once I got out of the army, trying to live as a “civilian” was incredibly boring.  The things people talked about, boring.  My civilian job, necessary but boring.  A children-centered family life, which people around me seemed to have; boring.  No, I did not want to go to a Parent-Teacher Conference.

This was my problem: I did not know to look at boredom and connect it to depression.

There is also a connection between depression and the “adrenalin addiction” common among combat survivors.

Sometimes, when you look at a warrior with post traumatic stress, you have a sense that “nobody is there.”  The eyes are vacant.  There is no movement, except perhaps a bent leg moving up and down like a piston.

You speak the person’s name.  No answer.  You try again, speaking the name louder and with some concern.  Then you freeze in place. Your loved one blasts to his feet, glaring at you with intense anger, and is on the edge of becoming extremely violent.

That’s not normal, right?  The reality is that for a combat survivor it is normal.

This is my version of what was going on inside of me when my wife would “startle me.”  I did not consciously think through any of what happened next.

1. When I finally heard my name I immediately felt incredibly         vulnerable. I had not been aware of my surroundings!

2. Realizing that I was vulnerable scared me.

3. A massive adrenalin surge (just like I felt in combat) went through me.

4. The terror of being vulnerable instantaneously transformed into combat rage.

5. I was ready for combat, and any bit of depression I may have had was gone.

Sometimes this sequence happened when I was alone and a vivid memory happened. It was not a something I was remembering.  It was an event I was reliving.

I seemed to be especially susceptible to these events when I was driving. It wasn’t road rage at anyone.  It was more like being threatened by some “presence” that I could not see. My foot slammed the accelerator to the floor, and it stayed there until reliving the event went away.  I did hear the growls and the roars and the screams.  Those were mine.

This brings us to a very important point about recovery from combat induced post traumatic stress: Veterans remember.  Survivors relive.  Which do you prefer?

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The Warrior’s Language of Silence

For warriors with combat post traumatic stress words do not come easy.

Creating art, or writing poetry, are good ways to release some of the demons while we are waiting for the words to come.  “Waiting for the words to come” isn’t discussed much with PTSD, but it is very important to recovery.

When warriors first return from combat they may relate a combat experience to someone.  When warriors describe an event it is done in a sterile, fact-based, monotone voice. There is no emotional connection to the words.  This is the style of an after action report; a style warriors adopt to keep the pain away.

Combat survivors may talk about an event once or twice with a civilian in this “after action” manner, but a combat survivor learns quickly that this factual description may actually scare civilians.  Even worse is the civilian who finds some vicarious thrill in a description and wants to hear “war stories.”

Combat survivors work very hard to control their feelings. If these feelings ever get loose the warrior knows that the pain and anguish will be too much to bear.

Occasionally combat survivors will talk about their experiences with other survivors.  The military uses the phrase “situation awareness.”  For a warrior this is short hand for being totally present, aware, reacting, and moving without conscious, linear thought during combat.

An incident and the warrior’s reaction to it all happen “at once.”  Every physical sense of a survivor is engaged in the moment.  Another combat survivor doesn’t just “hear” the description. S/he knows all the unspoken sensations that go with the words.

One of the most profound changes that occur to a warrior during combat is the brain ripping realization that linear time is too slow for combat.  Survival in combat requires the radical transition from the cultural assumption that time is linear, to the “all at once” dimension of nonlinear time.  This is a form of “cultural displacement” that we will talk more about later.

Hypervigilance, as part of post traumatic stress, is a manifestation of the nonlinear time that is essential to survive in combat.  One reason that combat survivors can share events and incidents with each other is that the other person also “lives” in nonlinear time

During recovery from post traumatic stress living in non-linear time is a key element for combat survivors and their loved ones to understand.

When a survivor initially tries to speak about the trauma of combat the words are linear, one after another.  The profound all inclusive “knowing” of combat becomes just words that become just sentences.  A few words come out and then the words stop.  The words are not the event.  The words are sequential, one after another,linear.

At the beginning of recovery we have no way to say, convey, talk, or communicate our experience as warriors.  We are creatures of the          never-land of non-linear time.  In the beginning our words are meaningless, especially to us as combat survivors.  We know that lives and lifetimes come and go in the time between spoken words.

The concept of non-linear time is very important for spouses and loved ones to understand.  Quite literally you and your combat survivor spouse may no longer speak the same language.  The words you speak may be the same.  The context of the words is radically different

This difference is not terminal.  It is just the way things are at the beginning of recovery combat survivors.

There are forms of non-verbal expression that can be very helpful for combat survivors…art,exercise,poetry,dance,yoga,transcendental meditation….  What these forms of expression have in common is that they are extraordinarily expressive, and require no words.

In the beginning warriors have no context for talking about their experience.  For a combat survivor linear sequential words are trivia.  This is one of the primary double binds for warriors:  Information without context is trivia.  Life is not a trivial pursuit.

 

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5 Things Spouses Need to Know About PTSD

Your invisible wounds as a spouse are often unrecognized, except by other military and veteran spouses.  Your pain, your anguish, your sense of loss are every bit as real as these feelings are among our combat troops and veterans.

It is not only our warriors who will need to heal from the invisible wounds of combat.  You, the spouses of our warriors, will need to heal from your own ordeal by combat.

What Spouses Need to Know

  1. You cannot “make things like they used to be.”  The way things used to be was with a different person in a different time.  The way forward is to understand that you are, or will be, creating a new relationship with your loved one.
  2. You may not be able to name the loss you have experienced.  When spouses and partners cannot name the loss they feel it is much harder to endure, and work through the recovery from the traumatic stress of combat.
  3. The loss of intimacy is among the most heart breaking pains you feel as you struggle, and begin your recovery from the effects of combat induced trauma.
  4. The most important thing for you to know now is that recovery is possible for you and your spouse.  There are many resources and people to offer you hope and reassurance during your journey home.

I look forward to our time together.

Ken

Do you have comments, questions or other issues you want to discuss?  Please add them in the section for comments.

Disclosure: I am not a clinician.  The information and observations I share are the result of 40+ years of living with combat induced post traumatic stress.

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