Haunted by Ghosts from my Past!

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I’ve always considered myself to be a mentally tough person. Someone who isn’t easily flustered, or even get overly emotional about things. It’s not that I don’t care, or that I’m an unemotional robot, but I don’t let my emotions blind me to my task ahead.

I started writing a few years ago, and it seemed a welcome release for my thoughts. Instead of keeping them inside, there was a feeling of release by expressing my thoughts and feelings. As I learnt to voice those thoughts more and more, I came to realize that having feelings and showing vulnerability was not only normal. It also had a bit of a cleansing feeling, keeping your feelings berried deep could be toxic. Knowing all of that, it came as a surprise to me when a few months ago that all changed. I had reverted back to keeping my thoughts to myself, to internalizing my feelings, to not be as social with friend’s and family. I was having a hard time understanding why there was this sudden change in my mental state. Of course the past few months have been fraught with national tragedy after the next. Whether it was the shooting in Charleston, the shootings in Ohio, the police incidents with Black citizens in South Carolina, Texas, or many other cities around the country. It seemed each week brought a new tragedy to the headlines. Given that back drop, I felt like my words were pale in comparison to that kind of grief.

In the time that I’ve not been writing, I’ve instead been doing a lot of reading. From Between the World and me – by Ta-Nehisi Coates to After Action: The True Story of a Cobra Pilot’s Journey – by Dan Sheehan. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book shook me to my core, awaking me from my slumber. For awhile I was naive in believing that those Black people that lost their lives, somehow did something, “I would never find myself in that situation” “That would never happen to me” Yet in examining each case more closely, there wasn’t anything I would have done differently. Ta-Nehisi’s words dislodged something in me, perhaps it was my cognitive dissonance as to what it is to be Black in America. Perhaps it’s because I was born in a different country, some aspects of the African American struggle are foreign to me. While this new insight did awaken me, it wasn’t until I read Dan Sheehan’s After Action, that there was any real awakening to the lies that I’ve been telling myself.

Some of you may know from my other posts that I was an Active Duty Marine. As a teachable moment, don’t make the mistake of saying a Former Marine, or Ex-Marine, lol they get VERY offended about that. There’s a mantra, once a MARINE, always a Marine! Which get’s complicated because if I say I’m a Marine, you might thing that I’m still currently serving.

To be clear my Active Duty service ended in 2007; almost 10 years ago. In my time in the Marines, I did also go to Iraq. My primary job was a Helicopter Mechanic, working on AH-1W Super Cobras. While I was in Iraq, and just a few miles away from Fallujah, the epicenter of some of the biggest conflict of 2003-2005 in Iraq. I wasn’t directly involved in the fighting, I was on a Military Base on the outskirts of the city. My main focus was on making our Helicopters Combat ready, and working despite the harsh desert conditions.

The Myth about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Marines like any other Military Service member hold themselves in high regard, we think of ourselves as Warriors, capable of any feat. Not the kind of people you’d want to tussle with. I’m sure in some circles, those Chuck Norris jokes, are actually about Marines; well that’s how they think of themselves! There’s a kind of an idea about PTSD, in that the sighs are those who are abusive, suicidal, and overall incapable of functioning in society. Even more dangerous is the notion that only those who have killed, lost limbs, or seen their friends die; are somehow deserving of having PTSD. In the case where a warrior has suffered those horrible experiences, and isn’t a complete mess. Anyone who suffers an experience less traumatic, isn’t deserving of claiming to have PTSD. If you didn’t fight in WWII or Vietnam, you didn’t do anything deserving of having PTSD. While this isn’t the medical diagnosis of the disorder; this is how military service member’s see themselves. The book I mentioned earlier After Action by Dan Sheehan, was written by one of the Pilots in my unit. Many of the people and references he made, I had first hand experience or knew those same people. Like many veterans, Dan had a kind of a cognitive dissonance about his experiences. Seen in this except:

I could relate to the feeling the veterans were having, yet my experiences ranked nowhere near theirs in horror, guilt or pure trauma. I felt like an idiot with a sunburn whining in the burn ward of a hospital. I felt so weak for feeling my discomfort in the face of such real suffering.- pg 347

For context, here’s another excerpt Dan made about 1 of many enemy soldiers he killed from his Helicopter: (Warning the following mental images are quite graphic)

My missile streaked into the cab and exploded in a nasty puff of grey smoke. The three who were closest simply ceased to exist, their organic matter reduced to particles too small for me to see…it happened so fast that I didn’t see him go up, only his clothes coming back down…- pg 204

The imagery of killing those soldiers is graphic and visceral. That was 1 incident over several weeks, and only at the lower end of the traumatic experiences of all his other experiences. My point is that to walk away from an experience like that and be completely unscathed, is virtually impossible. In my mind much like Dan’s interpretation of his Combat experience. Mine was not even remotely close to his, therefore I shouldn’t be traumatized by my experience. In describing my time in Iraq, it went something like this “I didn’t have to use my weapon, or didn’t get shot at ( although we were regularly attacked with rockets and mortars, which would have had a similar effect as the scene described above), so I came back ok. For me that meant I wasn’t an alcoholic, I wasn’t physically abusive to my family or those close to me. I wasn’t a recluse, or someone who was jumpy at any sudden sounds. But I’m learning that the effects aren’t always so overt. The absence of those symptoms doesn’t mean that you don’t have any subtle ones lurking in the shadows.

It’s important to compare Apples to Apples!

In his second book Continuing Actions: Dan Sheehan makes an important distinction about what PTSD is. Comparing your experience to someone with a worse more visceral and traumatic experience, isn’t the predictor of whether you will have mental scars from combat. While my experiences were virtually harmless compared to his or 1000’s of other veterans, it doesn’t mean that it is any less traumatic to MY mind. Despite what I may have thought about my time there, my body was telling me something very different. While still in Iraq, towards the middle of my tour, there was an incident where I thought I was having a Heart Attack. This episode took place when I was sitting reading a book, not doing anything dangerous, or not even after any of the Rocket Attacks by Insurgent Soldiers attempting to hit or base. After returning home, this continued for several months. While I wasn’t jumpy or having any other overt signs of PTSD. There were many other occurrences when I would wake from my sleep because I was having a panic attack. Which was confusing because this was never preceded by flash backs, or nightmarish memories playing back in my mind. Even though it’s been 10 years since I left Iraq, from time to time I still have these episodes. I’m not sharing this to garner any sympathy, but I’m sharing this to show my unconscious mental reaction. While overtly I may say I’m ok, my mind clearly is showing something differently. I think this is the mistake many veterans make. We say that were not effected by our time in combat because a) Another Veteran with a worse experience is fine, ergo we should be too. or b) I don’t see any of those BAD symptoms, therefore what I’m experiencing must be something else.

Acknowledging there’s a problem is the first step!

While this revelation isn’t a source to ALL my problems, it’s a window into my overall mental state. I’ve always been under the impression that I was unaffected by my time in Iraq. Since I didn’t show any overt symptoms, I wasn’t mentally effected by my combat experience. Secondly because my experience wasn’t as traumatic as countless others, I don’t feel worth of claiming that I’m experiencing mental trauma from my time there. While I may only have a “paper cut” of an injury, it still causes discomfort from time to time. My overall mental state is good, but as anyone with a paper cut knows; it sure is uncomfortable from time to time.

My hope is that for the few that read this post, will get the courage to talk to veterans you may know. They definitely won’t talk about it, but I also think that getting them to a stage where they’re willing to acknowledge that there may be more going on under the surface; is a step in the right direction. There is no real clear line that designates that some traumas will cause mental scars. There isn’t also any experiences that are too small or minute to not deserve to be called mental trauma. When evaluating your own Post Traumatic Stress, I think Dan says it best:

But you can’t measure the impact of experiences like that. Does it matter if a person is exposed to one second or ten years in combat? Not to that person. What matters is the impact that person’s experiences had on them – and that cannot be measured solely by duration or even by their intense or dramatic nature. What I experience inwardly in a given situation can be very different from the impact that same event has on you, the person standing next to me. My personal experience and yours are that unique – Continuing Actions (pg 527)

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Are you Plugged In!!

Ever have that strange feeling that you’re plugged into the Universe?

You have a thought, then you find out others are thinking it too?

You think about someone and then they call you?

Ever since I’ve beenThe Daily Love following The Daily Love (thank you, you know who you are) I’ve felt more plugged in. Many of the times I write a new post, my inspiration comes from reading a post on there. Well today’s no different. I was taking a break to write in my journal, yup I said I have a journal, don’t judge; then again if you do I don’t care.  Ok let me stay on topic before I go off on a weird tangent. I read an article titled Weird Relationships and Loving what is by Liz DiAlto that was aligned with what I had just written in my journal. One of the lines she said that got me thinking was:

How can I love you all exactly as you are, be there for you in the moments we share and let you go when we hang up the phone, close out emails, and log off Facebook, Twitter and Instagram?


 

I had previously seen somewhere that it’s a good practice to be able to tap into your emotions, come to think of it I had probably read that on the Daily Love too. In another entry a few days ago I had made a note to be conscious of my inner feelings and emotions, to allow myself to feel. Instead of taking my emotions as invalid, to take them as an indicator of what’s going on inside my body. In that entry I also talked about allowing myself to take credit for things I do well, and to not admonish myself too badly for the things I don’t do well. In a way I wanted to use positive thought to put myself in a better state. If memory serves me right, that was learning to focus on positive reinforcement, instead of the negative voice in your head. I already have an EGO that tries to make me think little of myself (in this instance the EGO is the small voice who tells you you can’t …)

This train of thought followed up my previous post about Going All In, to give my work, life and relationships my all. To recognize that everything I do will require work, there’s no easy button to get the outcomes I desire.

In essence, by learning to plug into what I’m feeling, I can be more honest with myself. Instead of pushing certain emotions to the back of my mind because they don’t confirm to a certain view. Learn to listen to them, after-all those emotions are how my heart feels. Although I’m talking about tapping into my emotions, what I’m not saying is to be like a flag in the wind, to be blown to an fro with every slight breeze. By incorporating aspects of my mantra, 1. Don’t take things personally 2. Don’t make assumptions 3. Always do my best. This also allows me to also tap into what others around me are doing.

From the Article  Weird Relationships and Loving what is by Liz DiAlto, if for some reason you didn’t follow that link, here are her strategies:

1. Stop judging how we feel by first allowing ourselves to feel it instead of pretending we don’t. There is no should or should not when it comes to feeling – it’s all valid.

2. Notice the difference between OUR FEELINGS and the way other people’s reactions to our business make us feel. Meaning, if you feel something that isn’t “normal” or “common” by societal or cultural standards – don’t let the reaction of others make you feel wrong. Again, there is no right or wrong when it comes to feeling.

3. Communicate openly and freely, remembering that the true connections in our lives will make it through honesty and openness, in fact they will thrive in this kind of environment.

Life is complicated, I hope this brings some peace and clarity to the muddiness. I hope this finds everyone in good spirits, and if you’re not perhaps this could be a light in your dark day. After-all even a dim candle makes a difference in a dark room, don’t credit me for that one, I’m pretty sure someone much smarter first said it.

Plugged In

 

Time to Hit Reset!

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The past few weeks have been frustrating! I’m making really good progress in my spiritual life, and I’m learning to be more in tuned with others around me, but I’m struggling with my work life. If you’ve been around me in the past few months, I’ve been able to pick up on other’s struggles, and been able to offer encouraging words when needed. Have you ever wondered why psychologists go to psychologists to figure things out? Perhaps it’s that some of us are good at expelling advice, but bad at applying some of those lessons to ourselves. I’ve been letting work get me down, I’m not necessarily where I think I should be, and it’s making me unhappy. But as a friend so brilliantly pointed out “so you’re not where YOU’D like to be, but you’re where you’re NEEDED.” For the first time in weeks I started looking at the bigger picture. I’ve been praying and asking for patience, and what do you know my work life was testing my patience.

So I decided that it’s time to change my thinking, in my heart I know I’m being pull in a different direction. I’m now starting to understand my purpose and my gift, although I want to be at the finish line, to have my own Counseling Practice. I’m not quite there yet, I think I was getting too far ahead of myself, I needed to take things one step at a time. Of course as I stopped thinking about where I wanted to be, and started paying attention to where I am right now. Things at work actually started turning around. Now that I think about it, I wrote about living in the now in my last post; there I go again not taking my own advice.

Ok so now that I’m thinking about the bigger picture, what next? What’s most important to my life? Last week the messages I heard were about being bold, by taking a step into the unknown and having faith that things will work out. This week it’s about setting my priorities right, I have an idea of my end goal, but what’s important to me? Since I’m thinking big picture it’s time to fill in the gaps. I’m working on a new set of core principles for my life: 1. God (spirituality), 2. People (relationships), 3. Everything else. If there is any one take away from this week it’s this. I should live in the now, don’t worry too much about the future or the past; I have no control of those two. While I’m here in the now I’m doing my best, I learnt this principle from “The Four Agreements” by Don Miguel. It’s kind of remarkable how much easier life is when I just do my best, yes some days I won’t be at 100%, but I can still give my all. Just by taking these few simple steps, I was able to turn my mood around, things are looking up, and I’m starting to feel like my old positive self again. Hope these words can find a way into your hearts and thoughts. Maybe you’re having the same problem; things aren’t going the way you’d like. Then ask yourself, am I doing my best? If you’re not giving it the best you can, then start! If you’re already giving your best, then relax things will work out in a way that best uses the tools you have right now.