Combat PTSD, Pools of Emotion, and Putting the Truth Into Words (II)

Dear Sir,

Thank you for your kind response to the last post. It remains an honor to serve both you and the men and women with whom you have served, along with those from long before your time and those from afterward.

So let’s start talking today about cleaning up as much as possible The War Within, that toxic contamination in your emotional pool. I had thought that I’d be able to complete my thoughts in one more post, but I will again have to divide the ideas into two posts.

Put simply, you’re going to have to filter out as much of The War Within, the contamination, as is possible, which means that you’re going to have to get close to it, grab it, pull it out, and look at it for what it is, all for the purpose of letting the toxins seep out of the contaminants so that you can then put the contaminants aside on a shelf you’re going to have to build on the observation deck, where they will remain, to be looked at appropriate times, but without the stench.

In other words, the contaminants–the memories of the experiences–will always, to a certain extent, remain. The good news? They just don’t have to remain within your emotional pool.

For that whole process to happen, however, the toxins–the pain, the rage, the horror–they must find release. The questions is not whether they can be released. The question is to where they should be released. Your mission can succeed; you simply have to accomplish it in the right locale.

OK, so after all that metaphor, how do we translate that into real life?

3. Decontamination and “Putting the Truth Into Words”: Loved Ones, Psychotherapy, Journaling (A)

The problem with any trauma–but especially with combat trauma–is that the experience itself can be so overwhelming (and given the high, natural emotional intensity of most combat veterans, heightened by the adrenaline surge of combat engagement, so “neuron-imprinting”), the traumatic experiences, if you will, “bypass language” and simply exist as raw sensory experience and emotion. In all their horrific Truth, they are “without words.” I’m sure that you, like many of your brothers and sisters in combat, struggle day-in and day-out with so many such experiences that just “were” when they happened and still “are” to this very moment. Nothing else, up to this point, can be said about them.

The Truth and Loved Ones

The first order of business: acknowledging where the full Truth should not be put into words.

I’m sure that many loved ones have said to you, “Just tell me about it,” and all you have been able to do is stand there speechless, a part of you shouting on the inside, “Look, you don’t really want to know!”, with another part of you whispering “Because I can’t even tell myself.”

Always remember: it’s not the telling per se of the trauma that makes the difference. It’s the telling of it with the right person. If you find the right person, don’t worry: you’ll find the right time.

Now, the hard part . . .

You have my full permission to tell your spouse, your lover, your family, your friends the following, which, for most combat veterans, is the truth and nothing-but the truth, and feel free to put the blame on me: the RIGHT PERSON IS RARELY, IF EVER, THE ONES YOU LOVE MOST DEEPLY IN YOUR DAILY LIVES.

This is so hard for most loved ones to understand, let alone accept. They say to you over and again, “if only you would tell me . . .”

You know better. So do I.

So feel free to share this with your loved ones:

Dear Loved One,

Sometimes the horror of War so changes a warrior, that warrior cannot speak the Truth of War to those with whom he or she wishes to return to live the remainder of his or her life.

It is not, as Jack Nicholson so famously shouted to Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men, that “You can’t handle the truth!” It’s not about the strength of the spouse, the parent, the child, the friend, i.e., your strength. It’s about what happens when the realities of War infiltrate a relationship, any relationship.

War spreads its toxins to whoever gets close to its contaminants. In many ways, you know this already, for all households of combat veterans have, at least to some degree, experienced War’s poisons.

As every combat veteran knows, though, “to some degree” isn’t even close to the full degree.

Even though the goal of combat trauma/PTSD treatment is to get the contaminants of The War Within out of the combat veterans as much as possible, i.e.,to reduce the continuing emotional impact of the traumatic experiences, the emotional toxins of those contaminants, those memories have to go somewhere. They will not just “disappear.”

Instead, for true healing to occur, those toxins have to “sit within a relationship, but not overwhelm it,” i.e., the listener has to feel what the combat veteran is saying, but must not “absorb” the pain. Instead, both veteran and listener must reach a point where each can acknowledge the ultimate Truth, i.e., how rotten life can be, and then come to some moral/spiritual/existential peace with that Truth. One can never be “at peace” with how rotten Life can be. One can, however, find enough peace to live a meaningful-enough life in spite of that Truth. The toxins do not go away, but no longer does the combat veteran have to be alone with them.

Think of it this way: the toxins–all those painful emotions of despair, rage, horror–“lie on the ground” between the listener and the veteran, no longer hurting the veteran, not hurting the listener, but not exactly going away either.

The closest Real Life example I can give is how two people feel about each other after a break-up that has been hard, but that has not made the two people hate each other. “Between them” lies all the pain of what had been and what could have been, all the hurt, disappointment, shame. Both parties know it’s there. Yet for the sake of the kids or for the sake of civility, both parties will just let it sit there. It’s not, as some might say, “an elephant in the room,” i.e., something that the couple refuses to talk about. Quite the contrary: much has been said about it. There is simply no longer anything more to say. Neither party feels great, yet both parties feel relieved, because all has been said, all has been felt. And both parties then move on.

So can you see how just as the contaminants of War, with their toxins, change a man or a woman, so do they change all the relationships of that man or woman?. When two people look at each other and both know that the other knows The Truth, when the “toxins” of War’s horrors are there between them, a certain spontaneity of Life has to disappear.

I once had a very wise teacher, Dr. Max Day of Boston, tell me, in essence, that there is only so much Truth that Love can bear. Combat veterans understand that better than anyone.

Combat veterans can look at each other and see The Truth in the others’ eyes, and that is indeed comforting. Yet if my experience is any measure, most combat veterans tell me that they feel comfortable with other veterans precisely because they don’t talk to each other about The Truth. In other words, being with other veterans doesn’t usually release the toxins. Instead, they just know that the others know, so it goes without saying, and so the veteran no longer feels alone. That in itself is good, but he or she can still never be sure that The Truth can ever be talked about safely as a result.

In other words, if you, loved one–precisely because you love your veteran–attempt to absorb those toxins, much as a parent tries to absorb the pain of a beloved child, this will only lead you to what is called “secondary trauma,” a condition in which you end up feeling not much better than does your combat veteran. The combat veteran will see that, will immediately regret the decision to share, and no good will come from any of it.

But even if somehow you can avoid absorbing the toxins, you are in no “safer” a position. If your veteran releases them into your relationship, your relationship will have to hold them. Horror doesn’t go away. True, when it’s “out there” between two persons, it’s much easier to ignore most days. But there will always be a time when it cannot be ignored: whenever the two persons look at each other knowingly and know again that each of them “knows” what never should have been known by either of them in the first place.

It’s quite simple, really: you can’t make love over a pool of poison.

So don’t take it personally, loved one. We humans are not built to share War with our loved ones and then be able to enjoy intimacy with those same loved ones to the same degree we had before. Even if your beloved combat veteran could tell you about The War Within, trust me: he or she should not.

All my best, for your future and for your love,


So with whom can you safely, Sir, put “The Truth Into Words”? Let’s talk about that in the next post.

3 responses

  1. Always good insight. My observation, though, is that loved ones want to understand the trauma. In a way, it is a validation of what is wrong with the combat soldier. The trauma does effect third party loved ones and the discussion provides tangible reasons to them. The journey is a private one, but part of intimacy is the processing of emotions. In my life, I have found it tremendously selfish for my combat soldier father to not have given me some understanding.

    • Mike,

      Thank you so much–and thank you for all the thoughts that you have shared. I do wish to take some time to think about your comments, and I will plan to respond more fully when I complete this series over the next few days.

      I hope that I did make it clear that I argue that the combat veterans should not fully put the Truth into words with loved ones. “Not fully” does not, in my opinion, mean “not at all.” The challenge, though, is when will enough words be enough–and even more, when can Truth be reined in once it has been given permission to speak. I have too often–and quite sadly–spoken with combat veterans who have shared some of the darkest poisons of their life with loved ones, only to have those very poisons thrown into their faces when the listener reaches a point of either saturation or, even worse, a point of frustration at a later, totally unrelated event. I cannot begin to express in words–another “too much for words to bear”–the degree of betrayal and humiliation such combat veterans have then felt.

      Unfortunately, as I’ll probably state in my next post about psychotherapy, more than a few counselors/therapists can find themselves in the same boat as some family members, i.e., they desire to understand the veteran, but then cannot quite “stomach” all the emotion that comes their way. In truth, I believe it is not possible for anyone not to absorb at least some of the emotions of trauma when they come hurling one’s way. The challenge is being able to absorb only the minimal amount, leaving the rest on the floor between oneself and the person who has been traumatized. Easier said than done, even for a therapist, let alone for someone who has to pass the vegetables to the veteran perhaps only a couple hours afterwards.

      I look forward to thinking more about this, though, and I will look forward to your further thoughts as well. As always, my best to you and yours.


  2. Rod, That helps. I have come to realize this is tremendously hard. For the very reasons you state, the junk is tucked away in the first place. Maybe a shielding of the loved one, maybe self protection. But the issue is still one of intimacy … Being able to create and maintain close relations. I look forward to your further writings. Mike

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