To Remember, Not Relive (Encore)

Silhouette of a soldier against the sun.

As I continue to remember with you Porthos, Athos, and Aramis, the three Army Musketeers, now three years later, I find that a good way to distance myself from my emotional responses is to critique my writing—which is, I must say, quite worthy of critique. Less noble it is, I guess, yet how more pragmatic to edit rather than to wonder what should have been, might have been, or to shed a tear or two.

One of the privileges of aging is to find that one can condemn oneself and then grant clemency to the offender, all within the same breath. Or paragraph, at least.

So, editing is for another day. Today, it is instead 03 February, 2013, and I’ll take my post’s advice: To Remember, Not Relive.

I have written about him before, most recently in the posts Merry Christmas, Reality Notwithstanding and Taking Him On Home. He’s Porthos, the fun-loving rake to the quieter, more relaxed Athos–and their deeply-loved, fallen comrade, Aramis.

Porthos and I have known each other for a while. Our relationship has always been warm–though, shall we say, complicated as well. As the middle of three strong-willed sons born to a strong-willed father, he knows how to make his wants and wishes known. Fear not that, I can assure you.

And I might add: I wouldn’t get into a scuffle with him. Some of the more foolhardy in his time have. They learned. Forthwith.

Yet can that boy pour on the charm, or what. His is a perfect mixture of the quite genuine and the quite consciously manipulative. He’s had more than his fair share of practice through the years.

He actually leaves me reeling much of the time, truth be told. I’m never quite sure whether I want to give him a warm rub on the top of his head or smack the living daylights out of him. Usually both.

Porthos, in other words, is one of those individuals about whom no one–and I mean, no one–can feel nonchalant.

I’ve taken my share of hits from VA colleagues about him. We’re a bit of a known pair, again, truth be told. Some have made it clear, for example, that they think that I “coddle” him. Many have intimated that I should be more “firm” with him, although none has been able to tell me exactly how such “firmness” should look.

Our struggles with each other have usually been around two subjects: medications, i.e., which kinds, how much, how often, etc., etc.; and psychotherapy, i.e., which kinds, how much, how often, etc., etc. Simple.

Although he and I have had our disagreements, he certainly has not been one merely to “demand” something and then pitch a fit if he were not to get what he’d wanted. Quite the contrary: he does his research, and our negotiations around various regimens have reached points of complexity that I can only call “admirable” on his part. Still, disagree, we have, and sometimes strongly. In the end, though, he has always acquiesced to the fact of life that ‘tis I, not he, who has the MD behind the name.

For example, about ten days ago.

Details are not relevant, but it had been one of our more intense, so-called discussions. He let me know in no uncertain terms that I had not started his weekend out on a pleasant footing. I let him know in similar terms that even though that had not been my intention, I could only be so upset thereabout.

We met the following Monday.

He had agreed to come in twice a week, at least for some focused, therapeutic contact, and he had agreed to hook himself up again with one of our intensive group programs. He had also agreed to two-week supplies of his medications, and he had agreed to the dosages I’d recommended.

But that was only a small part of the story.

He’d thought a lot during the weekend, about himself, his family, his sadness, his frustration over the physical limitations that have been plaguing him post-deployment. Of that, I had no doubt: when I opened the door to my office, he was standing there, with just enough of an impatient, “can we get going here, please?” edge to him to keep me on my toes, but with a countenance that more implored me to notice how worn-down he was, how very, very worn-down.

“Hey,” he said, most definitely without the exclamation point.

“Hey.”

“Do you mind if I put my leg up?” he asked, eyes darting to his left, my right, to the second chair in the room which often does its part to relieve his lower back of the pressure that can gnaw at him whenever he sits for any length of time.

“Of course. No problem.”

Soon we were both situated. For a few moments we just sat there, looking at each other, the semi-grin, semi-skepticism on his face, I’m sure, only a mirror of the same on mine.

“We still on speaking terms?” I finally ask, my semi-grin having turned full.

He rolled his eyes.

“I understand,” he replied, full-smiled as well, although for only briefly. “I know I’ve got to do something about myself. I . . .”  Suddenly, he shifted forward.  “Please, Doc, you understand, don’t you? How hard it is without her?”

“Her,” of course, is the young woman to whom he’d deeded not only his heart and soul, but a goodly portion of his every quantum of thought as well. They’d talked of marriage, of having children together, but then finally she’d decided that she could not make it work.

“Dad tells me that I’ve got to move on, but . . . I just can’t get him to understand. It’s not that easy. I don’t want to move on. I know that if she just knew how hard I’m trying . . . But she won’t return my calls, texts, nothing. I’m not going to be a stalker-type. I’m not going to go over to her place. No one’s going to accuse me of that, no one. But if she could just see me, see how hard I’m trying, see how much she means to me–God, Doc, she’d understand, wouldn’t she? Wouldn’t she? I mean, Doc, am I wrong? Can you understand why I just can’t give up yet, why I just can’t move on? Please, tell me you understand, please!”

Porthos is quite a handsome man. How we think the attractive never have to suffer, don’t we? How wrong we are. Anguish is just anguish, whether on the good-looking or on the plain.

“Porthos, here’s what I would say: don’t give up until you’re ready to give up. When it’s time, if it’s ever time, you’ll know. What you’ll then have to do is live out what you will already know. That will be the hard part.”

He looked at me, with a face both steeled and tear-stained. He has all the gear in place for “Leading Man” status, yet I’m hard-pressed to come up with a modern exemplar for him, given that most A-list stars today are simply too “pretty.” Perhaps a young Mark Harmon as the surgeon on the St. Elsewhere of the 1980’s, even then oozing the NCIS Gibbs-attitude that would one day make him America’s favorite Marine, back then painfully walking down that hospital hall for the final time, his character well-aware that he might soon die of AIDS.

“I sometimes just don’t know if I can do this, Doc,” he finally whispered. “I’m not going to kill myself or anything, but sometimes I’m afraid I won’t make it. It just hurts so, her, Aramis, the War, everything. It just so, so . . . hurts.”

The final word had plopped out of him, as if it had been teetering on his lip all the while, not wanting to risk the reality that would result from its mental equivalent having found voice, sound, transmitted out to a world, to me, to . . . what?

And then it happened: in the middle of his anguish, he started to look as if he were ready to fall asleep, to look as I imagined he must have looked at the end of that twenty-four hours he and Athos had had to stand watch over the body of Aramis, waiting for the helicopter to arrive: too exhausted to run, too charged to collapse.

And I realized: he wasn’t with me. He was in Iraq.

“No one has any idea, do they?’ I finally asked, too exhausted, too charged myself. “You’re there, right now, aren’t you.”

He was staring off to the side, grudgingly allowing one tear at a time past the checkpoint, his eyelids in a bizarre, internal arm-wrestling, the upper halves determined to shut this show down, the lower halves determined not to give in ever, do you hear me, ever!

“I’m sorry, Doc,” he whispered, his tears, few as they were, so robust, so proud to be Army-strong, his eyes fixated miles away. “I’m trying, really I am. I hope you believe me. Please believe me, Doc. Please.”

“I do,” I answered, hoping perhaps that some information, meager as it was, would jar us both out of the grip of those tears. “Listen, this is neurologic, Porthos. You see, trauma separates the part of the brain that feels, sees, hears from the part that makes sense of events, of Time, of those very feelings.

“They then stay separated, physiologically. You can only ‘remember’ if the front part of your brain can pull the ‘you that’s you,’, that is, your experience of the trauma, of yourself–your ‘Self’–away from the trauma enough to get the whole brain on the same page, the page that says ‘OK, this has happened, but that was then, this is now.’ Until then, it’s as if your brain is experiencing the trauma in an eternal present. You’re reliving it, not remembering it.

“That’s where the nightmares come from, the flashbacks. When you hurt because your girlfriend’s gone, you’re hurting not only because she’s gone, but because Aramis is gone, because all your buddies who died in the convoy are gone, because you had to pick up what was left of them, all of them. It’s as if your brain is saying, “Oh, my God, here we go again! We’ll never escape!

“Even when the front part of your brain knows–knows without a doubt–that it’s today, not back then; that it’s about your girlfriend, not about Aramis; that you’re in Indianapolis, not the desert: even then, it cannot yet grab onto that other part of the brain that is still feeling, hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting the destruction, the confusion, the adrenaline. The death.”

Pretty good, eh?

One problem, though, a big one:  with each of those words, I knew that I was both helping and hurting him, both assuring him that he was not crazy, yet reminding him that he felt crazy even so. His energy, his intense drive, his inner push never to give up, never: there they were, torturing him, yet keeping him alive, simultaneously, right in front of me, with my every verbal reminder of the truth, the Truth.

It was horrible to watch.

All I could think at the moment was, “My God, this is what they all go through, isn’t it, all these men and women, the ones whose Facebook posts, whose blogs I read, who talk of being walloped back and forth through Time, through emotion, psychically miles away from the loved one before them, then within nanoseconds careening right into them, then back, then in, tethered to a yo-yo only Satan himself could have manufactured–with a smile.”

I had to stop. Had to.

I had learned in a new way what I had never wanted to know. I was Katniss at the end of The Hunger Games, wasn’t I, gazing down at Cato, her nemesis, he nearly devoured by unearthly hounds, begging her, with his eyes only, to end it all, now, please, please.

Like Cato, Porthos looked at me, fortunately not devoured, yet no longer charged. Just exhausted.

“Will it ever get better, Doc?” he asked.

Fortunately, I am not Katniss. I have more than arrows to work with.

“Yes, it can,” I said as I leaned forward. “I’m learning a technique, EMDR, that stands for ‘Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing.’ I’ll give you a website to read about it. Check it out. Go ahead and read other stuff about it on Google, too. I’ll promise you: you’ll find a lot of hot-shot people with M.D. and Ph.D. degrees who’ll swear on a stack of Bibles that it’s hogwash and witchcraft. I once thought that myself. But I was wrong. The technique can help link that experiencing part of the brain with the contextualizing part, maybe not perfectly, but for many veterans, well enough to allow some real, meaningful healing to begin. You’d be one of the first that I try it out on, but I work with a smart teacher, and together, the three of us will find a way to discover how that powerful intensity inside you can save you, not destroy you.”

Still exhausted, but somewhere, unbelievably, still rakish, he closed his eyes, took in a deep breath, opened his eyes back up, looked into mine, and merely whispered, “If you say so, Doc. If you say so.”

I do say so. And I do believe so.

As best as I can determine, remember comes from a Latin root for memory. Yet there is something about the English word, re-member, as if member were a verb to mean “piecing together, putting the members of a body, a group back together.” Horror and grief without context are horror and grief eternal. When re-membered, though, sown back into the tapestry of Time, they hurt no less, but they need hurt no longer. Re-living can then become mere living. How good.

Yes, Porthos, how good.

Until tomorrow, be well,

Doc

No Trouble at All (Encore)

Silhouette of a soldier against the sun.

 

Good to be back with you all.

A date is approaching, next month actually. Seasons move forward through the years, yet certain ones halt us, if only temporarily, reminding us again of what once was, of who was once.

It has almost been three years since I stood with my hand upon a young combat vet’s coffin. To this day, I cannot watch a Harry Potter movie without, at some point, feeling his presence. These next few days, I ask your leave to remember him again with you as well, from prologue to epilogue, with encores of blog posts from March 2012 through October 2013.

As a psychiatrist, I often come upon spots in my heart where certain patients have trod, some stealthily, some ploddingly. This one young former US Army soldier did both and more, through passageway after passageway, still now in memory leading me back to spots where we laughed together, even shed a tear together, always with that smile on his face that made me roll my eyes and smile as well.

There were once, you see, Three Musketeers: Porthos, Athos, and Aramis, united not in Dumas’s France this time, but in the United States Army, in a hot land far from home.

Two have since fallen. One is making the life he can. Here are the times we traveled together, in body and in spirit.

From March 11, 2012 comes the prologue, No Trouble at All.

Today I was in contact again with one of the veterans I work with, one who has struggled almost incessantly since coming home.  He’s a dashing rake, by anybody’s measure.  He comes from a well-educated family.  He’s smart.  He’s intense.  He was once a bit of a bad-boy, but he’s working now to pull his life together, to find love, to find a place back in his family, back in this world.

In a matter of days after landing in the Middle East, this man’s dearest friend—his brother to the core—was dead.  Others in his unit soon followed.  He wakes up in the night screaming, sweating, panicked.  Not a day goes by that he doesn’t think of his friend, often-—usually-—with tears.  To this day, when he promises me something important, he does so on that man’s memory and on his grave.

He’s been trying to get back to school.  It’s been anything but a cakewalk, to say the least, though that says absolutely zero about his talents and his potential, both of which are quite abundant.  He endures the lectures that many of us remember in those 100-level courses, trying to stay focused, trying not to wonder what these kids around him are thinking about him, kids who are just about the age he was when he walked off that plane.

When he sent his buddy’s body back home.

He’s trying.  He’s trying his darndest.

It’s the courses with the papers, though.  They’re the ones that get him.  Too much time to sit in front of a computer.  And remember.

He tries not to overuse his medications.  He’s put his family in charge of them.  Yet there are the times that he wakes at night and can’t stop shaking, can barely move, barely swallow.  He knows a pill won’t save him.  But, God:  it’s so awful.  A war raging, smack dab in the middle of his bedroom.  In the middle of his soul.

He always apologizes when he contacts me.  He’s so ashamed to do so.  But he gets so desperate.  And he hopes against hope that I won’t hold the contact against him, one more time, another, another.

Honestly, they’re indeed no trouble at all.  He knows the drill:  if I can get back with him, I will.  If I don’t right away, he knows that I’m with family or with other patients.  He knows I’ll get back to him eventually, even if it’s just a “hang in there.”  He knows he’ll have his time later that week to come see me, to try somehow to find that devilish smile of his one more time, to remember when it was all easier, to borrow as hope what is my certainty:  that he will find a better day.  One day.  Not today.  Most likely not soon.  But one day.

I can say that because he’s a warrior’s warrior, through and through.  Behind that Abercrombie facade (albeit a brunette one), there’s a force of nature.  He was a handful as a kid.  He’s a handful now.  He won’t give up.  Never did.  Never will.

All I can say is:  good for him.

We took care of today’s matters in short order.  He thanked me quite genuinely.  “I’m sorry,” he said again, “to mess up your weekend.”  I heard the break in his voice, quick, but definitely there.

“No trouble at all,” was my reply.  I had a few minutes on the way to the Starbucks, after all.  I have a few minutes now on the porch, absorbing this quite pastoral Sunday afternoon for mid-March in Indiana.

What else do we have, really, except time, a future.

He doubts he has a future, of course.  My job—our job, as professionals—is to disabuse him and those like him of that notion one day at a time.  No guarantees of any particular outcome.  Just life, with its joys, its challenges, its months off, its back-to-works.

We’ll see each other tomorrow.

And so the story went on.

Until tomorrow, be well,

Doc

Dear Doc/Dear Winston, 03.03.13

Dear Doc,

Dear Mom and Dad,

Just another day in Iraq, waking up wondering if today is the day I get to meet the Maker at this fuckin’ place.

I put a bullet in clip with HOMIS written on the side of it. Was thinking about you guys today, wondering what you’re doing.

I couldn’t sleep last night. The mortars just wouldn’t stop. It’s almost comforting, hearing the outgoing rounds blast out of the 120 (120 mm mortar round HEDP) (High Explosive Dual Purpose).

I lay in my bed thinking about being a little kid again. Where did the days go? Life is different here. I would try to tell you how, but I wouldn’t know where to begin.

I miss my baby girl. I will kill them all to come home to that sweet, innocent little baby. My heart is so cold, and she is like a spark burning deep in my chest. How will I ever tell her what I did here? I tremble at the thought of holding her. She is the only thing that scares me in this world. My breaths shorten at the thought of her.

Please don’t hate me for what I have done. I had no choice. I wished and prayed they would just stop and give up. I think to myself every time I pull the trigger, “Why don’t you just stop. Please. Don’t make me shoot you.”

But after awhile it turns to hate; the thought of one bullet not going through his chest upsets me.

Hope all is well. Maybe I will get to come home soon.

Love,

Your Son

Winston

__________________________________________________________

Dear Winston,

I’m sorry that it has taken me a few days to get back to you: I have been traveling this week, and life got away from me (much thanks to Chicago’s O’Hare airport, I might add, the number one exemplar of “chaos theory in action”).

I have pondered this letter often, however. After four years of working with the men and women who, like you, once served in combat, I still find myself surprised at how unprepared—how reluctant, even—I can be to experience the dramatic shifts in thought and emotion that you and so many of your brothers and sisters experience, sometimes hour by hour.

To feel at one moment a love for a child, a nostalgia for a family time, then to feel at the next a hatred that can easily conceive of killing, only to be followed by a sincere, pain-filled desire for all the hatred, all the killing to end, all of this happening day after day after day, on a busy city street in an Iraqi city, at a quiet kitchen table at your home, enduring another sleepless night: I have no clue, Winston. I have no clue.

I do mean this: thank you for trying to give me a clue. I don’t like knowing what I have to know as a result of your having done so. I don’t like the gut shifts that occur within me as I read this letter, the psychic handball marked “raw emotion” that ricochets inside me, wall to wall to wall, the soul-imploding pain that I only dare to imagine to imagine as I consider, dear God, what if this were my son writing me this?

I’m sorry, Winston. I know that you volunteered to serve. But I, as a citizen of this nation, sent you to the Middle East with the promise that it would all make sense in the end. Nobody sent me to jail for refusing to pay the taxes that go to support the military.

I’m sorry that we, as a nation, are still not only struggling to make sense of it all, but, even worse, are struggling—why??—with the (what seems to me to be the obvious) notion, based on justice and mercy, that we owe you and your brothers and sisters. We asked you to give up your youth, give up the innocence that we still so easily cling to as we sip our morning, bad coffee and check out the local weather, all so that, indeed, we can make sure that we avoid the freeway jam to get to work, only then to pour ourselves another cup of even-worse coffee and gossip about the previous evening’s cable TV fare.

Thank you, Winston. I wish we all were living lives more worthy of the suffering that you and your brothers and sisters continue to endure, even last night, even now.

It continues to be an honor to work with you.

Doc

Dear Doc/Dear Winston, 02.25.13

Dear Doc,

I hate waking up and looking outside to see it gray and cold, rain setting in. It just feels like a day for a funeral.

I think about shit like that. When you have seen death like I have, it puts a damper on life, sometimes. You know that pain, the pain that hurts like hell, and you would do anything to take it all back or make it go away.

Well, after a while that goes away, but not mine. It stays and grows inside of me. It’s like I have hooks in my body and chains pulling at it all directions, and you can see fucking pain. You can see a little light at the end of a tunnel, but can never get close to it. And people keep telling you it’s all going to be okay, that they are praying for me and that they think about me and all that shit.

Well, I think about war, hate, life—why are we here? What is the purpose, or why do we continue to go on? You just keep going living in a life that is miserable. Why do I do it? I don’t know.

It’s hard when you want to live a life of war, filled with selfishness and anger. I now know why the Templars loved their lives, because they fought their whole lives and had God at the tip of their swords, striking down evil.

Winston

_____________________________________________

Dear Winston,

The writer Michael Howard wrote this comment on yesterday’s post:

“One of the real-life WWII characters I am writing about in my book survived Peleliu … In the early 60’s he would wake up his boy in the middle of the night to take him out on patrols. When I bounce the story off people who know nothing of PTSD, they tend to think it is fiction.”

Remember also what I wrote about you in Empty Chairs, Empty Tables: From Paris to Fallujah and Kandahar?:

“Yet also, had I not just spent the previous minutes with him, absorbing his words, not just hearing them, I could have looked at him and thought: grief that can’t be spoken? Seriously?”

In just these past two months, how our relationship has changed, hasn’t it? Gone is any distancing, defensiveness on your part. In its stead is the warmth, the humor that I know has always been you. True, if I pay close attention, I can notice still a hesitancy on your part, but quite easily I could chalk that up to the deference that a younger man can show an older man. Had I known nothing of you, I would have thought nothing of it.

Hence, my own words in that entry come back to smack me in the face:

“Just because a grief can’t be seen doesn’t mean that it can’t be spoken.”

Because of your willingness to speak your heart, Winston, I do so hope that at least a few more people can understand how the truism “Looks can be deceiving” can instead be a profound truth of combat trauma. Yes, a part of you wants to live a life of selfishness and anger, filled with righteous hate. Yet a part of you, night after night, searches for that little girl in your dreams, feels that pain of a father trying to heal the infected leg of a son, wants to understand why, why, why.

How appropriate perhaps it is, then, that you refer to the Knights Templar. Remember “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”? Remember the knight who stayed by the Holy Grail for seven hundred years, protecting it from those who would use it for their own glory and power?

The Knights were certainly no strangers to the atrocities of the Crusades, atrocities which continue to burn in the souls of Muslims and Jews to this very day. Yet somewhere there, within at least some of them, was a faithfulness, an honor, a duty that has lasted enough through the centuries to make a character in a fantasy-adventure film if not believable, then at least understandable.

I know that The War still can rage within you, filling you with all its annihilation, even its allure. And I know that you are there, perhaps, if I might say, a Templar in the best sense, one who has known all that War can do to a soul, one who wants to remain faithful to a vision that was good in its outset, even if complex and even destructive in its fulfillment, one who waits, hoping against hope.

That is the man whom I see.

Doc

Dear Doc/Dear Winston, 02.24.13

Dear Doc,

This pain that is inside of me will not go away.

I am so fucking tired. Some days I wish I would have just died alongside my brothers. I feel like they went the best way possible, killing the fucking assholes who caused this devil inside me.

It’s like a fire raging in my chest, and nobody can hear or see it. I ponder on the day I can walk into Hell and make those bastards’ lives even more miserable.

How do I continue to get up and live another day? Nothing makes sense anymore. The only thing I know has been taken from me, and now I’m left with scars and a constant state of paranoia and anger. I lay in my bed watching my trigger finger twitch, thinking of a way to make my heart pound like it used to.

I fear no evil. Death would be doing me a favor. HA!

And people . . . they are dust . . . people? Walking around with their faces stuck in computers and cell phones, playing their video games, talking about how they wanted to go to war, but couldn’t. Fucking pussies, if you ask me.

And people wonder why I stuck a needle in my arm and watched as the liquid went in and the pain . . . well, it just went away. The devil was at bay, and my mind at peace. WTF.

God sure has a plan for me . . . if You’re listening, come down and end this fucking pain.

Vibration from the 50 cal rattling through my arms. DIE, Mother fuckers, DIE! The smile of pure hatred pouring from my face. That’s living for those of you who know what I’m talking about.

Nothing ELSE matters?

Winston

_______________________________________________________

Dear Winston,

The power of punctuation.

It’s the question mark at the end, you.

We have no clue, do we, Winston, we civilians? It’s not only our computers, our cell phones, our video games that consume us, blind us. Our arguments, justifications, outrages: they do as well. We have so much to say about the War: “Support Our Troops!” “War Is Not the Answer!” “Thank You for Your Service!” We know why we should have gone to War. We know why we never should have gone to War.

We all want it to be so simple. “The Devil is on the outside: see what happens if we don’t go to War!” “The Devil ends up on the inside: see what happens if we go to War!”

You, your brothers and sisters: you are the ones who have had to face both Devils, one there, one here, both unrelenting, both demanding that you face a Reality right now—right NOW!—that the rest of us took a pass on, still take a pass on, whether with shame or with pride.

Dust. Yes, we all are, Winston: the brothers whom you lost; those who tried to kill you, who did kill them; the boy with the rotting leg; the father who risked a soldier’s ire to save his son; the soldier who writes late at night, hoping against hope that a doctor will not turn away from his rotting soul; the doctor who tries to reassure him, even as he has to cause that soldier some pain, that the rotten parts can indeed be debrided, that the living parts underneath can still become enlivened and enlivening once again.

Nothing ELSE matters? Question mark?

Thank you, Winston, that you are allowing me to find your answer to that question with you.

Doc

Dear Doc/Dear Winston, 02.23.13

Dear Doc,

It was just another day, waking up and getting ready to go on patrol, standing behind the truck, bullshitting with the guys, waiting on the op order. Early May in Iraq: it’s not too hot, not too cold, nice breeze blowing. The morning was great.

The lieutenant comes, giving us the brief. Time to mount up and get going.

My feet pressed against the bench, my body up out of the hatch, leaning back against the cases of ammo on the top of the truck. In front of me is the 240 Mounted, with the rounds fed into the chamber. It sits on a swivel, easy to maneuver and aim. I swing it around to my right side and leave it sitting tucked against my side.

Rolling down the road, dust flying, looking off into the distance, watching the road behind us, little kids run along the side of the road, hands in the air, yelling some bullshit you can’t understand. As we pull into the city, cars smash into each other, trying to get around us like they are in such a big hurry to go nowhere.

Watching the road behind me, there is a car that keeps getting closer and closer to the back of the truck. I wave the red flag and start yelling, but he doesn’t give a shit. I pull up my rifle and point it at his head, thinking he will get the picture. Nope, the dumbass just keeps creeping slowly up on us.

So I swing the 240 around, cock back the bolt, and get a round in the chamber. Leaning softly on the butt stock, pointing my sights at the front of his car, I squeeze the trigger and let a 10 round burst go into the hood of his car. He slams on his brakes as I lower the ramp.

Moving in formation, we come up on his car. I pull out my 9 mil and press the barrel to his fucking head and tell him “Etla oguf dishma ge inta to hal areid ah chic werack.” (Slowly get out of the car and come here. I want to talk to you.)

The man gets out and starts rambling on about how he needs to get his son to the doctor because he is sick. Well, I told him: get him out; my medic will take a look at him. The boy gets out; his flesh on his leg is hanging off the bone. Yellow puss seeps out of the burn. The flies cover it as they cut away at the flesh.

I have doc clean it up, cut away the dead tissue, and put creams on it. We give him antibiotics, bandages, cream, ibuprofen, and clean wraps. “Tell the man to bring his son by our base in 2 weeks, and we will take another look at it.”

He thanks us and invites us over for chai and dinner. We accept and arrange a day to come over. Just the simple choice to stop him instead of shoot him, and I became their hero.

But that’s just me. Thousands of soldiers make this choice every day, and they all aren’t heroes.

Winston

______________________________________________

Dear Winston,

I write this the morning after you and I have seen each other again, after you have talked of worrying about your grandmother’s health, of your plans for your daughter’s upcoming birthday. I am so glad that you have remained clean and that you and your wife feel more hopeful about your future.

I find myself thinking about you at the age you were when you were over there. I spent my early twenties in medical school. I was an emotional wreck, to be honest, although I did a fairly good job of hiding that from most folks around me (probably all, truth be told). I had a good intuitive feel for people and situations, but, honestly, that talent complicated my life as much as it eased it. I certainly saw my share of life-and-death situations, but I was always low on the decision-making totem pole, a well-educated orderly, for the most part. I did make some split-second, potentially-game-changing decisions, but I knew that within a few more seconds, someone older, someone at least slightly more experienced than I would be present to pick up the slack.

Odd, isn’t it, Winston: everyone from The New York Times to the Congress of the United States has—under quite the high-flying moral flag of “concern for others,” I might add—since then made darn certain that no other young twenty-something should have any such split-second moments in any hospital, any clinic, anywhere. Safeguards, safeguards, safeguards!

There are a lot of people, Winston, who are quite proud of themselves that they have succeeded in that endeavor.

But, of course, this is War, isn’t it, Winston? One panicked father gets the assurance that he’ll have an attending physician at the side of his son. Another gets the possibility that an unsupervised twenty-year-old will even allow him to exist with his son.

I have no clue whatsoever what I would have done at that age had I needed in that split-second not to decide whether a man’s breathing rate was worthy of calling a Code Team, but rather whether to fire a gun. Yes, I would have been trained well. Yes, I would have known the Rules of Engagement. Yes, I would have wanted to do the right thing, for my buddies, even for that man.

But I was so uncertain in life, so uncertain. I don’t know.

I can understand, though, why you might have mixed feelings about the word “hero.” I think I would have been with you on that one, Winston. No doubt.

Thank you again for your honesty. Thank you again that you force me one more time, one more day, to be honest with myself.

Doc

Dear Doc/Dear Winston, 02.22.13

Dear Doc,

“Contact! Contact!”

“Fucking where?!!”

“Contact left, 150 meters, second window of the building with the green sign. Two guys on the rooftop, two! See them there! They are right there!”

“Tiger Mike, this is Charlie 402: we are under contact, taking small arms fire.”

“This is Tiger 4-1 requesting QRF [Quick Reaction Force]. Over”

“Roger, Tiger 4-1, this is Tiger Mike. QRF is in route. Over”

“Tiger 4-1, this is Long Knife 7. We are approximately five miles from your location.”

“Roger, Long Knife 7. This is Tiger 4-1. We are requesting close air support. Over.”

Fucking drop ramp! Let’s go get these mother fuckers!

“MILLER, take Point Alpha Team, let’s go!”

“Roger, Sergeant . . . Fuck, fuck, fuck: dud stack on the door right side of the building! We are going to frag and then clear.”

As the sound of AK-47’s rattle off into the air, bullets sound like bees whispering in your ear.

Blood pumping through my body, fat cells burning, turning into sugar. The adventure is taking over my brain, and the only thing on my mind as the ramp drops is: get to the fucking wall beside that building!

Boots smacking the ground, gear bouncing all around, sweat pouring down my face. My lungs feel like they are breathing in exhaust from a car. My legs and arms tremble as I dash for the wall.

Winston [Miller]

_____________________________________________________ 

Dear Winston,

I read you, and I am dumbstruck by the power of the brain to relive, to drop kick the body and soul back weeks, months, even years, smack dab into the middle of the past, all while announcing with the greatest of certainty that no, your frontal lobe is wrong: you are there!

One thing I’ve noticed as a civilian: I cannot project, cannot imagine myself in your place without having an intense sense of self-doubt. How could I know what to do? How could I focus, know where to focus, know when to lose focus? I would have been gunning for that wall in a panic.

Yet for you and your brothers, it was different, wasn’t it? You’d trained for this. You were all-focus, all the way. The adrenaline tsunami of the moment was not flooding you, as it would have me, but rather was conveying you forward; not drowning you, but transporting you down a solid-walled aqueduct toward your goal, sort of a “luge meets water park” kind of moment.

Adrenaline can feel so good, can’t it, even in the midst of terror? So many find that truth to be the epitome of human barbarism. Yet it’s just plain, old biology, isn’t it? You hadn’t been living for that moment, not in the least. But you had been preparing for it. You chose to serve: those whom you loved, your rural community, your nation. When one chooses that, one has to be ready for the luge.

And even if you know that the finish line is Hell—what a ride.

Doc

Conclusion and Offer: Combat PTSD, Pools of Emotion, and Putting the Truth Into Words

Dear Sir,

Let me finish today by turning to journaling–and an offer I’m glad to make to you and all your fellow combat veterans. (I’ve decided to discuss the clergy and spiritually-oriented groups later, in separate posts.) I’ll present these ideas in a FAQ-like format.

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

The Truth and Journaling

So what do you mean–journaling?

I mean: anything you want it to be if it involves, in some way, putting your thoughts and feelings into words. You can write your words down on paper of any kind, whether looseleaf or bound, whether bound in a spiral notebook or in a special journal with formal binding. You can write your words down on a computer, storing them on your hard drive or in cyberspace somewhere. It’s up to you.

Is this supposed to be in some particular form? Formal or informal? Do I worry about spelling, grammar, complete sentences, things like that?

Not at all. You write what’s on your heart. If you feel like cursing, you curse. If you feel as if only random words can come out, not even sentences, then write random words. Any particular entry could be as short as one word or as long as it takes until the words run out for that entry (or exhaustion sets in).

Are you talking a one-time thing or something that I do over and over?

Either one. Maybe you write something one day and then never write again. Maybe you write again in a day, a month, years or more. Maybe you write again in fifteen minutes. You’ll know when it’s time to stop. You’ll know when it’s time to start up again, if ever.

Am I supposed to write this to share with someone?

That’s up to you. Maybe you want to write a letter to someone who’s alive, but first you want to “try out” what you want to say. Maybe you want to write to God. Maybe you want to write to a buddy or a loved one who’s no longer with us. Maybe you want to write to a Head of State, a legislator, the “brass.” Maybe you want to write to your kids or grandkids you have or might one day have, the kids of a friend–or the kids your friend will never have. Maybe you want to write an op-ed piece. Maybe you just want to scream, at anybody, at War, at Death, at Life.

Should I actually share this with someone?

That’s also up to you, but reserve the right that you may, at any time, write something that you would not want anyone to read. If the latter, though, remember: words, even in cyberspace, can sometimes end up in hands you’d not planned on. Take extra precautions to make sure that you lock such words away, e.g., with passwords, or literally under combination lock. Maybe write in a “code” that only you will understand.

If you have a therapist or counselor, however, I do hope that your relationship with that person will be such that you could share as much of your journaling as is possible.

What if I don’t have a therapist or counselor? Should I do it anyway?

Absolutely. Some of you may not be ready yet to consider talking to a professional. Some of you may have become disillusioned with any professional who claims to be a “helper.” Some of you may be too far away from any professional help to allow any type of meaningful contact. Some of you may be working with a counselor who can only see you every once in a while or who seems uncomfortable discussing material that’s too “tough” or “raw.”

So what good’s this going to do for me? Am I not just torturing myself even more by writing down what I already can’t get out of my head?

In fact, “getting it out of your head” is precisely the point. “Putting the Truth into Words” is precisely the point. Will the Truth leave your head as a result? Of course not. But now the Truth will be something physical in addition to mental. It will be written down on paper, on a hard drive. Your hand will write it or type it. The words will not melt away, as they can in your head. You can go back to them. Reflect on them. Change them. Erase them–but you’ll have to decide to erase them. They can’t “run away from you” any more. You can leave them on the paper and never go back to them, but know that somewhere in this world, whether in a locked drawer or in a computer file, those words will still be there. You will have options that you didn’t have before. You can “forget” because you know that paper and data files never will. Sometimes memories and feelings become more real when you see them in handwriting or type. Sometimes they become less so.

Should I do this instead of therapy or counseling?

No. If you have the chance to work with a therapist, a counselor, a trusted clergy person, I would strongly urge you to do that as well, even if you don’t share what’s in your writings (although, believe me, the writings, when shared with the right person, will only help to improve your work with that person). For most people, recovery from combat trauma/PTSD is a two-part process.

First, you put your memories and feelings into words. As above, that makes them more “real.”’

Second, though, you will fully heal when you share those words with someone and know that your words are being taken seriously, that you are being taken seriously, that your words will not destroy that person, that the person will still be glad to know about you, know you, care about what happens to you.

That’s how you detoxify the contaminated memories and feelings. That’s how you know that neither you nor your therapist/counselor/listener will be poisoned by the Truth forever, even though both of you will have to live knowing the Truth forever.

If, however, you don’t have access to counselor, or if you are not quite yet ready to take that risk that a counselor or therapist or clergy will understand or have the courage to bear what needs to be borne, or if you are too disillusioned to go back to one, one of the above out of two is better than none out of two. The very act of putting the Truth into words will help you some–and maybe a lot.

I’m a kinetic-energy/extroverted type. I rejuvenate through movement, literal and figurative. So what’s in it for me?

You and I both know that simply because you’re kinetic-energy/extroverted, you cannot say that you don’t have memories and feelings that you need to “get out there.” In general, I have found that kinetic-energy/extroverted combat veterans usually have fewer words to share in writing (in the grand scheme of things, in therapy as well). You probably, in other words, won’t be spending hours a night in journaling. Yet writing, typing is indeed movement: getting something done in the real world, making appear what was not there before, making a change from thoughts that never stop to thoughts that at least stop long enough to have the decency to stay put in a sentence.

I’m a potential-energy/introverted type. How am I not just “wallowing in self-pity”? How won’t I be just stuck in the same rut I already am, thinking and feeling the same things over and over?

Good news, that is less likely to happen precisely because you’re writing things down, precisely because you’re moving all those thoughts and feelings out of the “inner spa” (where they’re going to stay anyway) and into a sort of “outer spa” that can be observed more easily, maybe without quite the “stench” of the War Within.

If you’re writing the same thing over and over again, you’re going to see that. Remember, you’re military! In other words, you’ve been taught from the first moments of boot camp to think mission! You’re not like many folks who have never done anything with their lives, who go over the same, go over the same and do nothing, year after year. Maybe The War Within is telling you that you are now such a person–but you’re not!! The day will come when you will look at those words and say, “What the . . . ? Wake up, friend, wake up!!” Trust me. It may be today, tomorrow, next month, next year. You may have to write the same word, the same memories, the same feelings once or ten thousand times. But the “what the . . .?”day will come.

Remember, as a potential-energy/introverted type, words are what rejuvenate you. Your job is to get those words to a spot that can help you, not torture you. Write those words down. Give them a “permanence” that you’re going to have to come to grips with. Those words may finally be the force that drives you into therapy. They may be the force that finally allows you to say “OK, enough of that.”

So, what is it again I’m supposed to write about?

Anything. Memories of specific events. Memories of how you felt back then, about what happened, about that person. Impressions of how you feel now. Regrets. Sorrows. Guilt. Shame. Disappointment. Rage. Forgiveness. Fear. Hope. Events that happened today, yesterday, ten years ago that bring a smile, that make the next day worth facing. Goodbye. Hello.

So what’s this “offer” you’re talking about?

I am glad to offer you my reading eye and reading heart. In other words, if you don’t have anyone to “listen,” I am glad to do that. I will provide an e-mail address below, and you can send me what’s on your mind, your heart, your soul.

Are you talking about you becoming my therapist?

No. Therapy, counseling is about two real people interacting over time. I will not be able to respond to your writing. If you have questions, whether general or specific, I will not be able to discuss them with you or answer them for you.

Please know that it is not that I wouldn’t want to do that. It is simply that I cannot. It’s not just that it would be unethical, in a professional sense, to make such an offer. It would be inhumane to make such an offer. It would be unfair, just another so-called “helper” making a promise that he has no intent to keep. Enough people have done that to you already. You don’t need one more.

I am one person. I have a family I value and to whom I have committed myself. I have patients with whom I do interact regularly through my professional duties (and I add, privilege). I cannot shortchange them. I will not do so.

So why should I waste my time sending you anything?

That’s the question you’ll have to answer for yourself.

Here is what I can offer: I am a man, a fellow human being, who does have a talent for understanding the heart. I’m not bragging about that. It’s just who I am. I like to read. I am not afraid to hurt. I have a good life with a good family who have as good a future as anyone of us can hope from this world. Your story, your memories, your feelings will affect me, but they will not destroy me. Yet as you can see from all my blog entries under the heading Living Life, you will have an impact on me. I’m not a passive, lazy reader.

I am no fool, you see. Given the right circumstances, I too would kill. I know that.  I too would make decisions about life and death that I would never forget. I too could experience unspeakable rage. I too could experience grief that rips the heart open by hand.

But also, I have not killed. I have not seen body parts on the ground. I have not watched the life ebb out of my best friend or seen him or her disintegrate in front of me. Therefore, such memories, such feelings will not overwhelm me, precisely because they have never overwhelmed me to date. I can only imagine them. But I am willing to take the risk of knowing in my heart that such things could happen to me even today and thus let myself take the risk of letting what has actually happened to you infiltrate my heart enough so that I’ll be disturbed enough to make it as real for me as I can.

How will I know that you actually read what I write?

You won’t. You’ll have to trust me. I will send you a very brief reply e-mail with a simple message: “Got what you wrote and will read it when I can. My best to you, always.” That will be it.

Is this a one-time offer?

You can send me as many writings as you wish. You can know that one day I will read each of them.

Will you keep track of who I am?

No. I will not keep emails. Therefore, I ask that you send your thoughts as an attachment, either in Word or Wordperfect format. Once I run the document through a malware protection protocol, I will then store it on a hard drive to which only I have access, labeling it only by date and time of receipt. Once the document is stored and I have sent you back your two-sentence reply, I will permanently delete your original email message.

What if I want you to keep track of me?

That’s up to you, but again, I will not be writing you back. If you wish to use a pen name, once I have read the document, I will then store it in a file with your pen name. If you want to use your real name, I will store it by your real name.

Will you write about what I write you about?

Only if you tell me that I can. I will assume that you do not want me to write about anything that you write about. Even if you give me permission to write about what you write about, however, do not assume that I will do so. The future will bring what the future will bring.

If you use some of my thoughts in any of your writings, will you let me know?

If you would like me to. If you wish to allow me to write one day about your experiences, but would prefer to know first about it, then leave me your e-mail address in the body of the document. I do promise that in such circumstances, I will never make any reference to what you write without sending you a copy of the essay and then getting your explicit approval to publish it. You would also be free then to have the essay retracted (if possible) at any later time, although obviously I will have no control over any previous disseminations in any form.

Will what I write you be confidential?

No. It will be anonymous (unless you give me information within the document), but  it will not be confidential.

So what’s the difference?

As I said, I will separate your document from your e-mail at the time of storage, and I will make no effort on my part to link the two, deleting the e-mail upon storage. (Therefore, if you write anything of substance in the body of the e-mail, it too will be deleted immediately upon storage.) I, in other words, will have no way to link you to your document at the time of my reading it unless you give me explicit, identifying information.

I will not, however, be taking any steps to erase all “footprints” of the e-mail. I don’t know how to do that. I have no plans on learning on how to do that. We will not, nor ever will be in a psychotherapeutic relationship, and therefore you have zero protections offered by such a relationship. I have no clue whether any government official would ever take an interest in my documents. If they do, though, I will have no legal grounds upon which to refuse handing them over. If they have the cyberknowledge to link documents to their originals senders, then  they will what  they want. I can take no responsibility for that.

THEREFORE, if you are afraid of anyone “official” ever possibly reading what you write, then you should be accordingly careful. Remember: specific dates, names, places, often they are not that important as to the feeling of what happened or the haunting memory of what happened. Look through my entries under the category Living Life. I specifically avoid as much detail as I can–location, branch of service, specific dates, easily identifiable details of persons and events–and focus instead on the feelings engendered by the memories, which usually only require minimal “backstory” to make them meaningful.

Will you ever actively divulge information without my permission?

Obviously, that will only be possible if you identify yourself in the body of the document. If you make any threat against an individual and you have identified yourself, I will send a copy of the document, with the identifying information, to the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (it’s federal because you’ll be using the Internet to transmit the threat), and they will do with it as they will. Similarly, if you make claims to be considering committing future crimes of any kind, I will do the same immediately.

If you threaten to harm yourself and you have identified yourself, I will forward a copy of the e-mail to the Veteran’s Crisis Line, and they will do with it as they will. IF YOU ARE HAVING THOUGHTS OF SELF-HARM OR HARM TO OTHERS AND DO NOT WISH TO ACT ON THEM, DO NOT COUNT ON YOUR TELLING ME, EVEN WITH IDENTIFYING INFORMATION, AS BEING SUFFICIENT TO GET YOU HELP IN TIME. As I have said, I cannot promise you when I will read your document, although I promise that eventually I will read the document.

If you need help, GET HELP NOW. IT’S AVAILABLE, AND IT’S THE REAL DEAL. Call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-6255, ext.1.  Alternatively, you can have a confidential chat at VeteransCrisisLine.net or you can text to 838255.

Also know that I am obligated under the laws of the state of Indiana and of the United States to report matters such as abuse and neglect of children, of the elderly and disable, etc. If you tell me of such matters and if you identify yourself in your document, I will need to forward that information to the appropriate authorities.

Also, if you do write me more than once and use a pen name and do any of the above, I will not guarantee that I will not attempt to  link your e-mail to your pen name. If I do do so, then if any of these above events occur, I will forward your email information to the authorities, along with the documents in which the threats or allegations are made.

So what’s in it for you, Doc?

Honestly, I offer it because that’s just who I am and what I do. I promise you that I will not interfere with my family’s life because of anything you write. You don’t have to worry about that.

Given that I’m psychoanalytically trained, I of course believe that there is more than just “who I am and what I do” behind my offer. Certainly I have known, as I write in About Me, the impact of combat upon a family through generations. I suspect a part of this is a gift to my paternal grandparents for their suffering, a remembrance for my uncle, a gift to both my father for the impact of my uncle’s deaths on his life (and even on the lives my mother and her parents, given that my mother’s family and father’s family had been quite close). I know what I need to know, it is what it is, and I do what I do.

I also do enjoy reading and writing about lives, and I am glad that some have found help in what I write, especially in my ability to let combat veterans know, through my writing, that a). they are not alone in what they experience and struggle with, and b). their sufferings and struggles can have an impact on at least one other human being, no matter how horrible those experiences have been, and c). that I’m not only willing to experience in my limited way those sufferings, but am willing to try to “convince” words, language to “capture and hold” as much of that suffering as “they” can.

The email address is rodneydeatonmd@gmail.com. It’s available any time, only for this purpose. As I said, I will not be making any personal responses except to acknowledge receipt.

There you have it.

So, Sir, a simple comment engendered all these words in all these posts. Such is who I am, as you now know. I again thank you for your bravery, and I thank you for giving me the opportunity to put these thoughts into words. I hope at least one or two of these words have been helpful for you. All my best to you and yours, at this time of year celebrated by many traditions as ones of Holiday and throughout the rest of the year–and the rest of your life.

Best,

Rod

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,

Rod

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

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