Monday, October 1, 2012

When Johnny comes marching home

It's not just young men and soldiers who deny their vulnerability, it's all of us.  We all know that we can die or be incapacitatingly injured at any time but mostly we manage to keep that knowledge well away from day to day consciousness.  That's probably a good thing because otherwise we'd never get out of bed.

But for the combat veteran, life becomes more complicated.  "Death is a distant rumor to the young." (Andy Rooney)  After the young soldier has experienced the immediacy of death in his/her first fire fight, however, it is distant rumor no more but a hissing, in your face presence.  And unless you're very lucky, it isn't just a one time encounter you'll have, but a repeated affair you face each time you go "outside the wire."  So you have to find a way to deal with the vulnerability and associated fear that you used to, but can no longer, just deny.   Fortunately, laying right at hand, waiting for your call, is your new best friend: anger/rage.

It is, of course, no news that soldiers in combat get into rage.  It's also probably fair to say that anger/rage, more than any other "symptom" is what brings re-deployed soldiers initially to the attention of the mental health system.  I don't know it that's true, but the most frequent story I would hear is of altercations with the spouse, with neighbors, with superiors at work, and/or with strangers on the street (especially in cars.) But to understand anger, you must understand vulnerability.

Constantly living in fear is immensely wearying.  I remember describing to my therapist how sick and tired I became of being always afraid.  How I wanted to just put it aside, rid myself of the fear, and go on patrol looking to blast anything that moved.  And how ashamed of myself I was that I couldn't do it.  I was shocked and, ultimately, transformed when he responded, saying how glad he was that I hadn't done that.  I expected him to join me in my castigating myself for my fearfulness, my cowardice.  He, instead, told me how he believed that honoring my fear had kept me (and my men) alive, how it had kept me human in an inhuman situation and how it had led to his being able to know me.

I don't think I'm the only veteran who returns from combat "sick and tired" of feeling vulnerable.  Who makes it back, hoping, maybe believing, that he'll/she'll never have to feel that way again.  The awful truth turns out to be that while we were always vulnerable, but able to deny it, now, whenever something happens that stirs vulnerability, the veteran is all too likely to immediately react with anger/rage.  So his young daughter runs towards the street, and he is instantly screaming at her, grabbing her up, and maybe shaking her.  Neither her nor the daughter know why.  Or he's driving and someone "cuts (him) off" (which is, in fact, a danger to him) whereupon, in a rage, he blocks the other car in and beats in the windshield in righteous anger.  Or his wife asks him to talk to her and she persists even after being told "You wouldn't understand" and suddenly he blows up in a rage and storms out of the house, barely aware that her loving interest, if allowed in and responded to in kind, would put him right in the middle of all the pain, and terror, and longing; the vulnerability that he has worked so hard to keep at bay.

Roy Clymer

For the background and context for these remarks, please read my article on PTSD published in the Psychotherapy Networker which can be found here or see a copy of it found on this blog titled "The Puzzle of PTSD."

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