My therapist proposed a change in venue for this week's meeting. I was circumspect at first but when I arrived at the entrance to the park and we started walking, I felt a sense of urgency and took off up the path, looking at everything around me. My mind let go and I was able to just focus on the trail and all of the intentionally undisturbed nature surrounding me. When we got to the boulder outcropping, I felt a desire to take pictures. It was beautiful out there and I very quickly grew angry at the pothead scum who had defaced the outcropping with their stoner messages. When I climbed to the top of the boulders, the anger melted away. The light was playing on the ground in the most calming and mesmerizing fashion. I just stood there for a while. On our way back, I stopped and took more photos of nature. It felt almost compulsive.
Something happened out there and it was a really good thing. I felt spiritually alive. I had forgotten how much nature heals. The life around me resonated with my shattered soul and finally felt at peace.
Needless to say, I will be going back there - often.
During this whole session, my therapist and I didn't talk about anything. I think she sensed that I needed this moment of peace undisturbed - especially after the ten year anniversary that just passed. Thank you Soldiers Project for finding such amazing volunteer therapists!
It's strange for me. I am looking for spiritual fulfillment and I am still not able to find something that will work for me. When I sat down with my therapist to continue our discussion, I told her that I have had no success in finding anything that I think I can incorporate into my daily life that will provide me with the spiritual fulfillment that I need. I told her that I was talking to a buddy I served with in Iraq that had offered to take me scuba diving. I plan on taking him up on the offer. The problem is that I can't go scuba diving every day.
It's giving me fits.
So I am putting the call out there. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.
I have been driving myself nuts looking on the internet for any type of spiritual practice that I think could help me find peace. I decided to back off the search for a while. I think that I have been looking too hard and people say that when you stop looking, you find what you are looking for. Time to sit back and relax and just enjoy the coming week.
It's all about focus. I am going to put my efforts into the non-profit and find some fulfillment there. It will help short-term AND it will put my plans for the non-profit into sharp focus. It's not like I don't have anything to do. Logos. Business plans. Newsletters. Board meeting. Business meetings. Continued tweaking of the websites. It's a lot to do but I love doing it.
My therapist expressed concern that I may be over-extending myself. I thought about it but I just can't see it. If running the non-profit is the only thing that gives you at least some semblance of spiritual peace, wouldn't you work on it a lot?
With me going through the mess I went through over the past month, I hadn't seen my individual therapist for a while. We caught up on all that had happened and she was relieved that I was relieved. She was concerned with how quickly my ability to manage my PTSD deteriorated during this trial. We got to talking about it and about my support networks and it became abundantly clear that the only support network I don't have is the spiritual one. It took a lot of explaining to fully articulate what I find spiritual. I don't believe in God, at least not an anthropomorphic one. Attributing humanity to a being beyond our comprehension smacks of hubris and I just don't buy into it. That was the easy part to explain. The hard part to explain was what I DO find spiritual - connection with nature. Connection with the natural world around me - especially water. It is one of the major reasons that Native American beliefs resonate so strongly with me. On the flip side, I am not interested in visiting a 'retreat'. I would want to learn the culture so entwined with the beliefs. The reality is that Native Americans are reticent to share what is sacred to them with outsiders - if you weren't born into it, you wouldn't understand is a common sentiment I have found online.
She asked me to think back and describe to her the last I felt truly at peace - spiritually whole. I thought about it for a while and I told her it happened on my honeymoon to St. Croix. I was out in the ocean with my snorkel and fins on while my wife was taking a nap. I just closed my eyes and let the current take me for a while. The weightlessness of my body, the fell, smell, and taste of the ocean, and being surrounded by teeming sealife. I felt at home in a way that I hadn't felt since before I went to Iraq. It was a glimpse of 'wholeness' that I haven't felt since. I had to explain that it's not that it paradise - it's that there is no pressure to be anything other than who you are. No masks, no responsibilities, no obligation to others. I have always found the life on St. Croix to be healing in a way I can't describe. I used to visit my grandparents down there almost every summer as a kid. So, what to do? The reality of just picking up and moving to paradise is slim to none. How to I recreate the essentials of that spirituality that heals me so completely? I feel spirit yearning to be whole and the source of my healing is far removed from the world I inhabit.
Well, at least I have something to think about now.
Recently, I have noticed an uptick in the severity of my PTSD symptoms and my coinciding depression. It's starting to make me worry a little bit that not having a functional group to attend is slowly eroding my ability to cope and adversely affecting the effectiveness of my coping mechanisms. Or...It could be just a temporary uptick because of the uncertainty surrounding my upcoming TBI evaluation. Either way, it's decidedly annoying and not something I am handling well.
What to do? I am going to have an individual therapy session this week and I plan on talking to my therapist about my concerns and my frustrations with not having a group to attend. My PTSD is fighting to get through - the anger, the depression, the nightmares, and the insomnia. I also have been dealing with a higher than usual level of hypervigilance. Most nights I toss and turn so badly that I end up sleeping in my recliner, uncertain as to why I don't feel safe - I just don't.
What's even more frustrating is that there is a very clear dichotomy in my life. Everything is going so well with my non-profit and my plans for it. The more I work at it, the more I feel fulfilled and stable. When I have days where I don't have time to work on it, I feel a hair's-breadth from snapping at people. Today would be a prime example. I had to go to work early and I have not been able to do anything for my non-profit. I knew I wasn't going to have the time when I woke up this morning and it made it exceedingly difficult to deal with people at work. I am not even certain what ticked me off so much - they just did.
So, time to hold it together and hope I can figure this out. I only have ten more days to go until my TBI eval, so we'll see how it goes. I guess we'll see if I can hold myself together until them Fingers crossed.
Well, I had another session with my individual therapist today. We did a lot of talking about my recent realizations about being black and white about everything. We still haven't come anywhere close to a work around or work-through. One realization that I did make was that survivor's guilt plays a huge role in setting the standards I hold myself to (and my inability to forgive myself for not being good enough) and why I can't forgive others for disappointing me (well, violating my trust is more accurate). There's a lot more to this that I still have to work through, that's for sure. One of the things she told me is that she's concerned that because I need to have people fall into one category or another (Trusted or Not), I may try to force people to fit into those narrow categories, even when they don't belong there.
We talked about this for the vast majority of the session and she asked me if there was anything else bothering when I unintentionally dropped a bomb on her. I could tell it concerned her greatly because her demeanor went from relaxed and attentive to focused and intense. Here's the situation:
Last week, Thursday night into Friday, I lost a day. What do I mean by that? I went to sleep a little after midnight and the next thing I remember coherently is waking up and realizing I have to be at work in 45 minutes - work started at 2PM. I slept for over 12 hours. I remember nothing in the interim. The next thing I remember clearly from that night is helping to clean the slicers at the end of the night. I know interacted appropriately with my coworkers, but I have absolutely no sense of the passage of time for that night. None. I have no idea whether I was asleep all that time either.
I drove home that night wondering whether I was going to be walking into a shitstorm at home. I had no idea. After talking about this with my therapist today and seeing how concerned she got, it raised some alarms in my head and I ended up not working on the newsletters I wanted to send out today - I could barely concentrate on writing this blog post. So I decided to take a break and watch a movie or two. I couldn't concentrate on anything and it was starting to ratchet up my anxiety something fierce.
What I thought was strangest was the timing. Everything was going well. My PTSD symptoms were wll-managed. The only thing I can think of is that it happened the night after I talked to the consultant about incorporation and foundation documents for the non-profit and I had a funding proposal that I put before a local veterans group for consideration. I was extremely excited. I was thinking that maybe my body doesn't know how to tell the difference between excitement and fear. I know my adrenalin was pumping like crazy.
Unfortunately, the end result was the same - I lost a day.
So now, I have to track when this happens to see if there is a pattern. I did some looking online and the specific information about the symptoms of TBI seem to fall in line with some of the issues I have with short-term memory, loss of sense of time, anger, etc. Anyone out there know more specifics or resources online that articulate this better? I don't want to pee up a tree and send doctors looking for ghosts if there's nothing to this.
This past Wednesday, I had my weekly meeting with my individual therapist and she expressed some concern about how black and white I was. She didn't express concern with the way I was black and white in the fiasco that was my last group session. She asked me if I was this black and white about most things in life in general. I said I was. She asked me if that bothered me and I said that it didn't really. Then she went on to give me scenarios: work, social gatherings, making friends, working with others in my non-profit. What happens in those situations when someone violates some aspect of my code?
My response? I rationalized it all away. The upsetting part is that I didn't realize that's what I had done until after the fact. It hit me later that night and ran me over like a train when I had time to think through it more fully. The inability to see and accept shades of grey is what has held me back at work and from making friends.
At Work: I voluntarily stepped down from a management position because I was too stressed out all of the time and was having difficulty handling my anger when people did little thinks that would trigger the massive overreaction that would ensue. Most of the time, I didn't show the overreaction and that's what made me so stressed and so exhausted all of the time. Up until this moment, I didn't realize that it wasn't the job that was stressing me out - I was my PTSD getting triggered. How about them apples?
Friendship: I haven't been able to make any friends for a while. Every time I make one, they do something that violates some minor aspect of my 'code' and I refuse to bend because 'I don't operate that way'. I have alienated almost all of the people I considered friends not solely because of what they did, but also because they violated my personal code which I have been treating as inviolable. The end result? I write them off and cease all contact because 'I don't need their shit'.
The End Result: Through unwitting actions I have taken, I have succeeded in halting my career progression and alleviated myself of friendships that should have been long-standing ones. Way to go me. The worst part is what it has done to my self-esteem and estimation of my self-worth. I feel like a pariah. I don't like the person I see in the mirror. I feel worthless.
The Solution?: Hell if I know, but at least I have made that realization and have somewhere to start from and something to work on. If this is what many of us go through in professional settings and in friendships, no wonder we have a tendency to live very isolated lives. Well, at least I know what I am going to be working on with my therapist over the coming weeks and months. I can't let this stand. Having success in starting my non-profit has only made me realize that I need more than an hourly wage at work. I need to live up to my level or experience and knowledge and work to put myself in a position to affect real progress in my professional life. Having started the non-profit also made me realize that, other than my wife and my parents, I have no one to share my passion with - no one to celebrate with. I'm tired of feeling lonely. Maybe it's time I go find a wading pool...
I don't think I need to recount what happened yesterday. When I heard about it from my father when I got home from work, I had to (and I mean HAD TO) see what was going on.
The descriptions, the blood, first-hand accounts, everything, triggered my memories of stuff that I had seen and been through over in Iraq. The second I knew I was triggered, I slammed shut my computer and I walked away and tried to do stuff that would take my mind off of what had happened up in Boston. I succeeded pretty well and was able to go to bed at a fairly normal hour. Then the nightmares came. They weren't so bad that they woke me up, but it was an endless cycle of suffering and emotional pain. When my alarm went off at 0600, I didn't get out of bed. I barely made it to work and I knew that I was going to be anxious as all hell.
And I was. An hour in, I had to pop an extra anxiety med to keep my self going. Another hour later, another.
Wash, rinse, repeat for five straight hours. I didn't have any more with me and I knew that my anxiety was still getting worse. I gutted it out but told my boss that as soon as the evening shift came in at two, I had to leave. To his credit, he didn't question it. He thanked me for gutting it out today. I think he knew that something was really rattling my cage.
So, I came home and I unwound. I took another pill and ended up passing out in my recliner, only to be woken up when my wife and daughter got home. I still feel triggered, but I am hoping that is something that I can work through with my individual therapist and group therapy tomorrow. I guess we'll see,
This is where I want to do a little explaining. Why was work so hard for me?
Everybody, and I do mean EVERYBODY was talking about it. The customers, the employees, everybody. Everybody had a theory about who did it, why, how, everything. To make matters worse, I came into work and the flags were still at full mast. It just tweaked me that much more. I immediately went to the store manager and asked him if he knew why the flags weren't at half mast. He said he'd look into it. Thankfully, the next opportunity I had to check, they were or I think I might have lost it. All in all, it was one conversation between two customers that I overhead that almost made me blow a gasket:
CustA: You heard about that Boston Shit, right?
CustB: Yeah, that's what happens when you let those dirty Arabs into our country.
CustA: I know, man. They already got a Saudi in lock-up.
CustB: They should have just let that sand-N****R ass bleed.
Yup. This shit brings out the best in people, don't ya think? I almost didn't walk away. All I can say is this:
If you are a veteran who has been triggered by this bombing, don't watch the fucking news! Just leave well enough alone. If you don't trust yourself not to, ask your family or spouse for support in this. It makes things easier when I am not constantly re-triggering myself. It's not that I don't care, it's that I care to much and the feeling of helplessness, not being able to do anything to help kills me. I know you know what I mean.
So there it is. Avoid triggers and avoid people you know that are ignorant and hateful. Now I am calling it a day and I am going to spend time with my wife and daughter who I suddenly find even more precious than I did yesterday.
This past Wednesday, I met with my individual therapist. She was concerned about what had happened over the course of the previous week and told me she wasn't sure what to expect when she showed up. After I left her a message in distress last week, she thought I would still be really banged up emotionally. She told me she was pleasantly surprised that I wasn't a hot mess.
She said, "Feeling less is not a sign of emotional growth: Feeling just as much but returning to emotional stability faster is." It made me feel really proud of myself. She was acknowledging that even though I had been through a gauntlet of emotional pain over the course of the past week, I was focused and calm. It was not at all what she was expecting and was happy that I was able to return to stability so quickly. I told her a large part of it was that I have had to grieve for too many people in my short life. I have grieving down. That was never the issue, in the first place. The real issue was being prevented from getting closure. That triggered me something fierce. Closure was the one thing I never got to any of the deaths I witnessed and experienced over in Iraq. This past week brought it all back.
And living to honor Doc's work and his memory has motivated me to move on and fight. So fight I will.
The conversation then moved on to how I handled the anniversary of crossing the berm into Iraq. I told her it really didn't affect me too much other than to give me pause. It took a little bit to really absorb the thought that a decade has passed since that fateful day. I decided to go out to lunch with my daughter and we had a blast all day long. It was great.
Then my therapist asked how I felt in situations where parent stand or sit around and talk while their kids play.
I shifted uncomfortably. I told her that I tried to avoid conversation as much as possible because I don't want it to come out that I am a combat veteran with PTSD. It's not for my sake, it's for my daughter's. I don't want other parents to not allow their children to play with Caley out of misplaced fear that I'll go nuts. Caley is at a fragile age where she will think that she did something wrong. I don't want to visit that stigma upon her life. My clinician asked me if I identified myself that way when someone asked me what I do. I said that I do because my advocacy work is what defines me, not my job.
Well, she told me in no uncertain terms that I need to work on my ability to engage in safe and meaningless small talk. It's what most people do when they are standing around while their kids play. She asked me to think about how else I could answer the question: 'What do you do for a living?'
Still working that out. But, for my daughter's sake I better figure it out and fast. She starts learning day care in less than two weeks.
I hope that other veterans that are reading this ask themselves that question, too. I know that I have a tendency to be blunt. Not only that, but I also believe that a lie by omission is still a lie. So vets out there, think about it. How to we engage in small talk? Is it something we are comfortable with? Or do we just avoid those awkward situations entirely. I know I have done my best to avoid those situations. I guess now I can't. Time to step outside my very small comfort zone and re-learn something new...
So, it appears that my therapist's advice really sank in. I woke up yesterday with a clear sense of purpose and a vision of where I wanted my life to go. I decided to conserve my energy at work (yeah, still a work in progress) and devote that conserved energy to my advocacy and my family. I started moving things forward and saw results. Here's what's happening right now:
As I said yesterday, it was an eventful day. I look forward to sharing all of this journey with you! Let's make a difference for each other and for the vets we still n
This past Monday, I met with my individual therapist and we talked about how I feel trapped by my current situation: I am not able to make a job change easily because my family depends on my income and health insurance. I can't get to the gym consistently because my work schedule is erratic and I come home from work emotionally spent. I don't have the time I would like to pursue my advocacy endeavors because of my work schedule making it nearly impossible to meet with my colleagues. It has made me feel more and more depressed and more and more demotivated.
When I explained all of this to my therapist, she understood how this could adversely affect me but brought up one point that stuck with me and made me think: It is your choice, whether you realize it or not, to stay in that job. It is also your choice to put all of your emotional energy into your work even though you don't get paid to be emotionally invested in it. She asked me, "What do you think would happen if you chose to save that emotional energy for the other things in your life?"
Why is it the simple things that always seem to be the hardest to change? Being emotionally invested in my work has been ingrained in my since childhood. I told my therapist that and she came back with, "No, that's your job. Advocacy is your work. Put your emotional energy into that and I bet you will feel better and have more energy to find a way to get to the gym and to be there for your family".
It's a foreign idea, but makes a weird kind of sense to me. She followed this up by explaining to me that I have the ability to choose what I devote my energy to. I can't control the fact that I am currently unable to change jobs because of my financial responsibilities. What I CAN control is who benefits from my energies the most - my job or my advocacy for veterans. I have felt trapped because couldn't see any way to take control of the situation and it was causing me to become extremely depressed and unable to see any positive outcomes.
So now comes the hard part. I have to change my behavior - a behavior that has been an integral part of my professional identity since I first started working. I have to learn how to redefine what my work is so that I can devote my emotional energy to my advocacy, my health, and my family. It is definitely not going to be easy but it will be worth the effort.
As I continue my life with PTSD, I will share my challenges and discoveries on this blog.