Hello all. I'm so sorry to have been gone so long. It's been a very challenging past few months in some ways and a revelation in others. This is going to be a pretty long blog post, so hold onto your hats. I have a lot to talk about and it's been too long.
Why I Haven't Blogged in Such a Long Time
With everything going on with the divorce proceedings, I needed to disconnect. It was killing me not being able to blog about what I was going through. You see, the thing is, my blogging about my PTSD has always been about sharing what I've learned and what I'm struggling through. With the divorce proceedings, it wasn't about just me - it was about my ex and about my daughter. When going through a divorce, there's no possible way to separate the personal from the interpersonal and I had to seriously think about how what I might possibly write might unintentionally negatively impact the outcome of of the divorce.
More importantly, I was seriously concerned about my daughter. Some day she's going to read this and I don't ever want to write something that could confuse or hurt her. She loves her mother and she loves her father. Nothing should ever change that. Our daughter needs to know that, despite the divorce, she still loved just as much.
I think that the biggest thing is that this divorce was emotional hell. To be there for my daughter, my everything, I had to compartmentalize what I was feeling until the divorce was official. Now that the decree has been officially signed by the judge, I can talk about how this has impacted my life, and just mine. It's a complex mess of emotions and they're coming down on me like a ton of bricks right now.
Which, of course makes this the perfect time to talk about all of this.
So, here goes...
Where Things Stand Now, Personally
For those of you who know a little bit about my story, you know that July 30th is the anniversary of the friendly fire incident. Well, now it's also the anniversary of the official divorce decree - the ignominious end to my marriage. Well it's also the birthday of Caley's brand new cousin, born last Thursday, to Caley's aunt on the other side of the family. What does that mean for me? It means that I will never get to know him, love him. I will never get to see him grow up and I'll never have the opportunity to share in the joy that this baby has brought into the world.
Pardon my French but...talk about a mindfuck.
On top of all of this, I had compartmentalized the biggest emotional hurt in all of this - the fact that I am now going to miss out on half of my daughter's childhood is really screwing with me. The emotional devastation just the thought of that could cause is terrifying to me and, now that the divorce is final, the box surrounding that wonderful little tidbit of joy is spontaneously combusting.
To say that the next few days are going to be rough would be a bit on an understatement.
With all of this, I've still managed to make some positive changes. I've managed to make some friends, one of whom is a fellow combat vet. The other, his father. Both of them accepted me as I am, no judgement. It's a feeling I haven't had in a very long time. I've even reconnected with a friend I knew back in 2006 and lost contact with.
For the uninitiated, this is big stuff for me. I had somehow managed to alienate pretty much all friends I had due to my inability to put up with outside bullshit. My strained marriage was all I could take at the time. When the marriage effectively ended last August, I couldn't handle the prospect of losing even a distant friend and closed myself off from everyone except for my family.
And then there's my family. Oh, God, my family. If they weren't around to shower me with their love and support, I can't even imagine where I'd be right now. Since the separation, I've grown close with my parents in a way that I didn't think was possible. With everything going on, we were able to completely look past old hurts and 'circle the wagons', so to speak.
My parents have been amazing. Their only concerns in all of this were my welfare and the welfare of their granddaughter. This divorce could have emotionally devastated my daughter. Instead, she's well-adjusted and emotionally healthy. A part of that is due to the love my parents made sure to shower her with. That may sound weird but when all of this was new and confusing for Caley, my parents were there to give her all of the love and support possible to give. And they were there for me when I didn't have Caley and needed to just cry or vent my anger (the healthy, grief-related kind). Through everything I went through to get through this past year, good and bad, my parents were there - every step of the way.
And then, on top of all of this, my sister moved back to NYC from Syracuse. Caley and I have been able to spend more quality time with her in the past year than we have been able to in the past few. Again, more love and support from family, when we've needed it most.
The biggest positive change has been in how I see myself. I know I'm a good guy and a great father. I want to be even better in both of those categories and that's something I'll never, ever stop striving for again. For the longest time, I'd lost sight of who I was and what I'm capable of. Being able to feel deep hurt also means you're able to feel deep love and joy and I wouldn't have it any other way. Some people think showing emotion and feeling deep emotions is a liability and a weakness, but I think it's just the opposite. My ability to feel everything in my life, unflinchingly and without reservation, is where I derive my strength. If I wasn't in touch with what I feel, I shudder to think how difficult it would be to cope with my trauma. The faster you feel what you need to, the faster you confront your trauma, the faster you learn to cope with your trauma.
And. That. Is. COURAGE.
It's a kind of courage that few understand, most either don't or won't acknowledge. It's what gets me through the rough days and makes the good ones even better.
Where Things Stand Now, Professionally
After years and years of struggling with employment for a decade, I can honestly say I am now living the dream. I am Chief Business Development Officer of a veteran-owned Cybersecurity startup and I love every minute of my work. I've really thrived in this new environment and I now have very clear insight into why. Entrepreneurship is, counterintuitively, a perfect environment for veterans with PTSD. Here's why:
Needless to say, alleviating workplace stress has had a huge impact on my personal outlook and by ability to cope with my PTSD.
My Spiritual and Emotional Reclamation
After ten years, I have finally gotten to the point where I was ready to explore my emotional and spiritual health. For the longest time, the only place where I felt like I belonged was in the military. In the civilian world, I never felt like I had 'people', either before or after my time in the service. When I started thinking about what to do to re-engage spiritually, I started by looking at where I came from.
My dad's side of the family is ethnic Jewish, but I knew next to nothing about my Jewish cultural heritage. Well, I became curious to explore my heritage and reached out to a local rabbi. He told me about the different Jewish denominations and how they believe, without telling me what they were called and asked me which belief structure rang most true to me.
After sharing which denomination resonated with me the most, he referred me to another rabbi. Well, I met him and discovered that he was a retired Navy chaplain. My first time attending Shabbat services was Veterans Day last November. The experience was unbelievable. The entire service was dedicated to making sure everyone understood the depth and seriousness of the sacrifices made by our service members. It was surreal. I felt like I was home, that I belonged somewhere, that I had a people.
I've continued to attend on Fridays when I don't have my daughter and it's helped to make me feel more connected and engaged. I finally feel ready to reconnect and take the risk to make new friends and meet new people. How about that?
Post-Traumatic Growth: Why It's Not Mutually Exclusive from PTSD
I always hated the term. It's sounds so cliche and for a full decade seemed unobtainable. I think, on some level, I hated the idea of Post Traumatic Growth because I couldn't imagine that I'd ever experience it for myself.
Well I was wrong. I've been thriving and growing and becoming more and more comfortable in my own skin, asserting myself more and more.
I've been reticent to acknowledge the idea that I may be experiencing it because so many people equate it with, CONGRATS, you're HEALED!
Ummmm, No? That's not how this works. While I am experiencing a personal and professional renaissance, it doesn't mean I don't still have to content with my PTSD. I still get triggered and I still battle with hypervigilance, depression, insomnia, low self-esteem, and more.
It's confusing as hell. How can I be experiencing growth and still struggling with PTSD every day? When I figure it out, I'll let you know. I'm at a total loss right now.
So What Next?
I know this is a lot to absorb and I'm still working through all of this myself but there are a few things I do know for certain. I'm free to blog again and I won't be stopping again if I have any choice in the matter. I took a lot of time this past week to write this post and it's amazing how much this writing process has cleared up my head.
Thanks to everyone for sticking around. See you in the next blog post!
Well, that was an unexpected turn. A few days after the horrible nightmare I had last week, I suddenly found myself motivated to examine how I had been living my life. It wasn't pretty. I wasn't doing everything I know I am able to be. I wasn't being a partner to my wife, I wasn't pulling my weight at home. I was anxiety eating myself into diabetic shock, slowly gaining weight, pound by pound.
It hit me that I now have a consistent work schedule where I am home for dinner almost every night. I could actually go to the gym regularly as well. I actually sat down and made a commitment to my wife to be a better man and husband. For the first time in a long time and I am feeling a little more like 'myself'.
It didn't hit me until a few days ago that I was feeling this motivation, this change in outlook because of that horrible nightmare. I'm not sure how or why this is true, I just know it is. It's like there's one less shackle weighing down my soul.
All of the things I accomplished this week just added intensity to the brightness of the light in my heart. The 501(c)3 formation documents are officially submitted to the IRS. One logo is done, one done soon, and one in the works. I was asked to be the keynote speaker at Veterans' Day events in my home town. I confirmed my speaking engagement at St. Francis University. Combat Vets' Google Plus Page was listed as one of the "99 Google Plus Accounts Military Service-Members Should Follow".
Despite all of this, I am deeply anxious that the other shoe is going to drop. It tempers my happiness and dulls my optimism. At least this time, it
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.
July 30th, 2003. The day the course of my life irrevocably changed. The day that I remember every year with trepidation, sorrow, guilt, anger, and gratitude. It made me question everything I believed. It shattered my psyche, shredded my soul.
Quite honestly, I am surprised I survived long enough to make it home. Every day after became harder and harder to bear. The horrific scene that haunted my mind, the smell and taste of blood...
Yet here I am, writing about how that experience and others that followed after changed me. I don't want to remember what I experienced, yet I am afraid to forget.
Change the date and any veteran could have shared this. The scary truth: Every veteran with PTSD I know has an anniversary. A day that makes them pause, unwillingly, and remember horrific experiences. A day they can't reconcile with physically, mentally or spiritually.
I have had many people ask me why I mark this date on the calendar. They don't understand why, when it is so horrific, that I am forced to remember. The answer I give them is always the same - Because I still am unable to accept what happened. That, to me, accepting it would feel like a betrayal of those that died. After almost a decade, I still feel this way. I feel this so strongly that you might call it conviction.
My answer leaves many people shaking their heads in incredulity. They ask me why I punish myself this way. The answer: I don't know. Is it self-imposed punishment for surviving to talk about it when others never had the chance?
I'll make you all a deal. When I figure it out, I will let you know.
I had someone ask me through the website whether what I had been through had made me lose my faith or become angry at God. They asked me this because ever since they returned from Iraq, they have felt like a stranger in church on Sundays. The short answer: Yes. I had a serious loss of faith.
I think it's human nature to question your faith when you experience something horrific. I thought, "God can't exist. If God was up there, he wouldn't let this shit happen." That's the crisis of faith. Questioning. If God's up there how could he let such horrific things happen? I didn't realize it at the time, but when I was asking that question, I was asking God for an answer. When I didn't get one, I got angry. Angry at God. I thought, "God, if you are listening, Fuck You, you bastard. How could you let this shit happen. Benevolent, my ass. You are spiteful. I hate you." Yeah. Some pretty angry sentiment there. And I don't know a single vet with PTSD who hasn't gone down this road at some point. It doesn't matter if the soldier is Christian, Jewish, or Muslim. The crisis of faith followed by anger always seems to happen.
Let me lay out a series of events for you:
1996 - First Year in College. I meet a guy named Rami Hassouneh. We become fast friends. We go to a coffee shop and he orders in another language. I ask him what he is speaking and he says, "Arabic". I tell him I could never learn that language.
1999 - Joining the Army. I score a 99 on the ASVAB. They ask me if I am interested in languages. I take the Defense Language Aptitude Battery (DLAB) and score a 144 out of 150. They give me a choice of languages: Arabic or Arabic.
2000 - I graduate with honors from the Defense Language Institute.
2001 - After another year of training, I get to my first duty assignment in Wiesbaden, Germany.
2002 - I go on a Liaison Mission to Kuwaiti Ministry of Defense. One of my fellow linguists jokingly calls me 'Harris of Arabia'.
2003 - I get deployed as part of a Mobile Interrogation Team to Kuwait in preparation for the invasion into Iraq. We cross the berm on March 19th and I begin the deployment that changes me forever.
2004 - I am sent home with an active duty diagnosis of PTSD. I decide to return to college.
2006 - I meet my wife on March 24. We get married on September 27th.
2007 - I graduate Magna Cum Laude with a Degree in International Business. I struggle and struggle to find work. The economy has started to circle the drain.
2010 - My daughter is born on November 8th.
2011 - I decide to start blogging as an outlet for my PTSD. Within a month, Combat Veterans with PTSD is born.
In Short: If things wouldn't have turned out the way they did in Iraq, I wouldn't have my degree. I wouldn't have my wife. I wouldn't have my amazing and beautiful daughter. Combat Veterans with PTSD would never have been born.
I don't know whether I believe in God the way many do. I wouldn't even call it faith - I would call it spirituality. I can't attribute what I went through to some grand design. Or can I? I still don't know. That's over a decade of 'coincidence' that I can't explain. I know I am still angry. For me to realize my purpose, I had to go through all of THAT? Yup, still angry.
As I continue my life with PTSD, I will share my challenges and discoveries on this blog.