A little bit of PTSD after Iraq

You never know what somebody else is going through.  Lots of veterans return home with some PTSD, but it is a hard thing to understand.  I had what I think was a little bit of PTSD in the immediate months after my first tour in Iraq.  Even with that, I have a hard time understanding the more intense PTSD experienced by other veterans.

A suffering veteran is a challenge for me, first in deciding whether or not to emotionally engage, and second in forming some sort of opinion about it.  The whole thing is damned complicated.  There are a lot of similarities to being around someone struggling with addiction.  You know that the suffering is real, but the person is probably not going to welcome you in.  In fact, the person may very pro-actively push you away or at least turn you off with something in their attitude.  People experiencing a serious problem like PTSD or addiction generally lack faith in any real solution.  But you’re still in pain, and you need to express it and for it in some way to be acknowledged by someone.  But you do that for selfish reasons, so it isn’t typically dressed up in good humor.  Actually, when you do engage with a person suffering and the conversation starts off good, you can almost guarantee once the conversation starts to lose momentum and the lack of easy solutions becomes excessively apparent, things can turn south fast.

My most classic shell-shocked sort of event was triggered by a car back-firing.  I always cringe a little mentioning it because it sounds so cliche, and cars don’t back fire as much as they used to, so it sounds made up.  Making up stuff, or at least exaggerating, is I think a temptation for any veteran that saw some action but not a ton, which is a category I put myself in.  So, given that the temptation is there, and being self-conscious about it, I feel more people’s scrutiny of the story.  Anyway, I heard the *bang!* and immediately crouch down besides / behind the person I am with, not really hiding behind them as much as pulling in close to them and getting low to the ground.  Sort of torn between acting instinctively and figuring out what the hell is going on, you can end up acting a little weird.  This was just a few weeks after getting back from a 15 month deployment, but up to that point really wasn’t aware of any underlying potential for that sort of thing to happen. I was just ecstatic to be back safe.

More of a recurring thing was being really sensitive to surprise — like someone being nearby when you thought you were alone and feeling a real shock of terror.  Another had to do with sleep.  I just slept weird, could be very tense sometimes, wake up sore from clenching or twisting into some odd position, but no nightmares or anything that I ever remembered.  Didn’t always do well between semesters after starting college.   Went down some dark paths in my head a time or two in those periods, feeling lost and wanting some sort of conclusion to everything to hurry along.

Which brings be to the other complicating thing about the PTSD veterans experience — I don’t know if they, like me, see a lot of it as a sort of maturation and intensification of problems they went into the military with.  I just don’t know much less than the problem is tough, and there are no easy solutions, or obvious things to say or do.  One time someone tried to confront me during a dark period and I was horrified by what I saw as a pointless invasion of my personal sort of exploration of the all-encompassing experience of misery I was swallowed up in.  I still haven’t really talked to that person since, because of that.  Even though I don’t hold any grudge at all over it, I have no idea how to initiate that reconciliation in a way that would be a net positive for the both of us.

Compared to many other veterans, I know my experiences weren’t nearly as intense or objectively traumatizing.  And, I was never physically wounded in combat.  I did not have to fire my weapon at the enemy but a few times across two deployments totaling two years in country.  I don’t think I ever shot anyone, and actually the thought that I might have, unknowingly, really bothers me sometimes.  You don’t know where those bullets go, or who they hit.  Some veterans, on the other hand, have lots of very traumatic experiences.  And they really are alone for the most part, because it is so hard to understand what they actually went through, how they are feeling, and how those two things are connected, independent of all the other stuff that happens in life.

I don’t want to just leave it there, so I’ll say that I think we just need to be attentive and available for each other.  The way forward sometimes is very hard to see, and has to be taken step-by-step, without any pre-determined outcomes — like things might just have to stay bad for a while, or indefinitely, and you still have to try to be attentive and available.  Not visibly and ostentatiously, but just enough to have a shot at helping the person if some progress becomes possible.

 

Twas the night before..

Flying out tomorrow to Massachusetts.  Have most of my stuff packed.  Am looking forward to a nice visit with family for Christmas.  It’s always weird “going back.”  There’s all the questions it raises — the question of belonging, as in where do I belong, where would I be happiest.  There’s the question of me — who am I?  Texan or Massachusetts guy?  This open question thing has been there awhile.  Before Texas and the doctorate and teaching and research, it was Iraq and Germany and the Army and deployments.  What is home?  Before that it was switching towns, switching schools, new this, new that.

The answer I settle on is it’s all water flowing in the river.  There is nowhere to “go back” to, because that place is gone.  The longer I live the more I believe that.  And it isn’t just “out there” that is changing, it’s also inside.  I’m not the same, and couldn’t have stayed so if I tried.  Can’t even remember that much, sort of like a comet with pieces flying off the main body and drifting out into empty untraceable space.  Just have a few things that come to mind if I try to remember.

What do I remember?  I guess usually the same few things, with the occasional recent addition.  Sort of a candidacy period with a new memory.  See how it hangs.  Anyway, the standard memories are shameful things for the most part, sort of a moral to-do list, though for most of them there isn’t any obvious thing I can do to fix.   So they linger there.  Some of them will be reinvigorated, more up-close-and-personal, being back in Massachusetts for a bit.  One thing that draws me back more than anything is a hopeful curiosity that something in these visits will change or transform these lingering memories into something different, less dead-end.  Probably won’t even notice for some time if that ever does happen.  Hard to separate it all out.  Lots of moving parts, when a part of your perspective is altered, and something that used to bother you doesn’t as much anymore.

On a brighter note, going back is an in-between-chapters-of-real-life sort of experience.  In that sense, it’s a sort of freedom, similar to Schiller’s idea of play being a sort of freedom.  It’s when everything becomes less determinant, less logical and serious.  The flow of “the river” slows down, and you’re suddenly just floating there, a comet coming to rest.  Disorientated.  Out of place.  But also free in a way.  Real yet still, simply, coming into being.

Do more people desire death or immortality?

Does everyone like being alive?  Happy people surely do, almost by definition.  If you’re happy, then you are apparently having a good time.  Nobody wants to stop having a good time, otherwise they wouldn’t call it “good” in the first place.  If you wanted it to stop, then you would call it a bad time, and you wouldn’t describe yourself as happy.

Some good times burn the fuse and we know they are temporary.  You can be having a good time at a bar but also want to go home because you feel yourself getting tired and run down, you feel the night slipping away, and that it is time to go home.  It doesn’t mean that you wanted the good time to stop.  It simply means that the availability of that good time had passed.  If you want to avoid having a really bad time the next day, you better get your self home.

With Christmas approaching, many people will both love and hate celebrating the holidays over the next few weeks.  They will love it because it is emotional in a  good way, they will hate it because it is emotionally exhausting.  It will be the best of times and the worst of times.  Some will be very sad to see it end, others will count themselves lucky to have survived it.  What makes us want to end an experience is bad feelings, what makes us want to continue experience is good feelings.

It is common to feel tired of life, but I have a hard time believing that people ever actually *want* to die.  Rather, my suspicion is people simply want to stop having a bad experience, and when life becomes a continuous, uninterrupted bad experience, they think they want to end life, when they really just want to end the bad experience–sometimes immediately.  Like staying too late at a bar, we begin to feel an exhaustion set in, and being able to get away becomes more and more attractive.

If both going to the bar and leaving the bar, rushing into the holidays and then desperately wishing them to be over, are both motivated by a desire to increase good experience and decrease bad experience, then the constant essence of our behavior would seem to include wanting to have as good experiences as possible.  We pursue happiness constantly, as much as we perceive as being available, and when anyone says they wish they were dead, they really mean they want to leave their current bad experience and go to a good, or at least better, experience.

The problem with desiring death is it implies desiring the end of existence, or oblivion.  Because oblivion is the absence of experience, we cannot imagine it, so we cannot feel in anticipating death any pain.  Death is expected to be pain-free.   If we are in pain in life, then we can think that we desire death, which is to say to simply be pain-free.  But having a pain-free experience is impossible if we cease to exist.  In other words, when we reason that death is desirable because it is pain-free, we are being non-sensical — failing to realize that by anticipating less pain “there” we are assuming a continued existence in death.  We might kill ourselves to escape experiencing pain, but it is not and cannot be to escape life or to “be” dead.  Therefore, no one desires to die, and everyone desires happiness and perpetual existence, i.e. immortality.