How do you break out of the PTSD mindset that keeps you feeling trapped, stuck in a life not of your choosing, yet too afraid of the myriad triggers that you know are waiting for you?
You intentionally disrupt your own routine.
Allow me to illuminate:
In 2003, I came home from a 5-year-enlistment as a U.S. Navy Journalist. But prior to coming home, my ship deployed to the Arabian Gulf, and offloaded the first group of U.S. Marines who would soon march on Baghdad…
When my ship returned safely to San Diego, with every Sailor accounted for – some of the Marines who entered the Gulf with us… remained on the battlefield… permanently.
Now… Lots of people serve in lots of militaries around the world. And these days, lots of those people experience real, life-threatening dangers. And lots of those people lose their lives, in service to their country…
And some of the survivors go home, and move on with their lives… but some are so shaken by the experience, they come home feeling like they can never be made whole again…
How My PTSD Started
Fifteen years ago, when I stepped off my ship, and saw the harbor in San Diego, and the families of my shipmates who were eager to welcome them home… I silently (but swiftly) died inside, for all of our comrades who would never see their loved ones again.
Guys, I couldn’t handle it.
I couldn’t live with the knowledge that men and women who were far braver than I will ever be, volunteered to enter into military service, and willingly answered the call to go into combat, knowing that many of them would not make it out alive. (And, in fact, too many of them did not.)
If you live in the U.S., everyone who gave their life in the 2003 Iraq War… gave their life for your freedom… but… and this is the part that just devastated me…
They also gave their life for my freedom.
And when I came home and took my honorable discharge and said, “I’m done!”… I didn’t believe I was worth their sacrifice.
You see… when my ship deployed, and we knew we were going to war – I “froze” inside.
(Not gonna lie; I was terrified that I and everybody else in our “fleet” was going to die… and worse, that we were going to die in a war that very few people believed in, or understood, or thought we even belonged in.)
For me, and many of my shipmates, fighting the Iraqis was not as cut and dry as when my grandparents fought the Nazis; instead, it felt like the whole thing was politically or economically motivated, and that it had less to do with fighting for “freedom,” and much more to do with “securing oil rights.”
Maybe it did; maybe it didn’t. Honestly, I don’t think anyone alive today will ever truly know why we went to war. And I am no longer interested in discovering, or examining, or arguing, the “real reasons.” I just know that, whether it is justified or not – war is horrible… and the people who are in it, usually suffer the worst.
So… I was already conflicted before the war started.
I was in the last year of my 5-year enlistment, and already looking forward to going home. And I was afraid for my own life.
(My therapist tells me that this a powerful combination for inducing PTSD… I can attest that on this point, my therapist is absolutely correct…)
I Couldn’t Live With What I’d Been Through
So, what did I do?
I came home, and I resolved never to speak of any of this to anybody – ever. I thought the fact that I felt this way meant there was something wrong with ME, as a person. (Turns out, I had just been in a prolonged state of experiencing a lot of “wrong” things, like fear, isolation, loss, confusion, turmoil… but at the time I didn’t recognize it as such, I simply thought that *I* was somehow “wrong.”)
Of course, I couldn’t shake any of the feelings… so I endeavored to avoid them. I spent the next year or so, carefully creating a daily routine ‘guaranteed’ to keep me from ever experiencing any of the memories or feelings that I associated with my last year of service.
I hid in my room, a lot. I played a lot of video games. I avoided old friends and family. I punished myself… for simply continuing to exist, when way, deep down inside, I knew that I should be dead… that I deserved a worse fate than those who did die in battle… because, if I had been called to the battlefield – I never would have gone.
You guys – I hated myself when I came home… but just that was never enough to “atone” for my actions… I had to create a life that I hated even more than the memories that I was trying to avoid. (More on this in future posts.)
And I finally did! But, it took me fifteen years. (And in the end, none of it was actually ever necessary, or in the least bit worthwhile… except that maybe, it will inspire me to really, truly appreciate the life that I do have, going forward…)
How Did I Ever Escape?
By the end of 2004, I was fixed in a PTSD mindset. I had established routines, and habits, (and, sadly, addictions), that were intended to keep me from ever having to feel anything painful, or hurtful, or sad or scary, ever again, for as long as I should live… but, of course, life doesn’t let you get away with that forever…
Now and then throughout the years, I would have “life experiences” that would challenge my mindset – that would cause me great pain and anguish – and yet, through each one of those experiences I would tell myself, “I cannot endure this! I must find an escape…”
And, escape, I did… until…
Until just this past summer. When I found out my oldest niece was getting married, and our entire family was invited to the wedding.
I wanted to go SO BADLY! But almost immediately, I told myself that “I don’t deserve to take part in anyone else’s happiness.”
Besides, I thought, “I will only bring my own problems, my own sadness, and my own disappointments, into the celebration, and will wind up turning a beautiful, joyous occasion, into something that everyone including myself will only ever regret having invited me to…”
(Thank goodness, for once I did NOT listen to my own inner critic!)
The One Thing That Mattered More to Me Than My Suffering
Now, I need to back up here for a minute, and give you guys the proper context:
In my teen years, both of my older sisters and my oldest brother all got married and started their own families. And I got to watch almost a dozen nephews and nieces grow from infant, to toddler, to just starting to get old enough to interact with…
And the one thing I have always loved about my own life… is being “Uncle Mike” to such amazing, exciting, inspiring, wonderful children!
Before I joined the Navy, there was very little that I wouldn’t do for one of my nieces or nephews. (I don’t think any of my siblings ever hired a babysitter until after I joined the Navy… and I don’t think I missed more than a handful of “special moments” in their young lives…)
So when I found out my niece, who I had held as a baby… who has always been by all counts “almost an angel” (unless you ask her brothers, that is… but even they think she’s pretty remarkable now)… who used to get out of her mom’s car at our house and stand at the edge of the driveway and wait for me to come out and pick her up and carry her inside…
Who at the age of 7 would constantly regale me with stories straight out of her imagination (all of which seemed to somehow involve one or more of her older brothers somehow injuring themselves and losing large quantities of blood… hey she does have four older brothers and that’s gotta impact even the gentlest of young girls lol…)
Anyway, when I found out she was getting married – and that both she and her mom EXPECTED “Uncle Mike” to be at the wedding… I knew I couldn’t say no.
I Just Had to Be There
For the first time in 15 years, there was something that I HAD to be part of, and that I knew would challenge my PTSD mindset, and would force me to come face to face with unimaginable fear, worry, doubt, and anxiety… but I knew that if I didn’t go… I would never be able to look myself in the mirror, ever again.
I knew, instinctively, that this experience would force me to push through so many barriers, that some of those barriers would permanently come down… and that I would have to learn to live again, without them… and I didn’t know how I would do that… but I knew that if I went to her wedding, I would do precisely that.
The Critical Moment that Changed Everything Else
Guys, for the first time in fifteen years, I allowed myself to really want something. To want it more than I wanted to avoid difficult, or painful, or frightening circumstances. And I was exceptionally ill-equipped to handle that feeling! (Zoinks!)
Every moment of every day from the day I decided I was going to the wedding… to the day we flew out of state to attend the wedding… to the day of the wedding itself… was filled with turmoil.
I wanted to go but I was sure I’d never make it on the plane.
I was excited to see my niece and my sister but I was terrified that they would both think I was a failure… a disappointment… an “embarrassment” to the family…
I wanted to get out of my fear-based mindset, but didn’t believe that I could function without it.
I wanted to stay locked in my safe and comfortable house, and pass the days while my parents were away for her wedding, pursuing all the horrible activities that were so much a part of my routine that I couldn’t imagine going through even one day without them.
But I wanted to see the joy in my niece’s eyes, when she married the man she will spend the rest of forever with…
But I believed that even if I did travel to the wedding “location,” that my fear or my pain or my PTSD would still find a way of preventing me from actually attending the wedding… in which case I would have traveled all that distance, just to sit alone in a hotel room while the rest of my family celebrated my niece’s wedding, because I was too much of a coward to pull myself together to be there for the actual event.
(I had a lot of conflicting emotions…)
The Decision To DO the Thing I Was Afraid To Do
Ultimately… I found the courage to prepare for the trip… to get on the plane… to go to the wedding…
And. To. Love. Every. Minute. Of. It. (Even the really scary ones!)
But that was the only beginning of my transformation…
Since that wedding, I am continually learning to identify things (both big, and small) that I really, really, really, really, really, really, REALLY WANT! And to slowly but surely figure out ways to push through my fears and move beyond my triggers… and start to claim the life that I want… instead of the one that I’ve created…
Almost every day now, I decide to just do the thing that I am most afraid to do – whatever that thing may be. (And it often changes from day to day, and it’s always scary… but facing that fear is always worth the struggle!)
And, guys – it’s hard. Like literally one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Things don’t always go well… or smoothly… in fact sometimes I mess it all up and for a day or two I feel like I’m worse off than I was before…
Yet with each passing week, one thing sticks out to me:
The only SURE way I know to break out – permanently – of a fear or a PTSD based mindset, is to quite literally, “disrupt your regularly scheduled program.”
Ask Yourself: What Do YOU Really Want?
You’ve just got to find something that you really want… that you’re willing to really work for… to sacrifice your “safety,” your comfort, your commitment to “staying away from anything that might trigger me.”
I’m not gonna lie; it’s really terrifying to say “I’m NOT going to give in to my fear!” At first, it feels like you’re making a horrible mistake, and for sure if you just take one small step outside your carefully constructed and heavily fortified comfort zone, that you will be destroyed!
But you won’t. That much of your struggle, really genuinely is inside your own head. (Other parts of it are real and are valid and may even require professional counseling, and by the way if you think you DO need professional counseling I highly encourage you to seek it out; it’s done wonders for my mental/emotional state!)
But the fear that if you don’t give into your fear, that it will only ever cause even more fear, until the fear grows to the point that you are permanently and irrevocably trapped in an eternal pit of fear…?
You guys… THAT fear is total nonsense.
Fear Can Destroy You, But It Doesn’t Have To
Fear diminishes when you take responsibility for dealing with it. It only intensifies when you try to avoid it.
And a routine of avoiding fear… long term, that may be what it feels like, to be living in a “Hell on Earth.”
It’s not worth it… and, once you know how to disrupt that programming… how to recognize it when it appears… how to observe it and make decisions that don’t feed into it… how to put it in a more appropriate context…
Once you know even the first few steps on how to achieve THAT – fear starts to permanently lose its grip on your life.
It’s still hard; it still hurts; it still takes tremendous effort sometimes to push through… but once you clear that first hurdle… you will know, for the rest of forever!… that fear cannot control the rest of your life, if you don’t want it to…
But that realization doesn’t come when “life” disrupts your routine – it ONLY comes when *you* decide, that you are going to disrupt your routine… and change your perspective… and keep your focus on the things that inspire you… instead of the things that frighten and diminish you.
But the good news is:
You can totally do it.
And, in future posts, I’ll give you more specific details on how… but today, I just want you to allow this thought to sink in:
You, no matter who you are, no matter where you are, no matter what life has thrown at you…
You CAN learn. You can change. You can try. You can fail… and, ultimately… YOU can succeed.
You just have to start believing it. (And really, you have to! Your future life is depending on it.)
Until next time, then… I will leave you with this one final, piercing shot:
You. Are. A Miracle. Already Happening.
(And I will see you in my next post.)