Two part blogpost starts here. I mentioned in my last post that my wife knows the gory details. You can read that post here. I can never thank her enough.
The gory details are the pieces of our trauma that often leave us Veterans the lasting nightmares. It doesn’t take any gore to develop PTSD. Getting mortared, shot at or losing a friend is more than enough to leave a Veteran with the feelings that trouble us for a lifetime. But, if you are so graced by those gory scenes (Band of Brothers, Saving Private Ryan and The Pacific all do a too close for comfort job) I can assure you they haunt you with the lights on.
I’m going to visit some issues that I have struggled with about gory details, but I will not be gracing this page with specifics. (disappointed? SEO marketing at it’s finest.) I will talk about two aspects. First, if you know a Veteran who has seen “action” there are some of our apprehensions about sharing those scenes, even to our therapists. I will explore why I feel that way. Second, how using Prolong Exposure therapy forced me to use Imaginal Exposure to revisit those days and how it helped. For me, addressing these scenes and facing the onslaught of emotions head on has worked. They are not gone, but I can put them on a shelf in my mind and I know what to expect when I visit them.
When I came home the first time I ignored all of my symptoms and kept right on slugging. I knew I was probably going back to Iraq. I told myself to suck it up. I used the years of lessons about duty and selfless service to justify neglecting my own well being. Strap on the boots and go again. I remember having a long talk with my cousin before I went back my second time. “Why does it have to be you?” she asked. I told her that with the experience I already had that I could prevent more soldiers getting hurt or killed. In my mind, my experience made it my duty to go back. The rest and relaxation was for another time. Our country needed us. Little did I know that I would burn the candle too low and our enemies were getting smarter.
The second tour got really bad. We faced a more organized enemy and that made being alert all the more important. We lost good Soldiers. I stopped sleeping for days on end. I was angry at everyone and everything. By the end of my second tour, with much trepidation, I made my mind up that I was done. I came home in March of 2006.
Three months later I was out of the Army. The things I saw and did were all that greeted me when I closed my eyes. I could see the dead in my dreams. Hell it got to the point where I thought I saw them in crowds. I started sleep meds in theater at the end of OIF3. I heavily medicated just to get the images to go away.
I found a therapist at Fort Carson who was willing to see me because I was now an Army spouse. (Though that opened up a whole new bag of issues. More on that for another day). Even though this therapist was a retiree from the Army, I still had trouble telling him the details. I was ashamed of things that happened. I was scared of revisiting those images for fear of tearing open old wounds. I also wrongly assumed that I would be judged.
Tales of blood and guts were a selective treat I used if I got pissed or wanted to get a rise out of civilians. As I am sure it has happened to all of us at some point, some jerk off asked me if I ever killed anyone. My reply made him pale and I loved it. I then told his boss what an asshole he was and he was fired a week later.
But, I was still just skirting around really dealing with those gory details. Another difficult aspect of the gory details came around family. They were very concerned for my well being and I always got the hand on the shoulder combined with an intense gaze and “How are you doing?” I would sheepishly tell them fine and try to convince them with words what my eyes said otherwise. I would tell a select circle the real deal and even share some gory details, but those sharing sessions were few and far between.
It was not until I completed Cognitive Processing therapy and started Prolonged Exposure therapy that the real work flushing out the gory scenes would begin. Four years of carrying them around made me eager to tone them down, but skeptical of the impact the therapy would have.
I will chronicle the deep dive of Imaginal exercises in my next post.
In summary, I am still on the fence about sharing scenes of war. I am more likely to share with another Veteran so long as it doesn’t turn into a pissing contest of “I have seen more blood than you”. Us grunt types can sometimes wear our hardships like badges. I have found it is easier for me to talk about the feelings and the actual experiences rather than one or the other. For any readers out there, I am open to listening or talking. If anyone wants to chat, please hit me up.