Monthly Archives: March 2012

Talking Dead: A therapy session with #PTSD

Disclaimer: No, this is not about AMC’s Walking Dead or their after show Talking Dead.  Just read and you will get it.

I got hooked in with a new therapist at my local Vet center.  I am still adjusting to a different style and some new techniques. My new guy wasted no time diving at the core of the rats’ nest of emotions from my deployments.  The past two sessions we have been talking a lot about regret and how I still carry things to this day.  It is hard to let go. I had been much more focused on my therapy but over the past eight months since I moved away from the VA system (after completing Cognitive Processing Therapy and Prolonged Exposure Therapy) I could feel the weight coming back.

Taking out the sledgehammer

So my new doc and I are chatting a bit, reviewing some details of deployments and how I was feeling. I could tell he was starting to steer the topics with specific questions, when he stood up and said, ”I want you to try something.”

He had guided the conversation about a particular soldier that we lost.  He repositioned the chair in the corner to opposite and in front of me and pointed to it saying , “He sitting right there. Talk to him. Tell him what you would’ve told him.  What you want to tell him.”

There was no one in the chair but I swear it felt like a sledgehammer knocked down the last little bit of defense I was clinging to. I broke down and just thought about a million things.  When I regained my composure I could feel him there.  I was calm and I started to talk to him.  (paraphrasing now)

“I’m sorry I never did this sooner. I want you to know how proud I am of you. You are good soldier and a better person and not a day goes by that I don’t think about you.  I was a only a few blocks away when you’re killed and I still wrestle with the guilt. All the things you wanted to be, a Ranger, a Green Beret, I know you could have done it.  I have thought a lot about what you would be doing now had things been different.  I know I would be just as proud of you.  Until I sat in this chair and thought about it, I had never realized that you went probably one of the exact ways you wanted to go.  You went fighting with us against them. Wherever you are, know that you made me a better leader and a better person and you still do to this day.  I will not forget you.  I love you.”

It was exhausting.

And then, as the technique goes, I switched and sat in his chair. I imagined myself sitting in the opposite chair and thought of what I would have heard from him.

I hear from my old soldiers now and then.  This is not gloating, but they say that they were honored to serve with me. The feeling is completely mutual.  But until I imagined my soldier saying it to me I had a real hard time accepting the words of the living because I wanted to hear it so badly from the dead.   As I ran through our conversation, I finally started to believe what others had said to me.

A new wall and lighter

By the end of the session I could feel the weight lifting from my soul. I still carry many feelings, but sitting from a slightly different perspective has made all the difference.  There is still much work to do but my pack is lighter and I will carry on.  My next assignment is a letter and I haven’t decided if I will share it here or not.   Either way, I am dedicated to the long haul on this journey.

 

Gone but not forgotten.

The Shavings Make the Pile: Complacency and #PTSD

Things are going pretty good lately. Of my New Year’s resolutions, I am achieving my weight loss, I’ve knocked out one acrylic painting, (Batman and Robin swooping in) my wife and I are communicating well and I’m finally feeling like I’m hitting my stride with work. My symptoms of PTSD seemed to lessen.

I’ve had this feeling before. I thought things were way behind me in the rearview mirror only to realize they were in my backseat. It doesn’t take much to trigger the emotions of combat. A news article, something on TV, and even off hand comments can remind me of memories as a Veteran I would rather avoid.  The easy diagnosis is an immediate trigger and switch you can put a pin into and say, “It was that damn car backfiring.”   But sometimes, the shavings make the pile.  Either way, it’s always there.

So after weeks of managing symptoms and trying to maintain a positive outlook, today I unfortunately took step back.  (I mean we really didn’t think Jeremy Lin would play like that all season right? Well, neither could my string of great moods.)  So, in that light, today must be looked at as just part of the process.

I started this morning as I have for the past few weeks: I went to the gym. While there, the regular crowd struck up conversation and the Army and Afghanistan came up in conversation. I can tell benign stories about my Army experience and I am usually am pretty good at deflecting from the darker topics to a canned lighter story.  But this morning, I actually asked not to talk about it.  I had not done that in a very long time. The way I have survived this long, in my opinion, is by taking things head on.  The day started to take shape and I could tell my skills were dull.

My realization that I was avoiding the conversation came on a good date. I actually had an appointment with my local Vet Center and I am now tied back in to a group.

When I walked through the Vet Center door it was apparent how much I had been neglecting my toolkit. I had tried group before.  Unfortunately, I had not established enough tools and it was a miserable failure for me. It kicked up more dirt and left more unresolved issues.  It was not as though group was bad, I just wasn’t prepared.

As I walked through the front door I got a queasy feeling almost instantly.  The memories of leaving group frustrated and angry came back. When I got into the new screening and started to recap it my experiences, the memories I revisited over and over in Cognitive Processing and Prolonged Exposure felt more tender than when I was in regular therapy.  I am learning new things all the time.  This was a new thing.

When things are going bad it is easy to reflect on what you need to improve upon. But sometimes the real danger comes from being complacent. I resigned myself early on in my journey that PTSD is something I would have to wrestle with for a long time.  Today was a taste of what complacency can do if I am not careful.  I went too long without checking in. I pushed everything just below the surface and a series of little things built up into one big thing.

I let the shavings make the pile, but on this road, I cannot forget to continue to keep sharp.  I remember a Ranger Instructor  in Florida (Bubba knows who) who would continually ask us a question, “What is the number one killer of Soldiers?” All of us had to give a resounding answer, “Complacency.”

Time to sharpen up.