Monthly Archives: November 2013

Thank you!

To everyone who is reading along and sharing, I just wanted to say a quick note of thanks!

This has been an emotional ride, but knowing that there is support out in the real world is very comforting.

Thanks again!

Andrew Asks Anything is out

In one of the more serendipitous moments of my life I met Andrew Sullivan at an Equality Diner at West Point earlier this year.  My first splash on his website that references this blog on “The Daily Dish” is “A Veteran Vents”.

He then gave me a huge shout out as I put a team together for Suicide Prevention Awareness.

At one point he asked me to join him in a conversation as part of a podcast series he was putting together.  I obliged and it was a great experience.  After listening to it again, I realize I use the royal “we” more than I should have, and I have a few tin foil hat moments, but that is all me and I stand by it, warts and all.

You have to be a subscriber to listen to the podcast, a modest $1.99 a month, and the link to the article on “The Dish” is here.

I hope it spreads awareness and frank conversation.  As always, a huge thank you is in order to my family who keep me on the level.  Especially my wife and my Mom.  Love you Mom.  Thanks again for reading.

Sincerely,

Mikey

The Vet’s Day Hangover & 3 easy steps to kick the next 7 Weeks in the Ass

Veteran’s Day Recap:

Well, I’m glad that is over. Veteran’s Day is as emotional to me as Memorial Day. Generally speaking, my wife and I hunker down and drag ourselves through the day. This year we both took off from work and that brought its own set of challenges, especially when the Veteran’s Day Parade and ESPN wouldn’t let us avoid as much as we desired.

The best article I read far and away was in The Atlantic by Alex Horton. The title summarizes the sentiment and is worth the read: “Help Veterans by Taking them off the Pedestal”

“That’s the problem with viewing something on a pedestal: you can only see one side at a time, and rarely at depth. It produces extremes—the valiant hero or the downtrodden, unstable veteran.”

My general approach, which has been more refined as years pass, is talk less, do more. (or in a more monosyllabic and brute fashion: Get. Shit. Done.) I appreciate Alex’s frank reasoning to drop the self applied super hero label.

On Veteran’s Day I also had the privilege to participate in WOD for Warriors with Islip Crossfit. If you live on Long Island I highly recommend three Crossfit Boxes: Islip Crossfit, Crossfit Undivided and, of course, Crossfit Lindy. Erica Pollack, of Islip Crossfit asked me to say a few words, and those words, as my family will support, invariably turned to tears. But, I think the message was well received and the WOD was a burner. If you want to get involved, I highly recommend checking out Team Red White and Blue for year round Veteran interaction and community building.

IslipCrossfit_WFW

On to the Ass Kicking

These next six weeks, as merry and bright as they are at times, are also peak for lots of heart ache, stress and general self inflicted misery.

I have formulated a simple plan that has helped me get through. It requires a little time set aside for introspection, but on the whole, if I have put in the work it has allowed me to sprint into the new year. You will need a piece of paper and a writing implement.

Step 1: Visualize the optimized refreshed you of January 2nd 2014. For me, this is a lighter stronger person. When I say lighter and stronger I am not just referring to physically, but mentally and spiritually too.

Step 2: Pick three attributes that if you could fast forward to the new year you would want to manifest(poof like magic) and that can be tracked empirically. Certainly the tricky part of step 2 is assigning something that can be tracked to an empirical observation. “Happy” can be an attribute, but you have to link it to something that you can measure. Smiling for me is a good link to happiness. For an empirical tracker I would track smiles per day. “Lighter” and physical weight is my favorite for keeping away the holiday poundage.

Step 3: Write it down, sign it, keep it with you and look at it every day. The key to success for the three attributes is the ability to answer a yes or no question on January 2nd. For instance, “Lighter: I workout often and weigh less than I did on 15 November 2013 (192#)”. The question is “do I weigh less?”. Hopefully in January, it is a resounding “yes!”

Here are my other two:
“Happier: I think of my family everyday and smile.”
“Giving: I donate each week to my favorite charities and attend one fundraising event.”

See, three easy steps. When that line gets a little long, when the day drags, or traffic is a nightmare, when some one is snarky or mean, take out your little slip of paper, focus on those attributes and keep moving.  Let me know if you take on this little task. Charge into the new year by kicking ass the next seven weeks!

The burden of the Family and PTSD

They family doesn’t always know what to say to the Veteran. Whispering the event of the day so as not to rekindle the spark that ignited the rage, the violence, and finally the shame.

The family doesn’t always see the Veteran. The Veteran has withdrawn into isolation. The holidays bring too much emotion to feel safe. Too much anxiety to feel normal.

The family doesn’t always hear the Veteran. Yet they know he struggles and cries out in his sleep. His angry outburst is not directed at them but a manifestation of the grief that lingers and interferes.

The family doesn’t always hold the Veteran. They stand to the side, though they long to hug the boy that left for war. His Soldierly pride prevents their warm embrace.

The family will always love the Veteran. He wishes he could show them and tell them how much more he needs their love. He loves from a distance. The pain of losing more is too great to face. The family tries to understand.

The Internal Voice and PTSD

“Learning to stop negative internal voices has tremendously positive implications for anything you ever want to do in your life.” ~ Greg Glassman, Crossfit Founder

I just finished a half marathon.  The last time I ran one the Walkman was the main music engine and this thing called an iPod had just been launched. (That last sentence makes me sound so old… yeesh). One thing I particularly noticed was the majority of people run with headphones. I did not run the half marathon with a group and I tried to strike up conversation wherever I could. I only spoke with a few people. For most of the race, since most people were buried in their headphones, I actually took to tweet and converse with friends and family. (@mikeypiro by the way).

Since I had a few hours to reflect, I thought hard about the quote above from Coach Glassman. I have been going to Crossfit for about two years now. I credit Crossfit with assisting me in my final push to get off medication. I still rely on Crossfit to purge my mind after a long stressful day. But I think that one aspect Coach Glassman is not explicit about in the quote above is the importance of external voices and community to help when those internal voices start to bring you down. Every once in a while the internal voice need the external voices. Whether that is in therapy, screaming encouragement from the sideline of the races, or during the end of a WOD, those voices need to connect.

In the past the most dangerous place I could be was in my own head. I wanted to escape and avoid the barrage of negative thoughts. It proved nearly impossible to do alone. I leaned hard on my family, my friends and my therapist to talk about and work through everything that happened between my ears. One of the most successful therapies I completed, Prolonged Exposure Therapy, essentially forced my internal voice out. I then listened to it over and over. It helped me realize over time that the emotions bundled along side my description of a traumatic event warped my perceptions.  Before I sought therapy and long after returning from combat, those perceptions and experiences greatly and negatively impacted how I thought and acted.

I cannot stress enough how important it is to keep the internal voice positive and challenged. I returned to the quote above because I recently found myself coasting or dogging my Crossfit workouts.  “That is good enough” or a split second thought of “Shit we are only half way done” was not only killing my scores, but effecting my world outside of the workouts.

There are many justified reasons for pulling back from time to time.  But, when I stopped challenging myself, my self esteem and mood suffered because of it. After a few particularly difficult workouts, I knew I had to really search inside to rework my internal voice. I also knew I could rely on my support network to encourage and motivate me.

The last mile of the half marathon again tested the tone of my internal voice. I focused on the positive affirmations. I listened to the cheering crowds. Thanks to that mindful effort I finished and felt great. I wish more people would put away their headphones and let the voices merge. It is great practice for when you are all alone.

7 Down, 4 to go.  Thanks for reading.

 

Common Language and PTSD

hurt lockerMy flight is delayed due to a freak “tarp flew into the engine” incident. Cue the “standing in line chit-chat and eavesdropping dynamic.” I partake in the latter, as generally opening my mouth, as my wife will easily agree, gets me more trouble than it is worth.

But oh, the nuggets of pure gold people pass around when they think they are out of ear shot. Also, add a little frustration from a delayed flight and poof: instant blog fodder.

A lovely couple just a few feet away are discussing something. I am more interested in tweeting to Southwest about a crappy experience and only half paying attention when the fateful acronym hits my radar: PTSD. Now they have my keen attention. From listening to earlier conversations they are newlyweds and both younger than I am. They seem like lovely people. The most interesting part to me is the way in which the conversation developed and the way the stress disorder worked it’s way into the conversation.

I am totally paraphrasing now. “So and so and whoseyamacallit are rooming together again. I swear “So and So” has PTSD. “Whoseyamacallit” said she totally flipped out about some white powder being on the floor when they moved in. She allegedly thought it was Anthrax or something…”

I am not sure how to feel about it. On the one hand, I am glad that PTSD is working it’s way into the common language. On the other, not knowing all the facts, but also not being new to this game, I am concerned about gross mis-representation of what PTSD is and how people are truly effected.

The media and Hollywood certainly aren’t doing us many favors. The recent shooting in Washington DC quickly alluded to PTSD as the shooter was a prior service member. Seemingly most Veteran stereotypes are portrayed with demons of war. Around Veteran’s day, there are many feel good stories about recovery and support. But, the common language and a greater understanding is still muddled.

I had not really thought about it until hearing a piece of casual conversation. If “So and so” doesn’t have PTSD, then her characterization is a phenomenon of broadly overgeneralizing as we do with other labels and ailments. Is this just part of our assimilation into culture? I remember in my youth freely using ADD to wholly describe someone who would not concentrate or acted hyper, even just for short spurts. Today, I have a loving family member and other close friends who have tackled or are battling ADHD. After meeting and knowing them, my respect for those with ADD or ADHD is thousands of times greater. Does this mean I have to go meet more people and show them a face with actual PTSD? Should I have challenged the newlywed on her use of the term? Food for thought.

The more I trudge through this continuing and complex reintegration, the more sympathy I have for those not just with PTSD but with all sorts of ailments. While I have been blogging for over two years now, I am not sure it will ever be my style to get in front of someone and challenge them without really knowing them. I prefer this longer form and medium.

In any case, I still have to crank one more post out today. Six down. I owe you five. Thanks for reading.

Mental Preparation and PTSD

“I always won in my imagination. I always hit the game-winning shot, or I hit the free throw. Or if I missed, there was a lane violation, and I was given another one.” ~ Mike Krzyzewski

If you listen to athletes and coaches long enough you will invariably find a few talk about the importance of mental preparation. So many aspects of sinking a putt or making a free throw exists between our ears and in hours of preparation before the real competition begins. Athlete after athlete will comment about visualizing the medals placed around their necks, or throwing the game winning pass.

In combat, the preparation is similar, but just different enough to have side effects. As any good leader will tell you, being prepared is an imperative. I remember many a night before a mission reviewing battle drills or nine line medevac requests. I spent hours staring at maps of objectives and playing out the worst case scenarios. Thinking about your Soldier’s getting shot or killed is no picnic. Unlike Coach K’s quote above, the luxury of relative inconsequence in sports is not afforded to a Soldier.  We have to take exceptionally hard looks at negative paths to minimize their impacts.

One of the more difficult tasks as a leader is keeping a positive attitude while staring down everything that can go wrong. I fully believe that over time this task becomes harder and harder. When bad scenarios transform from mental preparation to real world experiences the validation of negative ideas are more difficult to explain away as outliers. When I returned home I had enough reinforcement of traumatic experiences that these patterns of thinking were deeply entrenched. In mental health profession parlance they are “Stuck points”. Contrary to an athlete who is mindful of scenarios but is focused on success as the prize, I don’t know if I ever really emphasized “winning” in combat. The reward for success was having to roll the dice again on another mission, and after more than a few close calls, that eventually didn’t really feel like a reward.

Goodness knows the consequences in my new profession are not nearly as dire as in combat. Still, the need to mentally prepare to face each day does not simply melt away with a job in civilian life and certainly should not be limited to athletes and Soldiers. In the early days of my therapy it took me a long time to work past the crippling effects of those negative patterns. A key to my early small successes was thinking about how I would tackle the next day. However, as my therapy better prepared me to handle each day my habits relaxed. When time is short and the family and work life stack up, making time to prepare is tough. This blog is my mental preparation, especially this time of year. It helps me listen to my inner dialogue and challenge being depressed or moody. I wind down thinking about how to handle tomorrow and it is critical to take one day at a time. I run through scenarios with one conscious change from combat: I think more about winning and success now. I don’t ignore potential problems, but I focus more attention on the positives than the negatives.

This past week I am forcing myself to prepare for the days ahead. I know there are challenges ahead of me. Staying positive and thinking through the definition of success is even more important. I encourage you, no matter your profession, to take some time to mentally prepare for whatever it is you have coming up. Be mindful of scenarios, but be positive in your outlook. I believe it will pay dividends.

Alrighty, 5 posts down. I owe you six. Thanks for reading.

 

The Stigma of seeking mental health and PTSD

I said I would write a blog a day until Veteran’s Day.  Well, I have a few minutes to crank out the post for today and keep on pace.

I am pretty frank about seeing my therapist.  When I tell people (read my civilian coworkers) I am a Veteran who served in Iraq and I sought the help of therapists upon returning home, I usually get one of two reactions. One, the listener doesn’t even bat an eye and listens to me prattle on about this or that. Two, they nod and say, “Of course you did, that makes complete sense. I can’t image what you went through.”

I wish newly returning Veterans could see or hear those reactions from civilians more often. What would be even better, is if we could heard it from more of our own “kind”. I would be curious to find out a comparison between civilians and the armed forces on the percentage of population in therapy. I imagine the closer you get to the tip of the spear, the more disproportionate the numbers will be. Though, I do not think this is a problem or stigma solely limited to the Armed Forces.

I think the stigma lies out in the civilian world too. If you talk to my Mom, she will tell you I ask her to see a therapist on average once a month. She has yet to take me up on my advice. Still, the difference between my Mom not seeing a therapist and me not seeing a therapist have drastic differences in the impact on our lives. There were plenty of months were I lived session to session. My mood, creativity and energy all swung high and low from day to day and were only normalized by meeting with my therapist.  For a returning Veteran this can be the difference between a successful readjustment and taking their own life.

The number that touted by Veterans advocate groups is still 22 Veteran’s a day commit suicide. That number is still staggering. Through it all, I keep returning to the idea that removing the stigma of seeking help from a mental health professional is the most significant blocker to reversing this trend.

Ok.  Four posts down, Six days left and I owe you seven.  Thanks for reading and sharing.

PTSD and the Troll

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEYA Long Trip

In a letter to my wife, I once wrote that  “when this war was over for us, I want to move far away, buy a small piece of land and live the rest of our days in peace.”

I quickly found that returning from combat was a much longer trip than riding on a plane.  The impacts of exposure to war, especially prolonged combat living under a constant threat of attack, deeply engrained in me experiences that are complex and tough to understand at many levels.  In most respects, the war is not over for those of us that have returned.  The laws and morality of war differ enough from life at home that adjustment is problematic at best, impossible at worst.  Talking with Veterans of other generations, I am not sure if the wars in our hears and minds ever end.

The Troll

I can describe my combat self as a troll who thrives on stress, fear, grief and uncertainty.  He is the ugly and mean part of my soul.  Like the trolls from myth, he feeds on flesh and tears.  He is kept at by by sunlight and comes out at night when all is still to stalk and prey on the weak issues that linger in my mind.  He takes refuge in my inability, despite my work, to understand fully or process my experiences.  He digs up issues that I have tried to bury and lines the path to peace with bodies on pikes.  He slips in and out, leaving horrific reminders that any effort to forget him will be punished.   To him, trying to live in peace as a Veteran is dissent.

Reminders Close to Home

December always brings the nightmares of dead children to haunt me.  I keep my house cold to help me sleep, but my son is a restless sleeper–the blankets don’t hold him.  He somersaults in his sleep, thrashing covers as he rolls.  When I go up to check on him, his foot is dangling out from the covers. His tiny digits mirror the dusty foot of an Iraqi boy blown from his shoes by a mortar.  It is after midnight and I selfishly climb into my son’s bed to hold him and cry.  I clutch him tight as I try to reconcile the images of grief-stricken fathers holding the blankets that wrap their precious dolls robbed of life.  Avoidance is nearly impossible.  The tiny foot of my own son is all it takes.  I cannot hold him tight enough.

I believe the troll I mentioned lives in many people, and especially in combat Veterans.  The geek in me likes to label him a troll because then I can hope to outsmart and conquer him someday.  If I can ever claim victory,  I think it will be in my ability to keep him from appearing often and when he does, in a smaller diffused role.  Until then, I have further to travel. My destination is finding peace and hopefully I will help others along the way as they have helped me.

Further Along the Road

All these years and I still struggle to live in peace.  I have given up the pastimes of fighting and martial arts in favor of yoga and CrossFit.   I want to be non-violent, but I still cling to violence as an option.  I aim to be calm but my boys will tell you there are times in frustration and weakness when I am anything but.  I try to live in the moment, but my wife will tell you I am easily distant and distracted.  If you compare my demeanor to other Veterans with PTSD, I believe this is typical.  Discovering and learning more about these contradictions make the journey so important to me and my family.  We need time, and space to explore, to find peace.

3 Down.  1 Behind.  More Tomorrow.  Thanks for reading.

Non-profits and the Veteran

CharityWatch_RGB_180I have been around a number of social entrepreneurs who are making a tremendous impact in the Veteran community. As a Veteran, and one who has branded himself as an advocate, I often wrestle with where to best place my time and my money.

There are thousands (a few listed here on CharityWatch.org) of not for profit charities that assist Veterans or their families. From service dogs, to mortgage assistance, to rides to the VA, there are so many people doing great work. However, as these wars have wound down, it feels as if the pace of creating new Veteran’s non-profits has slowed. I think this is a good thing. A point that I am keenly more aware of now is that non-profit does not mean “can lose money and survive”.

Once Afghanistan shuts down, we will hopefully close up shop and effectively stop our production of “Combat” or “War” Veterans. I am totally fine with that state of being. This, however raises an issue for our community to continue to generate stories of interest in the population at large.

I often think about the “market” for charity dollars. Our 7% total population of America is declining in numbers quickly with the steady expiration of the Vietnam Generation. That generation, which had the draft, makes up a huge portion of our voter base and voting power, as well as a stable pool of funding for these new and needed charities. We have less news coverage, a small and declining population, and we are fractured and heterogeneous in our coverage across the country.

With the decline of the Vietnam generation, from an interaction and personal connection standpoint, we are an even greater endangered species. I venture to say that more people know someone with breast cancer or have a smaller degree of separation than someone who knows a Veteran. Granted, near our military installations, that is probably not the case, but in large metropolitan areas, I think that is most likely the case. Believe me, putting aside the struggles of all peoples, we face an uphill battle in the public consciousness for charitable, private dollars.

I think that we will, and should, enter into a phase where we consolidate and reorganize our Veteran groups. A key to this, in my mind, is to drop the “war” or “theatre” qualifiers for Veterans and Veterans groups. If you served and never left America’s soil, you still served. I talk to a good number of Veterans. I often hear many Veterans refer to themselves as “Gulf War Era” or “Vietnam Era”. This attempt to attach some other adjective to try and compare themselves to the current crop who served overseas is where we are failing to strengthen our numbers. This includes the many VFWs, AMVETS, Vietnam Veterans of America, IAVA, United Ware Veterans Council… you name it. I understand that people want to take care of their own, but we have to endear more and future generations now, with and without war. Anyone who has ever put on a uniform, or is wearing one now and will not see combat needs to be in our ranks, the rank of proud Veteran.

So, when you take out your wallet, or donate your time in the coming weeks, please keep in mind our story and the need for private dollars to keep coming in to support all of the Soldiers who, war or not, need these services to continue to serve with honor.

2 down. I am one behind, but I will make it up. Thanks for reading.