Tag Archives: Stuck Points

Russell Armstrong, #Suicide and #PTSD

Suicide is a rough subject.

When I was younger my father had a friend and co-worker take his life.  I had met the gentleman and he was a good soul.  He and my father would toil in the basement of our house working on side projects on weekends to earn extra money.   He was meticulous and thorough, exactly what my father needed as a helping hand in a greasy unforgiving machine shop.  The gentleman went through a rough patch and an ugly divorce.  At a certain point his daughter, the love of his life, disowned him and he decided to kill himself.

I remember my uncles coming over to spend time with my Dad after he had learned the news.  He was a wreck.  He blamed himself for not seeing the signs, for not asking.  When my Dad was just starting to recover he got hit with a bombshell.  His friend mailed him a letter thanking him for being such a good friend.  In the letter were the keys to all of his toolboxes.  He was meticulously organized to the end.  There were not many people at the funeral, and as years passed my father lost touch with the family.

Each time I hear of a suicide or wrongful death, my fathers’ friend is lurking in the back of my mind.  The memory of the visible emotional pain on my father’s face is a reminder to me of what happens after that person is gone by their own hand.

Those images, along with others and the support of my family have kept me from the edge in my struggles to return from combat and reintegrate.

Today the web was alight with the news of the death and apparent suicide of Russell Armstrong.  I don’t know the details and I won’t pursue them here.   The media takes deaths and suicides of celebrities to an obscene level.  It is tragic and to me, a complete turn off.  Occasionally a story will populate the news about a teen or someone who has taken the step to never return.  They are all sad.  That any person will feel they have nowhere else to turn and that suicide is the only option will always be sad.  I am the guy who cheers for the underdog. I want to hear the story of hitting bottom and then rising up in triumph.

A few days ago the Army released the suicide numbers for the month of July.  They were the highest reported in three years.  I didn’t see too much media coverage about it, but I am pretty sure Extra or Us Weekly didn’t pick up the story.

For me, the sensitivity about the Veteran suicide numbers takes on a deeper meaning.  I have stared into a pit of despair felt nothing but guilt and worthlessness.  The word fortunate or blessed or lucky doesn’t come close to describe me as my family stood by me and I pulled out of my depression.  Part of the reason for writing this blog is to let others know they are not alone in this struggle to help myself and whoever stumbles upon this blog to return to a new normal after combat.

I was lucky that I was financially stable enough to endure not having an income while I tried to start my business and get my head on straight.  I was fortunate that my wife put up with my shenanigans of early entrepreneurship and copious amounts of therapy.  And I was blessed that my family gave me more than time and space, they gave me shoulders to lean on.

The plague of Veteran suicides has me worried not just because the numbers are increasing, but also because it is just not getting a lot of attention.  I was twenty five and a leader of men in combat when I returned home from my first deployment.  I was twenty seven after my second trip.  I knew leadership, camaraderie, toughness, killing, and hardship.  I knew all those things in the context of working with my men and my unit.  Then, I exited the Army and they were gone, on to the next mission or deployment.   I look at others put in that same scenario and it is no wonder we have people turning to the final out.  Our Armed Forces are not equipped to prepare their Soldiers for a complete transition, especially in the Combat Arms branches, and equally in terms of physical and mental health follow ups.  There is too large of a disconnect between the VA and the Armed Forces and the process is too slow.

Combine the stresses of transition with a blighted economy and the road gets bumpier.  It has been a struggle to find work where people understand.  Why should they?  They have their own problems in this economy.  Lump that with my reintegration and paying bills and the frustrations of the VA and you have a recipe for trouble.  I needed years to get to where I am now, and I still, as my wife will tell you, have plenty of “moments”.

I hope that the title of this blog post, when pushed out onto the web, will drum up a little more attention.  I have stumbled through this process and I am willing to share ideas and lessons learned about keeping these returning Veterans connected and on the path to prosperity they have earned.  It is going to take effort to remain involved and attentive with the Veterans to keep any ideas or solutions trending in the right, and opposite, direction.

I’m sorry Mr. Armstrong could not turn another way.  I wish his family peace in this time of grief.

Bottling Tears, Venting and #PTSD

I’m a crier

As anyone in my family will tell you, I get chocked up pretty easy.   My increase in water works has been tied (surprise, surprise) to my deployments to Iraq.   I wouldn’t say I have always been a crier.  I think a primer to stronger feelings of grief in my life was September 11th.   That day, along with subsequent events have me more in touch with my feelings of grief.  However, the Army, and the Infantry, kept me from allowing that grief to be displayed in a public sense.  I often found myself going someplace alone and out of the public view.  In moments where I was able to let the tears run, I took advantage.

When my cousins perished in the World Trade Center, I bottled that up pretty good, and found quite moments by myself to let them go.

When I was in Ranger school and my Grandfather passed away, I found the time to grieve over my Red Cross message, again in private as I couldn’t make it back for the funeral.

In my first deployment to Iraq I learned that a Great Uncle, a WWII Veteran and POW, passed away.  I took my time one afternoon on a pile of ammo boxes to say my goodbye.   Tears were there that day.

On my second tour, with a private room and my wife’s shoulder to cry on, after some horrible missions where we lost Soldiers, or civilians or children, I would save my grief, and again, I would weep.

When the catharsis was over, I wiped them off and went back to trying to do my job.

I needed that vent.

I still do, even more so now.

Tough Guys

When I was a full tilt Infantryman, I used to try to be a tough guy.  I would choke tears back or avoid conversations all together.  That act grew tiring.  My style of dealing with emotion, and the expectations for being a role model in the Army did not effectively allow for me, in my opinion, to” be all I could be.”  I feel only certain emotions are allowed to be shown to be considered a warrior.  I needed them all.

Towards the end of my Army tenure, when I was really struggling in theatre, I’m sure I was pretty transparent though I was trying hard not to be.

The Strangest Cup of Coffee

I am much more likely to let’em fly now than I was, especially when I was in the Army.   I am much more comfortable letting myself go.  My therapy, especially behind the closed doors, is my way to work on allowing the tears to clear my mind and process the grief that comes with the tears.  Depending on my stress level, from all stressors, not just PTSD, I can get welled up pretty easy if I touch on topics related to grief.

Last week, I met a woman standing in line at a Starbucks.  As I stood waiting for my coffee, I showed her one of my tweets about “#caffeination.”  We got to talking about twitter (@mikeypiro in case you didn’t know) and the conversation led to sitting and talking about our respective professions.  We pulled up a set of chairs in a quiet corner of an outdoor café.  The conversation led down many paths but we talked about the Iraq deployment, job hunting as a new civilian, and my PTSD recovery path.

As I explored the loss of my Soldiers I broke down in the court yard in front of this total stranger.  She was extremely polite and shared a story of her own as I gained my composure.  The conversation for me was very exciting in that this total stranger out of the kindness of her heart was willing to listen.  I felt I could open up to her on a number of topics, so I did not let the previous anxiety of crying get in the way.  Talk about an In Vivo exposure!  Normally, medicine helps me keep those tears in check.  Alas, I was on the tail end of my cycle and I have found that holding tears back is more exhausting than just letting them go.

The conversation ended with a great tone and I walked away feeling good.  It was the strangest cup of coffee I have ever had.

Still have work to do

I still have more work to do with being able to talk about parts of my time in Iraq.  When I started my last round of therapy in Prolonged Exposure, one of my specific goals was to be able to talk about my time in Iraq with anyone.  I am still not at the level I desire.  But, keeping in mind the vents I have at my disposal (exercise, talking, crying) and not being worried about using them is a great tool in my arsenal.   To say I absolutely don’t care what people think of me is a farce.  I care about what some people think of me, but the majority of this world is not in that group.  Coming to grips with how I am best able to work through my grief, along with my desire to share has gotten me to the point I am now.  I still have work to do, but it is not the only thing to work on.

The one I feed the most

I read a short quip pinned to the wall in the PTSD center at the Northport VA facility. It read this:

A Native American elder once described his own inner struggles in this manner: “inside of me there are two dogs. One of the dogs is evil and mean. The other dog is good. The mean dog fights the good dog all the time.” When asked which dog wins, he reflected for a moment and replied, “The one I feed the most.”

I took a picture of it and I look at the picture/ story often. I feel it relates to one of the first lessons/ worksheets from Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPt): stuck points and absolutes.

A stuck point is really just what it sounds like, a point or thought in your brain that is immovable and ingrained… Stuck. Lots of people in this world have thick heads and are convinced of this or that, but for a Veteran with PTSD these thoughts are burned very deeply into our thought process and linked to primal survival, and it very much feels that way.

CPt starts with identifying and challenging those beliefs. In a war zone it is tough to trust anyone, especially those who are in the least bit different. Traumatic experiences seemingly affirm in extreme ways these habits of survival. Unfortunately, habits start to defy sound logic and over time feel reasonable and essential to survive.

For example, I had a few IEDs hit my vehicles in Iraq. I also saw the devastation created by suicide bombers. When I came home, driving on roads and traveling by car without a weapon to defend myself sent me to super anxious level. When I reflect about my experiences, the reaction sounds like typical and logical responses to the threats we faced in Iraq daily. The real problems came when I could not convince myself otherwise when I was home.

The stuck point I told myself was I am Never Safe when driving. Two things to examine here: one, I tied a mundane common act to my personal safety, two I used the extreme absolute of never. Because I was dealing in absolutes, my emotions and feelings were on hair triggers. Cut me off, I cut you off. Look at me wrong, I try to start a fight with you. Zero to pissed off in the blink of an eye.

These types of statements and emotions feed the evil dog. I cannot trust anyone. I am never safe driving. If I relax I will get killed. If someone dies or is hurt and I am not totally prepared, it is my fault. All of them at one point were in my rule book and I believed in them wholeheartedly. To a certain degree, all of them still are.

What I worked on with CPt was how to take those rules and make them more specific and less absolute. Some would argue I made them softer, but I don’t buy that. I can still get to angry in a heartbeat, it is now more on my terms.

Driving can sometimes be dangerous. It is not always dangerous. Now, with some quick mental preparation before I travel, it can even be a non-issue. Someday, I hope it is fun again, maybe after I starve that damn evil dog…

This is a simple example, there are many more feelings and more complicated cases dealing with relationships or trust to name a few; and, this took me a very long time to get a grip on. I still have to remind myself to live in a world with a spectrum and not absolutes. With the more complex issues, I am still working them out.

Want to read more about CPt? Visit the VA Website

or the Wikipedia Page for Cognitive Processing Therapy