Why I hate chickenhawks
The holidays have changed...
by teachervet [Subscribe]
Wed Dec 27, 2006 at 06:38:09 PM PST
Originally I intended to put up another post within a week or two, but two things caught me up: the usual pressures of teaching--grading papers, sending out reports, planning classes, dealing with bureaucratic nonsense--accompanied by a slipping back into a "down time" of my PTSD cycle. I learned to deal with the former early in my career; I'm still learning to deal with the latter.
Entering the holidays is a tough time for combat-zone veterans. My VA counselor (who was expressing her concern for how I was going to manage it) said that it's a given that these vets more often than not struggle with holidays regardless of how much time has passed. Fortunately, I didn't have go out to do any shopping (my wife tries to steer me away from crowds anyway, and I've made good use of the 'net), and family is too far away to visit. Although I love Midnight Mass, I knew the crowded church would be difficult, so I skipped that. I avoided all the holiday tripe on TV. And I have a family that loves me understands this condition. So I made it through Christmas pretty well--I even enjoyed most of it.
I have been able to take some time to reflect on the holidays in light of my experiences, and so that will be the topic of this (long) post.
The central problem that I and other vets seem to have with the holidays is an extension of the feeling of dislocation. That's not to say that specific events don't trigger other responses, though. In my group meeting last week, all of spoke of us avoiding shopping malls and parties. Crowded malls are awful; there's too much activity. In a combat zone, one learns very quickly to always be taking in the surroundings for signs of danger: "on alert." The worst place to be is someplace crowded, for who can watch every face, every look, every movement, every corner, every rooftop? It puts the brain on overload, and triggers the fight or flight response. When I visited a mall last year shortly before Christmas, I lasted about 20 minutes and then left shaking, soaked in sweat, and nauseous. (It was after that experience that I finally agreed to start taking medication for anxiety attacks.) Although I've gotten a lot better over the past year--I can manage the mall on quieter days--it's nothing I want to push.
Parties, including family get-togethers, are also a problem. Happily, I'm past the partying age, and my closest family is 1500 miles away, so it's not a major issue for me. But I listen to other vets, particularly the younger ones in my therapy group, and parties seem recipes for disaster, especially if there's alcohol or other substances around. Most of us seem to go through a period of "self-medicating" after we come back. As we all know, alcohol & drugs provided that temporary escape that someone who's experienced trauma craves. Of course, these also have depressive qualities, so at best they push the vet deeper into his or her depression and anxiety. Worse, with the lowered inhibitions, the anger that most of us carry inside comes closer to the surface, and any little thing can trigger a violent response. One member of my group remarked about how just having his personal space invaded by being bumped sets him off. Another told about the "stupid questions" (this is a category vets are familiar with), like "did you kill anyone?" or even "what was it like?" would send him into a rage. Some are able to walk away or go off in a quiet corner and accept another ruined social event; others wind up in verbal or physical fights that never turn out well. (I'm the only one in the group who hasn't been in jail.)
I imagine, though, that these issues make sense to those who at least try to understand what a combat-zone veteran is trying to deal with. However, what I've found the most difficult to come to terms with is more existential. The effects of the physical and emotional changes one undergoes are amplified by the resulting sense of not belonging anywhere. I know that I didn't belong in the Iraq war--and that I'll not go back under any circumstances--but having been there, I don't feel a part of this world either. My friends and colleagues treat me differently, either as someone who did something heroic (which is annoying because I didn't) or as the "emotionally wounded veteran" (which is depressing because I guess I am). I can't really talk about my experiences to either group; I'm not even sure they really want to hear about them. This has been true since the day my plane landed back here in the States, not just in December. The holidays, though, seem to have the effect of lemon juice on a cut, aggravating what can often just be ignored. Seeing everyone getting caught up in the "holiday mood" while you can't underscores how cut-off you still are.
The most pervasive feeling is one of "people just don't get it." Some of it's personal: "How can everyone be happy when I feel like sh--?" But it's also more general: "Don't people know there's a war going on? That right this moment someone's dying?" I doubt many of us begrudge anyone happiness and the normal banality of life--it's what so many of us long for--but from many of our perspectives, our society seems especially cold and unfeeling at the holidays. I've spoken with many vets from Vietnam up to Iraq & Afghanistan who express how much they dislike holidays because people seem so unaffected by, even indifferent to, what has been for us a life-changing event.
I've found it easier to cope with these thoughts this year. I know from my public speaking that many people really do care about this war, and to cast them as cold & indifferent is simply a projection of my own anger, frustration, and hurt. What I think I will always have a problem with is the hypocrisy this season brings into focus. As a practicing Christian (of the Catholic persuasion), the Christmas holiday has always been a reminder of our shared humanity, of the imperative to love one another, of the call to work for peace and justice. The warm & cuddly Christmas of the past has been replaced, for me, by a more immediate, anxious, activist Christmas; a prophetic call to work against the forces of chaos, destruction and brutality that seem to occupy positions of governmental and corporate power. That so many of my brother and sister Christians can celebrate this holiday and still feel unmoved to take action to end the suffering that this war (and all the others) has caused is deeply disturbing. It has certainly tested my Christianity.
On a final note, I'd like to thank everyone who posted comments to my last (& first) entry. I wish I could respond to all, but time doesn't permit. I did, however, read them all, and very, very much appreciate the kindness they expressed. It does matter.
I take it back: one more comment. Several people asked why I haven't identified myself on either this blog or my website. The answer is simply this--that there are those whose opinions differ from mine, but who are unwilling to engage in civil discourse. I, and my family, have been verbally attacked in person and online with hateful, abusive, and threatening comments. I've even had people with whom I served try to smear me with hateful distortions and untruths. I'm choosing for now to avoid these as much as possible.
Again, thank you all, and let's all hope and/or pray for a resolution to this war in 2007.
Let Misha, Captain Ed, Instacracker and the rest of those assholes trade places with this guy for a day and see if they would spout the same bullshit.
I serious doubt it
posted by Steve @ 1:26:00 AM