Staring Down The Glass

So, now the day is over, and it’s well into night. I’m drinking scotch, which is against my new rules. Seemed like a good idea after being unable to outrace thoughts which seemed to only grow larger as I made it through the day.

The drinking plunges me in deeper, sure, but it also seems to help push through it. I’m hoping it will help me sleep, because the alternative is quitting the struggle. And that seems fairly unacceptable, if tenable and alluring.

I used to test my willpower by opening a bottle of scotch and loading a .45. I’d put a glass and the weapon on the table, and see which one won out. Clearly the Macallan won every time. My first PTSD doctor told me that they had treated a medic who apparently used to test himself the same way, except his gun won one evening. Sadly, I’m apparently unoriginal in my methods.

What I’ve come to see as disturbing about this game is that it’s not one of willpower, so much as continuing to live by accident, by default. I wake up sometimes and wonder why. I go to bed the same way. Without a mission, a purpose, what does a retired soldier do? Why does a retired exist?

I’m not trying to be maudlin, so much as illustrate the thoughts that I and others ponder regularly. The loss of identity and purpose is powerful. But so are the ghosts some of us gather in our effort to pursue purpose and find identity. Everyone is plagued or haunted by something. For me, it’s a lack of faith in everything I used to believe. I’m numb, I’m disillusioned, I’m tired. I see emptiness in old values, old constructs. I see pointlessness for myself.

One of the greatest gifts a former military (wo)man can give oneself, or another, is a new path identity, a new cause, a new passion, a new road to walk. Preferably, that road incorporates the old into the new so the person can be whole. I’m trying, but I’m not there yet. And if I’m honest, I’m not sure someone like me should be in the type of world I wish for others. Relatedly, I’m not sure the world I want for others is possible, given what I’ve seen about “the people at the top,” and the institutions that comprise our system. Moreover, the exploitation of noble virtues and goals shared by many soldiers, in order to process and continue the system is not just disheartening, it’s morally criminal.

Men and women kill and die for the machinations of assholes who pull on the heartstrings and values that make humanity higher than animals, and then put those noble folk into positions and systems which enhance their primal tendencies.

Let’s go further: not everyone serves for noble goals. I’ve personally met men who joined solely to find a legal means of killing. I’ve also met some of the truly most altruistic people that exist. Does that make the security institutions bankrupt? Nope. It does, however, mean that we need to truly look at what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and what we’re doing to the people and virtues prosecuting those policies/desires/goals. And let’s face it, this world is not in a position to do that. People are often too blinded by preconceptions to do that.

I grew up in a conservative household amidst a liberal society. I was raised to be a patriot and respect the military, while my friends were running nonviolence conflict resolution courses and programs, and often questioning the government. I straddle the line and see the close-mindedness on both sides, while trying to live in both worlds because I know both must exist for a healthy humanity. Neither is wholly right or wholly wrong, but many would like to believe that.

I offer that soldiers and the military are a composite of these worlds and beliefs. What doesn’t work is the rhetoric which paints soldiers, war, violence, or any facet of this complex monstrosity in black/white scales. It’s not even grey, it’s a kaleidoscope of vivid hues. To properly discuss it, we need to accept that all colors of the violence (life) spectrum belong on the canvas.

As for tonight, to experience the intensity of that palette, and then attempt to step away from it, is difficult. I try to live in this grey scale that society (separate from humanity) seems to manifest. But the memories of those colors make it difficult, kind of like the YA book, The Giver, maybe. What I’m grappling with tonight, aided by Glenlivet 12, is what to do when those colors turn black, and creep up on you. Where do you go when you are betrayed by that which you served? Where do you go when you can’t even have a conversation with someone about yourself because who you are is so undefined or so foreign to them that your words lack meaning?

I go into a glass, apparently. I’m trying not to go somewhere by default. It blows, but it’s existence. Maybe tomorrow will be better. Gotta get there. Gotta get there.


The Next Day

Woke up with a sensation akin to a hangover today, despite ending up with less than normal drinking. Had my first series of bad dreams since leaving inpatient, and I have no misconceptions about why. You don’t open a can of worms without a safety plan and expect to keep them off the floor.

Incidentally, I’m watching the TV show Punisher on Netflix. I knew it could be potentially triggering, so I watched it with a backup plan, friends, and the intent to switch it off if I became remotely agitated. It wasn’t until today that that happened. While the specific circumstances of the episode are something I have personally dealt with, I doubt it’s coincidence that the first day after an upending session I find the show hits me hard, quite late in the  show’s season. Prior to today, I wasn’t invested emotionally because I wasn’t emotionally open to anything recently. Now, today, I am hit several times from several directions, and am actively fighting to avoid getting lost in my own thoughts.

It’s times like these that coping skills are critical. Unfortunately, in my case, they only serve as delays, not actual coping/resolution methods. I’m inclined to reach for booze, but am not, for now. I will workout, I think, and take the dog for a walk. But these are only stopgaps. Sometimes, that’s the best we have, and what we need to use, I get it, but stopgaps aren’t solutions.

If you have someone in your life who suffers from PTSD, allow them the time/space/activities they need in order to breathe. Right now it feels like my world is going to explode, and there’s nothing I can do about it. I am not an easily scared individual, but I have a sensation of real concern and anxiety about every decision I might make today. So, I’m focusing on the very small things to keep my attention where it needs to be; right here, not “there.” It’s not even 1600. We’ll see how it works out as the day goes on. Night time, for me, is usually the worst, and right now, I’m in a city with literally zero friends, no family, a day before my deceased parent’s favorite holiday, and little activities I can afford. After a year and a half of daily therapy, I know I can survive, if I don’t do something stupid, like shoot myself. For this reason, I’ve absolved myself of guns for the time being. Fortunately, this is only today at this stage for me. For a lot of vets, this might be an average day. If you can, hug one.

VA Psych Sessions


I spent year and a few months in a PTSD program at a VA hospital, as a resident patient for PTSD. Following my discharge, per protocol, I was assigned to out-patient psychotherapy sessions at my local VA for continued care. Today, a week and a half later, I had my first appointment with my assigned clinician. She was better than the local senior clinician in that she at least asked me how I was doing, and what I dealt with, rather than telling me how I felt and what I would go through. However, it strikes me as somewhat irresponsible to ask a person with combat PTSD about their combat experiences, listen to statements like “I lost X friends, and killed X people,” and then not perform some sort of a wind-down period afterward. Instead, we arranged for a next meeting time and she walked me to the door.

Now, she seems nice enough, and to be honest, I don’t expect a lot from my out-patient sessions. There’s almost no one I would expect to be even half as good as the clinician I saw during my inpatient time. But that doesn’t, in my opinion, absolve someone from triggering a patient and then sending them home without anything beyond a follow-up scheduled for a week later. So, as my coping skills are still nascent, I’m drinking instead; something I’m told I do excessively, on account of my PTSD. (Note: VA guidelines state that 2 beers daily is considered borderline, 3+ is considered excessive. I’m well beyond that, but still…).

An example of something I consider troubling was, when asked how I manage my anger, I explained that I have difficulty moderating my anger, so I generally avoid situations which could set me off. Should I find myself in such a situation, I will extricate myself because no matter how angry I am, I firmly believe that physical violence is NOT the solution, unless I am directly attacked -which is a very different scenario. Subsequent to extraction, I stay alone until I am calmer…sometimes a few hours later, sometimes a few days. (Yeah, PTSD rage is like that – it endures; there’s difference between anger and rage, which I will cover another time.) During that time, I have been known to strike myself, or toss myself into walls, etc. in an effort to “work” the rage out. This is entirely unhealthy, I know, but you’d be surprised and disturbed at how commonly combat PTSD sufferers engage in varying levels of self-damage as a disciplining/excising tool. Anyway, stating this, there was no follow-up of how often I do this, to what extent, or if I thought it might happen in the near future. Maybe I’m mistaken, but this sort of oversight seems shoddy to me.

Lest anyone reading this wonder about my safety, or the safety of others at the hands of PTSD survivors, I want to attack a few misconceptions. First, there’s a clear division between emotions and behavior. Emotions are what we feel, behaviors are what we do. A lot of people, myself included, act on feelings, believing feelings to be facts, or impulses requiring some sort of action. This is NOT the case. While sometimes exceedingly difficult, we can always control our behaviors if we maintain the will to do so. The problem, I think, comes not from emotion-behavior cycles, but misunderstanding or misinterpreting stimuli. For example, I won’t act on anger, because I know it is an internal manifestation that is NOT an external threat to be dealt with. Nor is something that angers me inherently a threat. Consequently, I won’t attack or fight just because I’m angry, no matter how badly I want to. Want and desire is NOT a compulsion or a mandate. They are not needs. Brothers and Sisters in this hole with me: Just because you want to fight does not mean you need to fight. So, again, emotions are not fact, behaviors are not emotions. We can control our behaviors, but emotions less so.

Second, an angry person is not necessarily a dangerous person. A lot of combat vets seem to explode because it’s a form -sometimes the only form- of accepted emotional processing/acceptably displayed emotion in military culture. Some people may argue against that, but how many times in Basic Training/Boot Camp are we told to get angry? How many times are we told to let the sadness turn to anger and fuel our combat actions? How many times are we told to seek vengeance, or wreak havoc on the enemy? “Pretty often,” is my answer, from my own experience. (Not everyone shares this, but enough do that I know it’s entirely too common in our military culture, almost to a 100%. Perhaps I’ll share experiences with emotions in the military some other time. It’s involved.) To the point: anger is a common tool, especially for male and post-military folk to express or process emotions. Once it passes, they’ll commonly feel badly and regret their explosion. This emotional outburst does NOT justify any physical or verbal violence, and if you are on the receiving end of that, I suggest seeking help and safety for yourself, and treatment for the aggressor.

For myself, I know I have difficulty moderating my anger. In other words, I’m not at a stage where I can do that well yet. So, I moderate my actions instead. The sad truth is that after almost two decades in the operational force, my toolkit for resolving conflict is intellectually vast, but practically limited. Basically, I am drawn to the use of violence because it’s reflexive and familiar, because it’s what I’ve been around for so long. Until I have better skills, I avoid/retreat from those situations where I am tempted to resort to such impermissible behaviors. I have trained myself such that when I drink, I’m less prone to violence. Yes, it’s a practiced behavior. No, it doesn’t work for most people. So, tonight, I drink. It keeps me safe. And I’m keeping to myself and the dog. It keeps the memories at bay, for now. Apparently I have to do this, because my new VA psych isn’t.

Another Day

Finally got in a workout today. It was a pitiful performance, full of mistakes, I’m sure, but it was completed – and that’s what matters. It took most of the morning to convince myself to get it in, but I finally did. It helps that I have two training classes tomorrow to help motivate me. While I am reticent to use extrinsic influences as my primary motivations, sometimes it’s necessary in the beginning. Never underestimate the power of community, I guess, even for a loner like myself.

The fact is I need to trick myself into being more active, or I will isolate and my condition will worsen with time. Finding healthy outlets, motivators, and groups to train with aren’t necessarily a bad tool, especially in the beginning. I look forward to having intrinsic motivations and an improved sense of self-worth as I progress.

What I am working on is rebuilding my body from injury, neglect, and abuse through rehabilitative exercise and Tai Chi. Perhaps this will also teach me to channel or utilize my aggression and self-hatred in a positive manner. There has to be some positive lesson I’ve learned in over 15 years of war…


I haven’t written in some time for a number of reasons, most of which are simply excuses. The underlying fact is that I lacked motivation and energy. I have been in a state of perpetual fatigue for some time now, which may be depression, but doesn’t feel like it. As frustrating as that is for a typically type A individual, what’s more important, in my mind, is the point that my heart just isn’t in any project. The emotional numbing from my condition seems to have left me with a general state of malaise. Everything is grey, and nothing is so important that I need to accomplish it the way I used to action a mission. These extrinsic motivations, though, can only go so far, and the individual -myself- is left at the mercy of one’s environment in such a case. I know that was my situation for over a decade on ops status.

Now the hard truth: my primary (read: only) intrinsic motivator seems to be anger. Only by making myself pissed off at something do I get the energy and wherewithal to act. Need to workout? “Fuck laziness, I’m going to crush the gym!” Need to do personal admin? “Goddamn the fucking post office; I’m going to send ALL my mail today.” This, is, I think, the effect of learning to use anger as a motivator, the way I was taught in Basic Training.

Anger is a powerful tool, and very useful in a survival situation. But off of the battlefield, it becomes a poison that corrodes other forms of internal activation. And that’s where I am; corroded, tired, unmotivated. So, I forced myself to write today, and I will try to do it again tomorrow.

Medicated Veteran Status


Living on a VA Hospital Campus, I see a wide variety of the American veteran sociopolitical microcosm. Of all the status identifying apparel (conflict hats, unit shirts, ribbon sweaters, etc.) one that stands out most to me is the “medicated veteran” tag. I’ve seen it on bright red t-shirts which loudly proclaim in bold “Veteran: Medicated For Your Protection.” I’ve seen it on subdued hats. I’ve seen it on campus, and off. Whenever I see it, my first internal response is to laugh and simultaneously punch the person in the face. Then I start to wonder if the person is in pain, and how I can help.

There’s no denying that there is a growing divide in this country between military personnel, and pure civilians. The mistrust, misunderstanding, and false patriotism is rife, in my opinion. Especially for vets who feel neglected, forgotten, and misunderstood, the sentiment of anger, and the stereotype of the hair-trigger, violent, dysfunctional war dog is an easy and understandable one. But, it doesn’t help. Rather, it reinforces the very stereotypes that keep the distance growing. For those who would rather avoid people and keep to themselves, this is effective. But it is NOT helpful to this country, or to the veterans who are looking to actually integrate into society after their time in uniform is over. The “med vet” status reinforces stereotypes and perceptions which only enflame the divisions which create the already difficult hurdles of military retirement.

On the other hand, there is a bit of an irony in the t-shirts and hats. It can serve as a loud proclamation to those who see it that the veteran is hurting, and in need of assistance. For the brave, this is an opportunity to open a hand, start a gentle conversation, and perhaps help someone who might otherwise feel bereft of connections. You never know – this simple act of kindness could prevent another suicide.

Guilty Existence


One of the topics that came up today among the inmates was an abiding sense of guilt that comes over some of us with this affliction when something positive happens. The sentiment essentially boils down to the feeling that some of us, myself included, don’t feel like we deserve life’s positive experiences. This can often manifest as a result of survivor’s guilt, guilt of commission (committing certain acts in war vowed as negative), acts of omission (not doing something you thought to be right), or some other impetus. The main ones discussed today were guilt of commission and survivor’s guilt.

For my end, I have a variation of both, but mostly suffer from a sense of guilt by commission. In fact, the guilt I feel about some of the things I have done in war give me a sense that people like me shouldn’t even exist. I was raised to be a compassionate, respectful person who focuses on improving the world’s situation, yet I helped refine and perfect new ways to hunt and kill a great many men. Sure, this can be rationalized and explained, and I’m not arguing here about the logical right or wrong of it, so much as explaining the feeling that I have come to experience as a result of it. Based on this transgression against my inborn values, when something positive happens in my life, I doubt my worthiness to receive it, or I wonder what the catch is going to be, as someone like me shouldn’t be given such a gift without bargain. Another example was relayed by a fellow inmate who explained that one of his children was born around the anniversary of a teammate’s death, causing him to feel conflicted; he wasn’t sure he should be allowed to experience the joy of fatherhood, given that his buddy would never be able to feel anything again. Imagine that sheering pain, if you can. Survivor’s guilt is a very strong sensation when your very existence is tied to the wellbeing of a battle buddy, and you share life’s joys and pains in the most intimate and threatening of settings.

These days, we hear a lot about how service members are heroes. Many veterans would argue against this sentiment, and part of the reason is this very sense of pervasive guilt that affects every waking moment. Imagine, if possible, to feel that your very existence is a sin unto itself, and that state of mind comes from having tried to do the right and honorable thing. Complicated, to be sure.

Though these feelings are shared broadly by myself and my fellow patients, not all of us are afflicted with this overriding sense of guilt. What we do share is that we are all survivors of warfare. In that, we share with the human community that we are alive. The simple fact of being alive means that we have a level of influence and impact on our social environment.

While I am still in treatment, and my recovery from PTSD is still rather nascent, today’s discussion reminded me that we are a mixture of the bad and good, the light and dark. This mixture of positive and negative, beautiful and harsh, is what makes us people. None of the inmates are wholly good or wholly bad, despite our common feelings to the contrary. Consequently, we can have both positive and negative impacts on our environment, filling the world with grace or brutality, and everything in between. What it takes is to not focus on the negatives inside us all the time, allowing that darkness to grow and depression to take hold. It seems to me that a key to recovering from this, and to making the world better, is to accept/admit to the darkness, but water the seeds of positivity, allowing them to take root and spread further within ourselves. In doing so, perhaps we will not abolish everything from ourselves that makes us feel guilty -the past is written in stone- but going forward we can become better examples of the things we appreciate and wish to share. Then we will see a reason to live, a person worthy of existence.