Medicated Veteran Status

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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.

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Guilty Existence

Guilt-Pain

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.

Dying In Place

Rigor-mortis

I came home from Iraq at the ass end of 2005. I joined the federal government in mid-2007, and only started receiving treatment for PTSD in mid-2016. Looking back at it now, I truly wish I had sought real help sooner.

One of my fellow inmates was discussing his use of drugs to ameliorate his pain from PTSD, and called it a lifestyle, of sorts. His concern was that he wasn’t certain what his life might look like after treatment. I countered that what he, what we, have been used to as PTSD sufferers and/or (in his case) is not a lifestyle, but what I term a “deathstyle.”

A body after death is in a state of rigor mortis, which is characterized as cold, unfeeling, hard/stiff, rigid. Many veterans in the depths of untreated PTSD, and/or substance abuse, can easily meet these same descriptors. Oftentimes the vet doesn’t notice anything is wrong, seeing these traits simply as adaptations, if aware of them at all. Alternatively, a vet can recognize the mental and emotional prison this state of being actually is, but perhaps not know how to change it. Personally, I was somewhere in-between the two.

The point is that in choosing to not alter our course of action when caught in this trap, we are essentially not living, so much as we are increasing our state of death. Part of the reason, I think, coming out of PTSD/Substance Abuse is so difficult is that we are essential in a neonatal state where, the same as children opening their eyes for the first time, we are seeing, feeling, experiencing with senses we have not used in god-knows-how-long. This overstimulation can feel like sensory overload, but like Neo in the Matrix, we adapt in time to become like regular humans. Only then can we be said to be in lifestyle – a state of feeling, of being, not dying by mere surviving.