Clinging to the Edge

Feeling trapped between a sea of vulnerability and a mountain of rage?

Trauma exaggerates feelings of vulnerability. Skills of coping with our world are overwhelmed. We are in danger, in peril of losing something precious to us (including life) and feeling helpless to prevent it. How do we react to helplessness?

One common reaction is learned helplessness. We stop trying. We stop fighting. We become victims.

Another reaction is resolve. We commit to fighting back. We tilt at windmills, blame others, and pledge that nobody will do that to us, again. We will die, first.

Sometimes we find a moderate path, and sometimes we vacillate between the two.

Reminder: For the next few months, this blog is dedicated to my reflections on a book by Ashley B. Hart II, PhD, called An Operators Manual for Combat PTSD: Essays for Coping.

I wear a mustache. In younger years, it was some expression of style, masculinity, or self-image. Now, it is a mask. Periodically, I shave it off to see how I look.

I look angry. I have no upper lip—just a thin line. Trying to make it reappear with an Angelina Jolie expression fails. The strange thing is I still recall thinking, when I returned home from Vietnam, that I wasn’t going to talk about it. I would be tight lipped. Odd.

In Dr. Hart’s groups, we refer to this as The Edge, a chronic anger (hopefully, low-grade). It is an adaptive technique, a useful coping mechanism. While not wonderful, it is better than the alternatives unless and until more cognitive coping skills are learned.

The sea of vulnerability means depression, despair, learned helplessness, and possibly suicide.

The mountain of rage means conflict, loss of family, employment, and freedom, possibly through homicide.

The edge is a crutch, a way a wounded warrior copes with feelings of vulnerability and rage. It is not pleasant, but it is healthier and preferable to the alternatives. It is also not a life sentence.

It is possible to let go of the edge, to grow out of this trap. We cannot climb the mountain of rage and we cannot swim the sea of vulnerability—without help.

The rage is what we refer to as a dinosaur dump, that wild ride of adrenalin-induced emotion that lasts for three or four days of pain and anguish and leaves us weak and more wounded. Bad things happen on these wild rides—irreversible things—that destroy lives. I know of no safe way over that mountain.

Vulnerability is equally debilitating. Trying to swim across the ocean is not possible. There comes a point of no return, where it is impossible even to get back to the shore. We drown in our own misery of vulnerability. I do know of a way to cross the ocean. But, why?

Happiness. The blessings of life are on the other side; however, Maslow’s being needs cannot be satisfied until more basic needs of survival and safety are met.

Do you want to help a Vet? Be happy. Give us your hope, a vision of the other side, a reason to cross that ocean. Oh, and give us a boat.

No, check that. Don’t give us a boat. Teach us how to build one. Then, teach us how to sail it, how to navigate, and how to survive the journey.

That’s the purpose of this blog. I’m trying to give you the plans to build your boat or to help a loved one build his or hers.

By relabeling triggers (of arousal) and becoming comfortable with our surroundings, we can begin the process. We learn to use some thought-stopping techniques (e.g. Einstein, talk to Harpo), breathing and relaxation, EMDR, and other cognitive restructuring processes. We build our boat and learn to sail it.

Then we practice. We try it, letting go of our edge. We experience vulnerability for short periods of time. We train with increasing lengths of exposure. We learn.

Note: I’m going to add a personal thought not found directly in Dr. Hart’s book. One solution to feelings of vulnerability that seems to work for many people is some Spiritual power, some God, Creator, Supreme Being upon which one can rely.

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