Tag Archives: dread

The Dread

Expectations of a mind with PTSD lead to dread. Hope hides behind it.

Note: This blog series investigates twelve attributes I see as conducive to recovery from PTSD (and other past stress) which has become part of our ethos or basic belief system. May dares to Hope.

“Nothing is more frightening than a fear you cannot name.” (Cornelia Funke, Inkheart)

I would change that a bit. “There is nothing more dreadful than a fear you dare not admit.”

Dr. Hart relates a story of a Vietnam Veteran who came to his office appointment in an unusually good mood one morning. It was unusual because, like many combat Veterans, he faced dread most mornings, expecting something bad to happen.

When things are good, we expect them to turn bad. When things are quiet, we expect them to get loud. So, why was this guy happy this morning? Because he had a flat tire on the way into town.

He was driving along the straight highway through the agricultural fields in the Colorado River Valley. Some farm laborers were working in the fields by hand—hoeing or laying irrigation, maybe.

A tire on his truck blew. Boom!

Now, here was a combat Veteran already in his usual state of morning dread, and his tire blows, sounding a little like an incoming mortar or artillery round exploding. Suddenly, the field hands looked Vietnamese and the fields like rice paddies. He was instantly back in the war.

All the same stuff happened. His tongue went to the roof of his mouth and he stopped breathing. His brain told his body to dump a load of adrenalin, his heartbeat doubled in rate and volume, and he went into survival mode until he got out of his truck, took a few breaths, and regained his time/space bearings.

So, he fixed his tire, got dirty and sweaty, and went to see Dr. Hart with a smile.

Why the smile? Because his dread was gone.

Sometimes we get the notion that our dread is a form of premonition telling us to look out, that something bad is coming. Really, we do. And to be honest, our dread makes us expect some bad things so that we are ready for them. Sometimes we even prevent them by being careful, so dread does have survival value.

For this Veteran on this day, his tire blew. That was a bad thing, right? Then he went into a bit of a flashback and started to get sick. That was another bad thing, right?

Well, that was over with, now. The bad stuff had already happened and he was not only alive, but well.

This was going to be a good day. The dread had worked and was now gone. He could feel the hope.

The dread is real. The cause is real. It just isn’t here and now.

Waking with dread is nothing more than a reminder that I have PTSD, a reminder to breathe, kiss my wife, meditate, and do something useful with this day. A few hours of that and I find hope. Sometimes it only takes a few minutes. Sometimes I wake with no dread at all.

You don’t need to look for the dread, but deep down inside, behind that dread, can you find signs of hope?

Happy Tracking!


—an international radio-telephone signal word used as a distress call

Note: This blog series investigates twelve attributes I see as conducive to recovery from PTSD (and other past stress) which has become part of our ethos or basic belief system. May dares to Hope.

A Mayday call is hope for help. Sometimes we call for help, sometimes we don’t. Why?

There are several prerequisites to asking for help:
1. We believe we are in trouble;
2. We believe we cannot get ourselves out of trouble;
3. We believe someone else can and will come to our aid;
4. We believe we deserve help.

The first two are particularly difficult for combat veterans. We have learned to rely upon our perceptions of the world around us—and that of those who serve with us. But, those around us have the same perceptions we do. We have had the same experiences and we now have the same consequences. So, we cannot see anything wrong with us, but we can see a lot wrong with the rest of the world.

Sooner or later we go home. There, we no longer have those we trust around us. The people at home have not shared our experiences and do not share our perceptions of the world. Who do we trust?

“Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” (Desmond Tutu)

When it does begin to sink in that we are in trouble, that we are no longer navigating hazards of the world to our satisfaction, we still have the problem of No. 2. Who are we going to trust to help us? Reaching out for help is not only risky; it feels too much like surrender. In my case, it took a trusted friend who is also a Vietnam Veteran to get me to seek help, and all he had to do was ask me to get a PTSD evaluation.

The VA came to my aid. The Arizona Veterans Services came to my aid. Dr. Hart came to my aid. His aftercare group came to my aid. I slowly came to believe No. 3. I gained hope as other Veterans reported ways they had been helped.

Only the VA asked for my qualification, how I deserved help. Other Veterans didn’t ask my specifics. I told everybody that my combat had been limited and mild by my standards. Still, they all helped me. True, my VA compensation is minimal, but I see that as appropriate. The help I received was not and is not minimal.

Expectations are extremely powerful. In education, we know that parent and teacher expectations can fuel student achievement.

A mature college student and Army Veteran, told me yesterday that he is anxious about the Semester Exam. He doesn’t test well, he said. A big part of my job is raising expectations or, mostly, reducing obstacles to hope.

On the other hand, expectations can disappoint us, especially when we expect something like an exam to be easy, when we expect results without working for them.

This is not really a paradox. It is simple disagreement between different meanings for “expectation”.

“My expectations were reduced to zero when I was 21. Everything since then has been a bonus.” (Stephen Hawking)

Perhaps what we need is hope and hard work beyond expectations.

Sometimes things get worse before they get better. Next week we will address the sense of dread many survivors of trauma experience.

And when you look within, please hope, for if you find dread, know that we have ways of dealing with that, also. The dread is real, but we do not have to make it our expectation.

Happy Tracking!

Size Matters

“The true nature of anything is what it becomes at its highest.”                     (Aristotle in Hart, 2000, p. 132)

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

We are wounded in heart, mind, and soul. Some of the wounds may heal but others never will. Our lives, as determined by our own behaviors, will depend upon how we defend ourselves against the pain and threats we perceive, the ways we protect ourselves psychologically, the ways we defend our self essence known as ego.

There are big ways, small ways, and some in between. The small ways are easy and automatic. Big ways require efforts of diligence and learning. Medium is another way of saying mediocre.

Your happiness—and that of your family, friends, and neighbors—depends upon the size of your recovery.

Dr. Hart refers to three categories of defense mechanisms as immature, common (neurotic), and mature. I call them small, medium, and large—mostly because I balk at calling aging Veterans immature.

The most primitive defenses are rooted in anger, dread, and expectation of harm. I woke up with a familiar sense of dread again this morning. I face most days with an expectation of harm, and I am quick to anger. Oh, come on, I am almost always a little to a lot angry. Good news? These are not behaviors.

If I stay small in my ego defense, in my response to feelings of personal vulnerability to mortal attack, I will act small. Blaming and tilting at windmills are the results. I may spend my efforts finding faults with others while attacking people, institutions, and principles which bear no real responsibility for my feelings.

We tend to complain, procrastinate, or even bait others with manipulative behavior. In anticipation of rejection or judgment, we pretaliate. Not a word? It should be. We retaliate against what we project a person will do—before s/he has done anything. We treat others as though they have already done to us what we fear they might do. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Yes, nations reflect the fears of people.

A moderately more mature path is response not to vulnerability of death, but to threat for self-worth, safety, and self-esteem. Three common reactions Dr. Hart talks about are Command and Control, Bunker Down, and On the Road Again. I am guilty of all.

Any perceived threat is usually addressed with planning, preparation, and problem solving; however, when the threat presents confrontation, I must choose fight or flight. I do not like to fight (mainly because I have residual distaste for half-measures police action and contemplate all-out war). So, I turn away.

There are two common methods of flight. On the Road Again is obviously running away. It may be changing geography, jobs, marriages, churches…. The reason it doesn’t work for long is because sooner or later I always find myself there.

The other common method of turning away is Bunkering Down. My bunker may be my garage, living room, or land in da Nort’ Woods. I see puttering or piddling as a way of psychologically bunkering down. I hide my mind in a task to prevent thinking about the threat/conflict. Addictions of all kinds frequently begin in this reaction of hiding from perceptions.

The medium size (neurotic) reactions to threats are not wonderful, but they do offer some social acceptability far beyond the small, immature, blaming behaviors driven by anger. Ready to look at the large solution?

When piddling is directed to productive functions, to work, home improvements, education, community projects, it is more mature. It serves a higher purpose beyond protection of self. It allows personal validation on the path of becoming whole.

In my opinion, which seems to be shared by Dr. Hart, there is one pattern of behavior which is the highest form of recovery, the most successful for individuals, families, and communities. Service.

Do you really want to help a recovering Veteran? Do not serve him or her. Offer opportunities for her or him to serve others. We are proud of our service and find our true nature in the highest calling of helping others. We are especially good at helping other Vets. Help us by encouraging us to help others. It’s that simple.

Dreadful Joy

There is a scene in the movie We Were Soldiers Once…And Young where Mel Gibson, playing LTC Hal Moore, feels the dread of everything being too quiet. He commands his troopers to pick a target and open fire. Enemy begin popping up everywhere in front of them.

Yes, it is a movie—based on real experiences and characters—but it illustrates a point. In combat, quiet is dreadful. There is always the expectation of something bad coming when it is too quiet. That feeling never seems to go away.

Reminder: For the next few weeks, 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.

“Combat veterans often find themselves seeking a dysfunctional focus.” (Hart, 2000, p. 95)

We tend to look for the next bad thing that could go wrong, lest it surprise us. We want to be ready, so we anticipate. This is a very functional approach in combat, on a NASCAR track, and maybe in rush hour traffic, but it is exhausting. It is also inherently dysfunctional in the family and community.

It robs us of the joy of peace, and it robs our loved ones, as well.

Have you ever wondered why so many Americans expect so many bad things to happen? The government will take our rights and guns, illegals will take our jobs and services, terrorists will take our serenity and security, other religions will take our children, and so forth. I believe it’s because so many of us have primary or secondary PTSD. We keep looking for a focus for our dread—and we find it in others, people not like us.

“Combat veterans will over estimate risks and magnitude of perceived danger.” (Hart, p. 94)

The problem is that our instincts are to fight or flee. Often, we pick a target and fight. Our friends are blaming others and we join them because it is safe to do so.

It can also be very scary to our families, especially when they become our target of opportunity. That is a definition of dysfunctional. It does the opposite of what we really want to do, to protect our families.

Combat requires anticipation of, and immediate response to, danger. Family, work, and community relations require something completely different. They require thoughtful, deliberate, and measured responses. We have to learn how to do that.

Here is the good news: Dread can serve as a cue for validation. It is such a universal symptom of combat PTSD that its presence helps confirm the diagnosis. Overreact much? Well, if you allow yourself to accept the reality of your condition, you do not have to stay that way. You can learn how to enjoy peace.

Admitting I could have PTSD even though my combat experience was limited and small, even though I had not suffered as some others do, was a beginning for me.

Believing that I am entitled to joy, entitled to get VA help to learn functional ways of dealing with dread, entitled to know peace even though many of my brothers will never find it, is progress.

Seeing the relief in my family is the reward.

Take the cue. Dread is a symptom, a validation of what is wrong with me. Now, what?

Breathe. Live in this moment. Take the moment to assess my surroundings, to perceive the reality and limits of my present danger.

Put those coping skills to use. Left brain, tell right brain that it is okay for things to be okay.

Sometimes quiet really does mean peace. Accept peace.

Accept me. So what if I am sometimes grumpy and susceptible to dread? So what? Look around. Am I getting better?

One personal thought: Maybe I owe it to my others—the names on The Wall—to live a good life. Maybe it is okay to be one of the lucky guys.

Yes, it is.

Easter Bunny Died

For many in our culture, spring is the time of hopeful expectations. Lambs are born, flowers begin to grow and even bloom, darkness retreats. Combat PTSD is a condition threatened by expectations. For me, the Easter Bunny died in Vietnam—right there in the jungle with Santa Claus.

Some of you know that I am applying for a job. It is a good job, one for which I have prepared my whole life, and it is right here in Yuma. For weeks, I discussed it with family and friends until I decided to go through with the application process. I have come to know that I really do want the job.

That’s the problem. One of the symptoms of PTSD is a sense of dread, a feeling that something is going to go wrong. Wanting something—anything—leads to an expectation of things turning sour. We sometimes stop wanting just to avoid the dread.

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.

Dr. Hart refers to naïve psychology as viewing ourselves differently from the way we view others (or they view us). We infer other people’s (or, animals’ for that matter) internal states of mind based upon observable traits and actions. We read body language and decide if this person is friendly or not, kind or dangerous, happy or angry. Others do the same to us; however, we see ourselves differently. We look at our behaviors as responses to the environment, things or events that trigger us. “They” make me mad.

Recovery is a learning process. By learning that my actions are consequences of my states of mind, and learning how to be aware of my state of mind, I can reduce the frequency and severity of PTSD symptoms. I can behave more like the kind of person I want to be.

I am vulnerable. I have placed myself on paper (well, electronic documents, actually) for all to see. My grades, my evaluations, my past, my skills, resources, talents, and potential…it’s all out there to be judged. “The greater the sense of vulnerability the more likely this will lead to an automatic arousal response, a dinosaur dump.” (Hart, 2000, p. 40)

I am not sure what happened last week in Afghanistan, but it sounds like a dinosaur dump, a brain limbic system disregulation that resulted in tragedy. While multiple murders is an extreme example, it is the kind of thing that happens when a sick mind loses a grip on the edge and sinks into an abyss of despair switched to rage.

So, why do I put myself in vulnerable positions like publishing a book, speaking on PTSD (as I will Friday), and applying for jobs? I do it because I am learning how to let go of the edge a little at a time—and with the help and support of family, friends, and a professional psychologist specializing in Combat PTSD. I do it because I want the life on the other side. And, I do it with the tool of a Clear Space.

Some of you learned relaxation techniques in my classes. You were introduced to your own personal clear space, that quiet, peaceful, and beautiful place in your mind where you feel, well, powerful. Yes, the clear space is our respite from vulnerability, and we have many ways of getting there. Morning walks with a Labrador Retriever named Serenity helps me. So does working the newspaper crossword puzzle with a wife named Nancy.

Santa Claus may be dead to me, as well as the Easter Bunny. I may look for all the things that can go wrong so that I expect misfortune. I may even awake with an undefined sense of dread. But, I do not have to live in that terrible choice between vulnerability and rage.

Looking around at my life today, enjoying the beauty of the moment in my clear space, I cannot deny that good things happen for me every day. Choosing to go to my clear space, to savor the blessings of this moment rather than the fears of expectations, I can walk through the vulnerability without rage. Only the myths died in Vietnam. Nothing real changed but my perception, my state of mind, and that is a reversible change.

BREATHE, and enjoy the journey.

Harpo Einstein

Awareness sneaks upon me with the stealth of dawn. My eyes are open and my smart brain grapples for meaning.

“What day is it? Uhm…Wednesday? Yes, Wednesday. What do I have to do today?”

I breathe. I feel.

The room is still too dark for shadows but light enough to forecast a soon-to-rise sun. My mood more matches the darkness of my bedroom than the coming light of dawn.

“Okay, no appointments this morning. What am I going to do, today?” I’m still in bed, trying to get a grasp on my reality even before heading for the bathroom. “I need to spray the weeds. I should prune, today, because garbage is tomorrow. I need to take care of those emails and get something done on my application. Oh, ______. Wednesday. I haven’t written my blog.”

My mood is dark for two reasons.

First, I have to make decisions. I hate making decisions, especially alone. Somehow, the outcomes seem so important in the dark morning, so final, so…dangerous. Okay, my smart brain—well, half of my smart brain—knows that this is not true. The other half needs convincing.

Second, it is my habit, my way of looking at the world. I learned it a long time ago, in a place far away. The thing is, the other half of my smart brain cannot tell time—and isn’t so great at geography, either. That part of me is convinced that this day is going to bring some really bad stuff my way, and I had better get prepared.

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.

Dr. Hart refers to the first half of the smart brain, usually associated with the left cerebral hemisphere, as Einstein. This part understands speech, language, and realities of time. It also communicates with the opposite (right) side of the body for perception and motion.

He calls the right cerebral hemisphere Harpo. It may appear dumb because it lacks language, but it has some excellent skills at music, spatial relationships, and even higher order math. It manages the left side of the body.

The question Dr. Hart asks us is, “If Harpo is honking, is Einstein listening?”

Harpo is honking this morning, as he does most mornings. PTSD tends to transfer dominance toward the right hemisphere, and Harpo is feeling vulnerable. There is so much to do and danger everywhere. The consequence is awakening with a feeling of dread on many mornings, especially when a big event is near or decisions must be made.

Is Einstein listening? Am I allowing myself to feel the dread of powerlessness? Do I recognize the reasons for the feelings? It’s not complicated, really. The answer is always vulnerability. Sure, I am feeling vulnerable because I don’t know how to make my book a best seller, and I am applying for a really good job at age 66. Problem solved.

Not quite. So, if Einstein is listening as Harpo is honking, has anything changed? Not until Einstein responds.

“Left brain talk to right brain. Einstein, tell Harpo that we’re not in Vietnam anymore. Remind him that we are not in charge of outcomes, only actions. Harpo, I hear you, now breathe—and, let’s go to the bathroom, take Serenity for her walk, and wait for Nancy to get home from work.”