Tag Archives: mind

Holding the Bag

My memories are of two mansions: the first is like a movie theater; the second is more of a tomb. Memories of the first type are similar to movies, stories played out visually through time. Memories of the second kind are without sight, sound, or time—that is, they are naked, raw feelings.

NOTE: This blog series is dedicated to the quest for understanding who I am and how I came to be me.

A very early memory is the story of the combine. I was perhaps three and a half (maybe four and a half) when I rode with my mother to the oat field where my dad was combining, probably to bring him some drink. I believe I can recall the grasshoppers jumping ahead of my feet, the heat of the midday August sun, and the smell of sweet oat straw tinged with the pungent volatiles of green weeds. I know I can remember climbing onto the combine frame and walking along it, holding onto supports.

It was not an old combine at that time. It was an International with its own engine to drive the machine even though it was towed by the tractor. The engine was that of a smaller tractor, like a Cub, but it managed the machine and was mounted forward on the frame.

Not all memories of my farm boy days are pleasant. It’s just that the pleasant ones are easier to recall.

As I walked along the frame, I grabbed onto things to support me. I remember grabbing hold of the engine breather tube, the straight vertical tube that brought clean filtered air into the engine. I do not remember grabbing the next straight vertical tube, the exhaust pipe.

There is a gap in that movie.

The next thing I recall is sitting on my mother’s lap in the house with my hand completely wrapped in gauze, wondering why.

It is a blessing that our subconscious minds that store our movie memories can be so effectively edited. Some things should be forgotten.

But they are not really forgotten. They are stored in the tomb, that timeless dark and silent place where feelings go to never die.

There are some movies in my library that are not so positive, though. They just are not the painful trauma like grabbing a hot exhaust pipe.

Later, when the season came to get into the fields, I loved the work, the smell of tilled earth, the clarity of the job and the sense of power and accomplishment. But, I was the youngest and often sentenced to serve my time in the barn. My job was the routine of chores rather than the thrill of the till. I didn’t like that.

When we bought these new “automatic” milking machines that required special thorough cleaning that required tedious detail work, it fell to the youngest. I still don’t like doing dishes.

And then there was the oat bin. Once each week we would take ear corn from the crib and oats from the granary to the mill in town to have them ground into meal with some additives, special feed for the milking cows. Once a week somebody had to shovel the oats into a gunny sack. Once a week the youngest got to hold the bag open while somebody older manned the shovel.

And I never seemed to do it quite right. To this day, I take great offense at being told I am doing something wrong when I am really trying to do it right. I do not like being left to hold the bag.

No, this was not traumatic. In fact, it is quite humorous in retrospect, just one inconvenience of being the baby of a farm family; there are many inconveniences, but there are far more blessings being the youngest.

I have a lot of childhood memories, mostly good or great. Yes, I know the mind recalls the good memories in preference to the bad, but still—I have a lot of good memories.

One of the things that bothers me about Vietnam is the nagging feeling that my memory is incomplete, that there is one particular conflict I am forgetting. That leads me to believe that there was something significant about that experience, something that I filed away in the tomb rather than the theater library.

But, as to my farm boy life, my memory is robust and remarkably complete. That tells me that my childhood trauma was limited, indeed.

I was a lucky boy.

Core Choice

Every moment of every day there is precisely one choice to make, the Core Choice. All other choices serve this one.

NOTE: This blog series investigates twelve attributes I see as conducive to recovery from PTSD and other past stress. We have looked at ten and leave one more for August. July is devoted to Discipline.

Light invaded as neurons transmitted perceptions to my mind and consciousness emerged from wherever it sleeps.

“Morning,” I affirmed. My bedroom in the north woods RV is less than 8 ft wide with a window on each side. Judging sunlit treetops out the south window, I concluded it was about 7am.

It does not take long for our minds to attach and reattach to man-made constructs like time.

“What do I have to do today? What day is it? Wednesday.” I looked out the north window at my garden that needs to be put to bed before Monday. “I have to do my blog!”

What to do first? That is the question easily answered by discipline.

For much of my life, personal discipline was replaced by obligation, by rules and rote behavior, on most Wednesdays. On others, when I was not working, the burden of choosing was mine.

Hobbies replace work for structuring time. We have created this advanced technology of time, the invention of tiny parcels of life, and this creation becomes our master. We fritter away our lives on meer man-made minutia of rules and rote lest we face…what?

The Great Reality. We structure our lives with addictions of habits that fill our time, distractions from The Great Reality.

You do not want me to tell you about The Great Reality. Do you?

“And I disagree with the way I’ve been living
But I can’t hold myself in line…” (Merle Haggard)

I wasted much of my life disagreeing with the way I was living. I lacked discipline, organization, and attention to detail. And in my disillusionment with myself, I became willing to face My Great Reality. So, this morning after most parts of my mind, body, and spirit seemed awake, I made my Core Choice. I dressed my body for the cool morning and my mind with disciplined willingness, and I followed my spirit outside. I mentally turned to feel the call to one of my small special places. I walked down to the edge of the stream valley where the sun kisses the shore and stood. There, The Great Reality is perceivable by mind, body, and spirit.

I witness Creation. It is happening. The stream valley I walked yesterday is changing, growing shrubs and trees, becoming an alder swamp, a swamp forest, a bottomland, and a fertile valley. My view where I saw the cougar is gone. My deer hunting firing lanes are gone. My world is changing and soon I will be gone. But the land will still be changing. The best I can do is to bequeath claim to this land to one who will belong to the land.

My choice this morning, my Core Choice, is to touch The Great Reality. I cannot tell you how that feels. Oh, I can say it is joy and sorrow, strength and weakness, brief and eternal, warm and cool, pleasure and pain. I can tell you it is the most important thing I can do, today, that I will endeavor to do it more than once today, that everything else I will do today will follow. I can share with you that my goal is to take every breath and step within The Great Reality…someday. I can report that days when I dwell within my Core Choice are good beyond comprehension–and that other days are wasted.

Deep, deep down inside you, do you feel a longing and a willingness to touch your Great Reality? The choice is yours.

Happy Tracking!

Harmony Hair

Harmony of self,
Of mind, body, and soul,
Waits upon harmony of mind,
And waits…

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. February is a meditation on harmony.

Each day is a wrestling match between two minds in one self, a logical mind which guides my rational life, and a feeling mind which becomes my emotional life.

“Left brain, talk to right brain,” is a mantra for some of us in Dr. Hart’s Combat PTSD after care group. It works, usually along with other tools like controlled breathing and EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing). It works because the feeling mind knows no boundaries of space and time, conflates here and now with then and there, and rages hormonal response to threats long past and far away. It works because we deliberately apply the processes of cognition to our immediate life and quell the nagging dread before it flares to blinding rage. It works because we have learned that it works and we rely upon it.

But, it only takes us so far—back down to a socially acceptable edge of anger, to a sublimation of our fears and resentments.

To go further is dangerous, to dance with our demons at the edge of a cliff of despair, the brink of depression. We hold onto our edge, which is our tolerable anger, rather than dare the vulnerability of crossing the chasm on an ethereal bridge to an imaginary land of Serenity.

It is okay. You have earned the right to stay, to hold onto the sanity of the safe place you have found, the edge against the world that protects you, your family, and the innocents you respect. It is okay simply to know that there is a real place of Serenity and a real bridge to get there when you are ready.

When you are ready—what no other can tell you.

When you are ready, you will need a hair. A long, curly hair.

It is a metaphor for a job that can never be finished, that always demands further attention.

It is a metaphor Tom Brown, Jr. gave us in a story. The hair kept the insistent genie busy because each time he straightened it and let go, it curled up, again. The genie’s job was never done, so he never raged his demand for another job.
My logical mind is where I live. I think for a living. I think for fun. I think for survival. I think because I am.

That logical mind is like my desk, like my entire office (both, at home and at work), full of ideas and problems that demand my attention.

Sitting quietly and waiting for harmony twixt my two minds is futile for an impatient soul with so much important stuff to do. I need a hair—you know—to keep my logical mind busy while my emotional mind expresses feelings to me (so that my dreams might be less disturbing).

I need activity to enthrall my logical mind. It may be yard work, a repair project, or a walk in the woods. But, we can go further, find a hair we can use at work, in a crowd, at a party. We need a mantra or mandala upon which we focus our logical minds while listening to our rational minds.

Find yours.

I like slow music, Native American flute or light New Age. I like sounds of Nature. I like visions and memories of safe places, beautiful places, peaceful places, a clear space, my Sacred Place.

You have such a place, across the chasm. It does exist for you. And, you have the way to get there, to your own Sacred Place. When you are ready.

I hope you find it, and Happy Tracking!

Loving Light

“Knowledge is love and light and vision.” (Helen Keller)

I can tell you what it feels like to slip into the grips of a severe episode of combat PTSD, what we refer to as the wild ride or dinosaur dump.

It feels like walking in a swamp in a rare rain-fog at midnight of a new moon. I know there is a road, a high road, somewhere nearby, but I have no idea which way to turn in order to find it.

Reminder: This blog series is dedicated to love, the various kinds of love beyond the romantic and erotic that support personal growth and healing, especially the healing of invisible wounds from Combat PTSD.

I ask you now to imagine, and while imagining, remember that everything you see and feel is in your mind and under your control. It could be considered a form of meditation. It could also be considered daydreaming.

Imagine yourself sitting in a quiet natural place. As a Wisconsin farm boy, I am partial to the fields and woods. You pick your safe place. Sit in a position comfortable for you and as natural as possible.

Imagine a beam of brilliant, white light descending from above upon your feet. The light is very bright but does not hurt your eyes. Your feet feel a soothing sensation of warmth from the light upon your feet.

Breathe, slowly and deliberately, in through your nose and out your mouth. As you breathe, notice the light and warmth rising up your legs.

The soothing, warm, brilliant white light rises up your legs until it seems to bubble into your belly. Breathe. It fills your abdomen and rises into your chest—soft, warm, comfortable, and really nice. The light is good and you know it.

Recall that this is in your mind and under your control.

The light and warmth rises into your chest, filling you with comfort and a sensation of gentle power. It begins to fill your head.

As you breathe, the light completely fills you and overflows the top of your head like a fountain, cascading gently down and around you until you are completely enclosed in a cocoon of white light.

Breathe. Remember that you are in control of your mind. Simply sit in this brilliant-but-soft, warm, soothing white light and enjoy.

Enjoy.

Do you feel loved?

Go, and love another right now.

Of One Mind

“I wish you could just cry,” my wife said. Many, many times.

I can sometimes cry, but not often, and not at times when it would be healthy and appropriate.

“For combat veterans only anger as a feeling or an emotion is easily expressed.” (Hart, 2000, p. 82)

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.

Human brains are complex in both structure and function; we live interesting lives through complicated minds.

The mind of a combat Veteran with PTSD is divided against itself. Recovery is a process of learning to reunite these parts of ourselves.

Dr. Hart says, “Many times we have difficulty integrating our thoughts and feelings.” (p. 83)

We think and we feel. It seems the feelings exist or occur through primitive brain structures while more the complex and advanced cerebral hemispheres accomplish thoughts. While it may become necessary to distinguish thoughts from feelings, for today I will only say that thoughts can be manipulated and built while feelings simply exist.

And, then there are emotions. When feelings, perhaps through the power of thought, generate physiological responses (increased respiration, sweating, heart rate and blood pressure changes, nausea…), they become emotions.

We all have feelings. We cannot help that. That is the way things are.

But, feelings hurt. We feel vulnerable and guilty, and we don’t like it. So, we try not to feel. We ventilate; however, we do not share our vulnerability and grief because, well, we believe that that would make us feel more vulnerable.

Then there is the whole cultural miseducation of human males. We are trained to carry a stiff upper lip, particularly in cowboyAmerica. We learn to suppress feelings and deny emotions, but our thoughts won’t let us. The consequence is that we act out. Boys will be boys.

Peace is the way of a unified mind, a confluence of thoughts and feelings, an elusive state difficult for a combat Veteran with any symptoms of PTSD. It is elusive but not impossible to attain.

How does a person who has been trained to suppress and deny feelings, whose feelings tend toward guilt and vulnerability, and whose thoughts obsess on changing the past, find the peace of confluence?

My answer is science and art.

Science is the design of cognitive or conceptual meaning, the study for understanding of feelings, thoughts, and emotions and the processes of learning at behavioral, cognitive, and affective levels. It is working the problem in logical and empirical pathways of recovery, pathways that may include therapy, medication, and renewed coping skills. I write this blog.

Art is expression. I wrote a lot of poetry during times of intense vulnerability, and occasionally still do. More recently, I have been writing fiction. Sometimes I walk in the woods, listen to music, or play with my grandchildren. I feel that through art I am free to express feelings and emotions with less awareness of vulnerability. And, when I look at my art, when I share it with others, I learn about myself. I am able to experience my own feelings with less vulnerability and guilt.

That is a very good thing.

Yes, you can help. No, I’m not going to suggest ways you can encourage your Veterans to pursue science and art in their recovery. I’m going to suggest you pursue your own.

If you love a Veteran with PTSD, you probably have secondary PTSD.

Experience science and art in quest of your own confluence, your own peace, your own recovery. If you want to help your Veteran, be, yourself, of one mind.

D Is for Doping?

American medicine consists predominantly of knives and drugs. We don’t know how to cut the PTSD out of our brains (yet).

As one of my group friends and I were introducing our wives to each other in a social setting, his wife shared that they were married before he went to Vietnam. I commented that she had been through the whole thing with him, then. She replied, “Yes, and he’s not going off his medication.”

Medication saves lives, marriages, careers, and minds. It is not a cure.

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 am not trained in medicine, and I shall not try to explain the many medications used to treat symptoms of PTSD in combat Veterans. Some of my friends rely upon them, and others refuse them. These are decisions to be made by an MD (e.g. psychiatrist), the Veteran, and his or her family. If you are interested, I suggest you begin with Dr. Hart’s book and expand your search from there.

Trauma such as combat changes our minds and our brains, including structures, biochemistry, and function. Not only do we learn through classical conditioning to react to stimuli in ways conducive to survival, we also learn through operant conditioning to modify our behaviors in ways which might relieve the pain and discomfort of these changes in our brain biochemistry and function. We become obsessive/compulsive. We aggress or isolate. We ruminate and despair. Sometimes, we medicate ourselves.

Legal and illegal mind altering substances appear to reduce some symptoms of combat PTSD, at least to the sufferer. They relieve the pain of anxiety and dread—and maybe even the resentment and rage. Just to be clear, I am including alcohol, THC, and other substances commonly called drugs as well as caffeine, nicotine, and over-the-counter pain relievers and supplements.

Yes, I know that is extreme, but some of us (me) are very sensitive to such things, and they are chemicals that can be called drugs.

Both substances and behaviors are addictive. As a group, combat Veterans exhibit many forms of addictions from coffee, soda, tobacco, and alcohol to illegal and exotic substances to gambling and porn. Sometimes we are simply addicted to aggression—verbal or physical.

It’s a chemical thing. We have problems maintaining certain levels of brain chemicals related to comfort and relaxation, serotonin for example. One treatment for PTSD symptoms is the administration of Serotonin Specific Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs). While they may be quite effective, like most drugs and behaviors, they have unintended consequences (i.e. side effects). SSRIs often result in symptoms of Erectile Dysfunction.

The brave young men we sent to war in the 60s and 70s are now faced with a dilemma: Be mean, irritable, and unreasonable husbands, or be what they see as less of a man. Don’t see this in recruiting posters, do we? My friends with supportive families and productive lives are functioning much better than those without.

You bet you can make a difference—sometimes all the difference.

I do not take medications at this time, although I believe some might have helped me had I been diagnosed earlier. I am blessed both with mild symptoms most of the time and with a very supportive family including my daughters and my wife, Nancy. I was also fortunate to have had limited direct combat experience inVietnam, certainly nothing like Tet 1968 or the repeated traumas of our combat medics. I am one of the lucky ones. I will consider drugs if and when they may be indicated, but at this time I prefer to focus on cognitive and behavioral efforts such as writing novels and this blog dealing with combat PTSD recovery.

You can help our Veterans by Supporting Troops After Return (STAR). Continue to learn about the symptoms and treatments. Continue to consider ways you can support through education, employment, and social invitation. Volunteer at VA hospitals, clinics, or centers. Participate in community groups that reach out to Veterans and families. Make room in your hearts and lives for imperfect people who are trying to become a little less imperfect. Tolerate our imperfections, even the side effects of our prescribed medications.

With or without medication, together we can make D for Devotion rather than for Doping.

Wonderful World

Many are the wonders of this world, and among the greatest is wonder, itself. The human mind has the ability and inclination to consider not only what is, but what might be. We manage perception, conception, and volition. We remember and forget. We analyze, interpret, interpolate, extrapolate, and decide, and we do it in intimacy with a complex organ in our head, the human brain.

We learn. Yeah, well, so does the transmission in my wife’s car. Last week we took it in for a checkup, and the memory was reset. It is a bit smoother this week, and we seem to be getting better gas mileage (at least, when I drive).

Oh, how I wish I could reset parts of my memory. That is a part of the story of BEYOND THE BLOOD CHIT, attempting to prevent certain memories of traumatic events. Okay, I was wondering, a real power of writing fiction.

There is no such thing as learning as there is no such thing as intelligence. There are many things that can be called learning and many forms of aptitudes that can be called intelligence. In simplest terms, we can categorize learning as behavior or something else which I shall call cognitive, requiring thinking or cognition.

So what?

Well, the condition we diagnose as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is the result of behavioral learning. Part of it is through training. There was a time when I could disassemble and assemble an M-14 rifle or caliber .45 pistol in a few seconds blindfolded. I was also trained to react to shots being fired in my direction.

How does one know if the shot is in one’s direction? Well, if the projectile exceeds the speed of sound—rifles, for example—it breaks the sound barrier and leaves a sonic boom. This is called a ballistic crack, a frighteningly distinctive sound, as it passes hopefully overhead.

I react as if on instinct. I drop, look, and try to return fire. If my rapid assessment is that I have been caught in an ambush, I must do something very counterintuitive. I must get up and run directly toward the bullets. Sound dumb? Well, if I am in an ambush, I am in a killing zone, trapped between two or more lines of fire which may include command detonated mines. All other directions are within the trap. I have to run over the ambush or die.

Survival is a great motivator even for learning. In basic terms, stress produces a reaction among the five Fs. FEAR is the first reaction. Our strongest inclination is to FLEE, and we run into more trouble and probably die. FIGHT is the reaction of choice, at least giving us a chance for survival, so we run into the fire. FREEZE is the most dangerous, staying in the killing zone. The fifth F is for your imagination or another time in our discussion, but it makes no sense in an ambush.

We learn to react by fighting because it means survival. We learn a whole lot of other behavioral responses to threats of combat with no real thinking at all. A smell of gun smoke or nuoc mam (fish sauce), the sight of black pajamas or jungle shadows, sounds of ballistic cracks or fireworks, the feel of damp air or rucksacks, tastes of metallic fear or oily sweat. Any may trigger an F response without any thought.

We have learned how to live in combat.

How do we live in good, old, USA? How do we enjoy 4th of July fireworks, deer hunting, Asian restaurants, or tropical vacations? How do we, back in the bosom of our families, live, hope, and trust, again.

Many of us never do. That is what I would like to change.

Part of the condition that is PTSD can be labeled behavioral, but that is related to changes in the brain. We shift our response control to our automatic brain rather than our thinking brain. The amygdala grows in size and importance for processing perceptions, sending data to our primitive brain (our dinosaur brain) and we react without thinking. The hippocampus, which holds bits of information for thoughtful processing (our working or short-term memory) shrinks. Yes, the structures really change in size.

Combat makes us less thoughtful and more automatic in our perceptions and reactions. That may well have kept us alive. Now, it makes us miserable.

My approach to recovery is awareness, acceptance, and adaptation. We have to learn, but our brains are damaged. Cognitive learning is more difficult. Our working memory is diminished and less effective. Hyper vigilance interferes with concentration. Constant, low grade rage squelches hope. So what?

We learn new ways of coping including making modifications in our own learning strategies. We accommodate our limitations. We learn to learn. We learn, again, to wonder, hope, and trust.

Enough. Next week I’ll try to give you a glimpse of PTSD from the inside, the feel of a dinosaur dump (wild emotional ride on our primitive brain).