Tag Archives: recovery

Low D

On a topographic map, there is a symbol marked by a closed loop representing a contour of equal elevation with hash marks inside. This is a depression, an area of land lower than all the land surrounding it.

One in ten older American Veterans suffers from depression (VA)http://www.va.gov/health/NewsFeatures/20110624a.asp

Last week at Dr. Hart’s Combat Veteran Aftercare Group, I heard him tell a brother that most Veterans with PTSD also have another condition and that his was depression.

Depression is like being lost in a cedar swamp on a moonless night in the fog. Pitfalls surround you between the roots of tall trees that shade you even from starlight. One wrong step could drop you into a hole in the bog, into cold, dark water. You know there is higher ground somewhere, but even your imagination has lost sight of it. There is no light, not even in your mind. Darkness enveopes you; purpose escapes you; hope echoes like a cruel joke.

NOTE: This blog series investigates twelve attributes I see as conducive to recovery from PTSD and other past stresses. May aspires to Hope.

Eleven (11) percent of our older Veterans suffer from depression. The number seems low to me, but I expect that is because a lot of Veterans do not live to be old. On an average day, twenty two (22) American Veterans commit suicide.

Depression kills.

It lies there, waiting, between the anger and acceptance of a grieving process.

But, there is Hope.

“Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things…” (Shawshank Redemption)

A line from a movie, yes, a story written by an author of horror. I find that amusing in a way.

If you are a Veteran, or if you love a Veteran, please recognize anger as an alternative to depression. Anger is a lifeline to higher ground, to life, to rescue from depression.

Yes, acceptance is a goal, the state of conclusion of grief. Yes, acceptance is possible and desireable. But, it is over there, on the other side of that chasm or swamp of depression. Will we survive the journey?

Some of us will. Many, too many, of us will not. Like combat, itself, even the survival of PTSD carries a sense of survivor’s guilt. Now, ain’t that depressing?

Anger management in the customary sense is dangerous for combat Veterans because it makes us vulnerable to depression. It strips us of our lifeline. It casts us into the swamp of despair.

So, where is the Hope, already?

Here it is: Brotherhood. Nothing helps a Veteran like another Veteran. We don’t need to sit around and talk about our PTSD. We do need to sit around and talk. We need each other. I don’t know why, the psychology of it, but I know it works. And at some point one brother shares with another an experience of Hope, an improvement in conditions through application of strategies, a psychologist that can be trusted. Trusted, yeah, that’s it.

And service. There is a blessing to feeling useful in service to your brothers. You feel a purpose, again, to share your experience with the Veteran in pain. I have witnessed it, experienced it.

If there are tracks of depression in your heart, get help. Reach out to a brother and ask him how he does it. You will find them at Veteran’s organizations, VA hospital or clinic waiting rooms, or VA Centers dedicated to serving combat Veterans and their families.

May your tracks follow you to help.

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!

Mayday!

—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!

Let It Rain

Acceptance is the key that unlocks Faith.

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. April aspires to Faith.

Recovery is a grieving process, for we have lost something of ourselves in the traumas of our experiences. We have left something of our youthful exuberance, even innocence, and joy for living. The person we were no longer exists. The world we knew before our trauma no longer exists, and that is the hard truth of it.

The wife I lost because of that truth told me she always thought I had lost my soul in Vietnam. There is an irritating grain of truth in that observation.

It was not my soul that was lost in combat. It was Faith. I no longer had the faith that the world works the way I had thought, the way I had believed it should.

The subconscious response to that faith-shattering conclusion is to fix it. Change it. Change the world.

So, we go through some stages of grief. We continue to negotiate the past in the sub consciousness of our nightmares, in our feelings, in the part of our minds (yes, brains, too) that process information irrationally.

This time it will turn out different. This time they won’t die. This time I will see it coming. This time, this time, this time….

I am a problem solver. It is what I do. Drives my wife crazy. Whenever she tells me about something she finds unacceptable, I fix it—or, I try. No, that is not a consequence of combat trauma, but it is an exaggerated development of a pre-trauma tendency. I had studied science because it is a problem solving enterprise.

I cannot fix Vietnam. I cannot save the two million Cambodians lost in the “Killing Fields.” And, I cannot regain my zeal for Cytogenetics that I had in 1968. Not ever.

But, I can accept it.

Yes, I know that feels, somehow, as abandoning those who were lost. Yes, I know that sounds like surrender. I know. I know.

When I feel myself sinking into despair deep in the chasm between the grief stages of anger and acceptance, when I forget acceptance is on the other side of that rift of depression, I find myself wandering to the arms of Nature. There I find acceptance, and Faith begins to grow, again.
During my first Vision Quest on our land in northern Wisconsin, it rained. It rained all night (8 inches), washing out roads, flooding my stream valley, sinking boats. It was wonderful.

“For after all, the best thing one can do when it is raining is let it rain.” (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)

Some of my thinking will never change. That is real as rain. My thinker is broken. Now, what?

The moment I accept the reality of my condition, it ceases to be an active addiction. I can learn ways of compensating. I can learn new ways of thinking. I can remember that Faith is free, over there on the other side of depression, holding hands with Acceptance.

From Vision Quests I have learned that I can gain acceptance in four days.

Of course, I can lose it in four seconds. My answer is to make life one Great Vision Quest.

Recovery is a quest for Vision. It is a process of seeing the tracks of our pre-trauma selves, deep down inside, in places we have thought dead.

Happy Tracking!

Shades of Anger

Sometimes we have to be angry. We HAVE to be angry. Sometimes.

Still, anger is always a painful alternative to Faith.

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. April aspires to Faith.

Anger is a feeling, an intense, unpleasant, often painful feeling.

So, why do we have to be angry, sometimes?

Because the alternative to individuals with Post Traumatic Stress symptoms is depression, and depression kills.

Anger swallowed is guilt—which leads to depression.

Anger accepted from others is shame—which leads to depression.

Anger blamed on others is resentment—which is poison to the mind, body, and soul, but it may avoid depression, temporarily.

Anger fueled becomes rage—which leads to loss of control and prison (or worse).

Lest I rouse anger, allow me to remind you that I am neither psychologist nor sociologist. I’m just an old soldier trying to claw his way back to mental and spiritual health who has done a little research.

Okay, now, resentment fueled becomes war—which leads to anger, guilt, shame, resentment, rage, and more war. That is a positive feedback loop that defines disease.

Oh, and anger turned sideways is comedy (of a sort), especially satire and sarcasm.

Getting depressed? Time to bring in the experts, a group of kindergarteners addressing the pain and remedy for anger in a short video called, “Just Breathe.”

Yes, I know, it is not that simple for those who have survived traumatic experiences, but it is good advice on two counts:
1. Anger does hurt; and,
2. Mindful breathing does help.

Here is the problem as I see it. The beast is chasing us toward the cliff and great chasm, a less than gorgeous gorge. If we leap, we will surely die. If we surrender to the beast, we will surely die. If we focus all of our energy by turning and fighting the beast, we just might survive for a little while—maybe.

Ah, but there is a bridge, flimsy ropes with a few rotting boards on the bottom, swinging in the wind; but, it crosses the chasm.

Are you afraid of heights?

Running across that bridge requires an act of faith, faith in the materials, the engineers, yourself, and maybe God Almighty.

And, there is our problem, a lack of Faith. It is hard to have faith in engineers you have never met (or, people at all) and a God that seems to have let you down, you know, back there in that ungodly experience of trauma.

No, I am not suggesting a leap of Faith. Your vulnerability is real and it can kill you. We will discuss that next week before we get to a way of escaping the beast.

In the meantime, you might take a brief look at the tracks of your anger, but be good to yourself.

Happy Tracking!

V is for Valor

“Valor is a gift. Those having it never know for sure whether they have it till the test comes. And those having it in one test never know for sure if they will have it when the next test comes.” (Carl Sandburg)

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. April aspires to Faith.

Every defect of my character that I have had the courage to face has had the stench of fear. Every moral indecision, every ethical dilemma, every regretted omission or transgression, has always been traceable back to a hidden fear, a fear I had kept even from myself.

Every shadow of resentment, every rick of rage, every shock of angst or anger, has always left tracks back to some fear.

Fear is not the culprit; my choice in each and every case, that is the culprit. Fear is not the cause, but it is the impetus. To yield to fear is the coward’s surrender.

“Doubt is a pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother.” (Kahil Gibran)

The pain of doubt is the great fear of the human heart. We ignore it, poison it, deny it, hide it and from it, but we seldom face it. For the sincere heart, this is a great dilemma: Shall I admit the frailties of my doubt and concede cowardice, or shall I deny my pain and concede conceit of the false hero?

No. Dichotomies are the false reasoning of a fearful heart. There is another way. What is it?

Perhaps valor is a gift I do not deserve.

No. Life is not a contest we win or lose. Competitive culture is the false affect of a fearful heart. There are enough gifts for all of us and deserving is not a factor. Willingness is.

Am I willing to accept valor? Am I willing to accept the consequences of valor?

I wonder this: Where shall I carry this gift called valor if my satchel is full of the treasures of my fears and resentments? How shall I accept a gift of valor if my hands are full of the denials of my doubts?

Would you like freedom from doubt?

“Out of the Indian approach to life there came a great freedom, an intense and absorbing respect for life, enriching faith in a Supreme Power, and principles of truth, honesty, generosity, equity, and brotherhood as a guide to mundane relations.” (Luther Standing Bear Oglala Sioux)

It is a culmination of my observations of humanity past and present that all human demise, including the collapse of great cultures before history, has always been a direct result of man relying on the magic of man, the technologies of the times and the illusions of power in those technologies.

Life is no illusion. The Native American way of life, like so many aboriginal peoples’, remains faithful to the laws governing water and air, light and darkness, bear and cricket, and the Faith and fear of human existence. I find comfort in these laws for no person or group has the power to change them. The laws of Nature are immutable and unavoidable. All else is illusion.

Inside you, deep down at the bottom of your satchel of treasures, beneath your collection of fears and resentments, do you find tracks of valor rooted in Faith?

Happy Tracking!

Empty Bucket

“Nuts.” (General Anthony MacAuliffe)

This response to a request to surrender at the Battle of the Bulge typifies a military valuation of the concept. Death before surrender, and there is good reason for it.

“The harder you work, the harder it is to surrender.” (Vince Lombardi)

Surrender is not seen as a winning strategy. Americans are winners. We do not surrender. And, yet, surrender is the path to serenity. Confused?

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. March seeks serenity.

It is okay to be confused. Confusion is next to enlightenment.

“I couldn’t fight the tide, so I decided to float along.” (David Levithan)

Here is a clue. Surrender is not only an option; it is the only option. Power is the choice of what shall be surrendered and to whom. You may surrender your will to the tide, or you may surrender your life to the fight against the tide.

In Vietnam, I took some comfort in the notion that I had a choice: surrender my freedom to my captors, or surrender my life to, uhm, my captors. It was a choice I pondered but never had to make.

A thirsty man walks miles across the desert looking for water and finally comes upon a well near a dry wash with Mesquite trees. He finds a fine open well with water at the bottom, lined with sturdy rocks and capped with a sturdy roof and a sturdy windlass and rope; but, alas, there is no sturdy bucket.

Looking about, he finds a frail old-timer sitting quietly in the shallow shade of a Honey Mesquite.

“Excuse me, sir, but do you have a bucket for the well?”

The old-timer asks, “What do you have in that satchel you hold so dearly?”

The thirsty man stares, blinks, and looks at the satchel he clutches. After some time of apparently painful thought, the man replies, “My stuff.”

“Your stuff, eh,” the old-timer says and pulls an old bucket from behind his stool. “Tell you what, young feller. I’ll trade you my good bucket for your satchel of stuff you cling to so desperately.”

The thirsty man licks his lips and clutches the satchel even tighter, for it holds the sum of all his Earthly treasures.

Surrender your treasure or die of thirst. Where will your tracks in the desert lead? Will they end with you clutching your treasures in your bony dead hands?

Happy Tracking!

Profound Power

The path to serenity is through the power of unselfishness.

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. March seeks serenity.

The state of being calm, peaceful, untroubled. Have you known it? When all is right with the world—even though things are not the way you think you think they should be? There is profound power in such a state, power to create and tolerate, power to abide, to endure, to be sure.

Care to know how to get there?

“When we become hollow bones there is no limit to what the Higher Powers can do in and through us in spiritual things.” (Frank Fools Crow)

The hollow bone was the Lakota medicine man’s metaphor for himself as an empty vessel open to Power to serve others. His description of his methods for clearing himself, of emptying himself, to become ready to help heal someone who had come to him for help, shows us the path to serenity.

His is an old, familiar story. Contrary to the habits of a busy, competitive culture, this is how the universe works, and there is good reason for that.

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” (Abraham Lincoln)

Selfish men cannot be trusted with power. Bad things happen. Power feeds their egos and their egos thirst for more power in a positive feedback loop of addiction. The more power they get, the thirstier for power they become.

Selfish people are spiritually constipated, so the power does not pass through them. They get drunk upon it, and it destroys them.

That is a familiar story, isn’t it?

Yes, you can have power without serenity, but it is not conducive to health.

Yes, you can have serenity without power, but not for long, because…if you open a window to your soul, light will enter. If you open a window from your soul to others, light will pass through you.

The light is Profound Power, and that really is all there is to it.

Oh, one more thing. If your purpose is to seek power for yourself, you are in danger of spiritual constipation.

If you seek serenity, if you choose to become a hollow bone, power will pass through you to bless others. And, it all starts with the unselfishness of emptying your ego of wants, needs, fears, and resentments, emptying yourself even of the wish for serenity—except as a state of power to serve others.

Next week we will seek this unselfishness within us. It is there.

Happy Tracking!

Together, We

“When through the woods and forest glades I wander
And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees,
When I look down from lofty mountain grandeur,
And hear the brook and feel the gentle breeze:” (How Great Thou Art)

I sat alone in the woods for four days and nights without human contact—only, I was not alone. The woods was there, all one of 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. March seeks serenity.

I have done it more than once. On one occasion, it was a wandering Quest. I found a deer fawn, a floating frog, and a whippoorwill that found me, hovering in the dark right above my face. There were no other people, but I was never alone.

I am part of the woods. We are one.

Have you ever been lost in the woods? The desert? The mountains?

Tom Brown, Jr. tells us we are never lost unless we have someplace to go and some time to get there. Lost is a state of mind. It is a fear of being alone.

The first question I was asked at my dissertation defense was, “What is data?” The professor went on to ask, “If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there, does it make a sound?” The point is that data is defined by the observation of it.

I didn’t think fast enough on that day, but I have pondered the question since. The answer is, “Yes.” The tree makes a sound and the forest hears it. In the woods are thousands of living beings that hear that tree fall. There are thousands more that sense it in other ways—light now reaching the forest floor, for example. The smell of wilting leaves. The vibrations of Earth generated by the crash to the ground. The feel of sunshine warming the Earth. The woods knows.

I know the woods knows because the woods responds with new growth, with decay of the tree, and with curious critters who come to investigate. I know the woods knows because the crashing tree leaves tracks, which are also data, so we can infer the reality of the event. I know the woods knows because the woods tells me.

From the womb we travel in fear of separation. In Vietnam, nothing was more frightening than the thought of being isolated from our unit in the jungle, just one against the rest.

But, the combat experience has taught us that people are more dangerous than lions, tigers, or bears. We are trapped between a rational fear of being alone and a rational fear of people.

I do not fear the woods. On one of those nights, eight inches of rain fell upon my head. A review of data informs me that less than 100 yards from my spot in the rain was a den in an old beaver bank lodge where a female cougar had her young. Certainly, she had to vacate that den in the rain. Certainly, she knew where I was. Certainly, I was not alone.

We are never alone. We are never separated from the rest of Creation—except as we choose to separate ourselves from Nature. If you doubt me, spend some time in the woods, the desert, or the mountains and just breathe. When you have no other people around you, Nature will communicate with you. It will leave data as tracks.

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!