Tag Archives: trauma

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.

My Way

It occurs to me that discipline is really fidelity to a way of life.

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.

When I think of discipline as rigorous obedience to rules, particularly as daily routine, I judge myself undisciplined. Oh, sure, I was sometimes a disciplined athlete and soldier, but I really dislike routine–even though I accept the value of routine in stress management. Routine is not my way.

What is my way?

I still have some materials from a greenhouse I bought forty years ago. I save stuff. For years I have been viewing this as a shortcoming, a lack of discipline in organization. Lately I have seen it differently.

I grew up poor, even though I didn’t really know it until I was in high school. My parents married during the depression and had five kids before Pearl Harbor followed by this early Baby Boomer. Waste was a sin although they didn’t call it that. We just didn’t do it.

I am a disciplined eater. There is very seldom anything left on my plate. “Take all you can eat, but eat all you take.” We were poor but not hungry because we lived on a farm. We grew and hunted our food. Somehow, when you produce your own food through sweat and discipline, it becomes too valuable to waste. That is the way my family lived and a way I call mine.

I am embarrassed to throw out food. It shames me.

I give things away. From time to time I force myself to go through the anguish of choosing what to keep, what to discard, what to sell, and what to donate. I hate those decisions even though the process is liberating.

In reflection this week, I admitted I learned this from my father. If we needed a board, we went to a stack of boards between the chicken house and the tractor shed. If we needed a link of chain, we searched the tractor shed or the garage. If we wanted worms for fishing, we dug them. When I needed training halters for my show calves, I braided them from used baler twine from our hay or straw. When my mother wanted to make me a bat boy uniform for my uncle’s softball team, she searched scraps of material and discarded clothes, cut them down, and sewed it.

A few weeks ago, I pulled a beautiful rock out of the woods to make a rock garden for Nancy. I found out a length of pipe I had bought for a project and not used. It was along side a shed waiting. I also made a stone boat of sorts with a plastic sheet I bought to drag deer but never used. I had them because I saved them, you know, just in case I might need them someday. That is my way and I am true to it.

It is not hoarding; it is recognizing potential utility in things and refusing to discard them. It is not organized; it is messy. But, it is ultimately pragmatic, and I am tired of being apologetic. I am not undisciplined. I am true to my way, and my way works for me just as it worked for my family.

My mother was disciplined in the garden, and I share that way. I like a productive garden, and I prefer to keep it free of weeds. It is a sense of pride, accomplishment, and independence to harvest my own food, but I also plant for the utility of beauty. I cannot garden without fond memories of my mother.

My father took care of both crops and livestock. While he did not fuss over appearances, he took great lengths to keep them healthy, and he never allowed animals to suffer. In animal husbandry, he was devoted and disciplined. Whenever I get to help on my brother’s farm where we grew up, I remember my father’s way. It is my way, now.

What is your way? Deep down inside, back to your pre-trauma self, do you find tracks of fidelity to a way of life that is disciplined in your own way?

Happy Tracking!

R – E – S – P – E – C – T

“I’m glad you were born.” That is what I told my wife on the day I met her, her 30th birthday. She liked it. Still does.

Wishing someone a happy birthday or a happy any day is an affirmation, a validation of their right to air. It is an expression of our willingness to share life with them. That is a very powerful kind of respect, and all we want is a little respect.

Yesterday, I enjoyed birthday wishes from many people on Facebook, some who have never seen my face. I got calls from my daughters, and my teenage grandson talked to me for several minutes. Nancy made my favorite dinner. It was a good day.

The first step in healing scars of trauma may be the simple act of validation, an affirmation of humanity. Happy birthday, good morning, or an honest smile may be all it takes. It is easy and cheap. Why is it so rare?

For those afflicted with invisible wounds (most of us), there is a double problem. First, we believe people are more dangerous than lions, tigers, or bears. We have great difficulty trusting people. Second, we have trouble feeling worthy so that any perceived slight is taken as gross disrespect.

Road rage is a problem—even inside the supermarket.

A simple kind of love soothes us. It might be a form of philos, the love of our fellow human beings, that encourages us back to social and emotional health. When someone takes the time to wish us well, even without words by offering us help or encouragement, it validates our humanity. We feel bigger, more worthy, and less wounded.

A colleague stopped by my office, yesterday, just to ask me if I had enough work to do. That was a validation of my efforts to move our program development along, an acknowledgement of my worth.

Another invited me to participate in his class even though I had too much to do to go. He gave me the materials to read on my time. That is professional respect.

I am a fortunate man.

Our world is full of angry, ill people, and we have developed a habit of pointing out faults of the other. We feel like others, us and them, and so we become enemies when we are really all the same. We all want a little respect.

“Treat a man as he is, and he will remain as he is. Treat a man as he could be, and he will become what he should be.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Breathe all the air you want, today, and have a great day. I’m glad you were born.

The Way Things Are

Four days of wandering The Pine Barrens in humid heat without food in search of answers, and my greatest revelation came in the voice of Chief Dan George from Little Big Man emphasizing this statement; “That is the way things are.”

Combat Veterans often have difficulty accepting the way things are. They ought to be different. Children shouldn’t die in war. Leaders shouldn’t make mortal mistakes. Farm boys and students shouldn’t be required to fight a police action just because some politicians think it might be a good idea—without declaring war.

Brave young men (and women) shouldn’t die in the mud or sand ten thousand miles from home.

But, that is the way things are.

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.

“…anger…is a central component to combat post traumatic stress disorder.” (Hart, 2000, p. 72). People die in war—combatants and noncombatants—and death is final. That is the way things are, but we don’t like it. In fact, it pisses us off. We may not know it at the time, and we may not admit it later, but it does. It’s not right, and we know it.

Sitting in my little clearing in the Nort’ Woods of Wisconsin, I find it easy to accept the way things are. Trees are green instead of blue, but that is okay. Wind knocks trees down, and I accept that. Cougars eat deer, porcupines eat trees, and bears eat anything. Fine. If I don’t find enough food to eat, I will die, and that’s okay with me. I accept nature as the way things are.

War is not natural.

So, we are angry. The question is, what do we do with that anger? Dr. Hart talks about two alternatives: swallowing it whole or spitting it out. Here’s the dilemma. If I swallow it whole, I get sick, and if I spit it out, I get lonely because I drive people away. I know. I will refuse to get angry.

Nope. People get angry. That is the way things are, especially for combat Vets listening to news of wars or rumors of wars. So, what are our options?

Well, we can begin by admitting we are angry. Then we can accept the anger; however, in order to do that, we may need to identify the real source.

We are not usually angry at our spouses or families. It just seems that way. And, then, sometimes we turn our anger on those around us because admitting and accepting the true source(s) may be more painful.

It is true that I was angry with Nixon, Kissinger, and Congress. Later, I was angry with Bush, Tommy Franks, and Congress. I notice a trend. I have identified a source of my anger. Now, what to do about it?

First, some level of anger is acceptable and even healthy for a combat Vet because it reduces the danger of vulnerability. The trick is to keep the anger small.

Second, we may successfully spit it out on occasion, but we must make sure we are not directing at innocent people around us. And, we must not make it a habit or we will never find healthier ways of coping with anger.

Third, we may swallow it temporarily (rather than lose job, family, or freedom). The key term is temporarily. If swallowed anger is not resolved, we get sick physically as well as mentally.

Finally, sublimate. Find some activity that helps release anger into safe objects or activities. Pleasure is an antidote for anger. So are creative activities, projects, or service to others. I serve the woods. Hey, it works for me.

If we can keep anger small, it is just a feeling, the “edge” for combat veterans, that low grade anger. If we allow anger to grow, it becomes an emotion. “An emotion involves a change in the physiological functioning of the body while a feeling does not.” (Hart, 2000, p. 70) That means if I don’t keep anger small, I get an adrenaline rush that causes all sorts of social and medical problems not to mention the terrible experience we call a Dinosaur Dump or Wild Ride.

What can you do? Encourage your Veteran to play, to work on projects, to putter at seemingly useless things. Let your Vet know that you know he is not angry at you (unless, of course, he or she is mad at you). Nature really helps, so you might encourage hunting, fishing, biking, hiking, gardening, or pets—not necessarily with you.

I hope this didn’t make you angry, but that is the way things are.


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).