I wish you could meet some of my friends. They are strong and passionate people who would make your heart ache, and soften with love simultaneously. These friends sometimes struggle with life because they carry a trauma injury. They have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and my friends are Military Veterans.
Full disclosure: I work at The Legion and much of my professional time is devoted to Veterans advocacy, service and community. My job isn’t the perspective of this essay though, I am talking about the people I have come to know personally, and who are close to my heart.
My friends have varying degrees of PTSD. They carry trauma from their military service. Some have had treatment, others have not. I can pick out the difference because of how their pain shows itself to the world. The ravages of untreated trauma can be seen in every decision they make. It shows up in every human interaction. And most sadly it becomes obvious when they choose to die rather than live another moment with it.
Many people who haven’t been exposed to the ravages of PTSD may find some of its outward signs hard to deal with. Some days I do as well. Some of my friends, when they are hurting or can’t cope become irrationally angry. They get laser focused on an issue and can’t seem to move off that one painful spot. Other times, they isolate themselves. I know when they are in this dark place when I don’t hear from them, or they don’t return calls. I give them space, because that is what they need. Not too much though, because they can spin away from those who would hold them close.
Some of my friends have had the timely and appropriate help needed to transition back from their injury. They are committed and dedicated friends who don’t take joy for granted. They know what a complete lack of happiness feels like and hold it tightly to themselves on their best days.
Some of my friends have not fared so well. They have deep scarring damage that lives like a terrifying monster inside them. It steals their sleep, and strums tight wires of rage within them until they can’t move off the floor. Sometimes they self-medicate heavily to cope, but often they lose the fight and disappear into themselves.
The cruelest aspect for sufferers of PTSD is that it seems to lock my friends inside their own brains. When they are most in turmoil, they become least able to ask for help. The military has taught them a deep sense of self sufficiency and to put the needs of others first. This training coupled with the self-isolation of mental anguish makes for a deadly combination that isn’t open for outreach. Often they are busy helping others when they can hardly cope themselves. Only the luckiest and most open ever get the real help they need.
Because they are Military Veterans, they have the discipline and focus that comes with having served their country. They bear their injury with fierce determination to keep a handle on their demons. They help others even when they can’t seem to help themselves.
The people I care about are loyal friends, and look out for each other and even take care of me when I need encouragement or a shoulder for comfort. I wonder how they will ever take the time to look after their own needs.
Some of my friends are in their twenties, and range through to their sixties. They have served in places they don’t describe to those of us who wouldn’t understand. I often think that some of their conflict comes from the struggle between what they know is the best of humanity, to seeing the worst of it. Some of them have witnessed atrocities of murder, rape and the foulest of human cruelty. I don’t get to hear many of their stories because we don’t speak of it. But almost all of them leave the room when a TV show has loud gunfire in it. I draw my conclusions from that.
They have all come back physically from their service to our country, and have picked up their lives. But the ones who carry this injury don’t get the life back that they had before. It may look the same, but they are fundamentally altered and struggle to find a way to fit into it.
Before I got these great people as friends, I had no idea about PTSD, but now I can pick it out soon after meeting somebody who carries the burden. There are behaviours and challenges that people with PTSD share and there is a commonality to their experiences. It used to be called shell shock. Now we know it for what it is; an injury, a deep lifelong scar that changes everything.
I love my friends who have PTSD. I worry for them when they are triggered, and laugh with them when they feel strong. My heart breaks when they are down, and I am so happy when they come back to me with that smile that says “today my demons are quiet”.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is being heavily studied, and many treatment methods have been tried. As long as good and smart people continue to try to find ways to help my friends, I know they will come through.
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