To The Veteran Suffering From PTSD: I Feel You

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The Mighty

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Author’s note: New data shows an average of 20 veterans take their life each day

Pushups. 22 per day for 22 days to raise awareness that on average, 22 veterans lose their lives to suicide daily.

With each press against the floor, I think of you.
When my triceps collapse from strain, I think of you.
As my form turns solid and shoulders stabilize, I think of you.

The #22Kill movement, created in response to the Department of Veteran Affairs’ 2012 Suicide Data Report works in conjunction with Honor Courage Commitment, Inc. Together, they educate the public about mental health issues like Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that can lead to suicide and offer empowerment programs to transitioning military brothers and sisters.

#22Kill strives to “bridge the gap between veterans and civilians to build a community of support.” The final words to flash across the screen of the website’s video are “We’re here for you. We hear you.”

Today is day 22. As I post my last set of pushups to social media and tag fellow CrossFitters to accept the challenge, I need you to know something.

I feel you.

I am a civilian. I have not sacrificed my life and time to protect our country’s freedoms, but I have survived child sexual abuse. I have experienced trauma. I know what it’s like to live with darkness, peer down the spiral, and question the value of my life.

For 25 years, vigilance, control, mistrust, and detachment managed the pain, angst, hurt and rage brought on by traumatic experience. But I found a way to push up; to rejoin life and contribute in a way I always imagined.

Treatment through therapy made the difference. With a pride too big, walls so thick, and shame so deep, at first I couldn’t ask for help.  I didn’t value myself enough to reach out; vulnerability translated into weakness. There was peace in solitude.

But I valued those who loved me. When I could no longer dodge my husband’s plea, when I reached the edge; feeling as if my skull might split, I answered this question:

Who do I have a responsibility to?

Mac and our new marriage suffered from my trauma. I knew my mental health would damage our children. This was unacceptable and unfair. I resolved to do my part and agreed to keep the appointment Mac had made with a social worker on my behalf.

Once there, I harnessed the strength used to endure and suppress my experience to open wounds and talk.

The session discussions, albeit uncomfortable and scary at times encouraged trust. With consistent support, I learned tools to tackle triggers, reframe the rage, be mindful of mood shifts, channel destructive tendencies into a safe and productive rush, express vulnerability, and deepen relationships. I came to understand the genesis of my emotions, recognize they were typical for survivors, and accept I wasn’t alone.

The likelihood of full recovery is slim. But now, over a dozen years later, I’m equipped to fight the funk when it drives a heel into my back. With each win, trauma loosens its grip and I gain power.

I’ve also gained direction, purpose and most importantly, worth. I can approach parenting with a healthier perspective, contribute to a more loving, respectful, and meaningful marriage, and pursue career goals, creative passions and fitness aspirations with assurance. I am a better friend; know how to navigate social situations, and enjoy being with people.

Bad and unnatural things happened to me. My mind and body reacted to them. That doesn’t make me less deserving of a rich, positive, and fulfilled existence. I have every right to be here; to push, to grow and to live.

And so do you.

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What Children Need in Lieu of Mindfulness

Mindfulness quote

The practice of mindfulness has crept its way into elementary and preschools.

Biologist, Jon Kabat-Zinn, coined the term “mindfulness” in the 1970s to describe the act of “paying attention on purpose” to the present moment, with a “non-judgmental” attitude.

Mindfulness techniques are being used in the classroom to help children cope with stress and anxiety as well as to help them calm their mind, find center, and focus attention.  Advocates believe designating school time to such training leads to improved behavior and academic performance.

As a teacher, I appreciate learning the art of mindfulness to enhance my classroom management repertoire.  As a mom, I welcome a daily dose of meditation as a respite for harried parenthood.  But I am a grown up.

Teaching preschool and elementary school aged children mindfulness is both redundant and a band-aid.  Why?  Because they are mindful by design and their stress is not self imposed.

Children live in the present.  Watch a 4 year old mix a leaf, grass and stone soup for the missing class tortoise or his classmate run wildly away from an invisible queen across the school yard.  Stop to observe a pair of nine year olds twirl until dizzy or a crew of fifth graders so engrossed in conversation they forget to heed a busy crossing guard and it will become apparent that children are led by heart and body in the moment.

Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget concluded children’s understanding of time and capacity to think in abstract terms are driven by cognitive development.

A preschooler’s foundation for time begins with a sense of what happens before and after a concrete experience.  His understanding of duration and the future does not match that of an adult.  That’s why a child under 4 is confused by words like “tonight” “later” “today” and “tomorrow,” and will often create ones like “yestertime.”   Even a child nearing Kindergarten will understand the phrase, “we are having lunch after I pick you up from school” over “we will have lunch at 12 o’clock.”  By elementary school, a first grader learns to tell time only to the hour and half hour.  Minutes are not introduced until second grade.

While children between ages 7-10 have a more mature sense of time, abstract, hypothetical thought is not fully developed until age eleven.  Up until early middle school, young people still benefit from a personal connection or concrete experience in order to make sense of a sophisticated idea.

For example, after reading Crenshaw, a middle grade novel which tackles the theme of homelessness, my ten year old went on to ask questions about our family’s financial condition and whether we have enough money to pay the rent in an effort to make sense of this cruel reality.  Even after I reassured him, the boy worried.

Encouraging my son to read a book I, the adult with my adult view of the world, thought would benefit his growth only produced anxiety.  He was not cognitively ready.

Adults can minimize the stress we create for and impose upon children by limiting its source.  But with poverty, trauma, and violence not as straightforward and repairable as developmentally rigorous academic standards, competitive athletic expectations, over scheduling, and the pressure to be well liked, well rounded and successful, we need to nurture their emotional health while simultaneously addressing the larger issues.

But meditation, deep breaths, and mantras are not the answer.

Children need love.

A veteran teaching colleague recently reminded me it is consistent love from a trusted adult whether it is a parent, relative, community member, or teacher that makes the difference for a child regardless of external forces.

Even as the family in the story Crenshaw struggled through hunger and financial hardship my son observed, “Living in a van didn’t seem so bad because the family loved each other.”

Children need time.

Time to move, play and socialize; time to create, discover and stretch their imagination; time to get from point A to B, be bored and to wonder.

The time scheduled for mindfulness  in school should be allocated to these activities because this is how children find their center.  This is what helps them focus.  This is what teaches body and environmental awareness.  This is how they were intended to manage stress.

Children are inherently present, non judgmental, and stress free.  So let’s give them love.  Give them time.  And then, let them be.