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.

VeteransCrisisLine

 

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From Sidelines to Service

photo credit: Sarah Fedorchick

photo credit: Sarah Fedorchick

Veterans Day 2014 started out no differently than any other; with good intention and marginal action.

Each November 11th, I’d think about my grandfather Joe, a World War II Navy Veteran.

The thought was typically followed by an appreciative email or indebted Facebook post.  Some years I’d even make the old fashioned phone call.  Soon distracted by child rearing logistics and household priorities, I’d call it a day and opt out of making the 45 minute drive to pay a visit.

This time however, I had left Skootch’s red accordion at Joe’s house a few days before and much to the child’s dismay, had only the purple one at home.  So in an effort to temper a peppering five year old, the boys and I piled into the Outback and joined my grandfather for lunch.

Joe greeted his great-grandsons at the door, offered respective kisses, and held them on the landing.

“Did you see my American flag?” he asked.

It was no surprise and nice to see that despite having recently lost his wife of 65 years, Joe remembered to dress the pole he had raised between a patch of hedges adjacent to the front stoop to commemorate the holiday and a defining time in his life.

“Do you know how to do a soldier’s salute?”

My grandfather faced the flag, modeled the salute, and instructed the boys to pay the toll.  “Now you do it.”

Bubbe smiled shyly and gave it a go.  The Skootch puffed his chest, cupped his palm and looked at it.  Joe helped the effort along.  The group crossed the threshold and stopped in the front hall.

“Do you fly one at home?” he asked.  Joe didn’t wait for an answer.  “Here take these.”  He snatched a pair of parade flags from a collection stored in a nearby bucket.

The Skootch marched up to the second floor apartment, waving his new toy.  The parade was short lived.  Toddler sized penguins and a Santa Claus were performing center stage in the living room.  He dropped the flag.

My grandfather rescued it.  “No.  Never let it touch the ground.  Out of respect and honor, the American flag should always point toward the sky,” he explained.  “Let’s put it in a safe place.”  He tucked the base into a puffy coat curled up on a Captain’s chair.

Bubbe followed suit; partially to secure the flag but mostly to search for his great-grandpa’s Kindle Fire and Oreos in a nearby hutch.

On route to the cookies, he noticed a glass display case perched near the front of the hutch shelf.  It was filled with mounted, decorated ribbons laid out like a Holland tulip field.

“What are these?”  Bubbe wiped away the dust.

“Those are my war medals,” Joe said and went on to explain them one by one.

“American Campaign…

European, African, Middle Eastern Campaign…2 bronze stars

Asiatic, Pacific Campaign…2 bronze stars”

There were six in total.  He circled back to the top row.  “These are my dog tags.  I wore them around my neck the entire time I was away.  Do you know why soldiers wear two tags?”

“No,” Bubbe said.

“If a solider dies, one stays on the body; the other gets sent home.”

“Oh.  I get it.”

Eavesdropping from the kitchen I thought,

Will he ever really get it? 

When my children are grown, what will service, sacrifice, and country mean to them?

It is wonderful that we have a proud, willing veteran in our family to share experiences but unfortunately, I can count on one hand the number of service men and women we know.  Outside of my grandfather, Bubbe and The Skootch have had only the opportunity to interact with veterans or those in active duty during elementary and religious school programs.  And as Op-Ed columnist, Maureen Dowd recently noted, with “one percent of the population voluntarily enlisting in the service,” it is likely that in the future, my boys will be exposed more regularly to comic book heroes than to everyday ones.

Thankfully sacrifice, service, character, and citizenship are still being communicated in schools, through extra-curricular activities, at houses of worship and in our homes.  Still, teaching young people the value of contributing to the greater good feels piecemealed, fit in, and a vehicle for resume padding.

The potential for further disconnect in these formal settings seems imminent now that such lessons are being muscled from the spotlight by college, career readiness, English Language Arts requirements and STEM.  In my state, there is even a motion to de-emphasize Social Studies.

Israeli citizens get it.  Out of necessity, conscription exists for most of the country’s Jewish Israeli population.  Upon turning 18, men and women are obligated to serve in the military for three and two years, respectively.  As a result, my 65 year old friend can relate directly to the experiences of an active soldier as well as identify with the five year old who knows he will one day fill those shoes.  There, generations of citizens connect through collective responsibility and common experience.

In 2010, my husband Mac’s Letter to the Editor was published in The New York Times in response to the article, “The Way We Treat Our Troops” which in part offered support for a mandatory draft.  The guy was onto something.  He wrote:

“If the good problem arises where we have an abundance of young people in the military during peacetime, they could be deployed toward other national services like helping the elderly, the indigent and the disabled or for cleanup after national disasters, mentoring children and so on.  America is a terrific place to live; if young people gave something back and worked alongside other Americans from all walks of life, it would tie us closer together as a country.”

In February 2013, New York State Congressman Charles Rangel introduced a most recent version of the Universal National Service Act to the House of Representative’s Armed Services Committee.

The bill requires all persons between the ages of 18 and 25 living in the United States, citizen or otherwise to perform two years of national uniformed or civilian service.  Those choosing uniformed service may also be inducted during wartime, a national emergency, or a contingency operation.  This CrossFit junkie would add that prior to selecting a service type; able-bodied participants attend basic training in cohorts.  There is something to be said for intense, group exercise.  It fosters camaraderie, physical and emotional growth, and team pride.

To date, the bill has not moved in Congress.

Yes.  I realize the devil is in the details and that bigger government doesn’t necessarily translate into better outcomes.  Yes.  We do have a responsibility to teach our children in our families and community about service, sacrifice, and selfless giving.  And yes, I too wonder about the mandatory component of such a program in a free society.

Regardless, I think it is time to take meaningful action.

Perhaps a national service requirement will shift expectations for and alleviate pressure on high school students, change the way the college admissions process is managed, reduce some of the direct financial burden on families trying to pay for higher education, and offer guidance for college graduates looking to take the next step.

More importantly, perhaps it will build awareness and understanding for soldiers and veterans suffering trauma, make care and reentry a priority for when they return home, and simply bring us closer as a nation.

“Our debt to the heroic men and valiant women

in the service of our country can never be repaid.

They have earned our undying gratitude.

America will never forget their sacrifices.”

-President Harry S Truman

There is a way to repay veterans like Joe.

Poppie in the navy

Let us step away from the sideline to work in tandem with those on the front line in an effort to strengthen and preserve the solidarity of an already great nation.

Let us pay the toll.