So, I am back doing what I truly enjoy - Meeting with men in a PTSD group - soldiers and first responders - to help them understand what trauma and PTSD is all about so they can find a way ‘out of the box’. People who are willing to go into harm’s way can be the toughest people you will ever meet; they have to be that way to face the unimaginable and there can be no room for a weak moment where you might lose focus. And, they are also the people who will drop everything to be there for a buddy in need, care for a wounded animal, or defend the powerless with no fuss and no expectation of recognition or even a thank you. The biggest fear for many is that they may not up to the next task. I think they (we) can learn to be too tough and let’s not kid ourselves; people who are tough and dialed-in are respected. As things build up over the years, maybe even starting before we join and continuing during the years of seeing and doing the job, we often get tougher to squeeze out the emotional side. We hammer ourselves to keep pushing forward. This means bottling up and controlling things like anger and helplessness, loneliness, guilt and sadness, or loss and grief. But, when all the crappy stuff is pushed away and we shut down that side of us, we also risk squeezing out the other stuff - like gentleness, enjoying our kids at play, having tears of joy, self-compassion (I don’t mean self-pity), feeling safe, hope, and tenderness - the things that make life worth living. We know how to be tough but not how to be vulnerable, nobody ever taught us the skill of lowering the shield, of not being the protector. And, the shield has to be lowered from the inside because people hammering at it from the outside usually ends in making it stronger – tempered steel!
But, here’s what the guys say – “I am trapped behind the mask but I am something entirely different inside, I am alone and cut-off, or I am just so tired of having to be ready for anything.” When guys can find a place, often with their peers - the people who matter – they slowly learn to trust and to lower their guards and the true miracle I get to witness is that they start to come back to life. This is not easy work, and it is work, because everyone fears being turned into bowls of mush. But, that’s not the goal at all! To be a strong man (I do not mean to exclude women here but the fact is that I mostly work with men) means learning the balance of knowing when to draw on the tough side - the protector - and when to ask for support to let the vulnerable, human side out to have a say, as well. This is why I work with men who have learned to be too strong; and in the end it may be at the heart of what we call OSIs and PTSD. There is such a thing as being worn down by being too tough.
John J. Whelan
John J. Whelan, Ph.D., is the author of Going Crazy in the Green Machine, available now on FriesenPress.