We are often led to believe that everyone who experiences trauma and PTSD are the same. The events that trouble people may be the same but there are major differences between those people who recover quickly (within about 6 months) and other people who struggle for years and decades later. Recovered people tend to face the situation or ask for help from others relatively quickly, they usually have a support system in place that they use actively, they trust in other people, they are willing to let their emotions show if needed, and they refuse to be a victim and tend to actively engage in correcting their situation. People who struggle tend to be those who learned early in life how to be tough and to rely only on themselves, many of them are loners and while they will go out of their way to help anybody they do not ask for or know how to accept help from others, they dismiss emotions as weakness and as a source of embarrassment, and they are often bitter and secretly blame other people for their situations.
The things that help people move beyond PTSD can be summarized by the following:
1. Revisit - Many people rehash bad memories and events on their own but rarely do they check it out with other people who were part of the event. Sometimes, this means telling other people about one’s fear that they failed or that they were let down by other people. Two veterans had ended up in a group I was running by co-incidence; they revisited a terrible incident from a decade earlier and the effect on the younger veteran was nothing short of liberating. Revisiting means getting off your chest whatever it is that you have to say about what happened in a safe environment or even a therapy session. It does not come down to a finger-pointing event but a mature way to get the facts straight.
2. Re-evaluate – Be willing to hear other people’s perspective and be willing to accept what they have to say to you. If a formal step is needed to resolve a grievance then take it. The blame-resentment approach tends to keep the past alive. Stoic people often need to take a second look at the usefulness of trying to go it alone.
3. Repair – For many people, this is a crucial step in moving ahead. Be willing to accept or to give an apology. Take corrective steps where possible, including amends to those harmed. I know of many veterans who have sought out old buddies or visited the gravesites and families of friends they lost years and decades earlier. Repair also means coming out of isolation and re-engaging with your group, section, or family. Remember, they have also missed you.
4. Recommit – Decide for yourself, honestly, whether you are still able to serve instead of having other people decide for you. The latter tends to fuel resentment and feeling betrayed. Whether you have ‘a new normal’ or not, visualize the person you want to be, in or out of uniform, and invest energy in becoming that person despite challenges or setbacks. We all need a direction in life; backwards is not the one to pick.
John J. Whelan
John J. Whelan, Ph.D., is the author of Going Crazy in the Green Machine, available now on FriesenPress.