It is not a surprise to hear that men and women who grew up in stressful environments may be attracted to military life. Whether their histories included physical or sexual abuse, or bullying, in my experience, they are tough survivors. They had to be that way to get by – they know the skill of dissociating from strong emotions through zoning out, fighting back, drinking or drug use, or buckling down to be over-achievers. So, apart from what people may think, abused or traumatized children often grow up to be resilient, tough-minded, and reliable people who do extremely well within high intensity jobs. When the emotional toll of the job begins to wear them down, understandably, many of them go back to the coping skills that worked for them earlier in life. They learned to mistrust other people and to keep secret the things they got through on their own - they know how to rely on themselves when they are hurt. They also learned early in life that emotions are dangerous because they equate to exposing a weakness or stirred up fears that they would fall apart or go crazy.
What are we to make of the fact that these men and women can also be traumatized and experience things like PTSD just like other people who had a healthy development? There is a simplistic and incorrect belief that childhood abuse causes adult PTSD because of some weakness. I don’t think it is weakness at all. In fact, I think the opposite - they are too tough! When tough soldiers or policemen come forward with mental health issues, they have a much harder time trusting people they don’t know, have a harder time recognizing and valuing their inner emotions, and are continually tempted to ignore other people and go back to their early coping skills. Learning to trust someone to help them and to lower their emotional guards are the toughest challenges most of them will face. They have all the skills of being tough but have not learned the skill of being vulnerable – another basic part of the human condition. So, if we are to talk about developmental abuse and adult mental health issues we need to talk about the legacy of developmental abuse as a skill deficit not as a weakness.
John J. Whelan
John J. Whelan, Ph.D., is the author of Going Crazy in the Green Machine, available now on FriesenPress.