Tom had joined the army at the age of eighteen. He was a combat veteran, having served two tours of duty in Bosnia during the conflict there in the 1990’s. He’d continued to serve, rising to the rank of sergeant and took part in other conflicts around the world. Eventually he left the army in his early thirties having been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
In the years that followed he found it hard to adjust to
civilian life. Most of his relationships had ended badly. He would binge drink
and found himself leaping straight intro survival mode every time a door
slammed, or a car backfired. In all this time though he continued to receive
support from the army as a veteran. He had counselling and psychotherapy, he
took part in activities aimed at helping him adjust and manage stress. However,
he still had flashbacks, nightmares and carried a lot of internalised anger he
would take out on those closest to him. He lived in a state of hyper vigilance,
perceiving everything as a potential threat.
One day he received an invitation to a reunion of his old
regiment. He was torn about this. As much as he’d love to go, he feared too
many reminders of the things he’d experienced. Wanting to see old faces he felt
a connection with but fearing he’d get drunk and become angry, ranting about
lack of care and support. He feared being triggered in a way that would send
him into an emotional spiral. It had been a while since his last therapy, but
he decided he’d go and see a counsellor again to try to find clarity.
During his first session he talked of his anger at how he
believed he had been mistreated, forgotten about and sent to see one
‘specialist’ after another for his PTSD. He talked about his constant state of
anger, anxiety and depression and never being ‘normal. When the therapist tried
to normalise his feelings, given his experiences, he became aggressive. He said
he didn’t like counselling as it was what the army offered. CBT was too
prescriptive and didn’t like being told what to do to think differently. He
didn’t like the other types of therapies either. He was angry, saying his
relationship with his mother had nothing to do with what he saw on the
battlefield. He snarled that if the last counsellor he saw had asked him one
more time how he felt about that he would’ve strangled him. He warned this new
therapist he didn’t want to hear him repeat what he’d just said back to him. The
counsellor asked him, ‘So what do you need?’
Tom was stuck. He’d heard this question many times but there
was something different this time. This time there was a specific agenda. He had
to make a choice, but he didn’t know how. He didn’t know what to say.
In the following sessions the therapist didn’t ask too much
about his experiences in the army but rather asked him questions about who he
was, what he did for a living, his relationships and so on. Tom found himself
talking more and more about his life as it is now. He talked about his
relationship with his wife, his love for his daughter, his hobby oil painting.
The reunion date was that weekend, and as he talked about
his life today, he feared more and more that would be taken away and he might
find himself back where he started. He decided he wouldn’t go. He and the
counsellor agreed one more session for the following week as a review of the
work they’d done together.
Tom arrived at his last session a different man. The
counsellor acknowledged this and asked what had happened. Tom said he’d had a
change of heart and had went to the reunion after all. He had feared he would
be triggered, and indeed he had been but not in the ways he expected. When he
saw uniforms and flags, instead of seeing a battlefield he remembered the pride
he felt when he put the uniform on for the first time at the age of eighteen.
He saw friends he hadn’t saw in years and they all talked about having gotten
divorced, married, become fathers, been educated in new areas. Some had applied
the skills they’d learned in the army and were now in satisfying jobs. They had
all moved on and grown. Then one person asked if anyone remembered the football
tournament they’d started with the neighbouring villages and everyone laughed as
they remembered the fun and ridiculous times. A six-month tournament what
included amazing goals, near misses, arguments with referees that couldn’t
speak English and so on. The night ended with tears of laughter and instead of
sorrow or bitterness, reflection.
Tom said he realised all these years he had been focusing on
the traumatic stress, not the traumatic growth. He had attended college, got
married to his soul mate and was now father to a beautiful daughter whom he
loved dearly. He ran a successful business and employed six people.
He had wanted the memories to go away rather than integrate
them. He had wanted to forget rather than learn and grow. All the therapy and
support had received over the years had helped – sometimes a lot sometimes less
so. However, he never acknowledged it. He didn’t pay attention to the accumulative
affect it all had. He felt he had spent the last fifteen years painting by
numbers – looking at one piece and one colour at a time, not stepping back to
look at the bigger picture he had been painting, and when he did only seeing
the bits he hadn’t painted yet.
He realised he had needed to update his memory, look at his world as it is now and in a more balanced way. All the coping strategies and supports were of no real help unless he paid attention to how and when to apply them, to build on his successes and work on areas he needed to develop. He remembered the quote on the counsellor’s wall from Carl Jung, “I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become”. All he had to do was give himself permission.
Albeit this is a fictitous story of someone struggling with PTSD, when we forget to acknowledge our growth or appraise ourselves and the world around us in a more balanced way, we can become stuck. When we connect, reconnect and utilize our supports and resources, the trauma doesn’t go away, but we can allow it to inform us, not make decisions for us.
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