Disclaimer: This may turn out to be a clumsy post. I don’t want to insult anyone with any inappropriate references or seeming to make light of or diminish anyone’s career or calling or history of service. If I get clumsy with my terminology and come across sounding like an idiot, please accept my apologies. But I think what I’m about to say is important, so I’m going to take a shot.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’ve read about the movie Restrepo, a feature-length documentary that chronicles the deployment of a platoon of US soldiers in Afghanistans Korengal Valley. I’ve been thinking about one brief scene that someone described — a soldier being asked what he was going to do when he gets home and doesn’t have the constant adrenaline rush of war anymore.
He said, “I don’t know.”
See, this is the thing — with soldiers returning from the front, as well as TBI survivors who once lived fast-paced, action-packed lives. Logistically and qualitatively, there’s really no comparison between the constant life-and-death struggles of active-duty soldiers and, say, an acqusitions and mergers attorney. But biochemically, they’re much more similar to each other than to folk who aren’t bathed in a daily biochemical wash of super-amped-up stress hormones.
When you get bumped out of the front, thanks to TBI (or PTSD), what do you do?
We don’t know.
When it comes to addressing the issues of TBI/PTSD survivors who come from prolonged exposure to biochemical fight-flight extremes — especially when that exposure was in service to a larger-than-life, well-defined structure (in the case of m&a attorneys, the firm(s) handling the transactions and the rules of the game played… in the case of soldiers, the military culture and the rules of engagement). You have a very well-defined structure around you, you’re bound by that structure to follow certain rules, and the structure also defines for you what it is you’re supposed to do within very well-established parameters. And within those parameters, you participate in some of the most taxing and harrowing experiences the human system can endure. The structure, the order, the machine… it all makes it possible for you to do more than you ever dreamed you could — both for good and for ill.
It’s the highest of the highs. It’s the lowest of the lows. And over time, if your system is exposed to enough of those fluctuations without a chance to balance it out — the parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system gets out of practice, since it’s constantly pushed out of the way by the sympathetic (fight-flight-fake-it) nervous system — you get stuck in gear. Like the cable of your clutch goes on you when you’re in the fast lane hauling ass out of Los Angeles.
And then you get hurt. Or you get sent home. Or your tour ends.
And then what?
You get out of the hospital/rehab. You try to settle in at home. You look for something to fill the void left by the absence of your colleagues or comrades in arms. Everyone is telling you, “Relax… Take it easy… Calm down…” But the very things that kept you going all those months/years, the very things that made you who and what you ARE… well, they’re gone.
And how does a ghost relax? How does a shadow take it easy? How does a shell calm down?
Getting injured, getting hurt, getting fired/discharged… There’s more to it than just losing your place in the rank and file. You actually lose yourself. Who are you, if you aren’t doing the things you’ve strived to do, month after month, year after year? Who are you, if you don’t have that structure to work in, the rules to define you, the culture to tell you you’re needed?
This, to me, is the most debilitating aspect of TBI — and probably PTSD, too. It’s not just some hurt that needs to be healed or some biochemical imbalance that needs to be righted. It’s a crushing, diminishing, awful loss of the very essence of who you’ve become. And the rest of the “civilian” world — unless they’ve been in that life — cannot possibly understand how insulting it is when they tell you to relax, calm down, take it easy.
Who you are and what you are is about doing and being the exact opposite. Because that’s what you do. You don’t relax. You don’t calm down and mellow out. You don’t take it easy. Because you have a job to do. You have a mission to accomplish. And because you are who you are, you cannot and will not rest, till you finish the job.
Some of us need missions. We need a structure, a higher purpose, a job to do. We need someone to tell us This Is The Priority, so we can pitch in and do our part. We need to be part of something bigger (and badder) than ourselves, and lose ourselves in service. Some of us are not part of the cult of personality, but part of the brother-/sister-hood of service, whose very essence is refined and shaped by our selfless dedication to the Higher Good. We dedicate our lives and our whole selves to duty and to making a difference in the world — not for the sake of our own glory, but because that’s who we are.
And we need a mission.
Coming home — whether from the front or the hospital — or getting up after a fall, climbing out of a wrecked car, or waking up after being knocked out, we are not the same people as we were before the events that re-shaped our lives. But we still need direction and purpose. In the absence of the larger structures (which no longer have need of our broken selves), it’s up to us to find in ourselves where we want to serve, how we wish to contribute. I firmly believe that each and every one of us, no matter how damaged, has a role to play and a place to fill. If we haven’t got the coordination or the cognitive ability we had before, there are other ways we can pitch in and help out. If we haven’t got the old skills we once had, we have the ability to develop new ones, perhaps ones we never thought we’d have/need.
Once injured, once hurt, once damaged by the world we once participated so fully in, it can be all too easy to get lost in the shuffle.
But if we step up, we can make a fresh start, with a new mission, with a new way, a new dedication. We may not have the old structures around us, but we can find and/or create new ones. This is something we can do.
For some of us, it’s something we have to do.
What’s your mission?