Someone once threatened to bash my face in. It scared the hell out of me. I knew in my heart that wouldn’t happen, but it kept me awake at night. It had me looking over my shoulder in the stores where I could run into this person. It was the background chatter in my life for two weeks. I was always on edge, wondering what I did wrong, rehashing my every interaction with this person. I was shaky and all-the-time upset. My self-worth sank and suddenly I felt very alone.
After two weeks of suffering, I consulted a counselor about this sudden case of deep stress. We arranged to meet and she helped me gain distance from the incident and also manage my feelings. It’s not something I usually talk about.
But every time I hear about our soldiers coming home from war and transitioning to civilian life, I am reminded of how paralyzing post-traumatic stress can be. If I felt so much after once being threatened, how much more do our soldiers feel? They, who have lived with war day in and day out for months and years navigating with the constant barrage of enemy fire and casualties, so far from home.
Approximately one in every three soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan return with PTSD, substance abuse, traumatic brain injury or depression. I wonder if some of these conditions aren’t further exacerbated by the fact that we have sterilized war. We no longer see it blaring in on the TV screen. We do not see its horrors and the cost to individual life. There is no public witness for the grief, the rage, or remorse.
Whether you believe in war or peace, whether you think what America does overseas is right or not, is irrelevant. I’m talking about the fact that we, as a public, no longer recognize those who return.
Every night during the Vietnam War, I watched the flag draped coffins coming off the planes. I heard the names of the fallen read. We saw the soldiers fighting on TV, sights of horror, repugnant to most. War is not pretty. But today’s unwillingness to look and see and hear, and witness, keeps some of our bravest cloaked in invisibility as they return home. That’s not pretty either.
Even our language impersonalizes war. I remember the first time I heard the phrase, “Eighteen troops were killed today.” I wondered how many were in a troop, until it was explained to me that a troop was one person. Our fallen young men and women have become troops and casualties instead of a soldier, a man or a woman, who died.
And so I wonder if the effects of PTSD might be ameliorated, even a wee bit, if we could welcome home, celebrate and reintegrate our soldiers coming back from war with an honoring, a ritual, a simple salute.
PTSD is a harsh glaring reality, an ever-present feeling of unease, insecurity, a lack of safety, a fear. Feeling isolated and alone without connection, not trusting what lies around the next corner. I know it well.
There is a tendency to want to put the lid on top of all those feelings, to try to handle it alone. (Just like this country puts a lid on looking at war.) As if in stuffing down what we feel, it will simply go away. But that’s like putting a lid on top of a pot of boiling water. Put a top on boiling water and it will only boil faster until it eventually spills over. The opposite is what is needed. Adding cool water will slow the rolling boil to a more manageable level. It will cool the fire down. To be able to take the lid off, look into the pot, and witness, is sometimes what is needed.
If you are veteran of war struggling to transition back to civilian life, or a soldier re-enlisting in a few short weeks, there is help. There is help and healing even through your own creativity.
William Shakespeare said it best when he wrote: “Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak whispers the o’er fraught heart and bids it break.”
What this means is that your grief needs a witness in order to heal. (Or your suffering, anxiety, anger, sorrow or rage.)
It means that you need to find someone or something that hears you deeply. That accepts and sees you in your grief – with love. Having a witness provides you with an avenue and means for releasing the sorrow, the grief, the anger, the burden, the worry and fear, the loss and the tears. Holding it inside so very close to one’s heart without a witness keeps you locked in loneliness and “whispers the o’er fraught heart and bids it break.” Having a witness helps you to see your way out of the darkness.
Grief is an emotion that needs some form of expression. The form of expression and even the witness can be words on a page, a story, a poem or song, paint on a canvas, dancing movement or quiverous shaking, singing to a tree, carving a stone, building a boat, or talking to God.
You can pen a book, shoot a film, or build an empire or create something, anything, to serve others in their time of need and to remind yourself that in your grief you are not alone. In journaling you do not die with your feelings of loss, but slowly they are transformed so something beautiful may grow from your pain.
If you are in immediate need to slow the rolling boil or to express yourself, here is a safe practice with a few options that can help.
1. Get a pen and paper and find a place or space where you won’t be interrupted.
2. Write. It doesn’t matter what you write. Or you can choose from the below.
a. Write about whatever is bothering you
b. Or write about anything at all.
c. Write about the present moment.
Record what you observe in your immediate environment. Be as specific as you can be.
Here are questions to guide you.
What do you see in your environment?
What do you hear?
What do you taste on your tongue?
What do you feel against your skin?
What do you feel in your bones?
What is the temperature in your home?
What is the weather outside?
How is your body sitting?
What are you sitting on?
What is the surface that you are writing on?
How does breath feel moving into your body?
How does your left big toe feel?
How is your right knee positioned?
What thoughts are running through your head?
What are you feeling in your gut? In your heart?
For example, describe the hum of a fridge in the background, or what the cool air feels like on your skin. Describe the texture of the wooden table you write on, or how your body is positioned in the chair. What do you see and witness out the window? Simply observe and write. If in this writing, you are drawn into an exploration of what you are thinking and feeling, then go there.
d. Combines the above practices.
Start by writing in the present moment and write into whatever is bothering you or into anything at all. Then end your five minutes of journaling by writing yourself back into the present moment. If you have the time, take 10 or 15 minutes to do this.
3. Return with ten slow breaths. Feel your hands and your feet in space, and feel yourself in the chair.
4. Congratulate yourself on trying something new. Take a few more moments with yourself before proceeding on with your day.
5. Find someone you feel safe with and whom will lovingly listen to your words.
Grace, a woman who came to one of my classes, wanted to continue with the spiritual journal she kept but she also wanted to explore unresolved issues that kept creeping up in her life, her “problems” and “patterns,” she said.
I asked her to begin writing from the present moment, right from where she was. Noting her internal environment including how she was feeling, her body and breath, and also noting her external environment: the sound of the fountain, the people walking by, the blue sky, the color of the mosaics on the round table from where she wrote.
“Let the sounds of your breath and the fountain or how you are feeling in this moment take you into the dance of what you wish to explore,” I told her. “Then from the depth of what you are exploring, write and spiral back to the present moment and to your own Presence.”
She wrote for ten minutes, put down her pen then looked up and smiled. She proclaimed, “You know, that was good. My problems aren’t as big as I thought they were.”
When you write from the present moment into a problem or issue and then write yourself back to the present, you gain clarity and perspective. You acknowledge the past and give honor to your feelings, and to what occurred. Then, by writing yourself forward to now, you greet this moment. You rediscover yourself in the simple and powerful present.
Albert Einstein said, “You cannot solve a problem from the same consciousness that created it. You must learn to see the world anew.” Journaling helps you see the world anew.
Your journaling practice, should you choose to start, coupled with relaxation or meditation, are valuable tools. They will help you gently empty out the old musty closets of the past to bring you into the present and the joy of your own Presence.
I tell my students that the empty blank page is like God, able to hear your every word and thought, feeling and prayer. Capable of turning tears into strength, sadness into laughter, sorrows to joy.
Congratulations. You’ve just begun.
The next article in this series will be about writing beyond trauma and grief with The Voice of Compassion and with what you would love to create.
Parts of this article are excerpted from the book,
“Journaling for Well-Being & Peace” by Elizabeth Welles