This is essentially a re-post of an entry I did back in September of 2013 entitled, 'Dealing with PTSD, Depression, and Suicide as a friend or family member.' I was brought back to this upon it being shared by a friend of mine who's begun a group called, General Order Zero who's goal is, "designed to raise awareness of the impact the veteran/service member suicide epidemic is having on our country through various channels, and to remind our ranks that we are only as strong as the combined efforts of our forces." Their plan is to do this by using real stories, from real veterans, in a future documentary regarding the subject. Upon reading what I wrote back then, I decided that it was time to revisit the subject and update both the writing as well as some of the subject matter in the hopes of making the message stronger and therefore increasing the likelihood that it will be beneficial to those who read it.
This post is going to deviate slightly from the basic premise of this blog. If you've read any of the previous posts you're aware that this blog was started to discuss my day to day life as the now husband and caretaker of a disabled veteran. While some of the subjects I'll discuss today are relevant to that, the overall theme is more about what we can do as friends and family to help returning veterans as they make the tough transition to civilian life. Being that I'm also writing this on the 12th anniversary of 9/11, I'd also like to point out that many of those who work in public service; law enforcement, paramedics, EMT's, emergency room attendants, also face various amounts of hell on a daily basis as well and should be included here.
Before I begin, for anyone new to this blog, I myself am not a veteran. I'm also not a firefighter, EMT, or LEO. I'm married to a vet and friends with other's who've served as well as those involved with law enforcement and other public services. I'm also not one of those people who hangs on in an attempt to distract attention away from their accomplishments and service or garner something for myself. I met Shawna on-line knowing nothing of her past, my cop friends are people I've been hanging out with since high school or earlier, and the two vets (who also stood with me at my wedding) ironically became friends through an ex-girlfriend (one is her brother-in-law.) In actuality, I try to distance myself from all of them if the topic of service, be it military or public, comes up because the idea of stealing someones valor, intentionally or unintentionally makes me sick to my stomach. I'm just a regular guy who's met some great people along the way in life and like everyone, they have a back story.
So where am I going with today's post? Being friends with people who've seen and been through so much has given me a unique perspective into dealing with PTSD and depression as both a friend and a family member. This does not, by any means, imply that I know everything. It doesn't even mean I know a little about the subject to be quite honest. But one thing I do know is that it's real. I've seen the breakdowns. I've seen the tears. I've heard the stories. I've seen the stares off into space. And I've witnessed the quick subject changes that come when a topic hits a little too close to home. Today's post is just a mix of what's worked for me and what may help you as a loved one. Some are perhaps things you've heard before but I've also included some you may not have thought of. I also leave this open to comments from people with far more knowledge than I; including those who are or have dealt PTSD, Depression, and thoughts of Suicide.
1.) If you weren't there, don't attempt to correlate what they went through to an experience you had:
Your high school sports team is not the same as being in a military unit. I know this and many others know this. However, from what I've heard and read from those who've been in the military, apparently many people do not. You're comparing apples to donuts. Simply being on a team at some point in your life does not equate to serving in a unit where not having each other's back or making a mistake can cost sever injury or even death to another. Similarly, dealing with death is also different. While your grandma's passing was a tough time I'm sure, having your friend die in battle right in front of you is going to play much more traumatically in your mind. Take a second, close your eyes and imagine someone you really love: a best friend, child, spouse. Now think about them dying in some gruesome way. Does it still feel the same as getting a phone call that your great aunt died? If it does, there's something seriously fucking wrong with you. If someone feels close enough to open up to you about something terrible, keep your ears open and your mouth shut and let them get it out. Perhaps ask a few questions if you feel comfortable enough doing so. But remember, it's their time. Don't steal those needed moments from them.
2.) Don't ask stupid questions:
I think the famous one that idiots ask is, "Did you kill anyone other there?" This can be followed with, "How many people did you kill?" and "what's it like to kill someone?". I mean, really? Is our culture really that fucking dense that we still think it's OK to ask these questions? If you're an adult, there is no reason to think that such behavior is acceptable. The only group that has some understanding when asking such things is children because they're most likely associating war, shootings, death, ect with things they've seen on TV. And I think that's OK to a point. It's an opportunity to teach them something and most vets I've talked to, while uncomfortable about it obviously, have understanding when it comes to being asked by those who have no reason to understand. However, if you're an adult and being that insensitive and ignorant you deserve the fist you may receive in the mouth. Sorry, but you're supposed to be a grown up. There are more than enough reference materials floating around now that you should be well aware of what's acceptable.
3.) Don't be in a hurry:
Chances are if someone is comfortable enough to begin talking to you about their experience or experiences it's not all going to come out at once. As a matter or fact, most people don't reveal everything about too many topics in a single sitting. It will come out over time and you have to realize that. It may take months or years to learn everything. You may never get all the information. But you need to exercise patience. Let them talk at their own pace. What they may not trust revealing now they may over time once they work it out in their own mind. Perhaps you haven't built up enough trust with them for them to get into too much detail. That's OK, it really is. There's no need to poke and prod to try and satisfy your own curiosity and there's no guarantee that the faster they talk about something the faster they'll begin to move past, or at least come to terms with it. Respect and work with the process. It'll go much better for the both of you.
4.) You're going to be uncomfortable:
It's a reality that if you've never experienced war and someone is attempting to open up to you about it, you're going to be somewhat uncomfortable about what they're telling you. I know the first few times I was a trusted ear, I sure as hell was. I think sometimes it's where issue where number one arises. You're uncomfortable and rather than feel that way you attempt to fill in the blank space. Do yourself and your loved one a favor: Don't. Again, it's their time so let them have it. There will be times later to discuss other things but now is not it.
5.) Reach out...and don't stop:
I believe it's important for these people to know that A.) You care, B.) You're available, and C.) You have their back. If you've called your buddy and invited him over or out for a beer 5 times and he's declined, make the call a 6th, 7th, 100th time. Remember, it's not about you and your pride. Perhaps they'll stop answering your calls for awhile but there's a lot to be said for looking at your missed call list and seeing a friend or families number on there repeatedly when you're going through a tough time. Stop by and see how they're doing. Make them dinner and drop it off from time to time. Offer to take them on a hiking trip or to a ball game or something that interests or interested them previously. Just make sure they know you're there if and/or when they need you.
6.) Do your own research:
By doing your own research I'm not talking about clinical research; I'm talking about research that may help you gain an understanding of what it is they went and are going through. I have pages on facebook that I follow for this simple reasons. It's from one of them that I actually had the idea for this article. It's a veteran owned and operated site and this week they've been publishing blog posts about PTSD and suicide among returning vets. You can learn a lot from people who've been there and are now willing to discuss it. You can gain insight as to what's going on in their mind and by having that it may help you react if the time ever comes when someone close to you is going through it. Another valuable resource for me has been the works of Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, author of 'On Killing' and 'On Combat'. These two books are great in my opinion not only for Leo's and soldiers, but also for those who see the indirect results of combat on a consistent basis.
7.) Talk to them in a way that allows them to talk back:
If they're someone you care about talk to them. And don't talk at them, talk to them. And yes, there's a difference. Don't attempt to tell someone how they should feel or try to put a time line on when they may begin feeling better or moving past what's bothering them. It doesn't work like that no matter how much you want it too. It all goes back to number 2. Just because it makes you uncomfortable doesn't give you the right to be a selfish asshole. You don't and can't know what's going on in their mind. Again, what you can do is be there for them. I've heard a lot of stories that I won't repeat here or anywhere else because it would violate a trust I hold dear but needless to say I've heard some pretty horrible accounts of things. However, here's where it gets tricky for most people. I listened rather than talked through most of it. Let me say that again...I L.I.S.T.E.N.E.D! I was shown an unimaginable amount of trust and in that moment you have to realize that it's not about you; it's about them. I tend to ask some questions but that all comes down to the relationship you have with that person and your own insight into who they are. It also comes down to your own general intelligence and whether or not you think you can ask questions that are appropriate. Not everyone has that insight into themselves and if you don't think your questions will be helpful, just listen and let them talk.
8.) Don't make fun of, bully, or patronize, ect.
My wife actually led me to this one from a story that happened to us (she's given me permission to share). We hadn't been together for only a few months when one night while lying on the couch we heard this very loud "bang" that I actually thought was a shotgun going off. Living as close as we did to my family, it was not unheard of to hear something like that for me as rodents have been dispatched from time to time throughout my childhood. However, Shawna was shaking and flush colored from being startled so suddenly. I went outside to search out the source but could find no sign of anyone and was left shaking wondering what the hell the sound was. Awhile later I went to the fridge and found that a can of biscuits had built up enough pressure to explode open. It was funny then but what she appreciated was that I laughed (along with her) about it later. I didn't judge her or make fun; I had enough understanding from talking to her previously to know that loud, unexpected noises were troublesome. Fireworks are another trigger for her and many, many other veterans as are heavily populated areas. Not every trigger can be avoided, but using someone else's emotional breaks for your own amusement can be. Do what you can to bring them back to their comfort zone and perhaps later on, when the time is right you can both have a laugh at it.
9.) Seek your own help:
I have no experience in the mental health field. I have an interest in psychology and human behavior so I read and study it somewhat as a hobby but a professional I am not. That being said, it can be helpful to have someone to talk to yourself. Not only can you discuss your own thoughts and feelings in a place that won't judge you or your friend/loved one, but they can potentially give you helpful tools and advice. I know there can be a stigma for getting mental health help but the reality is that there's nothing wrong with it. Seeking advice from someone who's made it their life's work to study, analyze, and understand the human mind is no different than going to a mechanic to have work done on your car. It's what they do and they have a much better understanding than anyone else on the subject. Use the tools and information available to you. It'll help you and your loved one.
10.) Don't simply pay lip service:
If you say you're there for them, follow it up with actions and not just words. If they reach out, pick up the phone. Sure, there are times in life where you can't just drop everything to show up in person but there are other ways to help. Put them into contact with another trusted ally, find numbers and resources that may help and then check in on them when you can so they know you're not filling them full of shit. I'm in no way saying that you give devote your whole life to them (though I'm not judging if you choose to do so. That's a personal choice) but if you say you're there to help, be there to help. If you can't, be upfront with them about it. Most of the time people are simply looking for honesty. Be honest about what you can and can't do.
I'm not going to lie, it's not always easy. Our vets and public servants are not only dealing with the trauma; they also get to deal with the current stigma associated with PTSD as well as the knowledge that they're not the same person and the strain it can put on those around them. What we can do as friends and family is let them know that we can handle it. That it's ok for them to let it out and that we love them and are there for them when and if they need it. That we're not going to run from them in their time of need like they didn't run when we needed them. Do things change overnight? Nope. It's a long haul thing and there's no guarantee things will go back to the way they were previously. However, it's rewarding. It's rewarding like nothing else that can be imagined. To let someone know that you're going to have their back through thick and thin, through good times and bad; that you're not going to leave them just because things are hard...that's not a little thing. That's one of the big ones.