An Open Letter to Soldiers with 'Mental Health' Issues
Are you a soldier or veteran who is supposed to have a ‘mental health’ issue such as anxiety, depression, schizophrenia or PTSD? If you are, then I have some suggestions for you to consider.
My first suggestion is that you ignore any label that you have been given. For example, the term ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’ (PTSD) is an inaccurate and unhelpful way of labelling the appropriate, diverse and complex emotional responses that a normal human being will have to emotionally disturbing events of the type that are experienced during war. It is inaccurate because the word ‘disorder’ suggests a normal individual should not have the responses they are having and it is unhelpful because the term suggests that many different individuals are having the same (dysfunctional) response.
Human beings have a brilliantly diverse and complex array of emotions and hence potential emotional responses as a result of the evolutionary pressures that shaped the emergence of hominids over millions of years. An extraordinary emotional capacity is one of the defining features of our humanity and, I would argue, far more important than any other feature such as our intellectual capacity.
Our emotions or, more simply, our feelings play the central role in determining our behaviour in any given circumstance. Whatever we do, we are responding to our feelings. If we are doing what we want to do, we are doing what we feel like doing. If we are not doing what we feel like doing, it is because our fear has been triggered sufficiently to override feelings that would otherwise have us doing something more functional and enjoyable. Regrettably, human ‘socialisation’ (that is, terrorisation) plays heavily on our fear during childhood in order to turn us into obedient slaves in the forms of student, worker/soldier and citizen. And this happens irrespective of our level of intelligence.
Unfortunately, once our fear has been utilised to suppress our awareness of how we genuinely feel and what we want to do, we are no longer able to access these feelings readily and we live our lives unconsciously and powerlessly submitting to the will of those we fear and the institutions they control. But the price for doing so is that our lives are no longer our own.
As a soldier or veteran who experienced violent trauma during your war service you have found yourself experiencing a level of emotional response that is very appropriate given your experience but which is both exacerbated and complicated by the sudden release of feelings that you had been suppressing since childhood.
The fear you felt while undertaking a mission that risked ambush or while under enemy fire was also triggering the monumental fear (of your parents, teachers and other adults) that you were scared into suppressing as a child.
The anger you feel about how you were treated and/or what happened to your buddies is merely the peak of the volcano of anger that you have been keeping the lid on since childhood.
The sadness you feel about what has happened to you and your buddies is only the tip of the iceberg of sadness you have been suppressing all of your life.
The guilt you feel, perhaps about the buddies you let down or could not save, or perhaps about the people you killed, is only the latest addition to the guilt you have been suppressing since childhood.
Do you think I am wrong? Then consider this. Were you ever allowed to show your fear as a child (and to act on it)? Were you allowed to cry freely and openly? Were you allowed to get angry (at being ‘done over’ or in defense of yourself)? As often as you needed? Or were you endlessly admonished and, one way or another, terrorised into behaving blandly (with ‘acceptable’ feelings like love and happiness tolerated in particular doses and circumstances).
So if you want to deal powerfully with all of the emotional symptoms that have arisen from your war service, here is my suggestion. Focus on feeling each and all of your feelings. If you wake from a nightmare, deliberately and consciously focus on the imagery in the nightmare while you feel just how terrified you are. Focus on this feeling for as long as you can. It will be horrendous and will take enormous courage. But, after a time, it will start to fade and you will feel some relief. When your fear arises again, in any context, pay conscious attention to it. You have been suppressing it all of your life; it just wants to be heard and felt so that you can let it go forever.
If you feel angry, instead of trying to suppress it, harming yourself or harming someone else (perhaps, even, someone you love), express your anger fully and completely but in a safe way. How? Here are some suggestions but you will need to decide what will work best for you. Get an axe and chop wood (thinking about utterly destroying who/what is making you angry: officers, politicians, parents, teachers…) until your anger has been vented. Or smash a bat or racquet into a mattress or cushion. Or scream (into a pillow if noise is an issue). Or punch a punching bag. If you feel angry you need to exert enormous physical effort to adequately express it. This might require several hours for any one session and you might need to do a great many sessions. Remember, you need to work off a lifetime of anger! If you can set up a safe space for your regular anger sessions, do so. Whatever you do, however, don’t waste your time saying or writing ‘I feel angry…’. And don’t waste a moment of your life in an ‘anger management’ course. Anger, like all emotions, needs to be expressed, not ‘managed’ (that is, suppressed).
Another reason why it is important that you express your anger as I have just suggested is because you will often discover afterwards that you are projecting your anger. Projection is another of the creative ways that your mind can use to give you a lead back to some of your suppressed feelings. Projection occurs, for example, when it feels like you are angry with your spouse for something she/he has done but, once you fully express the feelings, you realise that, in fact, while your spouse did something that unintentionally triggered your anger, most of the anger is actually about someone or something from your childhood. You cannot discover the source of the projection without fully expressing the feelings first. Many people who routinely abuse their spouse and/or children are trapped in a projection which is why their anger cannot lead to greater self-awareness. People often project their fear and sadness too: phobias are the result of projected fear, for example, while sad films enable some people to access their suppressed sadness.
If you feel sad or anxious or ashamed or guilty or in pain or despairing or depressed or hopeless or self-hating or humiliated or anything else, just let yourself feel it, deeply. And let it manifest in its own way: cry (if that is what happens when you feel sad), shake (if that is what happens when you feel anxious), feel guilty or hopeless, feel horrible or …. Deliberately. Consciously. For as long as it lasts.
If you feel a sensation in your body, such as muscle tension or a pain, focus on where you feel it and how it feels. Eventually, after feeling the feelings from this sensation (which might take very many sessions), you will discover why the sensation originated and learn what it is trying to teach you.
If you feel suicidal it will often be because you are unconsciously suppressing another shocking feeling that feels beyond your courage to feel consciously, such as the feeling of self-hatred for something shameful you have done, and suicide will seem the best way out. The suicidal feeling might also arise out a sense of hopelessness or a desire for release from enormous emotional and/or physical pain. Suicide is an option that no-one should ever take from you, and I would never do so, but I gently encourage you to focus on any suicidal feeling in the belief that the underlying feeling – self-hatred, pain or something else – will eventually be relieved and the urge to destroy yourself will pass allowing you to keep travelling the journey of healing.
At this point, I should add that consciously focusing on feeling physical pain (as a result of wounds or otherwise) is an important element of any comprehensive healing strategy too.
As you have realised by now, this process of feeling isn’t necessarily fun and my suggestion runs directly counter to our ‘feel good’ culture which emphasises ‘positive’ feelings while teaching you to suppress ‘negative’ ones. However, feeling your suppressed feelings will be, ultimately, liberating and will progressively restore you to a life of authenticity: a superior version of the life of dignity, honour and courage that you once had.
If new symptoms arise as you travel your healing journey and even if these involve difficult feelings, it will usually be a sign that you are making solid progress in uncovering the original sources of your emotional ill-health. These symptoms, if any, simply provide another opportunity for you to focus on how you feel. Take advantage of them until they fade so that you learn what they are teaching you.
Another suggestion I have is to alter your diet to the consumption of organically-grown, vegetarian whole (unprocessed) food so that your brain gets the nutrition it needs to heal and function well. This also means that you should discontinue using any drugs that are supposed to suppress your awareness of your anxiety, depression, PTSD… particularly given that psychiatric drugs might generate new symptoms, worsen your existing symptoms and/or even cause brain damage. If you are addicted (whether to psychiatric drugs, alcohol or illicit drugs), you might consider consulting a natural health practitioner (such as a homeopath or naturopath) who is familiar with assisting people to withdraw from drugs and to detoxify their bodies, or consider buying the Charlotte Gerson book Healing the Gerson Way: Defeating Cancer and other Chronic Diseases so that you can undertake Gerson Therapy at home to eliminate all of your physical drug addictions. Alternatively, you might consult the ‘Mad in America’ website for other methods on how to easily break your addictions.
In addition, I strongly encourage you to discontinue seeing all of those psychiatrists, psychologists, psychotherapists, counsellors and doctors (unless they qualify as specified below) who are more terrified of the natural expression of your feelings than are you (and probably only offer time-limited sessions). You need to feel all of your feelings which have been an appropriate emotional response to the terror and trauma of war and childhood. It is feeling our feelings that allows us to move on from violence and trauma to lead a meaningful life. Evolution is not stupid even if many of its human products have, indeed, been stupefied.
If you are lucky enough to know someone (relative, friend, buddy or professional) who feels capable of listening to you while you talk about violent/traumatic experiences (and thus enable your feelings to surface more readily) and you trust them to do so, I encourage you to take advantage of the listening. Ideally, this should happen on a daily basis with each session lasting for as long as you need it. Talk about your experiences (or don’t talk if you find this difficult) but spend time focusing on how you feel about these experiences. Choose an unpleasant memory from your past and focus on the feelings – sadness, fear, anger, shame, guilt… – that arise as you talk and then think about that memory. Keep replaying the memory as often as it feels productive to do so, until the feelings attached to that memory have all been felt and the memory is no longer difficult to contemplate. If the feelings attached to a particular memory feel too horrible for you to feel now, choose a memory with feelings that feel manageable and tackle them first. The more horrible memories will wait until you feel capable of feeling them because the courage you need to feel your worst fears will gradually accumulate.
The listener should listen in silence (even if you are not speaking) and, if capable of doing so, occasionally reflect any of your feelings they can hear ‘beneath’ the words you are speaking; for example, ‘You sound scared and guilty that you shot the wrong person’ or ‘You sound angry that you were ordered to raid the wrong house’. If the reflection is accurate, keep focusing on how you feel by imagining what is bringing up the feeling. If you feel like crying, then cry. If you need to get angry, do so in the way that works for you (as mentioned above). And so on. You are the only one who can interpret your feelings, nightmares, dreams and other emotional experiences and you should ask any listener to let you do so. Discourage any listener from reassuring or advising you; deal with the reality of how you feel, finally, and discover your own way forward.
If you don’t know anyone who can listen without being triggered into feelings of their own (because they are scared by what happened to you/them) then you are better off listening to yourself. That means having regular sessions, preferably on a daily basis, in a safe space you have created when you allow yourself to deliberately focus on traumatic experiences and to feel each and all of the feelings, sometimes in combination, that arise when you do. It will sometimes mean that you need to abandon what you were doing because something triggers a sudden rush of feelings that demand your attention immediately. Not very convenient I know, but neither was your traumatic experience in a war zone.
If you want more information about the process I have described above, see Anita McKone ‘Fearless Psychology and Fearful Psychology: Principles and Practice’.
How long will it take? For most of you it will take a very long time, perhaps several years of regular sessions. I would like to tell you otherwise but you have been lied to far too often already – there are no quick fixes to the emotional trauma you are suffering – and I won’t insult you by doing so again. Having said ‘it will take a very long time’, I will add that every individual has a unique healing journey and, whatever the difficult feelings involved, each session of feeling is a session of healing – which might reveal an important insight about your life – and will take you one step closer to regaining a superior version of the life you once had.
In essence, it is vastly superior strategy to provide yourself with a safe space in which your feelings can arise naturally so that you can feel and express them, safely and completely, rather than endlessly try to suppress them only to experience them bursting out periodically in ways that are beyond your control and might lead you to do something that you will regret (assuming that you live to do so).
If you have a spouse or child who has been traumatised by your behaviour since returning from a war zone (or for any other reason) or if you know fellow service men and women who are suffering from the emotional wounds of war, the information in this article is equally valid for them too. In fact, it is useful information for any person because, tragically, we were all terrorised during childhood.
Obviously, I haven’t dealt with every issue – like ‘How do I recover from the emotional devastation of my war experience when I need to work?’ or ‘How do I recover emotionally when my physical injuries are so extreme?’ – so I am going to have to trust you to work out answers to any unanswered questions. I am just giving you the best option for emotionally restoring yourself.
Finally, if your life experience generally or your war service in particular leaves you inclined to believe that humans can do better than inflict mass violence on each other in attempts to ‘resolve’ their conflicts, then you might consider signing online 'The People’s Charter to Create a Nonviolent World'.
In conclusion, I want to summarise your options, which are the options open to any human. You stand at the fork of two paths. The first path is the one that takes you further along the journey that you are travelling, offering you more of what you have now.
The second path, outlined above, offers you a long journey of difficult, frightening and painful emotional healing – with regular periods of relief and rewarding insights about your life – which will, if travelled, lead you to a superior version of your old life.
The third path, which will only open to you once you have travelled the second path for a considerable time, will provide an encounter with ever deeper layers of suppressed fear, sadness, pain, anger, shame, guilt, anxiety, dread, humiliation, self-hatred … terror, fury … until its end many years later (although your capacity to cope with such horror will be steadily growing all of the time). At the end of this third path, should you choose to travel it and once your final layer of suppressed terror has been felt, you will become the person that evolution intended you to be on the day you were born.
Biodata: Robert has a lifetime commitment to understanding and ending human violence. He has done extensive research since 1966 in an effort to understand why human beings are violent and has been a nonviolent activist since 1981. He is the author of ‘Why Violence?’ His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and his website is here.