Thanksgiving and the Grammar of Hope

At this time of the year, the American holiday of Thanksgiving, I am indeed thankful for so much: for my wife and children, my extended family, my friends and colleagues, the men and women whom I’m privileged to serve, both at the Indianapolis VA or in my private practice.

I am also very much thankful that for veterans who have suffered from combat trauma/PTSD, it is possible for life to get so “better enough,” they can finally just deal with the problems they would have had to have dealt with had they never been on a deployment.

The veteran I write about today is older than many I have written about, smart, handsome and debonair, well-educated and well-spoken, quite the combo, in other words. And for many years, he has suffered the effects of his combat experiences: a shortened military career, a loss of life direction, in the end a loss (in a manner of speaking) of his family.

But only in a manner of speaking.

He and his wife have known each other since childhood. He was to be the golden boy, she, his gal Friday. Because both are so talented–and so committed–each did his or her best to keep that story line going in the years after his combat experiences. They were reasonably successful, if you want to call the well-staged, day-to-day trickle of misery that was their lives reasonable. It was a trickle, though, no need to overstate it. There were many good times. Great (albeit challenging) kids came into their lives. But trickle, the misery did.

The following had been their original script: he was to make it big; she was to raise the kids and then, once they were raised, “find herself” and go on to make it big in her way. His bigness would have led to the bigger (and earlier) retirement, possibly with consulting jobs afterwards, so all was to have worked out evenly enough in the cosmic sense–and big.

But War happened.

He was fine, of course, after The War–or at least so he assured himself and the world. And indeed, as long as he kept himself within certain military/professional parameters, he was fine enough. Still, he was “not the same” after the War, as his wife and everyone else told him through the years, so a brittle, unspoken (though sometimes loudly-spoken) tension settled between the two of them.

But both were (and are ) good people, so she tried to adjust as long as she could, until finally she made a demand on him that could not be ignored, so he adjusted his career path in a way that finally could not be repaired, leading to a loss of all those tenuous parameters, to a deterioration on his part that forced her to “find herself” much sooner than had been called for in the script, that then caused him to question the cosmic order, that then caused The War to take on even more salience, that then eventually caused a . . .

. . . well, let’s call it a complicated situation. Yes, they are divorced, officially, that is. But, really, what’s a piece of paper between friends?

As he and I have worked together over the past year or so, he and she have spoken regularly. She made an excellent career move that took her far away from Indianapolis. He settled some matters in his life that needed to be settled. His nightmares have decreased. He has begun the process of forgiving himself for what he did, what he did not do, what he saw and did nothing about during The War. He has begun to imagine a future, even if he has no clue what that future might look like.

But still, for both of them, there’s that piece of paper . . .

She flew into town earlier this week. The two of them and their kids lunched together, then she and the kids headed out of the town for a few days. When she gets back in town, the two of them will have some time together to speak.

“You know, Doc,” he said to me earlier this week, “I have been thinking: maybe she and I are finally ready to move on with our lives.”

Hmm.  Come to think of it: no, I didn’t know that.

“What do you mean?”

“Neither one of us wants to go back to the way things were. We can’t. She’s changed too much. I’ve changed too much. But at least we no longer have to hold onto what’s probably never been there.”

I did pause. After thirty years, I at least know when I’m walking in very dangerous territory.

“I would agree that neither of you wishes to return to the past. But I’m still struggling to see what that has to do with the future, i.e., whether you walk toward the future in parallel (whether or not you’re a couple) or whether you walk in different directions.”

Now he paused.

“I guess that’s true.”

I have learned that with bright combat veterans, whether of the extrovert/kinetic-energy type or the introvert/potential-energy type, I, as a therapist, have a little wiggle room vis-à-vis boldness. I was certainly well-trained, so I also know that I have to be careful that I don’t inject too much of my own worldview into a therapeutic conversation. Yet sometimes time is of the essence: an important get-together of this couple is about to take place, after all, and neither he nor I have the luxury of piddling away at platitudes that both of us know have zero to do with how he’s really feeling.

“Look: life hasn’t turned out like either of you had planned,” I continued. “You were supposed to be the one with all his stuff together, and she was to come into her own just in time to give you some more hours on the golf course kibitzing with the generals. But life happened, War happened. So now she’s ready to tee up, and you don’t even know whether you have clubs or not. This isn’t about whether you two are going to move on, pal: it’s about how you’re going to do it.”

He was quiet.

“I can’t hold her back, Doc,” he said softly. “That’s unfair. I’ve put her through too much.”

“Hold her back? Buddy, if she’d been worried about that, she’d have done kicked you to the curb a good three years ago. Has it ever occurred to you that maybe she’s willing to hold back a bit to give you a chance to catch up?”

Further quiet.

“But I don’t know what to do,” he finally replied. “I don’t have a clue. I mean, I feel better. I know that I can get something going, but I don’t know when, I don’t know how.”

“Like she doesn’t know that?”

“But . . . but this could take a long time.”

Now my turn for quiet.

“And your point?” I finally ask.

This time, only a few seconds of quiet. It just rolled out of me.

“You’re not the first, you know: the first man who thought he had at all planned out, only to find out that Life had different plans, who then found out that the partner he’d chosen was able not only to fill in the holes, but even to create a few new openings. You’re not the first man who’s had to decide whether he’s going to accept that being one-down does not make you the one-down-type, that your finally realizing that you’re vulnerable in front of your partner did not make you vulnerable, but that it merely wised you up to the basic human fact that that’s where each one of us has been, is, and will be, whether we like it or not:  vulnerable. You’re not the first man who’s had to get it in his thick skull that it’s actually possible for two people both to be strong and both to be vulnerable at the same time, and the sun will keep rising and setting.”

Again, quiet. Then it apparently was time for it just to roll out of him.

“Doc . . .”

“Yes?”

“Do you mean . . . are you telling me that this is not about PTSD?”

The question surprised me at first, but only because I was being the oblivious one now.  I just shot from the hip.

“Oh, God, no. Not at all. I mean, yes, your combat experiences and your PTSD are what waylaid you in such a spectacular and horrific way. But, heck, it could have been the economic downturn, a culture change in your industry, a life-changing medical illness unrelated to combat–any of that could have done you in. Combat and PTSD just happened to cause your particular pain, your wife’s and your family’s particular pain. Granted, it’s what’s never going to fully go away for any of you. But this isn’t a PTSD problem. This is a life problem.”

There was then more quiet, but on the outside only. I could hear so much in him. He was stirring so much up in me.

“Doc,” he finally whispered, “I . . .” He swallowed. “Thank you.”

“For what?” I swallowed back myself, not quite yet sure what was going on within either of us.

After a few moments, “I never thought that my life would not be about the War, only about the War, that is. I never thought I could ever again just face . . . a problem.” He smiled. “That’s a good thing, isn’t it, just a man and a woman trying to figure out how they’re going to make their lives work, whether they stay together or not?”

Finally realizing what was going on within us, I could only manage to utter myself, “Yes, it is. Yes, it is.”

Combat trauma makes The War Within the subject of every veteran’s sentence, whether explicitly or implicitly. All the rest of life is reduced to adjectives, adverbs, direct objects of verbs that respond to the will of The War Within and it alone.

Hope and growth from combat trauma are not just neurological, not just psychological. They are linguistic as well.

As combat veterans find their way, individually, to situate themselves as flexibly and as comfortably vis-a-vis their War Within, no longer is that War the sole subject of all their independent clauses. Soon it is moved into subordinate clauses, into because clauses, so that clauses, into language that gives background, goals, reasons for the actions that are now taking center stage in the main part of the sentence, the main part of the veterans’ lives.

And then, one day,  War Within is finally reduced to a mere participial summary statement: “Given the War, I must now . . . , I will now . . . ., I no longer must . . ., I can finally . . . .”

Etc., etc., etc.

At this time of year, then, I am so thankful that hope not only has a body and a soul.

I am thankful that it also has a grammar.

6 responses

  1. Enjoyed the insight. Dilemma: Knowing when to put the bad stuff away. Easy to stuff junk into the trunk; easy too to linger with it. Getting the effect of fine wine is just-right timing on the process I guess.

    • Mike,

      Thanks so much, and I agree completely. Two thoughts: when one is dealing with The War Within, it’s often quite difficult on one’s own to determine whether one is in “too-little” or “too-much” mode, isn’t it? That’s why I do believe strongly that it’s important to have one or two people (a therapist, for example, or a fellow combat veteran who’s further down the road to recovery) to share one’s questions and struggles with. Remember: no combat veteran suffered War alone, and similarly, none can recover alone. It was a team effort to try to make things right the first time over there. It still has to be a team effort (whether or not a big team) to make things better this time over here.

      Second, as I have folks consider in my War Within essays (and in the book I hope to have available by the beginning of the year), different combat veterans have different “missions” to recovery. Those who rejuvenate themselves emotionally through action and movement (the ones I’m calling kinetic-energy veterans) differ in how they manage their recovery from those who rejuvenate themselves through reflection and stillness (the ones I’m calling potential-energy veterans). So I guess to extend your metaphor: cabernets have to breathe a bit, while chardonnays can be poured cold. Both great wines; each handled–and enjoyed–differently.

      Thanks for your thoughts and support!

  2. Dr. Deaton – Have you ever heard of something called a quarter-life crisis? It’s probably always existed, but maybe not coined until recently.

    Every time I read your posts I find I’m not JUST reading about PTSD and combat – I’m reading about individuals within a generation figuring out how to move forward – and subsequently finding themselves in a sort of “crisis” at mid-20s. I’ve heard of these exact same situations (and questions) from both the civilian side and the veteran side through your blog and others.

    I feel like you and your patients are battling “The War” and at the same time the “Quarter-Life Crisis”.

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