Healing Hearts and Souls
Insight for veterans, first responders, and their families
Frequently Asked Questions
At our Family Day events over the years, we have listened intently and deeply to the common and thematic questions that our families ask about their veterans and first responders. Our hope is that you find some of our answers helpful, prompting your own journey in help and recovery and for your veteran and first responder…
Family Day is provided as part of the treatment at the Center for Post Traumatic Growth. Information is provided to family and friends of the veterans and first responders on PTS, Moral Injuries and other issues.
During Family Day the veterans and first responders family and friends are offered a breakout session in which family and friends may share their questions and concerns about their veteran or first responder without fear of negatively impacting them.
Veterans and first responders also have the opportunity to meet and identify what they wish their families and friends knew about how to support them, what they have been through and how best to communicate with each other. Following are some of the more “frequently asked questions” from several Family Days we have held.
“Why can’t they just forget, get over it, focus on the good things?”
If they could forget, or only think of good things, they would have done that years ago. It is simply not possible to forget trauma. Trauma changes brain functioning. Trauma memory is held in the amygdala and the hippocampus, two structures in the limbic system. The limbic system is the survival part of our brain, it is where instinct lives.
Trauma memory is not processed through the “thinking brain,” aka the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain where we language and make meaning of things such as memories. The prefrontal cortex is shut down when trauma occurs and the memory gets “branded” into the brain as an intensely detailed and terrifying experience. It is important to note that trauma memories are branded without a “date stamp.”
So, when trauma gets triggered by something around us, the amygdala starts firing and we are flooded with all of the images, thoughts, feelings, sounds, and smells and our body and brain cannot discern the trauma is not happening right now.
It feels as though it is happening right now, all over again. These images, thoughts, feelings, smells and sounds are with the traumatized person for life. Treatment helps the traumatized person carry their memories and beliefs differently so they are less intense. Over time triggered episodes are shorter in duration and frequency but the memory of the events does not disappear.
“Why won’t my veteran or first responder socialize or go to crowded places?”
In the line of duty, you must be hyper aware of your surroundings at all times. You must learn to sleep so lightly you can react immediately to any strange sound. The veteran or first responders body gets biologically reset with trauma, and because it was life or death survival, they can’t just turn it off. You cannot “un-ring” a bell.
The other part of the problem is when you are on the job you cannot trust ANYONE at face value. Everyone can be a threat to you and your partners life and sometimes you cannot even fully trust your partners.
Lastly, crowds in and of themselves are dangerous situations. A big group is a target, you cannot escape quickly if you need to and you are packed in with people you do not know, and whom you cannot keep track of or keep them all in your line of sight.
Also, for first responders their “combat” frequently occurs in the very community they and their families reside. They may not have a neutral or even a “green zone.”
“Why does my veteran/first responder isolate and withdraw from the family?”
“Why can’t my veteran or first responder be close or tell me they love me?”
If you are not numb you are one of the other two. People of service also learn very quickly, not to get close to those around them because those they loved were often lost, wounded or killed. Often veterans / first responders have survivor guilt and believe if they let themselves love you they may end up losing you too.
“Why is my veteran/first responder so angry all the time?”
Anger covers up all of the emotions that make people of service feel vulnerable or weak. Veterans and first responders are sometimes afraid of their anger, they are afraid they will “lose it” or “crack” and hurt somebody.
All of these will get you killed in the line of duty, so veterans/first responders can seem, to civilians, to over-react when confronted with these situations.
“Why does my veteran/first responder have so many problems with traffic and road rage?”
Veterans and first responders become exceedingly hypervigilant in traffic because they are waiting for something terrible to happen. Many first responders are involved in traffic incidents from high speed chases to, traffic accidents, and fatalities.
Dispatchers are also taking these call in real time. Reports of accidents and carnage have to be written and read.
Think about the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, who were out on patrols in Humvees, or in convoys, getting blown up by IED’s that were embedded in trash, roadkill, guard rails or roads. Insurgents also frequently attacked them from overpasses on the roads.
Again, first responders are typically first on-scene of horrific accidents, complete with traumatic loss, chaos, unbridled pain and anguish that they must compartmentalize to be able to do their jobs.
“Why is my veteran/first responder so controlling and overprotective?”
When one has experienced such an event their body remembers and stays vigilant to it happening yet again at any time. Remember, trauma memory has no “date stamp”, so the body and brain, when triggered, react as if the original event(s) is happening again.
“I can’t sleep with my veteran because he/she does not sleep, or when he/she does sleep he/she yells and thrashes around. What can we do about that?”
“What is an Anniversary Date? Why is my veteran/first responder such a scrooge during the Holidays?”
Inevitably, symptoms increase around these times and may even begin increasing a month or so ahead of the anniversary date and may take another month to dissipate. When a veteran or first responder comes to us and says, “I’m having more symptoms and I don’t know why,” we ask them two questions. First, “What is going on in your life now?”
As stress increases, so do PTS symptoms and the core issues of Moral Injury become more pronounced (unresolved loss, guilt, shame, and withdrawal). If their current life is relatively stress free, we ask them, “What was going on at this time during your service?” Many times, they will say “Oh yea, this is when traumatic event X happened.”
Unfortunately, recognizing the anniversary date does not take away the reaction or the symptoms, but is does provide them with some sense of control since they can identify when the anniversary reaction will occur. This allows you both to prepare for thesse times.
Many of them are remembering those who died and don’t get holidays. They may be remembering where they were during their service when the holidays came around. Many of them are offended by the commercialism and materialism when they saw so many sacrifice and go without. In short, the holidays tax people of service on several levels.
There are some “workarounds,” such as picking a few important events you want the veteran/first responder to attend; don’t overwhelm them with all the holiday parties, take two cars so they can leave when they are ready, freeing you to stay longer at social events. Remember, about two hours is their maximum. We encourage people of service to take breaks at parties, go outside and breathe, or go to a back room, recoup their energy and then rejoin the party.
“My veteran/first responder drives me crazy with their focus on home security and all their weapons, cameras, flashlights, and booby traps. Why are they like that?”
“Should my person Of service watch violent movies or programs?”
However, they will most likely experience powerful emotions (if it is realistic) and may have nightmares and other intrusions that night and into the next day. Sometimes the consequences of watching a particular movie or program are worth it to the person of service.
“What do I do if my veteran/first responder is in a rage, flashback or panic attack?”
During a flashback or panic attack, they need grounding, in the here and now, a gentle voice, or a gentle touch, sometimes helps. When they are in a rage touch might escalate them.
Some couples use a code word to de-escalate their veteran when he or she is angry, because they may be unaware they are escalating.
Become a team. Practice.
“How do I help?”
Be supportive, but don’t push. Let them know you are interested in listening if they want to talk. The day your veteran or first responder comes for trauma group be prepared to give them space afterward. They will be exhausted and need to recuperate. It’s not that they don’t want to be with you.
We know this is hard on the families, and you have to live with the person of service, but we know this process works and we ask you to hang in there with us. The worst thing a veteran/first responder can do is begin the process and crack him/herself open and then drop out of the process.
“Why won’t my veteran/first responder open up to me about their trauma?”
For example, if crowds and markets were sources of attack and traumatic loss while on serving then crowds, stores and large gatherings of any kind can become generalized as triggers when at home. Trauma memories are branded into the brain like a movie, or may be fragmented images, feelings, sights, sounds, smells, and tastes.
Traumatic memories are very sensory focused and not verbal. We have found that people of service often have to “tell” the story to themselves first to make meaning of the story before they can tell it to others. Very often, veterans/first responders will allow their families to read their trauma letters, but not always and not all letters. The letters will allow you to see the story come full circle, instead of the distressing fragments of the story.
Ask yourself: Do I really want to know the gory details? Will it change how I feel about my veteran/first responder? If you ask, be ready to listen and hear some horrific things. You cannot truly understand their experiences unless you have been there.
Most veterans or first responders who have come through therapy will come to you when they are ready. Let you let them know you will listen when they are ready to tell you what they want you to hear.
What We Want Our Loved Ones to Know…
Veterans/First Responders Comments from Family Day
- When I get triggered, it will take me a long time to cool down. Any further arguing will only prolong that period of time. Please give me my space to wind down.
- When we’re arguing and I need to walk away for awhile, you need to let me.
- Because I’m quiet sometimes doesn’t mean I don’t love you.
- When I get deep in my thoughts I’m not ignoring you – I’m just zoned out.
- Family Day is intense for us, so I need some silence, please, on the way home. If you need to ask how I’m doing, ask it gently and don’t push. Let’s go slow with this.
- You ask me to explain or describe things that I can’t even explain or describe to myself.
- There are things I just can’t let out and put into words.
- You don’t understand that I can be two different people.
- If you take me into a crowd and I act like a dick, it’s not your fault, I’m overwhelmed. Just let me stay home next time!
- If we go somewhere, at least one of us has to be on guard.
- If you ask me to tell you what’s on my mind, and I do – don’t stop me. If it’s about trauma, don’t ask unless you really want to know.
- Let’s attack the problem, not each other.
- I have a unique bond with my team, a special love. I don’t mean to exclude you.
- I’m hard on you because I love you.
- I’ve learned that I have done a lot of hurtful things that I wasn’t aware of.
- I thought I was doing the right thing for my family, but I somehow missed it.
- I’m happy we have a resource for help here at the CPTG, but sorry we didn’t discover it sooner.
- I’m not here at the CPTG just for me; I’m here for us.
- Thank you for tolerating 22 years of working the night shift and being absent to you.
- Indecision drives me up a fucking wall.
- Please forgive me for making you the ass end of my attitude.
- I didn’t know that I was making you walk on eggshells.
- I have a hard time having fun.
- I have a hard time feeling love.
- I have a hard time expressing any emotion, but that doesn’t mean I love you less.
- I love you, but it’s detached. I can only show it through sacrifice and doing things.
- I don’t feel adequate to be around anyone; I have too much shame.
- I don’t know how I can ever talk about things until I can forgive myself.
- When my daughter cries, I have trouble holding her. I can’t deal with high-pitched screaming. I don’t want bad things to go from me to her.
- Don’t feel bad if I don’t ask you for help right now.
- As I learn, I’ll tell you. Until then, please don’t badger me.
- My symptoms may get worse before they get better.
- You are my rock.
- No matter what happens, know that I have your back.
- I don’t want you to be afraid of me when I get tense and agitated.
- No matter how angry I get, know that I will never harm you physically.
- When I get angry and snappy, it doesn’t mean you’ve done something wrong.
- I have 3 priorities: God, family, and country.
- The CPTG is my lifeboat right now.
- There is light at the end of the tunnel – for me, for my fellow vets/first responders, and for you.