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 combat and and on the job, 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 with the types of wars we have been fighting since Korea you cannot trust ANYONE in the combat zone. Not civilians, not women, not children, and sometimes not even your own comrades. Lastly, crowds in and of themselves are dangerous in combat. 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 front of you. So, in crowds veterans feel very anxious, hyper-aroused and exposed to danger in crowds. Most veterans have a maximum social time of around two hours, if they are forced to stay much longer they often will either have a panic attack or get angry, blow up and leave. Both are fear based responses. 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?
Because they must be hyper alert at all times, their brains and bodies become exhausted, and they physically need solitude, total quiet, and sometimes darkness. This is the way their brains recuperate. Social situations are very taxing on veterans’ and first responders brains due to the overstimulation and hyperarousal. It is not that they don’t want to be around you. Sometimes, they simply can’t.
Why can’t my veteran or first responder be close or tell me they love me?
Emotional numbing and the survival necessity of converting soft emotions, into hard emotions, becomes a way of life. It is the only way they can survive in combat or other unsafe situations. We say there are 3 ways out of combat: Dead, Crazy, or Numb. If you are not numb you are one of the other two. Veterans also learn very quickly, not to get close to those around them because those they loved were wounded or killed. The veteran may have survivor guilt and believe if they get close and love you then you may end up dead or wounded. Veterans and first responders can fear if you really knew who they are deep inside, or what they have done, you will judge or reject them. Most of our veterans and first responders tell us over and over, without their spouse the would be dead. They love you dearly.
Why is my veteran so angry all the time?
Anger is one of the few emotions that works in combat. Anger keeps you moving forward, focused and motivated. It becomes the emotion of survival, and it also buffers you emotionally from the feelings that will get you, and those around you, killed. This makes it very difficult to let go of anger upon return from the combat zone. Anger covers up all of the emotions that make veterans feel vulnerable or weak. Veterans are sometimes afraid of their anger, they are afraid they will “lose it” or “crack” and hurt somebody. On the other hand, they also worry that they might “lose their edge” and they won’t be able to protect themselves and you. Their edge is what kept them alive. There are some issues which are especially triggering to veterans: stupidity, incompetence, and disrespect are among the top interpersonal triggers. All of these will get you killed in combat, so veterans can seem, to civilians, to over-react when confronted with these situations.
Why does my veteran have so many problems with traffic and road rage?
Driving in California traffic is probably the closest thing we have to combat in the USA. Everyone has a lethal weapon, and you can’t control the crazy things they do. Veterans become exceedingly hypervigilant in traffic because they are waiting for something terrible to happen. 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. They strung wire at the height of the gunner’s head to decapitate them. The insurgents would also find ways to stop the convoys and then would attack. In short, driving and traffic is a HUGE trigger for veterans. They may also have to drive all the time because they have to be in control. 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 a veteran or first responder has experienced traumatic events, they have been subjected to something unimaginably horrifying. They may have witnessed another killed or maimed, often those they loved and with whom they served. 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. Therefore, they cannot easily say to themselves, “that happened 10 years ago, and it is not happening now.” So, they become hypervigilant to danger and controlling and overprotective as a countermeasure to losing their loved ones…again. One veteran said, “I’m an asshole to my family because I want them alive.”
I can’t sleep with my veteran because they don’t sleep or when he does sleep he yells and thrashes around. What can we do about that?
Some couples have found “work arounds” for common problems. For example, some couples sleep in separate beds because of the thrashing around by their veterans. Some couples will share physical intimacy and once the significant other falls asleep the veteran goes to a different room…since they are usually the one not sleeping. Veterans very often feel guilty about hitting, kicking, or hurting you while they are dreaming. Staying together, for a time, when you go to bed, preserves some of the intimacy, and the veteran does not have to worry about hurting you or keeping you awake.
What is an Anniversary Date? Why is my veteran/first responder such a scrooge during the Holidays?
An Anniversary Date is simply the date or time of year that an individual experienced a traumatic event. The date of the traumatic event may not be known consciously. The heart, mind and body know when that event took place even if the veteran or first responder is not consciously aware of it. 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. If their current life is relatively stress free, we ask them, “What was going on at this time during your combat tour(s) or last year?” 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 symptom, but is does provide them with some sense of control since they can identify when the anniversary reaction will occur so you both can prepare for them.
Most veterans and first responders we have worked with over the years dread the holidays for several reasons. First, is the practical stuff like, more crowds of people out shopping, a significant increase in social activities (which as noted above are the most difficult things for them to endure), the expectations of “good cheer,” and gift giving. Many of them are remembering those who died and don’t get holidays. They may be remembering where they were during their tours 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 veterans on several levels. There are some “workarounds,” such as picking a few important events you want the veteran to attend; don’t overwhelm them with all the holiday parties, take two cars so the veteran can leave when they are ready, freeing you to stay longer at social events. Remember, about two hours is their maximum. We encourage veterans 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 is my veteran like that?
Nighttime is a particularly dangerous time in combat and service, so veterans and first responders become especially vigilant at night. Veterans and first responders are danger-detection machines and when they experience traumatic events, they have been subjected to something unimaginably horrifying such as witnessing another killed or maimed, often those they loved. Not only do they want to protect themselves, but they won’t let you be hurt on “their watch.''
Should my veteran watch war movies or programs?
Veterans are often drawn to watching war movies or programs because it gives them an adrenaline rush, and they often miss being part of a bigger mission and having done something important in their lives. 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 veteran. It becomes a matter of informed choice. The news is a particularly powerful trigger for veterans, and we often encourage them to stop watching the news because it is so negatively activating and provides no positive outcome. It can easily trigger their helplessness and fear.
How do I help?
First it is important to remember that the veteran/first responder is responsible for his or her healing journey; you cannot do it for them, or have them do it on your time frame. The fact that you are here at Family Day, means the veteran is engaged in the healing process and wants you to understand and be part of that journey. 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. They may have more trouble sleeping sometimes before and after the groups. Let us highlight, they will get worse before they get better however they will get better if they stay the course. We know this is hard on the families, and you have to live with the veteran, but we know this process works and we ask you to hang in there with us. The worst thing a veteran can do is begin the process and crack him/herself open and then drop out of the process.
What do I do if my veteran/first responder is in a rage, flashback or panic attack?
Ask them (when you are both calm) what they need from you when they get triggered. 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. This can vary for each couple, so it is best that the two of you sit down and make a plan when the veteran is not triggered and agree on some strategies to try out in these situations. Become a team. Practice.
Why won’t my veteran open up to me about the war?
Trauma memory is stored in the brain very differently from other memory. Memories of traumatic events are stored in the limbic system. The limbic system is about survival; it is geared to learn (non-verbally) what is a threat to survival. It can overlearn which leads to generalization of trauma triggers. For example, if crowds and markets were sources of attack and traumatic loss while on deployment 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 even be just fragmented images, feelings, sights, sounds, smells, and tastes. Traumatic memories are very sensory focused and not verbal. We have found that veterans have to “tell” the story to themselves first to make meaning of the story before they can tell it to others. Very often, veterans 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.
They fear your judgment. They fear their trauma is toxic and will harm you, as it has harmed them, so they protect you from it. They also fear that if you know the truth about them, you will no longer love them. 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 war, don’t ask unless you really want to know.
- I wish you didn’t want to debate small things and insist on being right.
- Let’s attack the problem, not each other.
- I have a unique bond with my battle buddies, 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.