Have you ever been overcome by emotion and not known why?
Have you ever found yourself in the grips of depression, the throws of rage, or paralyzed with fear for no apparent reason?
It’s as if the polarity of your emotional spectrum can flip from joyful to depressed, from centered to enraged, without any conscious involvement and we don’t understand why it’s happening. Many returning veterans go through this constantly because it’s one of the psychological symptoms of PTSD. It’s very frustrating because someone close to us will inevitably ask ‘what’s wrong’ and more often than not, we simply do not know.
I was once hanging out with a fellow veteran when she told me she was feeling a little off that day, that things ‘felt big’ for her, and she didn’t know why. I was completely blown away.
“We can do that?” I asked. “We can say we have emotions and not have to justify where they come from?”
I hadn’t even considered this to be a possibility, especially when talking with a woman, and this simple freedom made me feel better about my emotional stability than I had in years.
This ineptitude too express ourselves is unpleasant for everyone involved and can leave veterans feeling emotionally broken and wanting to withdraw from social life. As soldiers, we’re supposed to be trained to deal with any situation, we’re supposed to have the answers, so we don’t do well with not knowing what’s going on within us or what to do about it.
For example, after my time in the Marines I decided to go back to college because I wanted to have a skill set that didn’t involve killing people.
However, every time I would park my truck and begin to walk across campus to my classes, I would soon be filled with anxiety, trepidation, and my defenses would go into hyper-drive. I couldn’t figure it out. There was no perceivable threat, yet I was ready and prepared to fight.
I would get to my class and spend the first half of it trying to calm down, and figure out why I wanted to kill everyone around me.
I would eventually find my center and re-establish some type of emotional balance, but then class would end and as I would walk back across campus to my truck, the whole process would start again. Some days I would have to sit inside my truck for a few moments before I felt stable enough to drive.
This went on for weeks.
Finally, I was at a veterans support meeting and a young man mentioned having the same experience. I can’t even begin to describe the elation I felt, because I was no longer alone in this. Together, the group was able to discover that it was the commuter busses constantly driving through college campus that was triggering something for us.
The buses run on diesel fuel which has a very distinct smell. Tanks, Hummers and other assault vehicles also run on diesel fuel and in the strange desert or mountain acoustics, often times these threats could be smelled before being seen or heard.
The next time I was on campus, one of these busses inevitably passed by me, and triggered a fight or flight response within me.
However, this time, since I understood what was happening and where the perceived threat was coming from, I was able to shake it off almost instantly.
If we can take the time to just be with those things that scare us, if we can possibly learn a little bit about them and why they affect us the way they do, then they aren’t so powerful anymore. Understanding is the antithesis to fear and hate. Sometimes, if we can’t figure out why we’re going off, it might be helpful to just acknowledge that you’re feeling things, but aren’t sure why like my veteran friend did.
When our emotions are out of control, it becomes even more important for us to control them instead of the other way around.
This is wonderful when it happens, but please don’t ask Veterans what’s wrong with them, because more often than not, they simply do not know.
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Editor: Renée Picard