Definitions for the below terms are from the Merriam Webster online dictionary.
Trauma – A very difficult or unpleasant experience that causes someone to have mental or emotional problems usually for a long time.
PTSD – a psychological reaction occurring after experiencing a highly stressing event (as wartime combat, physical violence, or a natural disaster) that is usually characterized by depression, anxiety, flashbacks, recurrent nightmares, and avoidance of reminders of the event — abbreviation PTSD —called also post-traumatic stress syndrome.
I wanted to include the definitions because not only did they have an impact on my life, those plus my own definitions and beliefs that were adopted by my ego have created in me a wealth of issues. These beliefs hampered me truly seeking or accepting help, “I got in my own way” the thing is, I didn’t even realize it.
If you had asked me 8 months ago what traumatic experience I have faced, one incident would have come front and center. While in the military we were on a training exercise in California in preparation for our unit’s deployment to Bosnia. We trained every day in combat situation for both urban and rural assaults, defensive and offensive tactics. This one exercise or training program was known as a kill house. Now, if you have seen a movie where they go into a house room by room throwing a grenade in waiting for it to go off. Then enter the room filling it and anyone in it full of holes, well that’s kill house training. The house was made of tires to absorb the concussion of the explosions they were also filled with sand to absorb the bullets. Our platoon had cleared the entire house except the last room that had two doorways, which means a breach team is required for each doors.
In a combat situation both teams would throw a grenade in the room at the same time. Then one team would enter after the explosions and shoot up the room, hopefully killing everyone inside. In training, one team throws in a grenade and when it goes off, the second team throws theirs in. Then the first grenade team enters and shoots up the room. So my Fire-team partner and I had the first grenade, I tossed it in the room and it exploded with out incident. The second grenade was thrown in with considerable force, now for you all that love science, what happens when a 2LB Metal object hits a tire with force? Your right, it bounces. We then heard the range safety officer yell “Bad Throw, Bad Throw”. We turn to run, then the last image I see is the grenade rolling out the door a few feet from my partner and me. As I came to, about 6-8 feet from where I was last standing, all I could think was who is screaming like a 9 year old child (you know those high pitched deafening screams)? My next realization is that those screams were coming from the bodies of my fire team partner and myself… I then realized my flesh was on fire from the inside. We all know that when metal is torn apart it heats up, this metal heated to white hot in a second and was now inside my legs.
My next memories of the incident are some what scattered. I remember them calling for the medic, one of my platoon members putting an I.V. in, then transporting us by field ambulance to the field triage unit. I then remember looking up and seeing a priest praying over me. I asked the doctor if I was going to die? His response was “no”. My next request and response was “why is he (the priest) here and could you please get him out of here”. Now I was not catholic and I was not religious. When we first get to basic training we are advised to put a religion on our dog tags so that we are not singled out by the training instructors, giving them another way to try and break us. I believe I put Protestant however I am not sure. After going through triage, we were sent to the United States Navel Hospital at Camp Pendleton.
To this day I still have shrapnel in my legs. Over time some has been pushed out as my body rejected it, some is so deep it will be with me forever. What I did not realize was that the physical scars were nothing compared to the ones inside of me, and those that I would continue to add to as the years passed on. I think you will agree with me that it was a pretty traumatic experience! However, right from the start I started adding issues to the ones I already had from my military experience. I would not admit to them. Why? Because I was “weak” for having them. I didn’t get these wounds in combat, I had not taken the life of another human being, others were much worse off then me. How could I have been so weak? I hid this so no one would see that I was “weak”. This was not the first mask of shame I dawned, and it would not be my last either.
We talk about mental wellness stigma. Well, I created or adopted plenty of them for myself that stopped me from seeking help; weak, failure, coward to name a few. As I write this, I realize there is an untruth I have told everyone including myself for the last 20 years. I had made it my truth until today! I have told people that I left the military because they would not send me to Bosnia, they would not let me do the job I was hired to do, and they denied me the job of protecting those that could not protect themselves. The truth is, they never said that. When we landed back in Calgary everything was causing me stress. I was scared, I felt very alone and I did not know why. I know that the daily fear about going to Bosnia overwhelmed me. I believed I was doomed to die! I did not die on that day when the grenade exploded so it was only a matter of time. I have long believed I wasn’t supposed to live that day! That is why I could never see a future. I have believed since that day in February 1994, I was always on borrowed time.
So, throughout my life I have compared my situation to others and felt that there was always someone worse off and that I must have been “weak”. I believed that the thoughts in my head made me “Crazy” and sharing them with people would only land me in a hospital or worse yet everyone would leave me. During this time I did not realize that my garbage can was full. I did not realize that some people had a larger garbage can. I would also look at people who had a smaller garbage can and feel they were faking it or that their experience did not warrant what they were going though. I would think the same things that were said to me or I said to myself. Things like “get over it”, “suck it up”, “they must be faking” or I would tell my story or a story of another military person to diminish them and their story. I did not do this knowingly, it’s all that I knew. I have heard people use these words, even when talking to children; “suck it up”, “get over it”, “boys don’t cry” or “she is just hysterical”. These diminish what the other person is going through and who are we to diminish them, we do it to ourselves enough already. So if you are reading this and you felt I ever diminished your story, I apologize.
Now to sum it up we need to understand every incident impacts people differently. Trauma to one person may not and will likely not be the same to another person. Certain incidents may have no impact for some and for others, the same incident may shut them down from day to day living. I need to be softer on myself and realize where my impacts are. I need to hear others and not judge or compare, make them less or more than me. Everyone has their own garbage can and everyone has their own journey. The best thing we can do is just “be” and be willing to hold their hand when they ask. My promise to myself today is to remove my masks of “shame”, those that have held me in prison of making myself “weak”. I will no longer be “weak” because asking for help and being truly authentically vulnerable is not weak or shameful, it is being powerful and brave.
Keep chasing those cars!
With Love, Respect and Admiration