Going home: Surviving the transition to civilian life
After years of sacrifice and service, you’re finally back home with your family. It might be a temporary return from deployment or a more permanent homecoming. At first, it feels wonderful; everyone is so overjoyed to have you back safe and sound. Relief and gratitude in equal measure. But the intensity of that relief can often turn into something darker.
Adjusting to civilian life can be a daunting and significant experience, with many veterans struggling to cope. And if your reason for leaving is not your own, such as an involuntary discharge, the immense volume of paperwork alone can cause significant stress and overwhelm.
Strong emotions can flare up out of nowhere, and it may become difficult to quieten your mind, which can sometimes feel caught in an endless, anxious loop. You’re quick to anger over the smallest thing and there may be growing tensions in your relationships. You feel alone and isolated,missing the built-in camaraderie of your army mates, who have been scattered far and wide since your release. Perhaps you’re finding it difficult to relate to regular society again, when you know what’s happening out there in other parts of the world.
The military trains you for many things, but what it doesn’t prepare you for is your eventual return to civilian life. As a result, many veterans, particularly those suffering from service-related anxiety and PTS, feel they are irreparably damaged and broken.
I know this because I once believed it about myself. My own experience of re-entering civilian life after a medical discharge was not an easy one. I mourned for the army and my old identity like a missing limb. I missed the structure and order, the certainty and protection, the tight-knit support and camaraderie that only another veteran could understand. I was also struggling to process some pretty complex emotions, and I had no idea what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
Give yourself time
But here’s the thing. Like any other major life change, this kind of transition takes time. You’ve come from a place and a system that is highly-structured and disciplined, into a world that seems chaotic, disorganised, and often meaningless. Suddenly it’s on you to create and maintain the routine and discipline that you’ve become so accustomed to.
Learning to navigate life outside of that military structure happens gradually. Allow yourself the time and space to adjust. Try not to place too much pressure on yourself to work it all out straight away, the weight of your own expectations, and those of your loved ones, can be a heavy burden to carry.
It can be difficult even just admitting that you might need help. Veterans are usually very good at masking their feelings – vulnerability is seen as a sign of weakness after all and you’ve been trained not to show emotion. You don’t want to be a burden on anyone, which can make it even harder to accept help when you need it. But reaching out and finding the right support is essential.
I regularly work with veterans and their families, to help them process these big changes and find their mission again. Accepting that complex emotions are just a natural part of our human experience, and not something to be controlled or feared, is a big part of that. They are in fact our signposts, our canary in the coal mine. They are our clearest guide as to what is going on inside our minds.
This homecoming is not the end of your story. The rest of your life is still ahead of you and there is so much more for you to do and contribute to the world. And it is absolutely possible that you can once more feel a sense of pride and purpose, and start enjoying your life again. This is just the beginning.
I’d love to hear what you think. Are you or is someone you know going through this right now? How are you finding the transition to civilian life? Let me know in the comments below.