In the dark: Navigating depression and PTSD in veterans
– After initially adjusting well to civilian life, Steve* suffers a sudden breakdown after his young child is seriously injured, triggering the onset of post-traumatic stress disorder.
– Recently returned from deployment, Lucy* finds herself obsessively checking the doors are locked and secure each night, compulsively repeating the process over and over.
– Returning to work as a civilian, Robert* feels like everyone is looking at him as if they can see something wrong with him. So he isolates himself from his co-workers, withdraws from social interactions at work and retreats from his loved ones and close friends.
These case studies are just three out of thousands. Dealing with the emotional and mental fall out of deployment can be a formidable task, for both veterans and their families. For some, the effects are immediate and apparent, while others can seem completely well-adjusted on the surface for years before things begin to unravel.
Lost in the dark
The first couple of years after I left the service were very difficult. Looking back, it felt like I was living in the dark, I couldn’t see any light in my life and I felt incredibly alone. My daughter and I were living with my parents, I didn’t have a job, I was lost. I’d force myself to get up each day to get my daughter ready for school and afterwards I would simply return home and go back to bed and cry.
At night I had terrible dreams so I started drinking in order to numb the pain and make myself feel better, anything to delay sleep. But then I began to drink more and more until I was up all night drinking, in order to avoid the nightmares I knew would come because they came every night.
I was stuck in a nightmarish loop of not sleeping, barely functioning and obsessive thinking. I was constantly reliving everything, replaying conversations and going over everything in my head. I did what I had to do to care for my daughter but my own self-care was non-existent. And it took me a long time to see how destructive this cycle was for me.
I share this personal story because I know I’m not alone. This is such a common experience for veterans. I was coping the best way I knew how at the time as many of us do but in truth, all I was doing was creating yet more pain and suffering for myself. I was completely lost in the vortex of my own thinking and I couldn’t see anything beyond that.
The impact of depression and PTS
Post-traumatic stress (PTS) and depression, which often go hand in hand, are increasingly common conditions that afflict many men and women who have served in the armed forces. Many veterans find themselves reliving traumatic experiences over and over, either through recurring nightmares or just in their daily lives.
These painful memories are often compounded by a sense of guilt at having survived when their friends did not. They’re often startled by sudden noises and lash out in anger over minor things, going from 0 to 100 in a heartbeat, with no middle ground. They may still be operating day to day in a state of hyper vigilance, constantly on the alert for imagined threats. They might be experiencing agitation, impatience, irrational rage, anxiety, nightmares. Inside they know something’s wrong but they feel powerless to stop it. They may even feel like they just don’t care anymore.
But it’s not just combat service that can give rise to mental health issues. Anyone who has survived a severe trauma or had exposure to high-risk environments can be susceptible. And the effects can be ongoing.
It can take a lot for a veteran to admit they may have a problem. There is a continuing stigma in the armed services around mental health issues, often because it may lead to an involuntary discharge, and as a result, many veterans cover up their mounting anxiety and increasing panic attacks and try to just get on with the job. After all, it’s what they’ve been trained to do.
This emotional shutdown by way of a coping mechanism can significantly affect close relationships and family life and often leads to depression and anxiety. Not surprisingly, it can take many years for the impact of service or deployment to find its way to the surface. And it can be hard to share what’s happening with the people around you.
Finding the light
It’s important to know you’re okay – even if you don’t feel like you are. It may feel like you’re caught in a downward spiral but what you’re experiencing is not abnormal and you can recover, you can get through this.
Right now, you’re stuck in a playback loop of painful memories, which in turn can trigger an avalanche of thoughts and judgments, about what happened, about ourselves and about the people around us. Some of these thoughts are helpful but many of them are not. In fact, some of them are downright destructive and only serve to cause us more pain and suffering.
The answer is not about controlling our minds and only ever having positive, happy thoughts, which is unrealistic and frankly, not possible. But there is a different way. A different way of understanding how we process our thinking and how that impacts what we feel, from moment to moment. And it can bring about a powerful shift in the way we see the world.
It’s part of the work I do with veterans, helping them to gain these insights into their own experiences but without having to dig into the trauma of the past. But whichever path you choose, seeking help and support is key. You don’t need to go through this alone.
Over to you
As always, I’d love to hear from you. Are you or someone you love experiencing signs of depression or PTS? Have you tried to get support? How is it going? Let me know in the comments below. And if you’d like to know more about how I can help, click the button below to book a free, confidential chat.
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