Before Iraq, my holidays were all about presents and joy and family and food and fun… yay!
Today, however, having survived a 13-month deployment and enduring chronic pain as well as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), my holiday season is riddled with landmines of depression, weather that can set pain levels off the charts, and triggers that leave me exhausted, stressed, and unable to get out of bed. Some days I’m barely able to function.
Despite their good hearts, my family often has no idea how to support me. Facing a particularly rough holiday season this year (having moved across the country from my family and childhood home), I’ve come up with a list of simple ways that we can all help the veterans in our lives.
1) Understand why the holidays are hard for veterans.
“Moral injuries,” which result from violating deeply held moral beliefs (such as killing another human being), often result from combat. For those who live with a moral injury, we are now entering the time of year closely associated with “goodwill,” and it can feel like the world is judging us for all we’ve done — whether through a religious lens or a secular one. During a season meant to highlight the best in humanity, all we can see is the worst in what we’ve done in the past.
The holiday season can also serve as an anniversary of a military moment — another trigger. For example, the “survivors guilt” that combat veterans frequently experience can be triggered by anniversaries, be it the day that a comrade was killed or the last Christmas dinner shared in Iraq.
Finally there is no escaping the holidays, whether on a coffee cup or by walking past the lights at city hall. I can split town during the 4th of July to avoid PTSD-inducing fireworks, but I have no means of hiding from the holidays.
2) Communicate with the veteran(s) in your life.
In a safe time and place (i.e., not during half-time or while driving in traffic), ask and then listen to veterans in order to find things out… What are their needs? What are their fears? How do they want to be supported?
Be ready to hear things that you may not like or that may even upset you. Often times the things that have given us great joy in the past and may still give you great joy are the very things that now bring us the most stress or can trigger PTSD.
3) Never shame or “guilt trip” veterans.
Veterans are likely feeling a lot more guilt than you can see or that they are willing to disclose, so any added guilt you pour on is just that — added guilt.
Before Iraq, I loved outdoor ice skating; now my chronic back pain won’t allow me to do it. I used to love gathering in large rooms with my family to eat and exchange gifts, but with PTSD this is impossible now. Shopping is out of the picture as it gives me panic attacks. I need to be able to communicate these things to my family and caregivers without criticism or judgment. I carry enough stress and anxiety without “extra” guilt being put on my back, however unintentional.
4) Prepare family members before any visits.
Letting fellow family members know what to expect before any interaction with a veteran can help them NOT to do all of the things that you’ve been working on not doing yourself. It can also help spread understanding of what veterans are facing throughout the community. Make sure you tell family members what they can do to be supportive, what questions to ask, and what subjects to avoid. If the veteran in question is dealing with substance abuse — or merely substance use — this may be an area to spend extra time discussing with family. If the veteran you love is trying not to drink, remind folks to refrain from extending an invite for a beer; or if the veteran is having a few extras, refrain from making any judgmental comments.
All that said, make sure you are not disclosing what is not yours to disclose. Remember it is still the veteran’s life and their story to tell. Talk to the veteran first about what you plan to tell other family members. Ask what you can and cannot tell others about their private business, especially if it’s related to medical conditions.
5) Find new traditions.
Don’t give up on having fun during the holidays, but rather build new traditions as you find the new you. I am not the same Geoff that deployed to Iraq in 2004. I’ve had to find new ways to live my life, which also means new holiday traditions.
This can means Skype sessions with family members (great for those of us who have moved far away), or more visits with fewer people at a time so that we can still see our families but not feel overwhelmed by large-group settings. While shopping trips can still be fun, exchanging gifts doesn’t have to equal big crowds at big box stores — Amazon is there for those of us who’d rather avoid the mall.
Be creative, and above all do not give up on each other.
– Geoff Millard is a policy associate at Swords to Plowshares and an Army veteran.