Homecoming: the pains of transition
The original version of this post can be found at https://cptsdfoundation.org/.
Welcome home my friend
This is the moment you’ve been waiting for. The world is your oyster and it’s time to celebrate. How are you going to do it? You could go to college, start a business, get a dog, or anything else your heart desires! Sounds great, right? Well, here’s the thing: transitioning home can suck. Sometimes a lot. So let’s talk about a few of the issues you may be facing because you deserve a bit of a heads-up—or at least a bit of support. For the sake of consistency, I’m writing this assuming you have recently returned home to the U.S. after finishing your military service. What I am going to say doesn’t necessarily apply to everyone, but the experiences described aren’t uncommon and aren’t talked about enough.
Out of context
After all of those years in the armed forces, especially if deployed overseas, your world has been changed—both on the micro-level of everyday life, and the macro-level of your worldview. In terms of the micro, you may have become accustomed to being part of a system, a unique society full of rules, customs, and tasks that most people can’t even begin to imagine. It is difficult to understand the military unless you’ve been there because the army is indisputably as weird as it gets. Being part of a society means having shared experiences, culture, and even language. In that sense, the society you previously belonged to is not this one, and thus your reentry being an uncomfortable adjustment should come as no surprise—culture shock barely scratches the surface. Life and all its problems were dramatically different abroad and carried a completely different class of weight and intensity than what you face at home. You lived under mortal threat alongside a huge number of other people you saw every single day, and that’s the society you’re coming from.
In the macro, you’ve seen a different side of the world. You’ve seen unspeakable violence, even from and against children, and you understand that our planet is home to horrors that civilians can’t possibly comprehend. You know what intense fear feels like, and your definitions of “bad” and “hard” are fundamentally different concepts than they were before you joined, and fundamentally different than everyone else’s.
A sea of trivialities
And now you’re home. Here, you are a totally free individual in a society where people complain about things they see on Instagram, annoying gossip from work, and the state of their neighbor’s yard. And you’re bringing your problems into this sea of trivialities. You’ll be able to talk to civilians about it, but they aren’t going to understand. It’s traumatic to go from the intensity of the army to the vast, calm world of civilian life; people are going to think you’re a regular person, but you’re not. This is a difficult and lonely role to find yourself in after war, and those who support you may not understand.
Something that might help you is finding other veterans to connect with as soon as possible. Surround yourself with a community that understands you, and has the experience in transitioning that you don’t. With other veterans, you’ll feel less alone and will have that familiar context again. In time, you’ll feel more adjusted to society and more comfortable with yourself and others––but that will take time. For now, reach out to those with similar experiences, because feelings of isolation are a killer.
PTSD really sucks (and if you have it, you must deal with it)
You very well may be dealing with military trauma. Maybe you visually search everyone you see for weapons, generally distrust people, or react strongly to loud noises. Everyday tasks like grocery shopping have become an ordeal, or maybe you have to take regular bathroom breaks at your job to have private panic attacks. Even the birthday party of a family member could be mentally excruciating. You may even have somatic flashbacks and start screaming in public, which is a humiliating experience. This is going to be a difficult challenge, but there are ways to overcome it.
First and foremost, a little self-acceptance goes a long way. Accept that this is happening to you, but it isn’t who you are—that you are having a normal reaction to an abnormal situation, and that your mental injuries can heal, meaning that you can live a normal life if you keep putting in the effort. This is all easier said than done, but it gets substantially easier as time goes on. On the topic of the effort, we have to talk about what it takes to get better.
Everyone’s symptoms manifest differently, but the answer is always the same: treatment. Much like suffering from PTSD, treatment is a colossal pain in the ass and will exhaust you. Sometimes your treatment may make you feel worse at the moment, but that’s not bad; healing hurts and takes time, but it’s worth the effort. Anything is better than the pain of PTSD, and with treatment, there will come a point where it no longer rules your life. These treatments also require a fair amount of acceptance, as they only work when you’re completely honest with yourself. I personally did inpatient at McLean Hospital, outpatient in several places, EMDR, psychotherapy, and several DBT groups. I take four different medications. I’m still very much a work in progress, but I am slowly reclaiming my life. And while it’s hard to measure progress, once in a while you’re going to be surprised by how well you’re doing, and those moments will give you untold strength. There is no single cure-all—it takes a lot of work and commitment—but you’ll get there.
It’s for the rest of your life
You will never be a full-on civilian and you’re no longer a soldier, so what are you? You’re many things, actually. You’re a veteran, for starters, and that’s a perfectly fine thing to be; it’s all the coolness of being a soldier without the hassle. You’re also you, and that’s no small thing. You may be an artist, a dedicated parent, or a great cook. You may even be a blogger, which is without a doubt the world's most prestigious profession. What you aren’t is your past, your mental injuries, or the many issues you may face during this transition. Having trouble in a new reality doesn’t make you a freak or anything. Just remember that you’re not the only person who’s had to deal with this, and you won’t be the last; that this is going to be hard but it gets easier over time, as long as you keep fighting for peace of mind.
I would like to welcome you home and wish you the best of luck. I don’t know what your exact experience will hold, but I know that you can overcome anything, even though it doesn’t always feel like it. The war you face at home will in many ways be harder than the one overseas, but you can and will find victory. You’re gonna be great.