The NOV-JAN holiday season that begins with Thanksgiving and ends with New Years Day comprise a festive period when families and dear friends come together in warmth and abiding love.
For members of service-connected communities, this holiday season can also usher-in an anxiety-ridden period of burdensome and often untenable stress. Specifically for combat veterans dealing with the vagaries of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), this time of year and all of the stimuli that comes with it can push many veterans either to the edge of over the edge — according to Trauma Services experts at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
When I returned from serving as a detachment officer in charge of a gun truck detachment in Iraq, I tried my best to reintegrate into a loving family and also back into my community as well. However, as well meaning as family and friends can be, there is often the possibility that one well meaning person can lurk (with no malice aforethought) at holiday gatherings or family visits — who just cannot help creating an awkward situation by asking uncomfortable questions of a veteran who suffers from PTSD, or who deals with survivors guilt, seasonal depression, or any of the other myriad service-connected mental stressors that exist.
In these situations, it is imperative for the veteran in question to take a deep breath, process the situation, and “charge the person’s transgressions to their head and not to their heart.” I mean that to say that the offending family member or friend truly means no harm, and likely has never worn a uniform or been in a combat setting.
With that said, a tactically and emotionally intelligent way of handling these types of situations (and preserving you and the offending individual’s dignity) is by responding in a calm and measured tone, to the affect of “thank you for asking about my experiences in service to our nation, however I’d rather not discuss that at present,” or “thank you so much for your curiosity, but I’m not comfortable talking about that at all.” I know this works because I have had to say it before, on numerous occasions.
Also, another very effective strategy for situations like this is the good old fashioned “re-direct.” This is when the veteran in such a situation simply redirects the conversation to other topics, or artfully changes the subject.
Finally — another strategy to safely negotiate and effectively extract from an uncomfortable question situation is to use what I call the “flip the script” strategy. This is basically the veteran calmly changing the direction of the conversational exchange by asking the offending family member or friend questions about themselves and their situation in a non-confrontational manner. “How’s everything on your end?” “How’s work going?” “How are the kids?” By steering the conversation to safer ground, the veteran thereby extracts from an uncomfortable situation and preserves the dignity of both him or herself and the family member / friend in question.
Other tips for getting through the holidays for veterans (and everybody for that matter) with PTSD include the following:
- Talk with your family about how you feel. Your family can help you. This does not mean you have to tell them everything but let them know you’re feeling stressed.
- Set limits. Don’t join activities for longer than you can handle. You can choose when you want to be a part of the group.
- Rest. Decompress. Try to find ways to relax and de-stress. If you are like me, you may experience difficulty sleeping. Try your level best to maintain consistency with bedtime (“lights out”) or wake-up times. Be careful about taking naps, as they can keep you up when its time for bedtime, and may further disrupt your nighttime sleeping patterns.
- Make the best of every situation, if you can. Remember that there is truly an absence of malice aforethought for some of the “worst offenders” when it comes to the irksome and uncomfortable questions and queries about your time in combat. They just don’t know any better — work through it and don’t hold it against them. Sometimes people who are feeling depressed find that if they go through the motions, they just might catch themselves having fun.
- Go easy on the alcohol. Alcohol will change your attitude and disposition. Alcohol is simply not your friend. Furthermore, alcohol almost NEVER EVER goes well with medications you may be taking. Many veterans think they can effectively “self-medicate” themselves by having a few drinks, thinking it will relax them, but instead, alcohol causes problems and contributes to veterans having less control over their emotions and behavior.
Always remember that YOU DO NOT WALK ALONE. Call a buddy. Don’t isolate. Remember the Veterans Crisis Line is always available. I have used it and been helped greatly by the warm, understanding and responsive advocates (many of whom are fellow veterans) who answer the call. They will be available 24/7 throughout the winter holiday season including Christmas and New Year’s Day and all year round.
Veterans and their loved ones can call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1, chat online, or send a text message to 838255 to receive confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Support for deaf and hard of hearing individuals are available.
STAY STRONG AND STAY RESILIENT!!