I know I haven't blogged in a while. I haven't kept up on a lot of the things that I need to be. I have been feeling really burned out and have been struggling in a lot of ways that have not been easy on me or my family. This is really raw and emotional for me, so bear with me...
I have been working in a high tempo, high stress, retail environment for four years now. When I first started working there, I was a rising star. It took two years for me to implode and end up on short-term disability. When my daughter had been born a few months before I went out on disability, it sent me into a tailspin. I obsessed about being a supernatural provider and withdrew emotionally at home, cutting off my wife and daughter from love and companionship. Thus, I went out on disability.
When I returned to work after fighting through my PTSD and learning to cope, I swore that I would always be prescient at home from now on. My goal was come home from work with the energy and emotional awareness to be a good father and attentive husband. What ended up happening is that my reliability at work and my availability suffered greatly. It was made clear by my employer that they needed a level of reliability that I have not been providing over the past few months.
This raised my stress level at work, making work a 'non-permissive' environment - a place where I was at risk of losing my job or benefits or both if I couldn't sort this out. It made me realize, regress my performance to a mean over time and it is readily apparent that retail work is grinding me down and taking a long-term cumulative toll on my performance at work. That toll has sped up since I swore to always put my family first.
So now I have some hard decisions to make. The only work I find fulfilling is being of service to others. I have to balance what is best for me long-term with the welfare of my family. It's not a fun place to be, but one I am confident I will work through.
I know I haven't been active recently in the community I created. I know I haven't blogged as much. For that I am sorry. I needed to set myself in motion and resolve this issue with employment. Now that I have the short-term leeway to figure it out while ensuring the welfare of my family is giving me the time and space I need to figure all of this out.
I want to thank all of those people who have reached out to me via email to express concern over not hearing from me and from my readers who reached out to ask how I was doing. I truly value your compassion and understanding!
Well, that was an unexpected turn. A few days after the horrible nightmare I had last week, I suddenly found myself motivated to examine how I had been living my life. It wasn't pretty. I wasn't doing everything I know I am able to be. I wasn't being a partner to my wife, I wasn't pulling my weight at home. I was anxiety eating myself into diabetic shock, slowly gaining weight, pound by pound.
It hit me that I now have a consistent work schedule where I am home for dinner almost every night. I could actually go to the gym regularly as well. I actually sat down and made a commitment to my wife to be a better man and husband. For the first time in a long time and I am feeling a little more like 'myself'.
It didn't hit me until a few days ago that I was feeling this motivation, this change in outlook because of that horrible nightmare. I'm not sure how or why this is true, I just know it is. It's like there's one less shackle weighing down my soul.
All of the things I accomplished this week just added intensity to the brightness of the light in my heart. The 501(c)3 formation documents are officially submitted to the IRS. One logo is done, one done soon, and one in the works. I was asked to be the keynote speaker at Veterans' Day events in my home town. I confirmed my speaking engagement at St. Francis University. Combat Vets' Google Plus Page was listed as one of the "99 Google Plus Accounts Military Service-Members Should Follow".
Despite all of this, I am deeply anxious that the other shoe is going to drop. It tempers my happiness and dulls my optimism. At least this time, it
It happened Sunday night into Monday morning. Since then, I have been struggling to describe how terrifying these last nightmares were. I am not going to rehash the details again - the nightmare was about the friendly fire incident. Combine that incident with nightmare groundhog day and you get the picture. I experienced that recollection over and over and over...
The truly terrifying part: I knew I was dreaming. After the first 'playthrough', I tried to wake myself up, but I couldn't. After a few more replays, I started to get scared. Why couldn't I wake up? I thought maybe I had to do something, change something. But I couldn't, I was only along for the ride. All I could do was spectate.
Screams and death moans.
The smell and taste of blood in the air.
I got to feel everything - especially the helplessness. On top of that I experienced the helplessness of not being able to wake up, even though I was lucid. It was like being trapped inside myself with no way out.
I started to scream in my head, screaming to be let out. I started to feel like I was losing myself.
The alarm jolted me awake. Terrified and disoriented, it took me a second to come back to the present. I was exhausted. All of my muscles ached like I had been clenching all of them. My heart was beating so hard it actually hurt.
And then came the relief. It was over. I didn't have to experience that scene again. I was back in control. I was still pretty messed up, though. I was only able to make it through half of my shift on Monday before my need to be alone and process what had just happened overwhelmed me and forced me to go home. I am still processing it. I don't think I have ever been so terrified in my whole life.
What the hell was the meaning of that nightmare? Was there a message in it? I don't know and I have a feeling I won't know for a long time. All I know is that somehow, my perspective on work and life has changed. The differences are subtle. Maybe one day I will figure out why.
This past week has been a whirlwind as I worked to get everything ready for the fundraising campaign to go live. It has been an amazing experience and I have found myself looking at the world from a different perspective. I never realized how fulfilled I would feel as I pushed the envelope to advocate for veterans. I have felt energized and happy, better able to attend to my family, better able to attend to my own needs. I have felt so good this past week that I started to think something must be wrong. Being this happy was alien to me.
And then it hit me. And it hit me HARD. When I was telling my parents about my venture, they were 100% supportive but my mother asked me a very pointed question: "Max, you are overweight. If you are going to be the public face of this organization, you need to look the part." Something so simple. She thought I was going to get upset or feel hurt by her comments.
Nope. Not at all. As a matter of fact, she really made me think. If I am going to fight the stereotype and stigma associated with PTSD, I can't look like a 'sorry-ass dough-boy'. When I sat down and thought about it, I made another realization and it wasn't one I liked. I still hated the guy in the mirror. Despite all of the good I wanted to do, I was still striving to live vicariously through the successes of others.
For the first time, that realization didn't paralyze me. It didn't make me feel less than. It made me disgusted with myself - determined to DO something about it. It was time to Walk the Walk. I have been talking the talk for two years, shying away from holding myself accountable for my inability to take care of myself. I found it was easy to ignore my own deficiencies if I helped other veterans and their loved ones learn to live with PTSD. I can't delude myself anymore. If I am going to be taken seriously, I need to take care of myself and not look like a sloppy 'mess'.
So here's the skinny (pardon the term): I weigh 278.1 pounds. My 'fighting weight' in the army was 234. Today I started living by example. While I have done much to learn to cope with my PTSD, I wasn't able to overcome the feelings of inadequacy to take better care of myself. So no big promises. No grandiose plans. I am going to get in the best shape of my life and I'm going to show you all what grit and determination can do for a veteran with PTSD. Here's how I look now:
Yeah. Doesn't exactly scream "Support My Cause!"
This is the only promise I will make: I will do everything I can to look the part and earn the self-respect I so dearly desire. I WILL WALK THE WALK>>>No update pictures, no stories, no excuses. Just action. I will show you all what I am capable of and take a picture again on April 10th (A few days before the end of my fundraising campaign). All I ask is that you ask yourself. Do I just 'like' comments and say I support a cause or am I willing to walk the walk? Are you willing to spread the word? Are you willing to speak out against the stigmatization our combat veterans with PTSD face? Do you have the ability to donate to worthy causes but don't? What will you do to walk with me?
What do you do when you realize that everything you have been doing for free (advocating for veterans and educating civilians) is something that you'd like to do as a career?
I can tell you this, while it doesn't take away from the fulfillment I find in helping veterans and their loved ones, it does motivate me to find ways to make my dream job a reality. In recent months, so much has happened that has drawn a lot of attention to the deficiencies in our behavioral health system. I hear and read about all of these so-called experts talking about how we need to fix the system and they all agree: we need to add more layers of bureaucracy and research. Remind me again, how does this help? When are organizations going to start listening to the ideas of the people they are designed to help?
Our behavioral health system is out of date and out of touch with the realities of today's population. I have looked around. Unless you have a substance abuse problem, it is almost impossible to find real-world peer to peer support groups.
I have a strong desire to change this and have some ideas on how to affect positive change. I do need to consult with some folks about some certain subjects and would appreciate any advice that people could give me. Here's what I need:
- No nonsense legal education on HIPPA.
- Social Network Design
- Incorporating into a non-profit
- A Hospital IT expert, knowledgeable about integrating outside networks/platform into an existing network, database.
- Anyone experienced with private sector fund-raising
I am sure there will be more down the line, but right now, I am interested in gaining feedback from people with these areas of expertise so that I can perform a feasibility study for an idea that I have. If you know anyone who may fit this criteria who may be interested in finding out more, please have them contact me through the website! I have tomorrow off, so I will be spending some downtime with my family. A little decompression before starting a new gig at work is always a good idea. I plan on writing some more of my next installment of my serial novel. It always seems to clear my head. Have a good weekend, everyone!
So, yeah...I started working out again this past week. I have realized that the only way that I am going to be able to stay committed to working out is to go all out. What's odd is the way that I came to this realization: I have been in a funk for the better part of the past week. I couldn't, for the life of me, figure out why in the hell I was feeling so down. I started putting it together after I had worked out last night after work. I had been starting slowly and letting my muscles get reacquainted with weight training. I hadn't added cardio into the mix quite yet. When I got home from from the gym last night, I was almost instantly grumpy and withdrawn.
And then it clicked.
I wasn't fully committing to working out and I wasn't kicking the endorphins into high enough gear for the 'feel-good' to affect me. I thought about it a lot. I felt good while I was working out but it immediately started to fade as soon as I was done. It kept on leaving the gym feeling faintly dissatisfied. I knew that you had to attain a certain level of physical activity for the endorphin release to sustain itself for any length of time. With this in mind, I decided it was time to throw in a half-hour of cardio today. My body felt good and I wasn't sore, so I figured I might as well.
So today, I got out of work, headed to the gym, did 30 minutes of cardio and then weight training. My hunch appears to be correct. When I finished my workout, the good mood was still there and I felt good. I still felt a little out of balance after a week of 'I feel good, I feel like crap'. I liked the way I felt today. I was more aware and focused at home. I wasn't withdrawing from my wife and daughter.
So let this be a lesson to everyone else out there: When your doc says you need to exercise, take it seriously. I feel so much better when I am working out. I am more alert, more engaged. *so tired - going to bed and finishing tomorrow...*
Ok, to finish up:
The word of caution I have for all of the others out there that are feeling balanced on their medication: Exercise releases a lot of chemicals into the brain that cause feelings of happiness and contentedness. It might be a good idea to pay a little closer attention to your mood while you are getting into the habit of exercising consistently. Any time you drastically change your brain chemistry, it can change the potency, duration, and effect of the medications we are on. Please don't take this as an excuse to avoid exercising. Trust me when I say that the difference is wonderful. Just don't do it half-way. You'll thank me later.
When this first happened, I wanted to write something immediately. I felt compelled to write from the heart on this, but I waited. This incident devastated too many lives to be written off the cuff. I decided to look into some background information so substantiate my views and in the course of doing that research became more and more disturbed, more and more concerned for the direction our country is headed. So, here goes.
- Firearm Deaths in the US in 2003: 30,136 /// Total US Military Casualties in Iraq in 2003: 486 That's more than 70x the number of total US Military deaths in a WARZONE over the same period.
The proliferation of firearms in the United States has reached critical mass. Industry lobbyists in Washington have worked tirelessly to pave the way for almost anyone to be able to purchase and own firearms. While I believe in the Second Amendment, I think it's time we actually looked at what the Second Amendment actually says.
- The overall firearm-related death rate among US children younger than 15 years of age us nearly 12 times higher than among children in 25 other industrialized nations COMBINED.
- For more stats, go here.
"A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed."
Well, this seems pretty damn black and white to me. 'If this criteria is met, then this holds true'. Is the United States general public now considered a 'well regulated militia'? Is owning an automatic rifle 'necessary to the security of a free state'? Unequivocally, NO. We have local police, state police, the National Guard, and more. There is absolutely no reason for assault rifles to be available to the general public.
Before any NRA sycophants get on here and rant, you better think carefully about what you say. I fought to protect the ideals of this country, so don't you dare impugn my intentions. You want to argue your 'right to bear arms'? Last time I checked, this right is an AMENDMENT. First and foremost we have a duty to uphold the core tenants of the Constitution. Let's visit the core tenant of that wonderful document:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness."
It is not a coincidence that Life takes the spot as highest in precedence. When others' rights to bear arms encroaches on another citizen's right to live a life in pursuit of these three basic tenants, I draw the line. No parents should have to live in fear of sending their children to school. They shouldn't have to fear a phone call telling them that their six year old was murdered in cold blood by an assault rifle toting psychopath.
I thought deeply about the philosophy that 'guns don't kill people, people kill people.' While semantically true, this is a delusional rationalization. Yes, guns don't kill people. Someone has to pull the trigger and we, as a society, have made that insanely easy to accomplish. It's time that we held ourselves to a higher standard.
Special Interests and Politics:
While the above incident is horrible, it is a symptom of a deeper malady - a cancer that has spread insidiously into every facet of National Governance. Special Interests, working to promote specific agendas have taken our political system hostage. Special interest groups have taken over policy making so completely in Washington that the average politician can't get elected without taking money from these groups and offering policy reciprocity in return. We supposedly elect these politicians to office out of a belief that they will do what is best for their constituencies. Now, campaign platforms are empty words designed to keep power-hungry 'public servants' in office. Special interest groups are the ones that facilitate this. Their money buys influence and power in Washington, drowning out the voices of the average American who doesn't have millions of dollars to throw at corrupt politicians. The firearm special interests and the NRA both tout deep and abiding beliefs in God. Unless God is now synonymous the almighty dollar, these folks and the politicians that support them are the most profound of hypocrites. Last time I checked, avarice was one of the seven deadly sins. The firearm industry and their cadre of bought policy-makers have sold the lives of our children out of a desire for more money and more power. So I say this to those policy-makers and lobbyists - HOW DARE YOU.
It's time that we take back our power from these elitists. I didn't go to war to protect and uphold the Constitution of the Unites States just to watch it be slowly subverted to fit the greed and need of a select few.
Ultimately, it is these lobbyists and policy-makers that have supported lax firearms policies that I hold accountable for what happened in Connecticut. If I had my way, they'd all be brought up on charges of Negligent Homicide. Take what you will from this, but my stance will never change. Policy-makers are given their power by us. We can just as easily take it away. It's time they start advocating for us and not the special interests.
Mental Health Care in the United States:
Since I was diagnosed with PTSD, I have taken a keen interest in the state of the mental health care system in our country. Bluntly, it's embarrassing. So little education is out there about mental illness, mental disorders that those with these issues are viewed by many as second-class citizens at best and a danger to the general public at worst.
News Flash: My name isn't Rambo. I will not go on a murderous killing spree because of the horrific things I witnessed in a Combat Zone.
PTSD, Depression, Bi-Polar, Schizophrenia. People hear these words and become fearful. Thousands and thousands of people never come forward for treatment out of fear of being shunned by a society that holds no place for them. Whatever happened to compassion for our fellow man? Not surprisingly, those sufferers with the most understanding families that actively support their treatment, that show them unconditional love are substantially more successful in mitigating the effects of their illness/disorder on their lives. It's time that we, as a nation, worry more about others again. Where is our heart? Our nationalism? Our pride in what it means to be truly American? Since when did ignoring or marginalizing a portion of our population become acceptable?
The only way to fix this is to get rid of the vast bureaucracy that overshadows our efforts to provide for our citizens with mental illnesses and disorders. In the case of Veterans, the system is so cumbersome that they have to file with one organization (the VBA) in order to be provided with free health care from the other (VA Medical). It takes days, months, and sometimes years to get the help we need. And the first solution given by most psychiatrists? Medication.
There's another special interest that disgusts me. Pharmaceutical Companies. The FDA approves these drugs when the side-effects are worse than the malady they are addressing. I saw an add for Cymbalta on the TV in the work break room the other day. The first 15 seconds were about what it addressed: Depression. The last 45 seconds addressed all of the possible side-effects. By the end of the ad, I couldn't even remember what the hell the drug was for until they flashed the name back up on the screen.
Do you know what has been most helpful to me in coping with my PTSD? The compassion of others and finding therapists that help me learn to identify and cope with my symptoms. It took me EIGHT YEARS to finally find this kind of help. And I'm one of the lucky ones with a supportive and loving family.
So, have I gotten your attention yet? Please don't let this issue pass you by. I hope to hear from everyone on this issue, for and against the view I have presented. Discourse is the only way we can get to where we need to be. It's a topic of discussion that hasn't been addressed in way too long. Let's find our hearts again. Let's work to hold our public officials to a higher standard. And for Pete's Sake, get these weapons out of the hands of the general public.
This past week, I have done a lot of thinking about why my anger is getting harder and harder to control. After a lot of deep thought and talking to my individual therapist, I have examined my life at home and at work to try to narrow down where the increasing stress is coming from. This past Monday, I got pulled aside at work and was talked to by the management trainee in our department. While I don't recall exactly what it was that I did (which is problematic as well), it suddenly became crystal clear that the vast majority of my stress stemmed from stressors at work. I realized that the more stressed I became, the more forgetful I became, the more distracted I was, and I was substantially easier to anger.
With this in mind, I evaluated what about my job was making me so stressed, so miserable and I realized it was all of the management tasks. I was stressing about finding the time to write reviews, talk to employees, train and develop subordinates, improve merchandizing, writing accurate orders, maintaining maximum product freshness, product rotation issues, etc. The list went on and on and the more I thought about those tasks, the more worked up I got.
It couldn't be that simple, could it? I had promised almost a year ago that I would do everything in my power to maintain a healthy work-life balance. Could stepping down from the management team and assuming a role of less responsibility and accountability really be the answer? I talked to my wife about it and she agreed that the stress that work was causing me in my current position was not worth the bump in pay. So, I approached my boss and his boss and asked to sit down and talk. I let them know that I was stepping down and had a desire to be a plain old full-time employee with no management responsibilities.
Neither one was surprised and both were relieved. They told me that they had talked about offering to let me step down as an option. They noticed that I had become more and more distracted and much more irritable at work. They knew that with my current levels of stress, that I wan't happy. The were concerned about my welfare. They knew what I was capable of. They also knew what a toll my PTSD and events over the last two years have taken on me. They understood why I was stepping down and understood my reasons for doing so. They approved it and a great weight was instantly lifted from my shoulders. For the first time in a long time, I felt a moment of peace. While I took a pay cut, it is more than worth it to come home from work without the stress that had been weighing me down. I swore I would never put work before family ever again and I knew I was getting close to breaking that promise to fulfill duties at work.
So there you have it. I wanted to share that because it's food for thought. Many of us take on more than we can handle. The more stressed we are, the harder it is to cope with our PTSD. If things start getting away from you, try to identify why. It was one hell of a relief for me.
My wife and I were talking yesterday about how we both tended to respond to situations out of habits formed over the past two years. I didn't to do something, my wife gets frustrated and mad, I feel guilty and withdraw. For any other vets and spouses, does this sound familiar? I am sure we are not the only ones who have fallen victim to habit.
When I realized what was going on, my wife and I talked about it and we came to an agreement, a compromise that will hopefully help us from falling into those habits. Here's what we agreed on:
- If I don't to do something, my wife will not do it for me, making the assumption that I didn't care enough to do it.
- If I didn't to do something, my wife tells me and affords me the opportunity to do it.
- If the next day dawns and I still haven't done it, then she can get mad.
What's the reasoning? I have a tendency to fall asleep for a nap after work because work is very energy consuming. The end result: There are a list of tasks that I would normally do that didn't get done that, over the course of time, made my wife resent me for not doing. My wife and I talked about this and she agreed to afford me the opportunity to show her that I DO CARE. So after coming to this agreement, I thought a lot about the stress my wife was under. My wife did all of the work around the house. This was because she either didn't think I would remember to do my tasks or she thought that I didn't care. This led to an enormous amount of Caregiver Stress and eventually, Burnout.
So today we tried an experiment. I had a day off today. Last night I talked with my wife about going out somewhere and doing something. While she was gone I would do chores around the house and afford her the opportunity to decompress and unwind. She said, "Well, some of the folks from the gym are going out for breakfast tomorrow..."
So this morning we woke up, and my wife went out to breakfast with friends, leaving our daughter with me. After breakfast, she went out to the mall. While she was gone, I vacuumed, cleaned the bathrooms, mopped the floors, and folded my laundry - all while trying to keep my daughter entertained. When my wife came home in the early afternoon, she said she felt stoned. I jokingly told her, "This is what feeling relaxed feels like." Later in the afternoon, my wife got ready and left for work. I prepared dinner for Caley and me and then cleaned up the kitchen. My wife came home from work relaxed, happy, and grateful - three things I haven't allowed her to feel in way too long.
Now the evening is mine. I get the rest of the night to relax. So it works out well for everyone. It also helps me feel better because I don't feel like a burden rather than a husband.
I would really love to hear from Veterans and their spouses on this issue. It's too important to ignore.
I experienced a new level of nightmare on the night before Thanksgiving. The smells and sounds were always there, but these new recollections/flashbacks now include the fear, anger, horror, and disbelief that I experienced in the moment. The end result: I fell asleep on the couch at the in-laws and had nightmares. My daughter was the one who startled me awake. I became aware of what I had done when I looked over and saw her kneeling on the floor in the middle of the room and the looks or horror on everyone's faces. My startle reflexes had caused me to scare the bejesus out of my daughter.
Needless to say, for my sanity and safety and that of my daughter's, my wife and daughter have been sleeping at her parents' house so that, God Forbid, I don't actually hurt her. She was scared by my startle response, but unhurt. She's over it but I can't forgive myself. It is my worst fear - hurting my daughter.
I was at work yesterday and had a breakdown. I effectively hadn't slept since Friday night. My father took me to the VA and they are putting me back on Trazadone. The doc said that it would keep me from being physically able to act on any startle response.
I needed someone to talk to about what had happened that wasn't emotionally invested in a positive outcome. So, naturally, I talked to Rod Deaton. Rod may be a doctor at the VA and I may be a veteran with PTSD, but we are friends and do not share a doctor patient relationship. What is great about having someone so knowledgeable to turn to in situations like these is that he can stay calm and talk me down from my figurative ledge.
Talking to him last night definitely did that. He made me remember that I am a good and honorable man. That, in and of itself, would ensure that there wasn't a repeat of what happened on Thanksgiving. Additionally, he made me realize that my I was allowing me fears to blow what had happened out of proportion. I am, and always have been, my own worst critic. When I get into situations like this past week, I verbalize my irrational fears to those I love, causing them to worry excessively. I force them to think the worst.
It's form of self-flagellation. On some level I have been punishing myself continually since my daughter was born. I think about all of the worst-case outcomes to my behavior and believe myself capable of making those outcomes a reality. It's self-fulfilling prophecy. I have been hamstringing myself like this ever since my daughter was born. It all stems from irrational fears of losing my family, my daughter.
I won't go into all of the details but my conversation with Rod last night led me to make some incredibly substantial realizations about myself:
- When I think about the consequences of my actions I have believed myself capable of the worst possible behavior in any given situation.
- I have been irrationally afraid of my wife and daughter being taken from my life permanently.
- My irrational fear of my inability to control my behavior has led me to take on my PTSD on my own, shutting out the love, support, and advice of the person I value the most in life - my amazing wife.
So what's the end-result of the mess of a week? Blessings dressed in wolf's clothing...
- I now understand that, even when I have really bad days and weeks, that my wife and daughter will always be there for the long haul. My irrational fear of losing them permanently has finally been put into proper perspective.
- I am now aware of the consequences of my actions but now understand that the worst possible response in a given situation is not the most likely (or even remotely probable) outcome. I have proven over the last three years since I have been at my current employer that I have better self-control than that except when I let the fears control me.
- I am no longer afraid to be me. I have learned from all of this that I am (despite my best efforts to convince myself otherwise) a good man, an honorable man. I still need to work on accepting that even good and honorable men aren't perfect - that they aren't perfect. It is not rational to hold myself to that standard. What does that mean for me? I am no longer afraid to be the man hiding behind the fear - I can let him out to shine, warts and all.
So it has been a traumatizing and productive week all at the same time. I am still exhausted and have to work at not being too hard on myself, but my wife and daughter deserve to enjoy the man I am - not the man I was afraid I could become.