Recently, I worked with a service member who’d been deployed multiple times in his 20 years as a soldier. He’d come to see me at his wife’s urging and he began our work together by describing recent conflict in his marriage that left him feeling unsure of nearly everything about his life. He’d considered his wife’s decision to stand by him for deployment after deployment one of his greatest sources of strength and something he could count on. After having survived multiple separations due to his service, the potential for divorce and losing daily access to his family was taking its toll. He couldn’t understand what she meant when she explained that who he was as a person had slowly eroded into an unrecognizable blur to her. She was frustrated at his lack of emotional expression. As she put it, “he doesn’t seem like human. He seems like an empty shell”. Except of course, when he would explode into unexplained verbal rage against her. After all, they’d made it through half-dozen deployments without any conflict between them. Now, they were confused about how they’d become two people who couldn’t stand each other. To make matters worse, he wasn’t sleeping, he wasn’t eating healthy anymore, and he found it hard to concentrate in his new civilian job. His perception of these functional changes was that his civilian employer didn’t know how to make maximum use of his skills, and while that might have been true, the verbally explosive episodes he was having each night at home didn’t match up. During the initial interview, I learned that while he’d struggled with what he shrugged off as “typical combat stress” after the last 2 deployments, he’d decided he “didn’t want to bring that junk with me as I transition to civilian life”. He described making, what to him, was a marked decision about not addressing any residue from war that might have indicated a post-traumatic stress injury. He stated “if I don’t talk about it, it won’t have power over me”. To reinforce this decision, he told me that this effort to ignore traumatic pain had worked for him after surviving childhood with abusive parents. While I admired his determination to minimize the enemy I call the trauma monster, I couldn’t help but wonder where that monster was hiding inside him.
What he would soon learn was that, while he wasn’t giving his trauma story actual words, his body was starting to speak it for him.
He’d been a well-trained combat warrior and suppressing any sense of vulnerability was vital to survival in a combat zone. The fact that his traumatic childhood hadn’t interrupted his ability to have an outstanding military career only served to embed his belief in avoidance even more. But now, as a civilian in a struggling marriage and a new post-service career, he faced a situation where admitting his vulnerability and working through it could be the one thing that saved his life. Initially, he wasn’t having any of my suggestion that we consider talking about his experiences. “No ma’am, not giving it a voice”. What he would soon learn was that, while he wasn’t giving his trauma story actual words, his body was starting to speak it for him. As I nudged him to face difficult questions and consider how the answers made him feel, I would notice his knee begin to shake and he would begin frantically wringing his hands. When I would ask him how he was feeling in that moment, he initially couldn’t come up with feeling words, or any description of his experience for that matter. I encouraged him to check in with his body and any physical sensations he noticed. He was eventually able to describe the trembling inside, feeling nauseous and tense.
His somatic experience became his body’s way of trying to process what he’d held back for so long.
When asked if he’d ever felt this way before, he recalled the trembling and nausea after certain firefights in Iraq, but had written it off as flushing adrenalin. He said he was confused about his ability to engage with the enemy, look after his men in the platoon, and come out seemingly unscathed, without any apparent distress in the throes of such dangerous times. But he decided he was just resilient – which, to him, meant he was immune to any lingering effects of exposure to trauma. We talked about what it must have taken to get through those events without complete emotional collapse. In the course of our conversation, and as he tried to keep us focused on just his marital conflict, he wondered aloud how talking about his marriage could keep bringing up his memories of combat. Over the course of several sessions, he discovered that he almost couldn’t contain his body’s strong reactions to either topic – marriage or combat. At one point, he looked at me and said “Who knew marriage and combat could feel the same?” I suggested that while the two scenarios seemed very different, some of the thoughts and feelings experienced with both might have a common thread. For him, that common thread was facing the unknown and the possibility of losing people who were important to him (battle buddies in combat and his wife of 20 years). While he’d learned to compartmentalize that idea into the deepest part of his mind, his body had absorbed the sensation of the actual losses he’d witnessed in war and the potential loss of his marriage – both of which he desperately tried to suppress. His somatic experience became his body’s way of trying to process what he’d held back for so long.
Bessel van der Kolk, MD, psychiatrist and author of the book “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma”, describes in great detail the physiological changes our body endures when it has had to absorb the injury of trauma. His work in research, along with other works in the field of trauma, have helped us understand how powerful a story-teller our body can be in its effort to record and speak the stories of egregious events in our lives. It’s as if our body knows the story must be spoken and so it keeps the story recorded deep in our cellular being – our muscles, our breath, our stomach – sometimes every fiber of our being. Storing up such painful details such as tension, smells, sounds, and even emotions wreaks havoc on a person’s nervous system. And while sometimes giving us time to pen the words ourselves, if we insist on avoiding that task, our bodies will begin telling the story via uncontrolled emotions, sleep deprivation, unexplained reactivity to even the slightest threat, and even entanglements with those we love. If the recorded stories have been many in number, the files of untold trauma store up, sometimes for amazingly long times.
It always pains me to see a veteran or service member having to endure the injury of psychological trauma. Most of them I’ve known initially work hard to hide the story from me. But if I listen and watch closely, the impact of those stories begins to leak out before they utter a word. If this happens, part of my responsibility as their therapist is to help them redirect their attention to what their bodies are trying to tell them and give them new and tolerable ways to join in that story-telling. In this way, they can hopefully find balance and relief in their lives.
June is PTSD Awareness Month. If you or someone you love may be experiencing symptoms of PTS (post-traumatic stress), please reach out to a local mental health provider in your area or to the nearest VA. There is a way to listen when your body speaks and this way can bring healing. If these symptoms are leading you to consider self-harm, please call:
National Suicide Prevention Hotline – 1-800-273-8255
Note: This information is not intended to replace the medical advice or treatment of a trained professional. If you feel your needs are creating an unsafe situation for you or someone else, seek emergent care through your primary care physician or local emergency room.