The Mandate of a Heart – Holding Warriors’ Stories

“Without a witness, it just disappears.” – the character of Charles in Taking Chance 

The 2009 movie Taking Chance is based on the true story of Lt. Colonel Michael Strobl, a Marine officer who escorted the body of a fallen Marine, PFC Chance Phelps, back to his hometown from the Iraq War, where PFC Phelps would be placed to rest.  If you haven’t seen the movie, I recommend it, though warn it is moving and often discomforting.  The performances are riveting and knowing similar events were actually taking place made it more compelling.  For several years, it was commonplace for my family to find me watching the film, completely enveloped in tears.  They wondered why I would repeatedly subject myself to such sorrow.  And my husband, having served in the Army and participating in his share of funeral detail, can only sit through the film with a great level of discomfort.  I was preparing myself for sitting through the scores of stories I would often hear during my time working on military installations since 9/11.  I wanted to make sure I allowed my own soul it’s rightful breathing space so that when sitting across from any warrior, executing my mission of bearing witness to their accounts, I could be fully present with their needs rather than being busy choking back my own tears.  My secondary sorrow needed no comfort compared to the space their souls needed to heal.  Thus became the mandate of my heart – to hold stories for warriors, offering respite from terror that had moved in to stay. To make sure the stories did not disappear and yet to provide a moment in their lives when the burden was shared and, hopefully, lessened for a bit.

As a psychotherapist-in-training, I spent many hours learning that “less is more” when it comes to talking in a session. I also learned that we cannot discount the power of empathy to evoke strong emotion in response to a life that is not our own.  That can turn ‘listening’ into living as if it were first-hand pain.  When a warrior finally decides to share a portion (and trust me, it’s always only a portion) of what they’ve seen in combat, the holding space for that story has specific requirements.  One must-have is the ability to listen without reaction.  The last thing a warrior wants to do is pour what they’ve been through onto someone else.  My own soul’s work has to be done on a regular basis in order to maintain a foundation solid enough to sit steadfast when the warrior finally decides to trust the healing process.  If I allow my own visceral response, warriors are likely to kick into caretaker mode and this would shift the responsibility from me to them.  Ensuring that balance is the second necessity for the space.  A warrior’s soul must find rest from responsibility even if only for the brief therapy hour. Because once they leave that space, they are back to bearing the weight alone again. My ultimate mission – to hold the story for them – is allowing them to create enough space between the trauma and their soul’s tendency to bear that weight. And in that space created, respite may be found.  This all leads to the next requirement – a tolerance for the ambiguity that comes with having one’s soul “stuck” in combat.  They’ve come home, but they’re not fully home.   A part of each warrior’s soul remains on an outpost somewhere in the Afghan mountain range or on a dusty road hovered over the shadow of a fallen comrade.  Because of this – there is an uncertainty for the warrior that asks “Will it ever be okay again?”.  The temptation to offer a comforting “Yes” is overwhelming. And, at least in their minds, it may be false.  So I don’t. Quietly I know that being okay and feeling okay are often different for a person.

“It’s going to be okay.” What does that mean exactly?  In my younger days as a therapist I might have been compelled to offer hope in the form of those words – but mostly, to meet my own needs for comfort and to feel as if I was accomplishing something.  But I know that in most cases, I have no hard evidence that any resolve will be positive, at least not in the beginning of the process.  Even if, by objective count, all is okay, that often teases in the face of the person bearing pain.  I have my own faith (most days), but I can only gently offer that to others.  I’m not suggesting it is wrong to offer words of hope at times, but for me the timing must be impeccably clear. And it must be an honest hope.  So the harder task for the therapist, or any comforter, is to build tenacity for sitting in uncertainty and not crumbling.  The replacement for not telling someone “it will be okay” is to walk the steps with them toward that “okayness”.  And for a warrior, it is always best if they experience the success of reaching okay for themselves rather than asking them to trust the promise of someone who may not have been where they’ve been. Watching the flow of tears from a hurting warrior is not easy.  At times I believe the tears aren’t supposed to stop for a while.  Those tears may keep the story moving at least for some time.  The warrior needs to know he or she can shed the tears and still be a warrior. The toughest of warriors will endure intense firefights with insurgents, only to run swiftly from a single tear. Certainly, the tears cannot flow to the extent they disrupt one’s daily life, but the allowance of occasional sorrow keeps us connected to the story.  It helps us connect to the whole of ourselves, which leads to living with integrity.

A new nation of trauma has been created.  We have many stories coming home – being told to us one warrior at a time – sometimes one casket at a time.  It’s okay to care.  It’s necessary.  It will be necessary for many years.  For warriors and their families, this may mean a lifetime of needing others to help hold in awareness what they can never escape.

What is also necessary is the telling and hearing of stories.  Stories validate. Stories allow others to bear witness, which is a necessary part of healing.  As the Taking Chance character, Charles, reminds us – it ensures the person’s experience does not disappear.  Many warriors already struggle with feeling a part of this civilian world when they return.  When someone is willing to bear witness to our pain they agree to hold for us the weight of that pain while we shift and adjust.  We shift our perceptions.  We adjust to an ever-present awareness that the story will forever change how we negotiate our existence in the world.

Warriors are always in negotiation with their existence.  The mandate of my heart has been to help them mediate that negotiation so that their souls can come home – down from the outpost, away from that dusty road, out of the shadows.  And when they get here – home – my heart is open to keeping their stories for them whenever they’re ready.

If you are a medical or mental health provider interested in learning more about working with active duty military or veterans, please visit my website for information on scheduling consultations, training, or speaking engagements.

Posted in Military Mental Health, Soul, Therapy, Uncategorized, Veterans, War, While in My Mindfulness | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

A Warrior and His Soul – The Initial Rally Point written by chris cannida June 6, 2014

Addition: When I first wrote this piece, the 70th anniversary of D-Day hadn’t approached.  At the time, I wasn’t sure of the name of the veteran I mention in this story.  I recently confirmed that his first name was Kenneth.  I decided to repost this piece in honor of this years DDay Remembrance.  And to offer an apology to Kenneth for being young and not understanding at the time what he was going through or how to help.

My father was on a beach somewhere in France during WWII.  Although he was undiagnosed, when I consider some of his behaviors from when I was young, I suspect I grew up with the effects of war – post-trauma, combat stress.  When I was seven, he made me go with him to see the movie “Patton”.  I can’t remember any other time in my life when my father went to a movie, except for when the epic war movie “Saving Private Ryan” was released.  In my small rural town, we looked for things to fight boredom and relied heavily on known traditions passed down from other years.  One piece of knowledge was about the war vet who roamed the streets day and night.  He was shell-shocked (now what we call PTSD) and just walked endlessly in the middle of the streets. It was common knowledge that if you yelled “Fire in the hole” within his earshot, he would begin doing all sorts of strange moves in the street –  crouching low to the ground, rolling, eyes scanning the landscape with extreme hyper-vigilance.  Unbeknown to us – we were traumatizing him again and again.  More than that, we were attacking his soul – tearing away pieces of it repeatedly.  And this was during the 1970’s, so it was not likely he was involved with a counselor or therapist working to regenerate that broken soul during some evidence-based therapy session on a weekly basis.  When I became an adult and began working in my profession as a psychotherapist, I would reflect on this man.  Somewhere along the way, I decided perhaps he’d been what they called a tunnel rat during the war.  Intimating myself with details of who he was and what he’d endured made me feel closer to him.  I’m sure I was trying to alleviate the guilt and remorse as I grew to realize the ramifications of our behavior towards him.

Having listened to hundreds of warriors talk about war, I now know that in order to thrive in combat a soldier must manipulate the soul – sacrificing pieces of it when having to take a life or cutting off awareness of that soul’s cry for peace in order to push ahead with the mission.  The soul weighs in on our decisions, our choices for action.  Knowing what I know now I realize that each time we yelled what was, to us, an entertaining, seemingly harmless chant “Fire in the Hole”, we required this man to return to a place within him that was riddled with pain.  We forced him to break from his soul once again in order to survive.  He perceived that our chanting was a real threat of danger.  What we did was egregious and I regret it on a daily basis, often wishing I could find him and offer some piece of my own soul in exchange for his forgiveness.

When my father got wind of our antics, of course, he lectured me to no end and I started to understand with great empathy what my behavior was doing to that veteran.  I think I’ve been seeking restitution ever since.   Perhaps that’s been the driving force for my career choices in the past decade.  I’ve taken every opportunity I could to put myself in position to help warriors unleash the monsters of traumatic memories locked away in their minds so that they may be reunited with their souls.

It’s not an easy task – convincing a warrior to trust the therapy space, no less with a civilian who’s never seen combat.  Talking with someone may seem threatening.  My presence represents an effort in urging a person to speak about private or painful things.  After all, one doesn’t know what I’m going to do with the information.  Can I handle it?  Can I hold the information without a detonation of my own self?  I’ve frequently had clients say to me that one of their primary needs in a therapist is that the therapist not be “scared” of their story or symptoms.  I’ve learned from talking with warriors the last thing they want to do is harm someone else with their invisible wounds of war.

Fire in the hole” is a warning used to alert that there is imminent risk of an explosive detonation in a confined space.  Although it originated with miners who needed to warn their peers that a charge had been set, it was subsequently adopted by the US Army and Marines to give notice of a grenade or satchel charge being tossed into a a  small enclosure.

For the warrior, that ‘explosion’ can or has been literal.  The seeming intrusion of someone, a therapist, attempting to excavate the warrior’s story can have the same effect.  Questions, inquiry, urging – behaviors used by most behavioral health clinicians – can seem like a close proximity explosion of the mind, of the soul.  So when working with a warrior, we move tenderly through the landscape of his/her memories.  And I gratefully hold my own memory of the veteran walking down Fir Street in the 1970’s, making his way to whatever rally point he deemed safe at the time – always hoping when he arrived he was reunited with a peaceful regeneration of his soul.

Posted in Military Mental Health, Soul, Therapy, Uncategorized, Veterans, War | Leave a comment

Dear Mom, Wish You Were Here

Christmas, 2013. The first Christmas of my life without mom on earth. She passed away on the first day of Spring that year. Oddly, I’m glad it was a day easily marked by the calendar. I didn’t want to forget the last time she was physically near. It’s a strange feeling – wanting to remember when your parent died. And yet, I quietly did the same when my father passed away. He died the day after my nephew’s birthday.

Knowing that we can remain resilient and grow in the midst of such a pain as grief is one of the ways we cope. Being able to say to oneself, “I did it. I survived this.”, can be a remarkable comfort in times of seemingly insurmountable strife. For me, it is vital to have a mental stronghold to break my fall when I find myself grappling with painful emotion. Because of my work as a psychotherapist, I am constantly compartmentalizing my own hurts so I can keep my clients’ needs in the forefront. And the side effect of that is what knocks me off-balance at times. My own humanity will not allow comfortable denial of such a significant part of me – being on earth without my parents. But, the constant suppression of such sorrow in the midst of everyday living becomes difficult. So, my pain eventually finds its way to the surface, ofttimes at the strangest, most unexpected moments.

That’s what happened the December after my mother died when I walked into the seasonal Hickory Farms store and smelled the aroma of smoked sausage and cheese.  I found myself quickly scurrying from the store. Several weeks earlier, my son had mentioned that he missed getting his treat package full of sausage and cheese from Nana this year. He’d known the joy of that gift for the past 18 years. Until that year, 2013. His words were the first tug at the hem of my pain and so when I entered the store it was only a matter of seconds before my grief, which I thought was safely packed away inside my soul – where I keep all things painful – would emerge to grip me unmercifully. The salesperson, thankfully, was not one to follow me through every square inch of my stroll through the store. This allowed me a private moment to notice what was swelling inside me. And when my eyes began to sting with tears, I swiftly made my way out the door. Gratefully, I am able to normalize these moments for myself. So I embraced the sweet awareness that being nudged closer to memories of my mom is a blessing. My moment of sorrow turned into a peaceful presence. It felt as though she was right there with me, teasing me a bit for being so silly. Then, gently reminding me that over the years she’d missed her parents, too. I can hear her now, in her southern drawl, “I miss my mama and daddy everyday. You’re supposed to miss your parents.” My mother was the first person in my life to teach me that being tolerant of feelings was a normal part of growing, and in that, growth is lifelong.

Today, I realize that perhaps it’s more about me and my growth than the fact that my parents are gone. Maybe I’m wanting to mark days of my life that forever change me – days that I believe are meant to help me grow and more surely know my purpose on this earth. It’s like that old practice of taking a pencil to mark the height of your child against a door frame – so that over the years the milestones can be noted. Maybe the point of enduring the stresses of life is to see and celebrate the growth. Perhaps someone in our lives is watching and searching for a clue of how to get through tougher times. We are a concrete being. We need proof that all is eventually okay – that we are going to be okay. We need to know that our presence here is noted as important and that those steps we take to survive are not taken in vain.

I’m not really confident I know my importance here in this life. And let’s face it, without our parents here to validate us, that knowing is sometimes even more out of reach. I do know I want to pass on to my own child the keys to finding his purpose. I want him to embrace grief and quickly turn it into moments of warm memories that nudge him into a more peaceful presence, without being burdened by sadness and sorrow. I want him to know that regardless of what he feels in any given moment, those moments are a bridge to better times in which he will feel stronger and sure that he will see better days. I want him to feel validated and recognize his own strength.

Someday I’ll be sending my son and his family Christmas gift packages of sausage and cheese. Until then, I hope I’m able to teach him about turning sorrow into peace. And that with or without me and his dad around for validation, he is significant and needed on this earth. I want him to use his faith in God, embedded in his soul by the reflection of his worth he finds when he sees my face – his mother. That’s a lofty task – to assure a child of their worth. It’s a life’s work. My mom certainly did a good job of it. Her children were the center of her purpose. I’m daunted by the thought of being for my son what she was for me. So for now, I’ll just close my eyes and remember getting that package at the door each holiday season. Smoked sausage and cheese – and the steadfast love of my mother. Dear Mom, wish you were here. Grateful for all the times you were.

Posted in Grief, Christmas, Parents, Soul | Leave a comment

Periodically, a psychotherapy client will ask me if I’ve ever been to a therapist myself. Sometimes they seem surprised at my comfortable response of “Why, yes, of course”. I’m sure some would like to hear details of my own experience in the client’s chair – if only to distract from the discomfort created by any focus on their own psychological pain. I offer very little of my experience as a client. Honoring my own confidentiality is a form of self-care and I’m acutely aware that the space and time for each of my clients is sacred to the outcome of their own well-being. I was trained and mentored by wonderfully gifted clinicians who taught me well how to utilize self-disclosure only if it may benefit a client’s work and serve to reduce their emotional suffering. Any other use of that disclosure I would see as negligent. Although to me, keeping my self completely “out of the room”, as purists in the field would insist, is something I consider unrealistic, I do take great strides in keeping that space (the therapy hour) as open and clear for my client’s concerns as I possibly can. Enter the world of technology and the challenge of remaining completely anonymous as a whole person who sometimes is, just that, a person first and therapist second.

Coupled with my own insatiable love for writing and a surely hardwired need to use it as one of my own tools for maintaining psychological and spiritual balance, the dilemma for me and my colleagues who also write or blog is how to handle the tenderness of complete authenticity and the boundaries of trust and confidentiality. Both my openness and the boundaries that legally and ethically bind me to do no harm to my clients are of equal importance. There would never be a time I would write anything that discloses identifying information about a client. However, the issue of them trusting that assurance, or trusting me fully once getting a glimpse into my own psyche, is more complicated and always deserves attention. It’s possible the issue would never surface because I’m not sure any client or potential client would ever read my blogs. However, so precious is trust between two people, both personally and professionally, the risk of that trust being broken may serve as a source for irreparable emotional pain. That’s why it deserves continual consideration. Yet, as I respond to the suggestion of friends and colleagues to offer a public version of writing, I find myself considering how this may affect those who come to me and offer their trust in me as their story-keeper.

So, I find myself compelled to address these ideas in this forum – in part, to continue my quest for self-exploration and growth, and possibly to help someone else with their own consideration. The short version of my thought process –

Yes, I’ve been to therapy as a client – in part, because my mentors insisted I trust my own profession enough to utilize it in maintaining emotional and psychological health. And – I discovered the sacredness of that ‘safe space’ to consider myself wholly and honestly. On occasion, you may see a reference to my own experiences in “the other chair” if I am moved to make those memories a part of my growth on any given day.

As a mentor of young clinicians I strongly encourage the idea that, in order to be your best professional self for those who seek your help, you must ensure your personal self is along for that ride to psychological health. The two parts of you as therapist and person are never completely separated, ever.

If you are a client and reading this – know that your best interests are always in the forefront of my mind. And if seeing my thoughts “out there” in the world brings you discomfort, you can always talk with me about it so that any compromise to your own growth as a person is minimized.

It’s an interesting position to be in – person/therapist/person/therapist. Some days it scares me to hold the stories of others in that space. What if I misstep and cause, albeit unintentional, pain? Most days, I’m completely honored that my clients trust me with the most tender, vulnerable parts of themselves. Always, I’m in awe of the human spirit and it’s capacity to survive.

Posted on by chris cannida | Leave a comment

Room to grow……

Maybe we need to be equally grateful for those persons who love us ‘in spite of our strengths’ as we are for those who love us ‘in spite of our weaknesses’.  If you love me in spite of my strengths it releases me from being responsible for your ego’s stability and sense of self-worth. Consequently, I am not forced to minimize my own worth so that you feel good about you – you can then experience lessons about the authority you’ve been given by God to walk on this earth.  I can be grateful, without guilt, for my own strengths and because you welcomed me to be my best.   We both grow.

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