Too often the suffering of veterans is increased by their avoidance of pleasure. Here are some ideas on how to get some of those good (and important) feelings back into your life.
At one of the VA support-group meetings, health became a topic of discussion. Most of the conversation centered on the various medical conditions the men were experiencing – numbness from exposure to Agent Orange, high cholesterol, and heart disease – a myriad of physical problems, all of which had a negative impact on quality of life.
It was easy to be empathetic about the various diseases and medical conditions that many of the men and their families coped with on a daily basis, but underlying the medical issues was a much deeper one – one that was more difficult to articulate, but manifested itself as the absence of joy and pleasure in many of the veterans’ lives. It soon became apparent that the consequences of this disease were far-reaching.
The concept of joy and pleasure is so alien to many of the veterans.
Because the concept of joy and pleasure is so alien to many of the veterans, wives and partners often admit to feeling guilty about indulging in such simple pleasures as a facial, manicure, haircut, or massage. Why are the men so reluctant to treat themselves well? Are they punishing themselves for what was done or not done during the war? Are they incapable of joyous and passionate feelings? Are they destined to remain at the opposite end of the feeling range, where experiences are cloaked in fear, grief, depression, despair, and guilt? Most important, is there a way to gently cajole them into activities that they might enjoy?
There are many reasons why veterans deny themselves pleasurable experiences. Some do feel that joy – given their past experiences of loss – is undeserved, but most are simply caught up in the pain and emotional numbness that occurred as a direct result of their war-time experience. Although the past will never – and should never – be forgotten, veterans need to know that the ideal way to reclaim balance in the nervous system, and to become more fully oriented to the present, is through healthy, pleasurable experiences.
In other words, what veterans need most is a prescription to bring feelings of joy, love, appreciation, enthusiasm, and pleasure into their lives. While participation in pleasurable and relaxing activities is generally a natural occurrence for the average person, the veteran, on the other hand, needs to make a conscious decision to choose activities that result in positive feelings. At first, to break old habits, it might be necessary for veterans to make an appointment with themselves or to ask family members or partners to remind them to keep a plan that involves having a good time.
Plans for Fun Go Awry
This may sound like a simple task, but to a war veteran, planning for pleasure is far from simple. Let’s look at a familiar scene.
Ray,* a Marine, made plans to go to a family member’s 60th birthday party. At the time the agreement was made, he was looking forward to the gathering. He had known Howard* for 30 years, and he planned to share a few good stories and help celebrate this milestone. However, as the date approached, Ray started feeling uncomfortable about attending the event. His neck ached, he had a muscle spasm in his back, and he was tense all over. His physical discomfort was matched by negative thoughts and an anxious mood, and soon he was filled with dread, wishing he could cancel.
His unconscious mind perceived socializing and being in close proximity to others as a possible threat, and his defenses kicked in.
Why does this happen? When Ray first made his plans, his defenses were down and his perceptions of the event were accurate – a party with old friends would be safe and enjoyable. However, as the event drew closer, Ray’s old combat conditioning – which is based on survival and is not oriented in the present time – took over. His unconscious mind perceived socializing and being in close proximity to others as a possible threat, and his defenses kicked in. The muscle tension in his body increased and was quickly followed by negative thoughts and an anxious mood.
Before he knew it, Ray was questioning his decision and asking himself, “Why did I agree to this?” He convinced himself that, “They’ll have a better time without me.” Filled with dread, Ray felt compelled to wait until the last minute to cancel, thereby avoiding any need for justification or old arguments.
For a war veteran, there is often resistance to a new experience, especially if it involves socializing or a crowded, enclosed space. Because adding pleasure and joy to life will undoubtedly involve new activities, it is important to understand how old combat conditioning can trigger the “fight, flight or freeze” response and undermine the best plans and intentions.
Keep in mind that although the scenario described above has occurred in the past, it is not necessary for history to keep repeating itself. In fact, with a little planning, reclaiming the happiness and pleasure that are a natural part of life is actually possible!
Reclaiming the Happiness
The first step toward taking the plunge into positive feelings is to identify what is enjoyable and doing more of it. Most veterans have regular, positive interactions with a pet. It is a common sight to see a dog, “My best buddy and the only one I really trust,” sitting beside his vet owner in a vehicle. That feeling of openness and trust brings about a biochemical change to the body that ironically increases awareness as the unnecessary vigilance subsides.
One veteran we know acquired a duck as a pet. Last August, his teenage daughter brought a newly hatched chick home from a county fair, and the veteran, an avid gardener, soon became its “mother.” They now have a unique bond and are rarely seen apart. Dogs, cats, birds, ferrets, and ducks can all enhance life in a way that is pleasurable and enjoyable – especially if there are children around to help clean up after them.
Playing with grandchildren, eating a delicious meal, listening to enjoyable music, or watching a good comedy can also cause the same kind of feelings to occur. Other activities that may be pleasurable include fishing, driving in a beautiful remote area, hiking (for those whose backs have survived), outdoor concerts (lots of optional seating), and RV and boat shows.
If you are married, plan a specific, mutually enjoyable activity once or twice a week, and set a specific time and day to do it. Make an effort to agree on an activity that is realistic and feels good to imagine. For example, Walter had never been to an outdoor concert in the park, but he had walked the dog near the site and he did know the music. It was easy for him to imagine himself in familiar surroundings, enjoying familiar sounds.
Fighting the Urge to Cancel
When the impulse to cancel manifests – remember, this is only the old combat conditioning going on the defensive – expect it as a normal reaction of the past and go ahead with your plans. When the event is over, evaluate how you felt while experiencing it, and make any necessary changes for the next time. Creating new habits of pleasure will offer unlimited benefits and help to improve the quality of each day.
*Names and some situations in this article have been changed. Some photos may include models who have no real-life relationship to the story or any PTSD issues.
Mary Tendall, MA LMFT, has worked for over 20 years with combat veterans and their families, as a licensed psychotherapist, specializing in combat-related PTSD. She has consulted for the Gulf War Resource Center, National Public Radio, and Newsweek. She continues to work with combat veterans and their families, and is affiliated with several national non-profits whose goal is to help veterans, such as VietNow, Soldier’s Heart, Train Down, and America’s Heroes First. She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jan Fishler is an author, writing coach, and creator/presenter of a series of writing workshops. Her memoir, Searching for Jane, Finding Myself, is available on Amazon. You can learn more about her at janfishler.com. She is married to a Vietnam veteran.