Retirement, Rest, and Renewal
Time for reflection and making good changes.
By Mary Tendall
Bill called me recently, and wanted to talk. It was the first time I had heard from him since he had finished treatment over 10 years ago. He said he was doing fine, but had just wanted to discuss his feelings about retirement. He stressed that he was not depressed, his nightmares had not returned, and his health was stable. So I asked him if he would rather talk over coffee in town. He jumped at that preferred casual venue, and I looked forward to our conversation since I knew that retirement years for many Vietnam veterans can be a challenge.
Like so many Vietnam veterans, Bill has been looking back on his life and reassessing his plans for the future he once thought he would never have. He is in his late 60s, and said, “I feel inspired to awaken something new in my thinking. Maybe you can help.” Bill reminded me of a poem titled “The Journey,” by Mary Oliver, that I had read to him many years ago, and said that’s what prompted his call to me.
He reflected on how isolated he had felt for so many years. “I always had to fake it socially, and even with my family, when they needed me to participate with them.”
He reflected sadly on his losses in Vietnam, the poor decisions he made as a young man, and the current relationships he cherishes. Looking back, we both remembered the time when Bill first shared much of his combat story. It had caused him great pain, but he also remembered a heavy weight seem to lift as he told the story. (It should be noted that he was emphatic when he said that telling his war story was vital to his healing. He realized that previously he had been reliving that story in a way that had become a type of imprisonment.)
He reflected on how isolated he had felt for so many years. “I always had to fake it socially, and even with my family, when they needed me to participate with them.” Withdrawal during those many years after Vietnam meant the exhausting burden of maintaining barriers to his combat experience. Whenever those barriers weakened, there would be outbursts and/or isolation. (Sound familiar?)
He is open for new connections to take the place of the charged entrapment of the past. It is time for rest, relaxation, and renewal.
By telling his story and receiving effective treatment, Bill was able to imagine his life with choices, and develop hope and plans for his future. Now, as we continued to talk in the coffee shop, he mentioned withdrawal with a new perspective that offered a release of old burdens. As he briefly reviewed his old combat story he was startled to realize that it didn’t affect him the way it had when he held it fully guarded within.
Bill said that it was now time to withdraw even further from the old charged parts of that story that no longer served him. Although he will never forget his Vietnam experience, it will be put, metaphorically, into a book or DVD form, and placed on a shelf to be retrieved only with his invitation. What Bill is doing with this new goal of withdrawal is positive. It is his way of stepping forward, free of the old entanglements. He is open for new connections to take the place of the charged entrapment of the past. It is time for rest, relaxation, and renewal.
After meeting with Bill, I recalled how Lance, another Vietnam veteran, recently offered his look into the future. Single, divorced, and living alone, he said that he had for many years been caught in a web of judgment that had kept him either judging “everyone” including himself. Lance laughed and added, “I still believe most people are idiots, but I don’t give them attention like I used to. That just kept me angry.” Lance then became serious as he remembered that his biggest challenge was the judgment he felt about himself. Although he regrets many aspects of his past, he has begun to appreciate his strengths and new opportunities at this stage in his life.
He has a secure monthly income, a rural home near his favorite fishing site, and time to indulge in a daily schedule of his choosing. He socializes by delivering meals twice a week to those less fortunate. He expressed a feeling of enjoyment during those visits, and knows that the recipients are always happy to see him. Lance has withdrawn from his world of unnecessary judgment, and has offered himself a way of life that serves him well. “Sometimes I feel a bit silly or disgusted that I held on to the very feelings that kept me unhappy.” It was gratifying to hear him add, “My life is actually pretty darn good.”
Hearing from you
I would like to hear from any of you who care to share how you are doing during these “golden years.” Your voices are the source for all the articles I write for VietNow. All written material is written only with the permission of the veterans mentioned, and of course all names have been changed.
Your next chapter
Here’s something to try: Write the title you want for the next chapter of your life, and then realistically write that chapter as you would like to experience it. Offer yourself every opportunity that is available to you. What support system is out there for you (family, group, friends, veteran reunions, dog, supportive reading, etc.)? Share your new vision with someone to make it more real for you, and then do it.
Changing your story
You might ask yourself the question, “What if that old story about me no longer fits?” Many years have passed since Vietnam. And with life’s lessons and the changes that come with age, how would you change the current story to reflect what you have discovered about yourself that offers you a sense of well being? This can be a true act of mercy. To withdraw in this healthy way is not to disappear as in the past (and present?), but to continue your senior years with a sense of amended visions, a way of hearing a new voice which you can finally claim as your own.
The Journey a poem by Mary Oliver
Book title: New and Selected Poems: Volume One
Available from Beacon Press and Amazon.com
You are invited to contact Mary Tendall with comments and/or questions regarding PTSD. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
*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 email@example.com.