Tattoo as Therapy and Testimony

It’s still a little red and raw in this photo, but here is my new tattoo:

IMG_5131

When I worked reconstruction and, because of the very large amounts of cash I possessed, conducted political efforts in Iraq in 2004, my chief engineer, an Iraqi about my age, very bright and my friend, devised a seal for our operations. The Iraqi date palm with two crossed shovels or a crossed shovel and a hammer, I can’t clearly remember. Symbolic of rebuilding and hope in a new Iraq, the reality of  what came was destruction and horror. So an ax is more appropriate and a blood drop or a tear drop, I’m not sure which, is necessary.

I have no idea if my friend is still alive and certainly I know too many who are no longer living or whose lives in Iraq have been subjugated and imprisoned by terror and suffering. Ten years later and it seems to be all that matters to me.

Others have done it and say it helps, so by writing what is inside of me on my body, telling essentially who I am and what haunts me, I hope to find some relief and keep testimony with the broken and shattered lives of people who were my friends and, more importantly, believed in what we had promised them and have had to live with what we actually delivered to them.

Thanks to Ray Alexander at Blue Flame Tattoo in Raleigh for the design, the tattoo work and the therapy.

Peace

 

Robin Williams

When I was a kid, one of the greatest moments for me, as an 8 or 9 year old boy, was to be able to watch Mork and Mindy. Robin Williams’ antics were eye-opening. His comedy, his goofiness and his sensitivity transcended anything I’d seen and, as I look back and reflect, I realize what an influence he was on me. John Ritter, in his role as Jack Tripper on Three’s Company, with his physical, silly humor, had a similar influence on me. Sadly, both men have now passed.

Robin Williams was, of course, well known and appreciated not just for his comedic talent, but for the compassion and empathy he could elicit in his dramatic roles. My friend, Pete Dominick, himself a stand-up comedian, explains that a good comic draws his ability to make people laugh through compassion, through an understanding of suffering, hardship, isolation; through those very things that allow a dramatic actor to so affect his audience.

While Robin Williams had certainly transmitted tenderness, sympathy and humanity in prior roles, such as Good Morning Vietnam, Awakenings, The Fisher King and Dead Poets Society, it was his role, in 1994, in NBC’s cop drama Homicide, that has always affected me the most. As Robin’s character, a man whose wife has just been murdered, leaving behind two small children, sits on a playground swing, he asks to hold a detective’s pistol. The look of anguish on Robin’s face, the frustration, the sorrow, the rage, as he begs for the weapon is tempered by his words as he assures the detective he won’t do anything stupid, he just wants to feel that power. In his words and body/facial language I’ve always felt how trapped the man was. Trapped between the overwhelming grief and sorrow of his loss, the anger and desire for justice towards his enemy, and the frightening and paralyzing understanding of now being a father of two motherless children, I’ve often thought about that role and that performance. I was 21 at the time and I can see, now, how that performance taught me so much about grief, anger, love, frustration and obligation. No one is two dimensional, nobody is a cardboard cut-out of emotions, and none of us live a scripted life with the solutions and remedies readily available for our afflictions and torments.

But this post is not meant as another tribute to a great actor, and as many people feel towards those on-screen giants, a friend. It is rather to admit, which I suspect many of my fellow veterans and travelers in our post-war PTSD, depression, alcoholic and morally injured lives also feel: the terror that even though we have it together today, even though we may be managing our illnesses, taking our medications, going to therapy, forgoing booze, avoiding triggers and making our lives worthy of others’ death and suffering by living lives of meaning and purpose, that it all may crash out from underneath us. For although those of us in recovery live our lives as if we are in new homes and new structures, the reality is that the floor of the structure is weak, and in some cases rotted. Constant attention, upgrade and maintenance is required to avoid collapse and our falling through, again, into an abyss, that deep dark hole with its rock bottom, we had successfully crawled out of.

Robin Williams fell through. I’d be lying if I haven’t thought many times this week that the same may happen to me in five, ten or twenty years.  It’s a terrifying and haunting demon. By sharing this fear, I hope to exorcise it.

PTSD, Depression and Moral Injury are hope-destroyers. Alcohol and drugs their armaments. The disease is insidious and brilliant. If it destroys hope, then there is not much reason to remain in recovery.  I feel like I should offer some form of chippy or up-beat affirmation at this point, but that would be a lie. Living, by fighting through these issues, is the only thing we can do.

Rest in peace Robin. Thank you for all you did for us. I’m sorry your floor fell through.

Shakespeare, PTSD and Moral Injury

Two of the more important works on PTSD and moral injury are Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character and Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming. Shay, a great proponent of the concept of Moral Injury, something I recognize in myself, explains the difference between PTSD and moral injury in this excellent piece from Public Insight Network:

Moral injury, Shay says, can happen when “there is a betrayal of what’s right by someone who holds legitimate authority in a high-stakes situation.”

That person who’s betraying “what’s right” could be a superior — or that person could be you. Maybe it’s that you killed somebody or were ordered to kill. Or maybe it was something tragic that you could have stopped, but didn’t. Guilt and shame are at the center of moral injury. And, as Shay describes it, so is a shrinking of what he calls “the moral and social horizon.” When a person’s moral horizon shrinks, he says, so do a person’s ideals and attachments and ambitions……

….“Shay, a psychiatrist who has worked with combat vets for twenty years and authored two books about PTSD — or psychological and moral injury, as he insists it should be known — told me by phone from his Newton, Mass., office, ‘It’s titanic pain that these men live with. They don’t feel that they can get that across, in part because they feel they deserve it, and in part because they don’t feel people will understand it.’

“‘Despair, this word that’s so hard to get our arms around,’ he said. ‘It’s despair that rips people apart [who] feel they’ve become irredeemable.’

“I told Dr. Shay about Noah’s experiences in Iraq, in particular the killing, the loss of comrades, the nightmares. He sounded saddened on the phone, but unsurprised. ‘The flip side of this fellow’s despair was the murderous rages he experienced on his second tour,’ he said. ‘In combat, soldiers become each other’s mothers. The rage, need for revenge, and self-sacrificial commitment toward protecting each other when comrades are killed [are] akin to when a mother’s offspring are put in danger or killed.’

“Dr. Shay explained the nightmares and sleeplessness were one of the major issues. ‘The lack of sleep contributed directly to a loss of control of his own anger, a loss of control of things he felt morally responsible for.’”

And importantly:

Peers are the key to recovery — I can’t emphasize that enough,” he said. “Credentialed mental health professionals like me have no place in center stage. It’s the veterans themselves, healing each other, that belong at center stage.”

Shay, demonstrating that PTSD and moral injury has been common to warriors since the creation of civilization by identifying PTSD and moral injury in the great Homerian works, also identifies PTSD and Moral Injury in William Shakespeare’s Henry IV. From Public Insight Network, again, Shay places the corresponding PTSD symptoms alongside Lady Percy’s lines from Act II, Scene 2:

O my good lord, why are you thus alone?      (Social withdrawal and isolation)
For what offense have I this fortnight been
A banished woman from my Harry’s bed? (Random, unwarranted rage at family, sexual dysfunction, no capacity for intimacy)
Tell me, sweet lord, what is ’t that takes from thee
Thy stomach, pleasure,          (Somatic disturbances, loss of ability to experience pleasure)
and thy golden sleep?            (Insomnia)
Why dost thou bend thine eyes upon the earth     (Depression)
And start so often when thou sit’st alone?          (Hyperactive startle reaction)
Why hast thou lost the fresh blood in thy cheeks      (Peripheral vasoconstriction, autonomic hyper-activity)
And given my treasures and my rights of thee
To thick-eyed musing and curst melancholy?    (Sense of the dead being more real than the living, depression)
In thy faint slumbers I by thee have watched,   (Fragmented, vigilant sleep)
And heard thee murmur tales of iron wars,
Speak terms of manage to thy bounding steed,
Cry “Courage! To the field!” And though hast talk’d
Of sallies and retires, or trenches, tents,
Of palisadoes, frontiers, parapets,
Of basilisks, of cannon, culverin,
Of prisoners’ ransom and of soldiers slain,
And all the currents of a heady fight.
Thy spirit within thee hath been so at war,
And thus hath so bestirred thee in thy sleep,   (Traumatic dreams, reliving episodes of combat, fragmented sleep)
That beads of sweat have stood upon thy brow
Like bubbles in a late-disturbed stream … (Night sweats, automatic hyperactivity)

Do you recognize this in a loved one? Do you recognize this in yourself? I wonder who in the great bard’s life inspired him to relay such pain through Lady Percy’s words. And note, that Lady Percy’s pain is as deep, tormenting and disabling as that of her husbands’. PTSD and moral injury is, in effect, contagious, and wrecks relationships and families. True now and true over five hundred years ago.

Before admitting my injury and getting help, from friends, family, peers, strangers and professionals, I would have silently and reluctantly recognized these words in myself. I would loathe myself for such recognition and would find solace in alcohol and suicidality. If this is you now, there is no shame, open up, admit your pain and get help. Your pain is as old as war and I promise you, you will find strength in others when you seek help and in that you will find strength in yourself.

The Definition of Insanity…

…is, as is widely quoted, doing the same thing over and over, but expecting a different result.

When I spoke at Holy Cross College in MA a couple of years ago, the head of the Naval ROTC detachment, a Navy officer nearing on 30 years of service, who I dined with prior to the lecture, offered this observation: “I’ve been in the Navy since the early 80s. I have spent over half that time, nearly 20 years, in and around the Middle East. First hand, I can ask, what have we accomplished?”

Professor Andrew Bacevich of Boston University, a historian, philosopher and 23 year military veteran, and a personal hero of mine, asks this question on Bill Moyers. If you have twenty some odd minutes, take the time to watch one of our country’s keenest minds and perspectives on foreign affairs, national security, and national conscience and values.

And, if I may extend the definition of insanity theme to a personal issue: when I struggle with drinking, when I have that desire to drink, to give up and submit, to take a bottle and wash my misery afloat in my head and strangle my soul, it is often that thought, that understanding that drinking again will do nothing more than it ever did before, that helps me gain control again and think rationally. I’ve found, or, more aptly, I’ve been taught, that if I can withstand the first 20 or 30 minutes of desire for drink and surrender, then rational thinking and reason can assume priority and I can avoid relapsing. As always, if I can be of any help to anyone struggling, please contact me.

Some Poor Dude Has Always Got It Worse….

Just a friendly reminder that there is some poor dude, someplace, who has it worse today than you do. 🙂

Some poor kid burning a field head (latrine) in Haditha, Anbar Province, Iraq. Dec 2006
Some poor kid burning a field head (latrine) in Haditha, Anbar Province, Iraq. Dec 2006

And, in years time, he’ll probably be a victim of cancer, terminal respiratory illness or organ failure due to the inhalation of burning feces. I doubt very much the government will ever own up to the cause.

So, both in the short term and the long term, you are probably better off than your current job makes you feel.

Peace.

“Bonfire at Midnight”

A good and dear friend of mine, Fareed, who had a great deal of influence in pushing me to address the spiritual desert, or maybe it was a wasteland, I was in, started me on reading the poems of the 13th century Sufi scholar and mystic, Rumi. I am sure many of you are familiar with Rumi’s works, if you are not, I encourage you to give his writings a read. I have found quite a connection with Rumi’s poetry, so much that I now keep a book of daily readings of Rumi’s next to my bed. Please don’t ask how often I am dutiful and consistent in my reading though… 😉

What has been most jarring to me, as I get to know Rumi, has been the sense of meandering, the sense of resignation, the sense of spiritual and emotional homelessness I find in his poems. I identify with those lost and lonely feelings, but I am reassured by Rumi’s confidence in the journey he is on and the courage he possesses, because of the strength provided by something greater than him and by his companion Shams, who was a light of mindfulness, peace and friendship.

Now I have many Shams in my life; yes that is a cheesy thing to say, but it is true. My progress forward is a testament to their strength more than mine, just as Rumi found his strength and confidence in Shams.

But to one of his poems.

The other night I was grabbed ahold by the first stanza of Rumi’s “Bonfire at Midnight”:

A shout comes out of my room

where I’ve been cooped up.

After all my lust and dead living

I can still live with you.

You want me to.

You fix and bring me food.

You forget the way I’ve been.

Was that not me? A life of lust and dead living? And is not the acceptance and forgiveness of me, by friends and family alike, the core and foundation of my recovery? Was not the fear of not receiving such acceptance and forgiveness the terror that kept me alone with alcohol as my only friend? Is not acting and living upon that acceptance and forgiveness the instrument that has resuscitated my soul and gifted me once more with a future?

Is such knowledge of that acceptance and forgiveness not a Bonfire at Midnight for me? Is it not a beacon to my soul and mind of a clear and sound determinant of life, peace and hope?`

What I love so much about art, be it written word or image, is the transfer of someone’s emotion, someone’s story, someone’s fear, affection, despair, joy, horror, beauty…someone’s life through centuries, societies and cultures to another person, who in turn, understands and recognizes himself in the artist’s message. About 800 years ago Rumi wrote the words to a “Bonfire at Midnight”. Today, half a world from Rumi’s land, in an age that would appear fantastical and magical to him, I share in Rumi’s joy and appreciate his gratitude.

There is something bigger than me in my life. There are also many Shams in my life.  I have no doubt today, on Thanksgiving, as to where my thankfulness lies.

Peace to you all and Happy Thanksgiving.