Have you ever had one of those moments, somewhere between two and four in the morning, when your eyes spring open and you find yourself staring at the ceiling, hoping that you can get back to sleep but knowing that it’s probably not going to happen?
Then the thoughts start to come, ricocheting around your mind like rubber bullets. Many veterans I work with experience this exact thing.
Stephen King once wrote a great short story. That’s sort of like saying that Ernest Hemingway once wrote a few lines of memorable prose; Stephen King has written MANY great short stories, but the one in particular I’ve been thinking of is the Ballad of the Flexible Bullet. The basic premise behind the story is that insanity is a type of flexible bullet: insanity is ultimately fatal, but the amount of damage and the length of time that it takes to inflict that damage is different for everyone.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that waking up at three in the morning with a thought you can’t get out of your head is insanity or madness. What King’s description does make me think of, however, is the damage that thoughts can do to our minds.
I think that many of the thoughts that ricochet around a veteran’s mind are like flexible bullets. They’re not strong enough to break through the skull, but they’re hard enough, fast enough, and large enough to do some damage. The thought starts out small…maybe we hear a song, that makes us think of a buddy, and starts us down a path of memory. It starts out slow as well…we don’t intend to get lost in thought for hours on end. And it grows in size, often until we can’t recognize it’s original shape.
I’m certain that this is typical for many, not just veterans. But those who have served in the military…and other first responders, like law enforcement, medical professionals, and firefighters…have more of a likelihood to have experienced events that lend themselves to becoming the core of the rubber bullets of their thoughts.
Once these rubber bullets start to fly, they’re hard to stop. They command our attention, which by definition means that we are focusing more on them than other things. And with each pass, with each ricochet that bounces off the inside of our minds, it picks up speed and mass. It distorts into a shape that might be even more destructive, so that the original thought is no longer recognizable. It bounces off our emotions, knocking those over and starting a domino effect. It punches through our self-worth, shredding that, and crashing into self-doubt. It bumps into our memories, triggering more of those, and releasing more rubber bullets to start crashing around our head, the damage increasing exponentially.
One of the ways that I have found to stop the carnage is to let the bullet out.
I work on a lot of projects, both at my office and at home. White Boards are great, and windows will do in a pinch. There have been times when I need to get ideas out of my head and out in the “real world” where I can see them. Yesterday was a perfect example; I have been considering a secondary gain that may come from some plans that we have in motion. I walked across the hall to my program coordinator, just so I could talk it out with her. Did this make sense? Am I seeing it correctly? Where am I going wrong here?
The benefit of getting these thoughts out of our head and into reality, in whatever form…a conversation, a painting, a journal…gives us the ability to evaluate that thought against reality. Without having conscious awareness of the form of the thought, of shape of the thought, we might believe that thought against what we feel to be true.
For example. A veteran feels guilt for taking a certain action while they were in combat. Doesn’t matter what it was, because it could have been any number of things, but let’s say it’s that a buddy got injured because they swapped places on a convoy, or on a patrol. The core of the rubber bullet becomes, “it’s my fault that he got hurt. If we wouldn’t have changed places, that wouldn’t have happened.” Let’s pause right there, first: what you’re saying is, if you hadn’t changed places, it would be you that would be hurt. “That would have been better than my buddy getting hurt,” is the response of the veteran. So to continue: “it’s my fault.” Did your buddy ask you to switch, because they were bored of driving? Did the Platoon Leader or Section Sergeant make the swap? Who had responsibility for the change? Often times, not you OR your buddy, but by believing the thought without any evidence, we just keep the kinetic motion of the bullet going. Whose fault is it, when it all boils down to it? The enemy combatant. They bear ultimate responsibility for the actions, not you.
Without having that conversation with someone, you never get to a point where you can look at the rubber bullet. It’s like that scene in the Matrix where he stops the bullets and picks one out of the air to examine it. By getting the thoughts out of our heads and into reality, we are able to know just a little bit more about it. Then we can challenge it, if we want to; we may find that our underlying core belief about something is absurd, even without anyone telling us. We may also find that our underlying core belief is true…and then we have to come to terms with that, as well.
If you’re a veteran, and you are experiencing the ricochet of the rubber bullet, find someone to talk to. A mental health professional would be great place to start, because they are trained and competent in helping others examine their rubber bullets. Any trusted source, though, someone who can provide a safe place for you to share, is beneficial.
If you support a veteran, be able to provide that space. Give your veteran an opportunity to tell their story, give them an opportunity to take these thoughts out, without judgment or condemnation. Just listening, and being present with them, is both a tremendous gift and an awesome honor.