One thing about being a veteran; when we were in the military, we could put up with just about anything. Extreme boredom. High stress. We would stand out in the rain, for no apparent reason, just because someone said thats what we had to do. Our natural environment was chaos.
And we performed extremely well under stress and in chaotic situations.
Thinking back on my own military career, I was really in the zone when I was managing a chaotic and rapidly moving situation. In training, usually at the Joint Readiness Training Center or the National Training Center, I’d go for 24 to 36 hours with no sleep. SOF guys did one better; Ranger school is two months of no sleep, no food, and constant chaos. And in combat? This is where it really gets to you. Days of intense boredom, the same day happening over and over again, and you find yourself wishing for something to happen. Really? Against all of our better judgement, not to say our own personal preservation instincts, we want someone to shoot at us? Hard to believe, but it’s true.
A fish wants to swim, a bird wants to fly, and many veterans find themselves at home in an intense, rapidly moving situation. If I’m not one foot ahead of disaster, then I don’t feel alive; dancing on the razor’s edge is where we feel most comfortable. We’ve all heard the stories of returning veterans finding themselves barreling down the highway at 90 miles per hour, or jumping out of airplanes, or going down to the bar just to get into fights. It’s adrenaline, it’s misplaced anger…and it’s a desire to create an environment where we know how to manage ourselves: chaos.
We Don’t Want Chaos, but We Cause It
This is a challenge when it comes to what we think we want and what we actually do. If you ask me, or many veterans, “When you leave the military, what do you want?” “Peace,” they say, “A shot at the American Dream. To just take care of myself and my family, to be happy, to be at rest.” That’s what we say…but what we do is totally different. We can’t find that we are able to relax in non-military life. We’re on edge all the time. We throw sharp elbows and disrupt relationships and piss people off. Why? Do we want to? Most of the times, not really; we’re just operating in an environment that no longer exists.
We’re using old skills that used to work in one situation but don’t work where we’re at. We don’t adapt; we’re fixed in our old patterns of problem solving. By not adapting to the new non-military situation, we are creating chaos and opposition in our lives, which makes us uncomfortably comfortable.
We Create Problems In Order to Solve Problems
So, in order to feel like we’re in control, we create problems where there weren’t problems before. We perceive problems that don’t exist. We’re not doing this consciously or deliberately; without awareness, without self-reflection, our chaos creating ability is on wide display and in full force. If we don’t stop and reflect…if we don’t use the space between stimulus and response that Viktor Frankl described…then the default setting is going to be Tasmanian Devil. Anything that happens…chaos. Anything isn’t happening…chaos. We create chaos so that we can manage chaos, we create problems where none exist in order to solve them. I’m not talking about all veterans, of course, but I see this often enough in the veterans I work with that it happens more often than we might want to admit.
Some Veterans Feel They Deserve Chaos More Than Peace
Another challenging problem when it comes to chaos creation is that many veterans are carrying so much guilt from things that happened or didn’t happen when they were in the military. This is as much moral injury as it is PTSD or anything else; some veterans simply don’t believe they deserve peace. They feel as though they’re condemned, and condemned people get a choice of their last meal and not much else. The problem with thinking we don’t deserve peace, don’t deserve forgiveness, is that we don’t seek it. We don’t work to be comfortable with either of them. This is a belief that we have about ourselves as it relates to the world. As with many other beliefs, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; and our lives are filled with chaos.
Chaos Happens in Small Ways, Too
I’m not immune to this, either. When it comes to free time, I don’t have much of it, because I don’t allow myself to. This isn’t a good thing; my wife once said, “When you retired from the Army, I thought we were going to see more of you, not less of you.” She was joking, but then again, not really. But I sometimes feel like I have a congenital birth defect that keeps me from saying no to things. This has happened in cycles since I’ve left the military; I find myself bored, so I look around for things to do, and very quickly find myself overhwhelmed and over extended. So I pull back, then find myself bored, so I start looking for things to do…and the chaos cycle begins again.
Awareness and Balance are Key to Combating the Urge to Chaos
As always, awareness is the first thing that is needed to counteract our urge to create chaos where none exists. Without the awareness that we engage in this cycle, we can’t disrupt the cycle. We may never be comfortable not doing anything, but we don’t have to always be comfortable in chaos, either. Finding balance between calm and chaos is a way for veterans to find meaning in their post-military lives.
The Head Space and Timing Blog is supported by the Colorado Veterans Health and Wellness Agency, a 501(c)3 Nonprofit in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The goal of the CVHWA is to provide military culturally competent mental health counseling to veterans and their spouses, regardless of characterization of discharge, time of service, or era of service. Our vision is to assist veterans to identify and remove barriers to their mental, physical, emotional, and behavioral wellness. For questions or inquiries, contact us!