Today – there will be pictures of flags, and the twin towers with smoke or with the Statue of Liberty, and “never forget” clips. Today – we will all take a minute and remember how we heard, what we saw. Today – the military community will remember the upheaval in our lives, the changes we never foresaw on Sept. 10th. Today- maybe the country will change their focus and think about the veterans. That’s what today SHOULD be.
What will really happen today? The news commentators will put on their deep solemn voices and look into the camera with a stern look and waffle on about a local event being done for remembrance. Two minutes later they will perk up and tell us about the traffic, or the weather, or a cute puppy story. For a second, you’ll be mad – how DARE they make so little of it. Life does go on. For us, in this little bubble of a military community, we have a multitude of reminders. The embroidered prayer rug commemorating a deployment; the missed “big days” of every family; the wounds – visible or not- that are a constant presence in our homes; the friends we made and lost in the last 13 years of high deployment tempo, moves, online connections.
Should we continue to “remember” with solemn ceremonies? Will the two minutes that someone takes to change their cover photo to a mourning eagle or a firefighter’s helmet draped in black truly mean they understand? I don’t have an answer to that.
Today – in our house? We’re packing to move, and the boxes that impede our walking in the house are filling and being taped shut. The anticipation of the move and the myriad of “must do” tasks to get us ready for the Two Marines Movers tomorrow are dominant in my mind. But as I pack that embroidered prayer rug and move another trunk of old uniforms out of my way – I don’t need Charlie Rose to remind me to remember. Our lives changed utterly and completely that day, even if we didn’t know it or realize how much. Are we still being impacted? Yes, sometimes I don’t recognize that prior me or him. Where would we be if it hadn’t happened, if we hadn’t declared/not declared war? Who knows.
Today – yes, I’ll remember. And then I will pick up another pair of shoes and put them in a box and try to figure out where I left the tape gun now. Because we have to move forward and get things done. We can’t sit and watch commemoration TV shows all day – and even if we could, I don’t think we would. Mourning friends, mourning the sons and fathers, daughters and mothers lost is the right thing to do. Getting on with life as we have to NOW live it, is right for us too. We remember what today is, what it meant and what it means.
Last week, someone who has known me for many years, although we have never been close, said she believes I am “a negative person who is incapable of being happy.”
I thought a lot about her statement without responding because I found it very interesting that she would have such a cemented opinion of me when we have interacted only a handful of times in the past decade. But more broadly I found myself spending a lot of time thinking about what happiness is and what it really means to be happy.
I can’t say I am a “happy person,” because to me happiness invokes that moment of pure joy, glee, or elation. These are states of being that I attain, but only for brief periods. I published something and it was well received. I won an award. We bought a new car. To me, happiness equates to the emotional peaks in my existence. These peaks are unsustainable. Even as I reach new heights, I find the mist clears and I see another pinnacle off in the distance and find myself wondering if maybe that is the peak I really want/need to achieve fulfillment. For a long time, I found myself chasing from peak to peak, in search of the next high, the next “achievement unlocked,” the next win. I bought into the philosophy that I am only as good as my next win. The pursuit of happiness, it turned out, exhausted me. Eventually, I crashed and burned, pretty spectacularly I might add.
When you are laying at rock bottom, staring up at the glittering heights from which you fell, you get the opportunity to gain perspective about what counts. I realized the pursuit of happiness wasn’t all I wanted to define myself by and through. As I dusted myself off and started thinking about moving forward with my life again, I realized happiness didn’t hold the allure it once did because I found a more even place, between the peaks and valleys of momentary success and failure. I found contentment.
As I look around my life, I realize how awesome things really are going for us right now. Yes, big transitions and changes face my family on all fronts and it is terrifying at times to see all the pieces of the puzzle just laying about and not know if they will come together for us the way we hope they will. On the other hand, our marriage has survived 6 brutal years of separation and despite my worst fears, we have come through everything stronger than I ever could have thought possible. When I look toward the future I see that we will be able to navigate it together. This gives me so much peace.
We are blessed to be financially stable, whether or not I continue to choose to be an academic.While we may not be able to buy everything we want or do everything we want, our needs are all addressed and we have some excess that we devote to helping others. I haven’t achieved, professionally, everything I would want, but both my successes and failures have given me a better sense of how I want to use my knowledge, skills, and abilities to make the world a better place. Most importantly, I find myself free, for the first time, of the expectation that I must climb all the mountains and ford all the streams to be a valuable person.
So no, I am not a “happy person”- not any more. I am no longer running the pursuit of happiness race, like a dog at the racetrack chasing a bunny I’ll never catch.
I am content. I am grateful for all the wonderful things I have been blessed with. I am satisfied that I have true success. I see value in myself and in my life beyond just the next big win.
The path to contentment is painful, or at least it was for me, because I had to confront the standards by which I measured my self-worth. For me, it was all about (1) the title, (2) the job and it’s attendant financial freedom, (3) power to change the world around me, albeit in a limited way. In order to get where I am, I had to come to a place where I accepted I may never get my PhD because the barriers that stand in my path are largely outside my control. I had to accept I may never get the tenure track job that comes with the PhD and therefore I may never have the financial and intellectual freedom to pursue my research interests and warp young minds at the same time. I had to accept that I may have no job at all or I may end up following my husband’s career around regardless of whether or not he’s in the military. Ironically, after the title issue fell away, the other pieces followed like dominoes and they opened a new place for me where I could consider other ways I could apply my talents. These places and ways will not garner the traditional laurels I have coveted, but they will achieve many of the same objectives. They were ideas I wasn’t open to exploring because of my own preconceived notions of myself.
Contentment has been the hardest skill for me to master as a military spouse, because being a military spouse immediately threatened my closely held beliefs about who and what I was. At the same time, I think I have found contentment precisely because of the military. It ripped the rug right out from under me and forced me to consider again who I am and what my purpose in life is. I firmly believe contentment, just like happiness, is different for different people and I am in no way arguing that milspouses need to give up their dreams and just find some no man’s land where they are neither hot nor cold. Rather, I hope we can all achieve the ability to walk in peace amidst the maddening din.
I have read a lot about military spouse social culture, though I have rarely been party to it. At the end of the day, almost all military family events occur between the hours of 0900-1700 and I work. As commenters on spouse buzz pointed out, this is my fault. They shouldn’t have to accommodate spouses who work. I’ve pointed out the unfairness in this ideology which seeks to exclude spouses who are working professionals, but at the end of the day, I am tired and I have given up trying to change or even raise concerns about inequities in military life. It’s just too depressing.
I recently joined another group, unrelated to the military in any way. They decided to organize a meet-up, which I cannot attend as it is in LA. But what I found interesting in viewing updates to our facebook group was the importance the group placed on inclusion. They actively pointed out that they wanted to pick an early evening time frame to deliberately include spouses who work. I had forgotten, until that very moment, how much group identity is fostered or destroyed by inclusion or exclusion of those who are members. Even though I can’t attend the event in LA, I found I felt more a part of the group because they include people who work. It made me wish that military spouses made as great of an effort to be inclusive.
Military spouse culture has always operated on exclusion. LGBT family members didn’t count because of DADT. Officer’s spouses operate(d) in different social circles than enlisted service member spouses; Command officer spouses, of course, are an entirely separate subset. Working spouses are considered differently (and often believed to be less supportive) than spouses who stay at home. Male spouses have been separated from female spouses, by lack of inclusive language if nothing else. The dangerous, recent, incantation of these group identity dynamics are spouses who believe not all persons married to a service member count as military spouses. These spouses also seek to divide service members based on where they served. The military community is dividing itself into fragments, rather than supporting spouses and seeking to create a broad umbrella to support the families of those who serve.
The answer isn’t more support programs, but rather choosing as individuals in our community to practice and advocate for inclusion where we are. It means speaking up and asking that people set spouse events during hours working spouses can attend. It means officer’s spouses hanging with enlisted spouses, LGBT spouses being welcomed into the fold, gender inclusive language being used and gender neutral activities proposed. It means realizing that all those service members and spouses, regardless of whether or not they were ordered to the front lines or to the rear detachment, are equal and worthy of inclusion for the very reason that they signed up and show up to fulfill their duty every day.
From a very good friend, Stacy Bannerman, who has written, advocated, worked and lived the life of a caregiver of a veteran.
I’ll admit that I was a little skeptical. An opera, really? Written and composed by two people from southern Oregon, of all places, who had no direct connection to the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, how could an opera possibly begin to capture how these wars were coming home for the veterans with PTSD and their spouses? That was my frame of mind when I sat down with the rough cut DVD of the workshop performance of The Canticle of the Black Madonna www.cbmopera.com staged at the University of Oregon last year. Sure, I’d read the remarks by the vets who had been in the audience that evening, including this one, from Miah Washburn, 1SG, U.S. Army Infantry, who is right now training for another deployment to Afghanistan with the Oregon National Guard 41st BDE:
“You honor me, and my brothers and sisters in arms, with this opera. Please know that as a combat veteran I am truly and deeply touched that you have undertaken such an elusive and misunderstood issue as combat-related PTSD in America today. I am thankful to you all for what you do, and I know my fallen friends would be as well.”
But I was still skeptical. Perhaps I’d been to one too many retreats, seminars, or workshops hungry for, if not healing, at least understanding, some recognition of the reality of what it can be like living with a veteran with combat trauma, and far too often, leaving disappointed, alienated, alone. And then I watched, and pretty soon, I quit thinking, and started feeling, and then I was crying, a lot actually. Because they got it, and they got it right.
In the first act, this original, contemporary opera provides a powerful snapshot of what is really going on in too many homes of too many veterans struggling with the trauma of war. But it doesn’t end there, at that point where too many of our families are stuck. It doesn’t end at the place where our national conversation seems to have stalled.
In the second act – the whole thing runs just under two hours – the composer, Ethan Gans Morse, and the Librettist, Tiziana DellaRovere, move the music, the story, and us, the audience, onto a new pathway, a new possibility for finding our way forward after war, for daring to believe, for having the audacity to hope even in the midst of devastation that there is a path toward healing the souls of those wounded by war. We aren’t going to get there alone, and this opera serves as both medium and message for that.
So. An opera, really?
This opera, in particular, is resurrecting a 400-year-old genre to serve as a vehicle for addressing and transforming the invisible wounds of war, while bringing a serious dialogue about the role of the civilian community in healing the wounds of war to center stage. A nationally-renowned cast is performing The Canticle of the Black Madonna, a groundbreaking opera about the power of love to transform the lives of military veterans suffering from PTSD on September 5th & 6th, 2014 at Portland’s Newmark Theatre.
Stacy Bannerman, M.S., is the author of When the War Came Home (2006) and spearheaded the passage of Oregon’s H.B. 2744, and H.B. 3391, which created the Governor’s Task Force on Military Families. Stacy is the Director of Oregon Operations for The Canticle of the Black Madonna, http://canticleoftheblackmadonna.com/ an original opera about combat PTSD, domestic abuse, and the healing of the soul. E-mail her at her website, http://www.stacybannerman.com.
A milspouse friend sent me this and asked me to post it. I would ask that you be kind in your comments, as it took a lot of courage to share her story with me, let alone the entire internet. ~Ophiolite
There seems to be this mythology that suicidally depressed people are obviously suicidally depressed and they can be picked out of a crowd by even the most random of observers. This simply isn’t the case.
What would probably surprise most people is that I went through a period where I was that depressed. It didn’t show up overnight. I was just under so much stress for so long without any support that I cracked. It happened slowly and by degrees that were almost imperceptible to even me. I knew I was stressed. I knew I was fighting off depression. I believed that if I just tried this or did that- some combination of things would make things better. I could beat this. All the way along, I was seeing my shrink. She hasn’t let on that she saw it, so I am not sure that it was obvious even to her. The tough thing is that I am so good at lying. It’s one of those skills you pick up in an abusive home. You know how to lie about everything so that no one suspects how bad things are. No one knew I was having a problem- not my husband, not my shrink, not my friends, not my colleagues. No one. It didn’t help that while I was suicidally depressed I was still winning awards for my work, still publishing, still showing up on time and giving 110% at my job, still doing volunteer work, still working out, still going out with friends. In fact the more depressed I got, the more I did these things in an effort to stave off the vortex I felt I was getting sucked into.
I tried to just keep pushing forward, hoping things would get better on their own for months. It wasn’t until I started to really focus on all the things I would have to take care of in order to take myself out of the equation that I realized I really had a serious problem. I made a list of all the things I would need to do: find someone to take care of the dog, put everything into storage so my husband wouldn’t have to go through my things, return my library books, clean out my office, sort out my finances, get a divorce. I even did some of these things.
No one knew I was having a problem- not my husband, not my shrink, not my friends, not my colleagues. No one.
Then I decided to tell my parents I was suicidal. They didn’t believe me. They told me I was just stressed out and tired. I just needed to continue putting one foot in front of the other. “We know you’ll be fine because you always pull through.” I wondered how shocked they’d be when I proved them wrong. I wondered what it would take for them to hear me. I wondered if this wasn’t proof they just didn’t care about me.
Then I sat down and had a conversation with my husband and asked him to divorce me. I figured, if we ended the relationship, what I was going to do would hurt him less. I love the shit out of that man and I didn’t want to destroy him. Thankfully one of us had some emotional intelligence (not me) and he saw right through me. He asked me why I wanted a divorce. I told him I didn’t want to hurt him. The answer perplexed him and he said nothing for a long time. He just stared at me. Then finally he told me what he knew what I was planning to do and he told me he loved me. Most importantly, he made me promise that I wouldn’t hurt myself in any way. He knew that a promise is binding in my mind and if I agreed to it, I could not commit suicide. I told him I would think about it. And then he held me and told me all the reasons he couldn’t live without me until I sobbed myself to sleep.
He just stared at me. Then finally he told me what he knew what I was planning to do and he told me he loved me. Most importantly, he made me promise that I wouldn’t hurt myself…
The next day, while he was at work, I pondered what he had asked of me. He had made a compelling case that he would never be okay without me, but I still wasn’t sure I could go on. So I made a new list. This list was all the things I needed in order to be able to keep the promise my husband asked of me. It was a ridiculous list, filled with some pretty selfish things, like not having to be responsible for finances, or cleaning, or cooking, or anything other than being. It’s pretty selfish to ask your service member to do everything in your relationship, but I just didn’t feel like I could do anything at that point. I gave him the list and he agreed to all of it as long as I spoke my promise out loud: “I will not kill myself.”
After that, I went and saw my shrink and told her I was horribly depressed and not functioning. I still can’t speak the word suicide in her presence. I’m afraid she’ll lock me up in the looney bin and what fragile peace I’ve managed to eek out would be undone by that. But I feel almost compelled to tell others because I realize no one even saw it and I am terrified someone else won’t have a partner who makes them promise to stay alive and they’ll follow through.
My sister called me and started ragging on me about how much weight I’ve gained, how my diet is poor, how I am not exercising. So I told her the truth: Right now, choosing to be alive is hard work, so if all I want to eat is peanut butter M&Ms while watching TV, I’m going to call it a win. She apologized and asked what she could do to help. She told me about her own suicidal period and told me that whatever I had to do to keep going was a-okay. It was so affirming to hear I wasn’t alone and that she cared. We’ve never been very close, but that’s changed since we both fessed up to our individual struggles. My husband, my sister, and my dog who won’t leave my side, are the reasons I am still here. They saw through my mask and cared enough to honor where I am and do what it takes to help me get back to where I need to be.
I want people to know that a suicidal person looks just like everyone else.
It’s been three months since my husband made me promise to stay alive. My progress can be measured in micrometers. When I made the decision to start acting on my suicide preparations list, I stopped working out and eating healthy. I’m just now starting to make an effort to work out and eat right again. In every other area, I managed to keep the facade in place, so I don’t think other people know. Part of healing for me is telling people about my experience. I feel like it’s really easy to miss the signs in high achieving people, because over-functioning is how we try to cope.
I want people to know that a suicidal person looks just like everyone else. This is why it is so important to listen to someone if they reach out to you and say something out of character. If someone decides to trust you with knowledge that they are struggling, even if it isn’t as obvious as “I’m thinking about committing suicide,” it’s important to listen, to be a friend, and to offer to help. You may not be able to pull them through it, but if you can do nothing more than connect them to resources to help them or tell them that you care, it may be enough to save a life.
In my case, I knew what all the right things to do were. I just needed someone to hear me and hold the flashlight until I could find my way out of the tunnel.
A few Left Face bloggers got some links from a producer’s assistant recently so we could view the pilot episode and a few additional episodes of this new series called Enlisted. The pilot? Well, there’s a good reason the producer, Kevin Biegel, apologized for it. I’ve heard a few say it’s insulting, and I can definitely grok that when “Rear D” is portrayed as the sadsack crew who are too dumb to figure out how to do jumping jacks and who wear American flag nail designs and who walk around with their blouses wide open, and no covers over their long hair*.
Here it is, if you want to see for yourself. You should probably pass, though.
Just. Wow. But Biegel insisted we at least try one post-pilot episode and reserve judgment until then. I tried two. And now I’m judging.
I have developed a kind of mil-life Bechdel test for TV, movies, books, etc. It goes a little something like this:
- Are there milspouses/milsos (i.e. service members don’t exist in a vacuum)?
- Do they and/or the service member have to deal with some fucked up, stressy situations?
- Do they get to avoid shitshows like reunion pr0n, dependapotamus or similar portrayals, and scenes that gloss over all the actual, real stressors they have to deal with on a daily basis?
If all three answers are “yes,” congratulations! You get a cookie.
Clearly, very few portrayals of the military life on screen pass. Sadly, very few of the books I read as part of my day job pass this mil-Bechdel test. Most of the books I come across (or end up editing) gloss over #3 on this list. Hardcore. So do movies and the telly, when milspouses are even factored in.
And that’s where I’m finding Enlisted also falls down. It’s my kind of humor – very Scrubs only with soldiers on a base instead of doctors in a hospital. And like Scrubs, it takes a second from the verbal sparring and hijinks to glance through the peephole at more serious aspects of the military experience. But it still glosses. Take the second episode, for example (we will pretend the pilot never happened). The main character Pete *just wants to be alone*. It’s kind of implied that he’s maybe got a touch of the PTSD. That’s just…well…
Again, I’m conflicted. On the one hand, it sucks that so much PTSD is in the media conveying the idea that every service member returning from Afghanistan (or Iraq back when) is a bomb waiting to explode in a PTSD flashback…which leads to almost a pathological need to touch on it in any mil-portrayal. On the other hand, couching this subject in humor is super tricksy, and I just don’t think it came through the other side. Mostly because it was there vaguely for five seconds of a 22-minute episode, and by episode 3, it was gone. Maybe it comes in again later? I don’t know. But it gets such light treatment, I don’t know if I trust it coming around again. Better would have been for Pete to go through the ridiculousness that is the Army “suck it up” attitude that’s been hard at work killing soldiers in record numbers of suicides. Or have this be a small running thread for a secondary character who’s just come home. There are other ways to do this than “sometimes, because shit maybe got real over yonder, soldiers just need to be alone for a while.” I didn’t even get the whiff of PTSD until that comment was made, but it’s at least a trope and bordering on a cliche to see this as shorthand for a psychological concern.
The second episode’s serious moment is during an “FRG” meeting. The FRG meets in probably the nicest Army base housing I’ve ever seen (not that I’ve seen a lot, but jesus crispy christ do enlisted Army get pooped on with some 3rd world housing units, and this looked more like the huge tracts of new faux-stucco North County San Diego houses). Then, it’s like 5 women and a soldier who comes to mansplain to the wimminz how to get their FRG crap done (what??). Despite there being female soldiers all up in the cast, there were no mil-husbands in that living room. And their meeting discussions? Which color paper to use for the care packages.
One wife speaks during the serious moment, and it is a totally legit concern. Her DH has been deployed for over a year, and she’s worried. Yes! This! This is precisely what we need in milspouse portrayals to close that military-civilian divide. This is what will give civilians the context they need to understand why reunions are so incredibly intimate and wonderful and difficult and awful and exciting all at the same time…and why reunion pr0n is therefore exploitative and voyeuristic and unbalanced in its storytelling. This is what we need.
But then she gets another line. And this line gives me a sad.
“Does he know I haz all the feels?” she asks the soldier who’s never deployed ever.
And I tear out my hair. It’s at this point I realize the producer does, indeed, have veterans advising him, but they’re likely old dudes, judging by some of the milspouse portrayals. And he probably has ZERO milspouses advising. Because, yet again, we’re an afterthought, and our own conflicts and struggles mean about jack and shite unless our lives can be turned into a completely ridiculous soap opera on Lifetime. Huzzah.
The show has some funny moments. I lolzed it up during the cooking contest, and I think YodaMan will have his own set of lulz if he sees the disaster preparedness training (zombies FTW!). I really like how Sgt Perez is portrayed. She’s a kick ass woman, and even though she’s a secondary character, she ninjas a lot of scenes and delivers some throat punches on her way out the door. (Just, please Dear Writer, for the love of all that is holy, don’t develop a romance there. Leave this relationship in the friendzone, I beg you. I edit romance novels for a living, and *I* think this one’s better left alone.)
The banter is fun, and though much of the setting is still unrealistic, it’s better than the pilot’s setting. Also, hairs were cut and blouses were buttoned and covers are appropriately doffed and donned as far as my Navy knowledge goes, so we’re definitely on an upswing.
I guess we’ll have to wait and see. I’m sure this season’s shows are already written, edited, and in whatever pipeline teleplays go through. But if this show survives into another season, maybe it will pick up some meatier plot threads. Maybe it will pass my mil-Bechdel test later. For now, I’m going to have to urge everyone who’s curious to miss the pilot, skip right to the second episode (really, here’s all you missed: Pete punches his CO and is busted down and sent back to Florida, where his two brothers are also stationed), and judge for yourself. I think some will like it just fine. I think some will hate it with fire. Either way, I do believe Mr. Biegel when he says, “Please just know the show comes from a place of love for my family that did the job, not Hollywood holy-ier-than-though-ness.”**
Me? I’ll figure it out later, when I’m no longer worried about how we’re going to make up the $100k Congress just cut from our retirement pay. For now, it’s merely one more voice threatening to trivialize our trials and exploit our tribulations. I’m hoping it won’t, but in the last 19 years of living in the lap of mil-luxury, I’ve learned to expect the worst, hope for the best, and invest in vegan cheez*** to get me through the rough patches.
* I know the other services do covers different than the Navy. Or maybe it’s something about how they salute without a cover on? I can’t remember. I just remember thinking how fucked up it was in ROTC. Consistency, people. No roof, cover on. No cover, no salute. Exception: screwy ship sitches. Ta da! Now nobody’s confused unless they’re on a screwy ship.
** Though that’s the second time in a week a producer dissed on Hollywood to me. Is this a thing?
*** Kite Hill, bizatches. That’s some tasty stuff. So ridiculously expensive, but it’s almond milk cultured just like real cheese. Om to the nom.