Friday, February 21, 2014

It's gone and not coming back

I'd like to say this essay is about "regret". But it really isn't. It's about remembering things and wishing things could return to how they once were. It's something we all do. In most cases, we should stop. We don't. It's human nature.

This morning, I found myself listening to a song called "Once Beautiful" by the wonderful Gothic-rock band, The Last Dance.

The song is about reclaiming. It is about reclaiming youth. It reaches beyond just youthful looks. It is about reclaiming some of  that innocent naivety and exuberance. The song is beautiful.

Make me beautiful again
And feel like I'm special still
And remind me how to smile
And feel like diamonds

The problem is it "pings" on elements of my post-combat stress (aka PTSD). It doesn't always. Many songs do that, on occasion. Other things can create those nostalgic "flashbacks". For instance, when I grill steaks, I cannot stay by the grill. I put them on the grill then go inside and time them. The smell of the burning beef reminds me of the wounds some suffered during various attacks against us in Iraq. In fact, smells are the biggest triggers. Blowing dust in Arizona in late spring does the same thing -- triggers memory recall.

But the song came on. The powerful lyrics reached in. The song doesn't make me recall the war. It makes me compare myself to how I was before it to how I was each time I returned  from it.

As my voice, it's silent
And my heart, it feels less than before
And my feelings fail me
Pretending to be lovely

I've come a long way. I have very strong coping mechanisms. I recognize "flashbacks" and bouts of  "survivor guilt" for what they are. I know that they each will pass, and I let them. I don't cling to them or swell on them. I let the feelings flow through. They usually leave in a minute or two. Then I move  onto more immediate and important things, like laundry or writing.

However, when I returned from my first deployment, I didn't recognize myself. I scared myself. Emotionally, I didn't "feel". Then I would "feel" too much. Repeat. This went on for maybe a month. Then I pulled my head out of my seat.

The one thing that kept me from even seeing the edge of the "deep end" was research. I research and read. I found out that what I was going through  was very common upon redeployment. In other words, my feeling unnatural was perfectly normal.

But, one thing was gone, left in the sand:  my innocence. I went back three more times. Two of those times I made the mistake of thinking I'd find it. That was stupid. It's gone. I've seen too much. It cannot be unseen. It can, however, be learned  from. It has. 

There are things I've done that I call "regrettable". I'm not sure if  that term applies accurately. Mostly, I refer to things I had to do in combat.

See, I don't regret doing those things. I know I don't. The reason I know that I don't is that I would do the same if placed again in a similar situation. In fact, there would probably be less hesitation. What I wish, though, is that those situations never happened.

I cannot say that I wish I had not been involved in those situations. If it hadn't been me, it may have been somebody else. If it was nobody, things may have been worse and more people may have been harmed or killed. I firmly believe that my actions saved more lives than they cost.

There are trade-offs. That innocence may be gone, but I now have a bank of experiences that give me an edge in certain things. I know I can survive harsh conditions. I know what it's like to not eat for days, and that it won't kill me to skip a meal or six. I know that will and determination can get me through things that seem insurmountable. I know that humor can save your soul.

I know evil. I saw it first hand. I also so some of the deepest compassion and good. War can bring out the best and worst of people. It's like a flood or tornado. Look at all the people who rallied when Katrina hit New Orleans. My own direct experiences fighting the Monument Fire and volunteering to help evacuees attest to similar. The fire brought out thieves and looters. It also scared away apathy and banded communities together.

Yes, my innocence is gone. With it is my youth. I no longer see things the same way. But now that I have the perspective I do, I've concluded that I'm better off without them.

Make me see, make me listen, make me wonder
Make me feel, make me dream and not surrender

Through this I learned one very important life-lesson. Letting go does not mean forgetting. It means learning to remember that it's just a memory, a lesson, an experience. It means knowing that it made me who I am now, and I would not be "me" without them. Letting go means not clinging to them. It means not dwelling on those things an keeping the present locked in the past. Letting go means freedom.