MY STORY WITH THE SOLDIERS PROJECT
By Joy A. Dryer, Ph.D.
Soldiers served us. The least we can do is serve them. That’s what I thought when I learned about the Soldiers Project. They put their lives on the line to protect all of us. As clinicians, we can offer a line into their inner lives. Inner feelings and experience are not exactly valued in the military: by definition, our armed services take up arms. They’re action oriented. So helping young men and women integrate their inner worlds with the realities of their often harsh military world is an important goal.
As our whole country collectively struggles to make meaning of the political and social turmoil of our current affairs, I believe that young men and women on the front lines have a unique perspective. I can learn much from their perspective that differs greatly from my own. Many have seen violence and loss up close, along with bravery and courage beyond the explainable.
In turn, what I can offer a young vet is my 40 years experience as a clinician, listening to, and reframing grief and loss. One of my major clinical tasks, I believe, is helping the young person sitting before me sort out the complexities of his or her service experiences These experiences often encompass a range of intense moments of overstimulation and painful sights and sounds, of seeing those in pain who may be buddies to whom they are fiercely loyal, as well as civilians for whom they could not do enough. The sort-out process involves what was realistically doable in the circumstances, and what was impossible. Experiences of helplessness run rampant, often reigniting childhood memories. Those most vulnerable to PTSD are those who experienced insecure attachments in childhood, especially involving violence and/or physical or emotional abuse.
In helping a soldier understand, and often normalize, his reactions to his military experiences, I integrate 3 theoretical approaches.
The past several decades have seen huge leaps in study and research around mind, brain and body.
NEUROSCIENCE is the study of the human brain, helping us understand how people act and react from a physiological basis, especially in relationships. Different parts of our brain are wired to reduce threat, and others to seek safety [e.g the right hemisphere is wired to read social cues, faces, and emotional tone.]. In a situation of almost constant threat, like war, our brains rewire the normal Fight, Flight, Freeze response when detecting and protecting against the ultimate threat –death.
ATTACHMENT THEORY A soldier sees a lot of terrible things. Being in the middle of a war is not a cheerful place, and they may have been surrounded by constant gunfire and unfortunate deaths. All the while, a soldier has a job to do and must keep moving forward, no matter what their personal feelings are within a situation. Soldiers must let these emotions stew deep within them, most times keeping them to themselves. When they return home, they finally have the time to really think back on how they were feeling. Many of those with PTSD try to hide these emotions from their family, by not seeming as effected as they are. Being stone-faced can tend to be standoffish in a family atmosphere, especially when children were used to a smiling parent when they originally left home.
SELF & MUTUAL REGULATION focuses on the biology of human AROUSAL. I don’t mean sexual, but the moment-to-moment managing of our energy, alertness, and readiness to engage with others. Within a conflict/ war context, these soldiers learned the highs and lows of what triggered them, and what kind[s] of stimulations scared them. Often the close relationship with a buddy helped to fortify focus and attention and a comforting sense of mutuality. When I work with a soldier who can work in the transference, I try to tap into the positive attachment that develops when supported by shared experience and resilience in the face of danger.
These 3 approaches integrate into the work with a young person who entered the military just as he was developmentally forging his identity on multiple levels. To survive in the military,[emotional as well as physically] he needed to identify with communal, community goals— self-in-a-group goals. These multiple layers have highlighted my work with a vet as both challenging and rewarding.
It has been a privilege for me to work with a vet who has served our country.
Dr. Joy Dryer is a psychologist/psychoanalyst in private practice in New York City, and Poughkeepsie, NY. wearing 3 hats: First, as a clinician, Dr. Dryer works with individuals, families, and couples [as a PACT Level 2 clinician]:www.psychotherapyworksny.com. Second, she practices as a Divorce Mediator and Collaborative Divorce Coach: www.divorcoachny.com. And third, she was an Adjunct Associate Professor at NYU and Brooklyn College, and continues to supervise graduate students, and write and speak to the public and at Psychoanalytic and Collaborative Divorce conferences. Her current research is on the growing phenomenon of “Gray Divorce”. She is especially interested in integrating the mind-brain-body theories and clinical approaches to helping vets reintegrate back into their home culture[s]. Contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her monthly blogs at HuffPost and on Twitter @JoyDryerPhD