Military Personnel Returning to Civilian Life within the Spectrum of Connection / Disconnection

Living Life Within the Continuum of Connection / Disconnection: How Do We Help Military Personnel Return to Civilian Life More Effectively?

Humans long for connection. Part of the human condition, however, seems to involve periods of feeling “disconnected,” or, less than ideally connected to that which is beyond ourselves and our singular experience. Whether these periods of feeling “disconnected” are momentary or lengthy, they are most commonly experienced as disconcerting, disturbing, unnerving. Many, who recognize that they are indeed feeling less than ideally connected to life beyond themselves in any given moment, will make comments amidst their experience such as: “Something feels off. I don’t feel good. I don’t feel very grounded. I feel depressed. I can’t do this or it [whatever “it” is] alone. I have no energy. I have so much to do but all I want to do is lay down and take a nap. I don’t know what’s wrong.” People rarely say with clarity, recognition and self awareness : “I feel disconnected right now. I need more connection to help me get done all I need to get done.”

In their most extreme manifestations, periods of “disconnection” are experienced
as profound forms of trauma and/or psychosis. In both cases, individuals literally are disconnected from themselves, from contact with and/or awareness of their own body, their own mind, their own experience, whatever it be. As a therapist who has worked for 12 years with individuals with a history of both extreme trauma and psychosis, I mainly helped people re-connect with themselves, with the direct experience of their own mind, body, speech, external relationships and larger environment/world, hopefully with the “safety” of my support.

The fact is, that all beings experience periods of what feels like “disconnection” to varying degrees, in varying circumstances. Folks who have experienced intense trauma can and commonly do function and exist in “disassociated” states, states of being disassociated from awareness of their own embodied experience, sometimes at length. Individuals diagnosed as “psychotic,” existing in states of psychosis, are also commonly known to be “out of touch with reality” and commonly unaware of their own experience, at times to life threatening extremes.

From a Buddhist point of view, we are always “connected,” never disconnected, at least while we are alive and living in our bodies, whether we consciously recognize this or not. The famous Vietnamese Zen meditation master, Thich Nhat Hahn, speaks and teaches of fundamental “interdependence,” where all that exists is interdependent on or with all else that exists. There is no separation, or “disconnection.” The flower cannot and does not live, thrive or exist without the earth, sun, soil, water, clouds, rain, sky and all that enables it to be.

Anyone who has every studied environmental sciences and/or “ecosystems” theory has brought a scientific lens to this awareness, of “interdependence.” While the common reader may see a newspaper headline announcing massive tree die-offs in the state of Colorado, for example, due to some specific disease, pest infestation, bug or other, the ecologist who studies this phenomenon sees if from an interconnected “systems” view. He or she becomes curious about all that might have or has contributed to this over an extensive period of time. They look and see patterns of drought, rainfall, snowpack and snowmelt, heat, average daily temperatures, fire history, plant growth, soil erosion, insect and animal populations, wind patterns and the like, over years and years. In this way, people with environmental orientations have long known what Thich Nhat Hahn and others have said; that everything is indeed connected: interconnected and interdependent.

How can we help individuals, humans living in a world increasing becoming more and more technologically based and thus isolating, and less and less village and/or agrarian/land based, (in terms of people’s daily lived experience), benefit from and/or utilize this knowledge and awareness?

If you are sitting at home, feeling all alone, perhaps working on your computer all day, with your roommate, partner, spouse and/or children away at work or school, with no pets or animals cozying up beside you, can this awareness help counter the feelings of isolation and disconnection that so easily arise? What if knowing, or more importantly, feeling connected to the natural world in your body, say by going for a walk, run, hike or bike ride to a local park or trail doesn’t quite quell that lonely, isolated place inside of you? What if what one is really desiring or yearning for is human connection specifically, i.e., a safe, understanding, compassionate human being to be with and share oneself with, and no such person is available? What can or does one do?

In modern times, perhaps one turns to FaceBook, to check the “status updates” of one’s friends. While this does give one some proximity to “other” and “others’” experiences, it is still via computer, technology, alone at home. One could, with awareness, catch oneself and say to oneself: “Well, while I know I’ve been home alone, working all day, and I feel pretty lonely and disconnected, I equally know I am really interdependent and connected to all that is on this earth; the sun, the sky, the wind, the rain, the water, the earth, the flowers, the trees, the birds and bees, and critters of all kinds.” This self reflective coaching is helpful, to a degree, especially for people who are more resourced generally, and for which this is a more momentary, passing experience. However, for individuals who have deeper, more entrenched, chronic or habitual states of disconnection, loneliness or aloneness, especially when combined with histories of trauma and/or psychotic episodes, sometimes that does not feel like enough. More is needed. And the more that is needed is human connection specifically.

Most people have heard or learned that newborn babies who are not picked up and/or held enough after birth can and often do die of “marasmus.” On the other end of the spectrum, it is common knowledge that aged people who are placed in more of the low end nursing homes and/or institutional care facilities, without a lot of touch and/or human contact, die more quickly as well. These examples demonstrate just how important the need for human connection and contact specifically is.

Military Personnel Returning to Civilian Life

President Obama recently announced the timeline for the return of thousands of “troops,” or military personnel, to civilian life in the U.S. [10,000 initially, by the end of 2011, and another 22,000 in 2012.] These individuals will be returning to community life with all manner of experiences, including everything from life threatening “major trauma,” (lost limbs, paralysis, etc.), to brain injuries [1 in 5 soldiers returning from “active duty” are returning with TBI, “Traumatic Brain Injury”]. “Secondary trauma,” from witnessing the carnage of war, is ubiquitous for military personnel, no matter their position or station.

Within the context of the above “theme,” or discussion, these individuals will be facing a challenging transition “home.” Presently, 18 soldiers a day suicide [in the U.S.] upon return to U.S. soil and “civilian life,” more than deaths on the “front lines.” Why is the “transition” so difficult such that these individuals choose suicide once “home”? What can we all do, as a country, within our communities, as families to help these courageous individuals come home to healthy and positive “connections” once they are done with “active duty”? How can we all help “re-connect” with returning military personnel such that “coming home” is something worth staying for? And, such that their experience can help and benefit us all?

I wish to begin, and continue to engage in a dialogue in which we can all explore how to support our military personnel in “coming home” healthfully. Please join me in this dialogue. All comments and thoughts pertinent to this discussion topic are welcome.

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