Watching people hold signs on the street asking for money seems to always send a wave of sympathy on my heart, as I’m sure it does a lot of people. To see people suffering like that, I think, tends to make most people feel guilty. Even though I now know that help is literally a phone call away for those who really want it in my area by dialing 211 (211, 2014), it still sends me back a little, and I ponder on how we can sometimes remake ourselves.
On June 20th, 2008, my career in the military officially ended. After registering for unemployment, I realized that everything I had known to be real had been cut short due to a medical discharge. Although I had $20,000 in cash resources, it left me no security because my job as a soldier did not totally transfer into the civilian world. My wife and I went from living in an apartment in Germany to peeking out of a trailer in a backwoods town originally named Seatco, or the devil’s place (Thurston, n.d.) How was I going to rebuild my life?
Looking back, I’m glad those first six months were in a town that I never have to visit again, because I was plain nuts. They said my anxiety disorder was brought upon by six years of wartime service, and the recommendation was to stay away from all things military and all things hospital related. But how was I supposed to support my family when I had spent the last 12 years building a career around the medical field?
But now my brain feels rewired, and I can look back and reflect on the last six years as a learning opportunity to see how a soldier with mental problems can overcome them through relearning.
I feel that one of the most important steps to getting over certain mental issues is engaging in the process of forgetting. Although many of us have been taught to try to remember everything, I found that this can actually be destructive to the healing process. According to people at UCLA, the way our memory dissipates over time can actually help us learn new things (Chen, 2014). Constantly remembering the past was keeping me from moving ahead with my life, and so my mind had to learn to distract itself.
So how does a soldier turn off the destructive memories? Cognitive psychologists theorize that humans are like computers in the way we process information (McLeod, 2008). The article goes on to point out that in order to stop focusing on a destructive thought process, we need to distract ourselves with something else. In my case, I focused on picking up rocks in the yard (which we were told was once a riverbed) and joining the volunteer fire department. Nothing like crawling through burning buildings and digging in the dirt till you collapse to get your mind off of war. Later on, my mind was able to fade away from those bad memories that were preventing me from going back into medical work, and pretty soon I was able to walk into a hospital looking for a job. Soon after that, we were able to move and buy a house in Rochester.
Through my experience, retraining the brain to overcome a traumatic experience required a type of learning that many of us were not taught. Being in the military, it was ingrained in my head that there was one way to do things and that was how to do it. However, transitioning to a civilian laboratory scientist required me to disregard the one right way method and start thinking outside the box to figure out how to “solve” my own disability. The school systems today seem to share a similar dilemma with the No Child Left Behind act (Canter, 2004). It is theorized that part of the reason so many schools are doing poorly is because children don’t get the help they need till they are failing, which makes overcoming the issue much more difficult. By reviewing a soldiers strengths and weaknesses, a plan can be put forth to build on those traits that are healthy in the civilian world, as well as identifying the ones that are destructive and mark them as “useless”.
So when I see a person with a sign trying to get over the past, I can recognize that maybe we need to rethink the way we view the solution. I think that anyone who is struggling with homelessness is a wounded warrior in that game we call life. The brain is a complicated thing, and I feel that each soldier’s journey to undoing a war is a personal journey that only he or she can undertake successfully. But although we may not be able to do it for them, we can take our understanding of the learning process as ID people and work with our wounded helping them to redesign their lives in a more healthy way. And then maybe they can move beyond their war, like me, and be productive citizens once again.
211. (2014). Get Connected. Get Answers. Washington Information Network 211. Retrieved from http://win211.org/.
Thurston. (n.d.). Thurston County History People and Places. Thurston County Washington. Retrieved from http://www.co.thurston.wa.us/history/location.asp?mod=start&locid=3.
Chen, I. (August, 2014). How Does the Brain Learn Best? Smart Studying Strategies. MindShift. Retrieved from http://blogs.kqed.org/mindshift/2014/08/how-does-the-brain-learn-best-smart-studying-strategies/.
McLeod, S. (2008). Information Processing. SimplyPsychology. Retrieved from http://www.simplypsychology.org/information-processing.html.
Canter, A. (December, 2004). A Problem-Solving Model for Improving Student Achievement. NASP Resources. Retrieved from http://www.nasponline.org/resources/principals/nassp_probsolve.aspx.