Prisoners of War

⚠️Trigger Warning: war, veterans, patriotism, mental illness, pharmaceuticals


 

This is a poem about the war at home: the pain and trauma sustained off the battlefield by veterans, families, and friends for generations.


It is a poem inspired by my personal war with depression and pharmaceuticals, having been numbed since childhood and denied the opportunity to develop methods to grieve and process the USSR, Persian Gulf, Yugoslavia, 9/11, Afghanistan, and Iraq, unable to mourn with sympathy and compassion. As each year passes with more of the drugs cleared from my brain, I'm continually bombarded with new empathies, eyes newly opened to the pain of abandonment, fear, anxiety, and injustice that swam around me every day, unseen, unheard, unloved.


This is an expression of another milestone of life after polypharmacy: learning how to be human in a world of suffering, breaking the habit of burying pain until it destroys from the inside.


 

Now that the numbing drugs are out of my system, and the Church and State are separated from my mind, I often find myself triggered by displays of patriotism, and grieving during national holidays. This was verboten in the realms of Evangelical Christian nationalism and life in the suburbs of military hubs; I struggle with a lot of residual shame and anxiety when I don’t feel “grateful for their sacrifice” or “proud to be an American.” But I’m learning that’s okay. In a big big world full of non-Americans, with a big big God full of peace and love, there is a big big space to grieve the tragedy of war. There’s space for me to weep and instead of saying “thank you,” to say “I’m sorry.” I’m sorry. No one should be in this kind of pain. No child should have to be this resilient. No one should have to “Both/And” the value of life and the glorification of death and sacrifice.

On Independence Day, Memorial Day, Veterans Day, Armed Forces Day, all the remembrance days - whenever the flags come out - as I denounce the perpetuation of war, I honor the sanctity of grief. My grief. Their grief. Your grief. Our grief.


Trauma has a domino effect. Wounds in my emotional life collapsed into relational problems, physical health problems, mental health problems, spiritual problems, life problems. Thankfully healing has a cascade too. This started out as a Lyme Disease blog, which pushed into a spiritual blog, and spread into mental health, trauma-informed healing, creative expression of all sorts, and a life of miracles. That’s why it’s a healing journey – the tiles, of both hurting and healing, press forward into every moment of every day, continuously transforming the rest of your life.

Today the dominoes fell into Veteran’s Day. My old set-up was a maze of American pride, patriotism, “Christian roots", an ancestry full of veterans and POW’s, picnics, parades, battle hymns and victory marches. We painted our tiles red, white, and blue and spelled out “God Bless America!” as they collapsed in a spray like popping firecrackers.


But for the last year or so, I’ve found myself triggered by patriotism, cringing at the flag, and remaining silent among the social media hails to the heroes. It’s been a struggle not to judge my reactions as traitorous, ungrateful, selfish, dishonorable… “un-American.” The turbulent political climate in America no doubt has fueled my dissent, but more importantly has offered a safe, if at times caustic, space to process the pain of my individual experience as well as the checkered national legacy. Combined with an intercultural marriage and dual residency, my long-held identity as an “American” and all that label has prescribed in my culture has been shaken to say the least, if not completely disintegrated.

Yet my bubble was burst not by bitterness so much as love - an ever-growing love and respect for all of humanity which must move beyond borders; it is not necessary nor appropriate to dissolve my allegiance to the United States nor to look upon her inhabitants (most of my loved ones) with disdain. I do not wish to dishonor the veterans who sacrificed their time, bodies, minds, and well-being for the cause they believed in. I cannot ignore the privileges and freedoms that someone – or many someones throughout history – has and continues to pay for. I don’t turn my back on it; rather I take a moment to weep for the cost no one should have to pay.

My dominoes - my neural networks - have shifted, and on national holidays they can’t fall into the same pattern of pride and patriotism the way they once did. As with everything else in my life, there’s been a collapse into truth and a stark reality that can no longer be ignored lest it fester into chronic disease, terminal illness, and a legacy of trauma: war is hell. There is a certain degree of vulgar desecration in hiding corpses, torn families, drafts, and murder of innocents with confetti, parades, marching bands, scantily-clad dances, and colorful bunting. At best, it is a great distraction; at worst it is a lie from the pits of hell. People are dying. Children are losing their parents to deployment. Generations are suffering mental illness. And all we are allowed to do is tie a ribbon on it and prescribe medication.


Part of trauma work for healing one’s own physical and mental diagnoses is understanding the effects of generational trauma – what my great-grandparents suffered affects the expression of my own DNA. Wars long before my lifetime have imprinted on my ancestors and were passed down through the beliefs and habits we learned surrounding life and death, nationalism and independence, grief and gratitude. My family suffered in war. My ancestral mothers lost fathers, husbands, and children. My forefathers saw starvation, disease, destruction and became orphans. Brothers, sisters, cousins, nieces and nephews, friends, neighbors, lovers were lost to musket, cannon, bomb, gangrene, and PTSD. Many a heart suffered long-term anxiety during deployment, drafts, and debriefings. Many a mind was lost to insanity.


This legacy of war is a part of me. It's my battle too, though not enlisted nor a military household. But never once was I given the capacity nor space to process the horror, shed the tears, scream the rage, or shake out the terror that shaped my very own fears and anxieties. For our military history, I was handed the Family Callous, the tough skin and shoulder-shrug, reverent façade of pride, taught the chords to “America the Beautiful” and how to spit the word “pacifist” a whole nine yards. Not to blame anyone – as I piece together my life story, I see hints of a reckoning peeking through the shelter: glimpses of remorse, flashes of heartache, little anecdotes of anxiety and fear. We were all victims of someone else’s war.


I’m mourning the shock that there’s yet another hidden epidemic tearing our society apart, on top of sexual harassment, systemic racism, chronic illness, spiritual abuse, infertility and miscarriage, addiction, and countless traumas bursting at the seams. More skeletons swept into the closets of my dearest family and friends, never to be revealed because a collective ability to process them graciously has never been cultivated. Enlistment. Deployment. War. Separation. Fear. Loss.

For too long my grief was suspended by the prescription of pharmaceutical antidepressants. Drugs can numb the pain, but one of many downsides is that the brain then never develops healthy coping mechanisms for the inevitable and unavoidable pain of life. We never learn to heal wounds, just develop big hardened scars tattooed with “Get Over It” “Just Let It Go” and “You’re Too Sensitive”. Underneath, the wound continues to spread infection, driving deeper into heart and soul and bone, till I’m mindlessly lighting sparklers and drinking beer while the children ship out and the coffins come home.


Off the medication, my wounds begin to surface, and they become more sensitive to others’ pain. The great documentary exposing the dangers of psychotropic drugs and discontinuation syndrome, “Medicating Normal” highlights the disservice of Western medicine and pharmacy to veterans, who return home with unbearable pain, grief, and confusion, and instead of receiving support to navigate this very normal process of resolving trauma, they are medicated with pills to numb the pain. The horrors of war – from the battlefield to the destruction of families at home – are red-white-and-blue-washed with pills and parades of all kinds. We support our troops with flags and ribbons and medals and words… but we never hold a space to support the weight of their grief and trauma. This breaks my heart.

And it makes me angry: to see article and song and show and post after post after post “honoring” the military – the strength, the dedication, the courage, the victory, the nationalism, the pride, the ego, the machismo – while burying the cries of those lured in by broken promises, those drafted without a choice, the still-living who are now lost in shock, the children who lose their parents for months at a time and told this is what proud and brave feels like, the spouses who lose lovers and told it’s God’s will, the parents who lose children to a system that failed them for generations, all the people whose grief is muffled by the calls for patriotism and unity, all the people whose pain is drugged with a pill to keep them from exposing the truth of the system. The cries for peace where there is no peace, the shouts of victory where there is only internal destruction.


A domino track fails as soon as one piece gets removed from the line. In this set-up of unspoken bereavement, buried pain, star-spangled denial and patriotism, I choose to step out of line. Ironically, a failed domino run is the one that stays standing. I choose to stand and name my suffering.


No, I’m not going to celebrate the fact that military service even has to exist… it’s killing people. It’s killing families. It’s killing me. And I’m not allowed to say that because someone died for my freedom to say that?!


Enough. I’ve had enough.


I'm sorry for your sacrifice. I'm sorry your pain was not enough to take away mine. I'm sorry that honor and courage and sacrifice can't take away yours. I'm sorry for the children who never had a choice. I'm sorry for the widowers who never have a voice. I'm sorry for the parents whose cradles were robbed. I'm sorry that liberty and justice for all are our greatest national debt.


Today, in my sacred grief, I am sorry.