Why proximity to death makes you feel alive
Just finished reading an interesting piece on why soldiers miss war, and why some of them have trouble adjusting to normal life.
The evening I returned to Florida after my time in Afghanistan as an embedded journalist, I drove across the Everglades at sunset.
I pulled the car over on the side of the road, stretched out my arms and felt the sun’s warmth on my skin. I closed my eyes and could see the glowing red of the fading day’s light through my eyelids.
“I feel so alive,” I remember thinking. “I wish I could live my whole life like this.”
That is PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder.
It’s the inability of normal life to ever match the amplitude of living that you achieved in war. It’s the letdown of survival, and the worry that normal life is just a countdown to a gentle fade-out.
Ask most combat veterans to name the worst experiences of their lives, and they’ll probably tell you it was war.
But here’s the confusing part. When you ask them to choose the best experiences of their lives, they’ll usually say it was war, too.
This is nearly impossible for someone who has not been in war to understand. But the lesson to be gleaned from this confusing truth is essential to understanding the experiences of the 0.75 percent of the U.S. population who are in the military and the 7 percent who are veterans.
No Pity Required
Contrary to the steady stream of Wounded Warrior Foundation commercials on TV, combat veterans are not broken, and they are not victims.
They should not be pitied or looked at with a sad shaking of the head or some reflexive “Geez, what a shame.” Pitying them belittles their experiences and misrepresents the challenges they face after military life.
Combat veterans have experienced a spectrum of emotions whose breadth supersedes by a number you cannot imagine the emotional fluctuations of civilian life. That’s why it’s hard to care about normal things when you come back. Ask a combat veteran about this; it’s a common feeling.
Normal life, whatever that is, seems silly and pointless. It’s a gray rerun that leaves you feeling hollow. You live on a razor’s edge, only skipping across the surface of life, never returning to the heights or the depths of what you felt in war.
But PTSD isn’t nostalgia. Nostalgia is really just forgetting the bad parts of a memory. You never forget the bad parts of war. The pain of losing a friend or the images of the dead reflect in everything you see and echo in everything you hear in peace.
Yet, even in times of comfort, you find yourself missing the hardships of deployments. The tough times at least made you feel something. And that’s what you miss the most—feeling truly alive.
You say things like: “I was happier living in a plywood hooch in Afghanistan with my worldly possessions reduced to whatever fit into a backpack than I am now, living in this apartment, where everything I could ever want is within my grasp.” That’s from a veteran who now works on Wall Street.
Reflections of War
How does that make sense? Why do the fantasies that sustained us through the toughest times of our lives seem like such a disappointment when we come home to live them?
Maybe, for those who have been to war, the metric by which you measure pleasure and pain is permanently reset.
You’re not sad. You’re just flat. You start to lust for the feelings to which you didn’t realize you were addicted, but required the worst experience of your life to achieve.
You grow resentful of those who go about their lives indifferent to your experiences and the sacrifices of the brothers and sisters with whom you’ve served. The little pleasures and achievements that drive most people’s lives and the challenges they claim to have overcome all seem inconsequential.
You see reflections of your wartime experience in every part of life, and you wonder, knowing what you know now, how those around you can live the way they do.
That is PTSD.
Combat veterans aren’t damaged. They are enlightened, complicated souls forced to live life by a set of rules and expectations that can make pursuing true happiness feel like chasing the moon.
And for those who ultimately descend into a darkness from which they cannot save themselves, it was not war that broke them.
It was the peace to which they returned, but never found.
I don't know anything about this kind of intense experience, but I do know this: I am never so alive as when I push myself to (and past) the limits of my endurance. I do not experience death or near-death on a regular basis, but I have some minor idea what it feels like to be doing something you never thought would be possible, against ridiculous odds.
I don't mean to compare what I do for fun with what soldiers in war zones experience. These aren't comparable at all. But in a very minor key, I believe I do see faint glimpses of it. Most normal people don't understand why anyone would do to their bodies what I do to mine. They nod politely when I say that I never feel so alive as when I'm most dead - a sweaty puddle with wobbly legs, a few bruises and, ah, interesting hair. But it is true. Other experiences (except those related to family and parenting) usually pale by comparison.
I don't know what it's like to be a soldier and come back home after Afghanistan or some place and not be able to find peace. But I think I understand a little bit why some of them feel flat when they're not being pushed to their limits.
I only wish I knew how to help them.