by Sandra Danderson
I’m coming upon my three-year anniversary of my separation from active duty service. As they say hindsight is 20/20. I don’t know if I’m there yet but I have found some clarity about why integration was so difficult for me. I believe that while on active duty I learned to compartmentalize my emotions. I put anything that was distracting from my duty as a soldier into a metaphoric emotional shelf that I hide deep inside of me. I moved forward focused on my mission and thought I was not effected or at least as effected as I was. I learned to move quickly, think quickly, and accept a heavy load of responsibility without consideration for the personal toil it took from me as an individual.
I did not defend my mistakes; I took note and learned from them. I did not defend myself from being held responsible from the mistakes of others, I took full responsibility because a whole is only as good as it’s weakest link. It wasn’t about “me”, it was always “we”. I lived this way a very long time. I learned a lot about others and myself and I honestly believe I have benefited from it. My mind has been opened. I’ve seen what a group of motivated people can accomplish and it is inspiring. But with great wisdom comes also great pain. Ignorance is bliss because knowledge can be heartbreaking.
When I ceased to be a soldier I became disconnected. My hidden emotional compartments came crashing down on me. I found myself in tears without even knowing why. Things I had thought I had dealt with came back with a vengeance. I was no longer a “we” but me, and that was what I missed the most. Being a part of a group spreads the load, greatness is always within reach, but handling things alone is scary and my personal weaknesses became overt. Civilians moved too slowly for me and deep inside a fear grew, a fear that things were slipping out of reach. I found myself frustrated and angry. I couldn’t understand why “they” didn’t get it. I held people to unreasonable standards. My anger isolated me and my loneliness grew. I was still operating on overload mode and my circuits had finally fried. The emotional shadows crowded around me and demanded to be confronted. I no longer had anywhere to hide or anyone to help me carry the load.
Reintegration forced me to confront what I hadn’t admitted. I had changed. Home wasn’t different, I was and I had to get to know myself again. I looked in the mirror and the stranger I had become was staring back at me. The stranger was tired and hurt. I had to make a new relationship with this different me. I had to find out who she was. A new relationship is hard in the beginning. Compromise must be found. But it’s even harder when you’re still in love with your old relationship, your old self.
I loved the soldier in me. I loved being a member of a team, and I loved having an excuse to hide from pain. But the new me has no excuses, is alone, and has to deal with the old me’s unresolved hurt. Denied pain once it reemerges is overwhelming and relentless. Coming home means acknowledging what has been ignored and most of all grieving the naive girl you were before you served and the soldier you became. It’s a double loss and grief is a long process.