A couple weeks ago I spoke at a weekend conference that was put on specifically for military families struggling with an Operational Stress Injury (OSI).
There were a lot of speakers and teachers there, most with fancy degrees and accomplishments, all were teaching life skills and lessons and stories.
I felt really out of place.
I was nervous, which is unusual for me, public speaking doesn’t generally bother me, but I was a little overwhelmed by my lack of qualifications and the stories I usually tell seemed inadequate.
So that Saturday morning found me out for a run at 5am. Because sleep is not a skill I have mastered on the best of days.
And because I didn’t think through my decision, which is a pretty accurate representation about how I go through life, breakfast wasn’t going to be served until 8:30 so when I was done running at 6 I was starving and needed a distraction. So I lay on the grass next to the path I had been on, like a carefully presented bear snack in bright orange Lulu. Contemplating my very possible imminent death by bear and wondering if playing Symphony of Destruction would be an adequate repellent, I watched as the sun very, very slowly lit up what had been just a sea of black in front of me. The idea that it’s always darkest before the dawn made more sense to me than it ever had before, because as the light filtered in there was, in fact, an entire valley and mountain view right in front of my eyes.
It was almost like the view came gently, not wanting to scare me off by being too much at once, reminding me that even when I can’t see beauty in front of me, it’s there. I got a little lost there, for a while, possibly delirious from hunger, feeling very small and trying to justify anything that I might say that night.
So when it came time to stand up after dinner and share, I had done away with all the platitudes, all the attempts at encouragement and anything I thought I might ‘teach’ the amazing families that sat listening.
What I was left with was just me. I can’t tell anyone else’s story, so I just told ours.
It’s not an exciting story. Or a unique one. It’s not even particularly interesting, at least compared to some that I heard while I was there.
In fact, the only reason that mine was the one shared is because I’m the one who doesn’t mind standing up and sharing.
I stood in front of a hundred or so participants and I read the paintball story. Out loud. I’ve never read a blog post out loud before and I have to say, it’s not easy. I’m significantly better at writing my feelings than I am at talking about them, just ask Dh. But I did, I read about the fear that will jump up and bite me every once and a while, especially when I’m not expecting it. Then I talked about what it was like, being married to a husband who was a war veteran before he turned 21. How the deployments looked, from the inside. The moves. The babies and the reintegration and the nights he slept on the floor and the times I yelled at him so loud my throat hurt.
I even told the story about how after hours of waiting for a homecoming in a hot parade hall with hundreds of people, I threatened
the base commander someone that I would make him deliver my baby himself if he didn’t get that effing bus there.
Above all, I figured all I could offer these families was authenticity. So I admitted how often I’d thought of walking away. I confessed to all those times I’d been so mad at the military I’d taken it out on him. For the first time ever I even shared out loud about how the last time I saw a black beret on the computer screen news while my husband was gone I froze. And instead of scrolling down to see who it was I got up and I made breakfast because I knew if it was Dh I would have already heard and instead of seeing who it was instead, I selfishly just. couldn’t.
Most of all, my message was “We’re still here. And we’re okay. And we got this. But we are also a little broken and screwed up sometimes and that’s okay too.”
When I looked out at the people I was speaking to then, I realized that these were all families who knew what it felt like to hang by that thread. Families who had hurt. Who were hurting. And many came to me and they said “No one told me I was allowed to say the things you said out loud.”
And I always answered, “No one told me, either.”
I just one day decided that if it was happening to me but I wasn’t saying it, maybe it was happening to someone else out there, too, and they weren’t saying it either. I decided that maybe we’re all a little broken, and since after over 16 years I have nothing else to offer younger spouses, I’ll just give them what I wish I had known.
You don’t have to ever have it all together.
And even though I write on here and I pretend to have my shit together because every once and a while someone pays me to tell you stories, I assure you that I do not.
Military families, I have no grand advice or groundbreaking theory to keep you on this side of together. I only have this.
I have hated the army.
I have broken under the strain of a long deployment or a tense reintegration.
I have cried over things I couldn’t control.
I have lashed out over decisions that weren’t mine to make.
I have cursed the military, the chain of command, the war and the posting message with a complete lack of grace and resiliency.
I have fallen down. Repeatedly.
And every time I have stood back up not on my own strength but because there were others to stand with me.
I am messy, but I am willing to stand with you and your mess, if you’ll let me.
I wonder if maybe we spend too much time staring into the dark at 5am.
If we wait, if we let go of our fear of the bears in the woods and wait for the sun to come up, we will be able to see the view.
And the best part of that is, once we know the view is there, when we find another runner in the dark we can hold their hand while they wait and see for themselves.
And friends, the more of us to wait for the sunrise together, the less we look like a snack and the more we look like a community.