I’ve read that open communication and establishing barriers early on are vital to the success of befriending someone with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I believe that’s sound advice. I’ve also read articles that recommend that you do not bring PTSD into the relationship, and that’s advice that I just don’t understand or frankly agree with. The PTSD is now a fundamental part of who I am, just like the cognitive defects from traumatic brain injury (TBI) – it was the price of war for me and I’ve come to accept it. Please understand that as much as I wish I could, I can’t shut off the aspects of PTSD that make friendships more challenging: anxiety, depression, neediness, periodic isolation. Those elements are just as prevalent as are the deep loyalty, compassion, empathy, and support that I will bring to the friendship. I understand that it may be too much, but – damn it – that is part of why I am up front about my PTSD with the very few people I’m willing to open up with and extend my true friendship. You will find no truer friend and no greater advocate than me as your friend. I will give you everything I have and work as hard as I can to elevate you on my shoulders. Have a goal? Have a dream? Then I will invest in helping you achieve them because that is who I am as your friend, and I won’t make it a transactional “if I scratch your back, I expect you to scratch mine.” Suffer from anxiety or PTSD as well? Then I will be an incredibly strong set of shoulders that you can lean on because I value your health and wellbeing, and I respect, honor, and profoundly understand the Herculean effort you are making to heal. The price of admission to that friendship? Warmth, trust, affirmation, and consistent communication and relationships.
And I’m sorry, but I can’t always go with you on a roller coaster ride of emotions or suffer through periods of unexplained lack of communication because – as much as it pains me to say – my bottoming out is much, much lower and darker (yes, including suicidal thoughts) than yours, and it takes me much longer to recover. Anxiety and depression are paralyzing elements of PTSD for me, and I feel physical pain – churning, sweat-inducing pain – in my chest when the anxiety and depression hit. Is it fair to you? Perhaps not. But, again, I am upfront about it, and I will bring you massive doses of genuine affirmation, support, and treasured resources so that you feel as loved as a dear friend can be loved. Also, please understand that it is not fair to my family and those people and organizations who count on me to be a contributor and leader if I have to isolate because the emotional roller coaster you took me on has crippled me. Please know how incredibly hard my family and I worked to bring me back from the abyss of death to get to where I am today. While I never ask for a pity party or friendship based on sympathy, there has to be understanding and acceptance that I was badly injured both physically and emotionally, and I am exceptionally vulnerable when it comes to emotions. It took years of hard work to get back to the point I am now, and it will take many more years – likely decades if my WWII, Korean War, and Vietnam War combat wounded brethren are right – for me to achieve peace in my soul. I would love for you, as my friend, to be part of that journey because I can’t do it alone and – more importantly – I don’t want to do it alone. I don’t want to be one of those combat veterans who has alienated everyone as a means of staving off further emotional pain. I don’t want to be one of those combat veterans who lives alone in the middle of nowhere because I lost the ability to connect with people. I want to be one of those incredibly resilient veterans who bears the scars of war with dignity, grace, and honor (my motto). I want to live up to the standard that people expect of me when they call me a hero (something I never call myself) and tell me how much they admire me. It often seems like an impossible standard, but that doesn’t mean I won’t try my best to get there because it is how I can honor friends lost in war, their families, my family and friends, and our great nation.
Please know that if you curb stomp my heart, you will incapacitate me emotionally, physically, and spiritually. The crippling pain of that is part of the reason why I – and many other combat veterans suffering from PTSD – are so reluctant to connect with people and show their true vulnerable selves. The price of losing friends, whether on the battlefield or at home to suicide, is too high. It is just too high. So please – please – understand that entering into a friendship with me is not a contract to be taken lightly. If you can’t make that depth of commitment, then it is better that you say so from the get-go. I can handle that well enough because I will not have emotionally invested in you at that point. We can be good acquaintances and have periodic chats, invitations to dinner parties, and trade texts and Christmas cards. But if we progress to the point where you want to become part of my inner circle of friends – the select few that I will give my life for – then I ask that you please consider that my definition of friendship may be very different than yours. And until we iron that out and agree to the level of closeness I just described, then please understand that I will need to be guarded and preserve some distance and façade. I have to do it for my and my family’s sake. Thank you for understanding.
Oh, and if you are wondering why I don’t provide space for comments on this posting, it is because it took a good deal of courage and transparency to write this, and I’m okay with it remaining more diatribe than dialogue. Yes, that is also an element of my PTSD (and the resilience measures I need to have in place to manage it).