Often, I find that Veterans abuse drugs or alcohol to help them forget or not remember something that lies behind. What lies behind? Something so traumatic that the memories become intrusive. Often this boils down to things they have seen, things they have done, or things they failed to do. Confession proves helpful at this point in the healing process because veterans often feel they need to make a confession not only of substance abuse, but a confession focused in and around a past event or series of events.
For the Veteran, confession then may have two parts: 1. I have this (addiction), and 2. I did this (or failed to do this). Problems arise if the event is something they do not want to confess; denial becomes a barrier to recovery. Sometimes this denial is self-protective; by not admitting to it, the problem seems not as severe. Another reason not to confess is to protect loved ones. By not telling family or friends, the Veteran is trying to protect them from the grittiness and brutality of war-related events. But, in not confessing, great pain is denied and the result of either of these is often either isolation or insulation.
Isolation is removing oneself from the influence of, and contact with, others. Family members know this firsthand. In trying to protect family members, isolation drives them away. One definition of insanity, often attributed to Albert Einstein, is “doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result.” Unfortunately, Veterans are often susceptible to this kind of insanity: when one has tried to “fix” oneself, and failed, repeating the same process over won’t change anything. Hence, the result of isolation is that one is further removed from assistance, and sometimes even from reality.
Insulation, conversely, refers to surrounding oneself with those that have similar experiences. While this is beneficial so that one does not feel alone, surrounding oneself with only those with similar experiences is like breathing your own exhalation: eventually you will need some fresh air or you will pass out. While we all need a safe place and a ready ear to share our pain, the goal is to be a part of society, not apart from it. We all need fresh air. Confession, then, needs to be done in a safe place, first to oneself, then to God, then to others.
When ministering to Veterans and hearing their confessions, especially combat Veterans, it is good to keep in mind that they may mourn the loss of their identity. Their old view of normality, and their place in that normality, has changed, never to be recovered. They may say, “I am not who I was.” In reality, who is? We all change. Most of us adapt. For some, the struggle is in answering the question, “Who am I now?” Another way of phrasing this is, “What is the new normal?” PTSD is often as much a search for identity and normality as it is an anxiety issue.
The Bible holds an answer. The question may go from, “Who am I now?” to, “Who am I to become?” This search for identity is really a search for God, a search for a transforming faith, a leaving behind of the old and finding the new.
Now I have a confession to make. When I came back from war, I found I had an identity crisis: I no longer was who I thought I was. This is what I found helped me. In Acts 17, beginning with verse 16, Paul is speaking to the philosophers at Athens. He recognizes that they are religious people, even going so far as to create a shrine to the unknown God. He then proceeds to tell them about this unknown God, telling them he knows, he personally knows, this unknown God! Paul announces in verse 28a, “For in Him we live and move and have our being.” Think on this: God is our center, our reason for being; apart from Him we have no identity. The key to getting better and becoming whole again was in recognizing this fact: who I am is integrated into Whose I am.
Scott Jimenez is currently a Department of Veterans Affairs Chaplain working with Veterans struggling with substance abuse and PTSD. He was a Navy Chaplain, often serving Marines. Prior to that, he was an enlisted Marine, then an officer of Marines. Scott's DMin dissertation was on the spiritual effects of combat PTSD.