Ryan Berg, a U.S. Marine Corps Veteran deployed twice in Iraq. In 2004, he was with 2/24 Echo Company, Weapons Platoon, in the Triangle of Death. In 2006, he served with 1/14 Task Force Military Police and was in Fallujah, Ramadi and Al Asad. He earned a bachelors in rhetoric from UC Berkeley and an MA in Leadership Studies at Saint Mary’s College of California. He is married to his wife Nataly and lives in the SF Bay Area.
Editors note: The opinions expressed in this commentary are the author’s own.
As a U.S. Marine who returned home in 2007 from my second deployment to Iraq, it never occurred to me to get professional help. To deal with emotional, psychological, and spiritual pain – if at all – I would, for example, carry a very heavy boulder up a large hill near my house. I tied a chain around the rock and then looped the other end around a backpack. This way, I could put the backpack on and drag 60 pounds to the top of a punishing hill. I honestly believed that I could become like one of those actors from the movie, “300”. Ripped to shreds and ready for war. Looking back, I realize that this was my way of continuing to be a Marine – and a way to view myself as a worthy person.
This went on for a few months at least, and then I met my counselor at the Vet Center here in Northern California. I told him what I did, and he smirked and said, “that’s probably not the best thing for you to be doing”. I looked at him as if he was crazy. “Just because your scrawny ass can’t do it, doesn’t mean I shouldn’t”, I remember thinking.
Those counseling sessions lasted for a few months before I decided I was finished. I concluded that he needed to see me more than I needed to see him, and to be truthful, I didn’t find it particularly helpful at the time. The next time that I would see a therapist would be exactly a decade later.
Those years in between though were extremely hard for me. I struggled with multiple failed and unhealthy relationships, serious depression, drug and tobacco use, and profound anger. I knew no way out. I did, however, graduate from UC Berkeley (Cal) during this time. Yet it was really hard to focus and perform well because I had so much going on internally left unaddressed. I also abused Adderall during my undergraduate years as a way to cope with the competitive environment, and it just simply felt good. I could rationalize using it because it helped to treat my “ADD”. Yeah, not really though, I was using drugs legally, getting high. I wasn’t aware of what was really going on with me. I will say that using Adderall sent me into the deepest and darkest depression I’ve ever experienced.
In the years leading up to therapy, I had always wondered why each day seemed so gloomy, and why I wasn’t better at achieving my goals and fulfilling my dreams. I consistently felt stuck, in pain, and unable to break free from my past.
I hit the workforce after graduating from Cal, and five years later found myself in graduate level Leadership program, which I could do while I worked. During my final thesis project for the degree, my research focused on the benefits yoga within the lives of returning Veterans.
When doing yoga, I felt extremely anxious, and hated following the teacher’s instruction. I was also simply resistant to the practice – and at times I completely hated doing it – and I didn’t understand why. There were times that I wanted to run out of the room. But because I was in an experimental mindset for school, I wanted to learn more about myself and this resistance, and so I found myself face to face with an experienced psychotherapist who took a particular interest in working with Veterans. This time, I wanted to talk.
The experience of therapy was new to me. I wasn’t used to someone listening. To caring. To someone asking questions about my feelings, and affirming the validity of them. To someone simply being present as I cried about hurtful events in my life. On top of that my therapist was a woman, which felt doubly scary – yet triply supportive I would come to learn.
Turns out, it wasn’t simply anxiety that I needed to address. Anxiety was just the tip of the iceberg, and underneath lay a whole host, a reservoir, of emotions that I had never been able to psychologically and emotionally process from my past. The fear and trauma of being deployed twice to a war zone I needed to talk about for sure, but the main source of my pain and depression was primarily the life I had prior to joining the Marines.
We talked a lot about my early years (still do) as a child and adolescent. We painstakingly went back to moments when I was physically abused as a child. The horror. The shame. The embarrassment. The intense physical pain I endured as a little boy. The abandonment I felt by my mother. All of that, and more. My early experiences and relationships have had a profound impact on my life, and becoming aware of those influences – and talking about them – has helped me to understand and see myself more clearly, dynamically, and take steps in directions that make me happier. Even without specifically memorable trauma, I have learned that our parents, family members, and others we had contact with, can have lasting effects on how we relate to ourselves and the world.
I’ve experienced some of the most excruciating emotionally and psychically painful moments of my entire life as a result of therapy (still do at times). Reliving the past in order to eradicate its negative affects from my soul. It is the most difficult work I’ve ever done, despite two deployments to Iraq. Talking about painful experiences opened the door to a world of emotions that I never knew existed. That world had always been pushed down, remaining outside of my awareness, yet controlling nearly every aspect of my life. My shadow.
This statement (from this article) illustrates what releasing inner pain has felt like:
After the first painful release of negative emotions, you will find a certain relief in the realization that poisonous matter has left your system in a manner that was not destructive for you or for others. After thus having gained insight and understanding, new warm, good emotions will come out of you that could not express themselves as long as the negative emotions were held in check.
To note, much of the actual healing work happens after therapy sessions end and you go home. It’s wholly unlike a Swedish massage, where you typically leave feeling better (although at times I did and do). Nearly every time for the first six months, after I got home, emotions flooded my whole being and I would often beg for it to stop.
The feelings that I never had a chance to process as a child often came flooding forth, and I would be left feeling like a vulnerable little boy who wanted nothing more than to be in the arms of his mother. But that couldn’t happen and wasn’t meant to since I’m an adult now. The realization that these feelings were for me to feel sunk in over time, and I eventually succumbed to their full potential.
Through therapy I have truly gotten in touch with my heart again. I’ve learned to cry again (which feels so good by the way), to feel my feelings and not be afraid, to ditch harmful substances and addictions that don’t contribute to my well-being. My sleep has improved exponentially, which I attribute to having released a 60 pound pack of psychic pain I had been carrying. I’ve realized that the body truly does remember, and what’s often beneficial is to talk about our experiences with qualified people in order to release, process, and integrate those old feelings.
What I’ve take from therapy is the single most important thing any of us have. My life. My joy, happiness, and security. I still have painful moments, but I also now have the most joyous ones. I am able to connect with people on a level I never before knew. I feel a joy pulse through me almost every day I pop out of bed. I no longer use addictive substances, I’m sensitive to others, and I share my feelings with my wife all the time – making our relationship rich and fulfilling.
Talking about a painful past and present with a professional, and feeling our emotions can be vitally important to living fulfilling and happy lives. We might have a tendency to think that therapy should be reserved as a last resort, yet if you had an open wound that required stitches or even staples, you would probably see someone qualified to help you sew that up rather quickly – before it progressively got worse. Perhaps you have an internal tape that plays which says, “I’m fine, I’m fine”. As Veterans who might be hurting, we must venture to begin the journey of acknowledging the sea of depression we can sometimes find ourselves in, and arouse the courage to be vulnerable enough to catch the ring buoy being thrown to us. We are reminded that real security comes from this process of looking within ourselves (from this article):
So, build your true security. You have nothing to fear from becoming aware of what is already in you. Looking away from what is does not cause it to cease to exist. Therefore, it is wise on your part to want to look at, to face, and to acknowledge what is in you — no more and no less! To believe that it harms you more to know what you feel and are than not to know is extremely foolish.