Ryan Berg is a former U.S. Marine Corps combat infantryman and deployed twice to Iraq. In 2004, he was with 2/24 Echo company, Weapons Platoon, in Mahmudiyah, Iraq. In 2006, he served with 1/14 Task Force Military Police and was in Fallujah, Ramadi and Al Asad.
He studied rhetoric at UC Berkeley and completed his MA in Leadership Studies at Saint Mary’s College of California. He is most interested in understanding the ways that the system of patriarchy in America affects male military Veterans – and argues that this system is fundamental in perpetuating suicides in the Veteran community. 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.
A few days ago I was having a really rough time emotionally, feeling heartbroken. To be up front, today isn’t all that glorious either. Things periodically get difficult since I’m currently in psychotherapy talking about very painful things – not to mention the fact that I’m human and inherently vulnerable to a universal spectrum of suffering. By the way, did you know that suffering comes from the Latin word sufferre, which means to “allow to happen or endure”? This has always been a challenge of mine: not to escape suffering through drugs, alcohol, or other numbing behaviors when discomfort or pain comes knocking – but to allow difficult feelings to play out in my body. I’ve only recently begun to feel all of it and even embrace myself when doing so. Perhaps I’m now suffering the “right way” by directly facing it?
During emotionally and psychologically challenging times, it isn’t always easy for me to connect with others, including my wife. I typically want distance. I don’t want to be close. If I am close with her, I sometimes feel threatened. My therapist reminds me that this response is not all that different from animals when they’re injured. They too might be defensive when a human approaches them. They aren’t sure if that person is there to hurt or help them. She also said that it is only when we let our guard down with trusted others and allow them “in” that we are able to heal, and get what we are needing. That was powerful for me to hear because it made me aware of why I behave this way, and of a healthier path to take.
And in most cases, awareness allows us the opportunity to change for the better. We become a “manager” of our lives instead of remaining on autopilot, controlled by our impulses. This is one of the reasons that therapy is so powerful. It gives us the opportunity to step back and see ourselves, our experiences, and lives through the lens of a loving and caring third party. This objectivity can be profoundly healing over time because it can help provide us the distance we need to see ourselves and our pain in a humanizing and compassionate way. Rather than through the eyes of shame or guilt.
I read something recently from my old UC Berkeley college notes where Friedrich Nietzsche said, “Don’t criticize someone who is taking steps back, for they could be articulating a very large leap forward.” Therapy has been this step back for me. I’ve never talked more about my past, cried more, or felt such excruciating psychic and emotional pain in my entire life. Yet, I have never been this far ahead in my healing either. Therapy works serious wonders and is the furthest thing possible from what one should feel ashamed of doing. It is the most intelligent decision I’ve ever made.
Back to the story of me being in the space of intense pain. I was feeling alone and isolated and my wife was doing her thing and I was doing mine. I was at home, and she was at school. She knew I was going through something, and spontaneously reached out to say she had been thinking about me and to say: “I understand your deep sadness“.
When I read those words, I was instantly put at ease and I took a deep breath. I felt understood, despite not having told her every detail about what was happening with me. I felt supported and loved, and nothing else needed to be said, except thank you.
Which brings me to something that a returning military Veteran said to me a few days ago as I checked in on how he was doing. He said: “I have been in a dark place. Isolation, depression, sad, confused. I don’t really know anyone [in this area]. I’ve been hanging on by a thread.”
My message to the military Veteran community, whether you’re a Vietnam, Iraq/Afghanistan Veteran, or Gold Star Parent, is this: I understand your deep sadness.