I’ve answered this one a thousand ways. It is by far, my most hated question to answer in the world of mental health. It’s also one of the clearest ways to see that the stigma of mental health issues is still alive and well. After all, you’re not reeeeeeally injured per se, right? I mean you are, sure, but not like those guys missing limbs?
Kate’s comment: Brian visibly freezes when asked this question, his shoulders hunch and he stares at his feet. The first time I saw his reaction from across the room but hadn’t heard the question; I tend to watch his body language without even realizing it. Don’t underestimate the impact this topic has on your man’s psyche and his view of himself.
I learned when I was first using my PTSD service dog, that you need some answers in a can. You need 5 or 6 answers ready to go, because while 9 out of 10 people will be polite and mind their own business, you’re going to encounter more than 9 people. You’re going to get asked that question. For some people it will start with a polite “nice dog, what does he do” all the way to “your not blind obviously, whats wrong with you, why do you need a dog.” For all of them, they get my canned answers. None are lies, just varying degrees of gruffness in return. The polite ones may get a “ sorry, I can’t talk, she’s working now”, or a “I’m sorry but I don’t discuss anything about the handlers condition (this is a favourite of mine because it’s true, yet doesn’t even identify me as the handler).” It stays around there for the polite folks. For the rude ones , they get rude back. My crowning achievement was this one bitch who got in my face in starbucks and decided to start an interrogation of me with “what’s wrong with you, why do you need a dog.” The response she received and truly deeply deserved was me screaming back at her in the same volume “what’s your bra size and are you wearing clean underwear, because if personal information about my body is your business, then I want to know personal things about yours.” She was red in the face, there was a laugh or two, and when she left there was applause. But I’m not here to talk about dogs. Some other day. I’m here to tell you why I have answers in the can, ready to go.
Kate’s comment: it never really occurred to me that a PTSD service dog was any different to any other service dog so when Brian first warned me that folk could be weird I didn’t really register what he said. It didn’t take me long to realize just how ignorant people are around this issue. How belittling, patronizing and shitty. It makes me a bit punchy when I think about it. Now I step in front of both Brian and Sasha to cut off any ignorant ass, I have a look that could freeze balls and failing that I’m not above stepping straight into their space and making them move backwards.
In many situations with men, healthy or unhealthy, we are what we do. Yes I know it’s that way for some women too, yadda yadda. That’s not my point. My point is if two women are introduced and run into uncomfortable silence they normally move to a relationship question. “Who do you know here”, or “are you friends of John’s or Mary’s.” Men go to their job. “So, what do you do? It’s one of the reasons male veterans / cops / firefighters / etc. hide their ailment for so long. Because if they don’t recover well enough, they won’t just loose their job but they will loose who they are. The very means of how they define themselves goes out the window and along with the pain of the injury comes this pain of ‘who the hell am I now?” This is why one of the things we have pushed the army to do , as advocates for veterans, is to stop releasing so many veterans that want to stay.
Kate’s comment: Brian still feels the weight of this loss deeply. I’d like to see him do more things with the Association and get back to the Armoury which is his other home. As much as “I’d like him to…” this is up to him, not me. It’s often hard to remember that and not be a pain in his ass.
Why does this question hurt so much? It’s about identity but it’s also a little more politically incorrect than that. It’s more primitive, or as some would tell you, socially backwards. It’s because historically the role of the man was to bring home the bacon, be the breadwinner, be the provider, be the hunter gatherer for the family. It can also build up resentment in the main relationship in the house. Your marriage / common law / whatever you call it. The period of being on medical assessment costs you. In money. In cold hard cash. The first bit will be you no longer receive overtime pay, because you’re not doing it. Substitute sea pay, diver pay, paratrooper pay, spec ops pay, specialist pay, overseas pay, tax free deployment pay, you get my point. The extras dry up. Then if you’re diagnosed with a long term problem, you’ll probably be placed on some form of income support. That income is never at 100%, as its designed to deliver some pain to you and incentivize you to come back to work. So now, after the extras go away, you’ll get a pay cut. That will bring pressure to the house, and it’s hard for a man to feel that pressure and not feel some shame or unmanliness about it. And from there, you may have to take a position that isn’t what you want to do, or take one that limits promotion (promotion equals you ever hoping for a pay raise in government jobs) or leave the organization and go find another job, or leave and never work again. And as you’re supposed to focus on your mental health and getting healthier, there’s this weight over your head. I don’t know of a single man that can forget about how he provides for his family. Sure. Give it a try. Fill out a questionnaire that could decide if you get to stay in the navy, or get released next year, but don’t worry about that and answer honestly. ‘Your health is most important’ they will tell you. Go fuck yourself. Lots of us would rather die than leave the job that defines us, and I mean this. Lots of us do die because we have to leave the job/identity that we love. Job loss is one of the leading causes of suicide in men both for the income side, and the identity.
So how do you answer that question? You need some Johnny on the spot answers. Because this question can put you on your back heels and take away your ability to think. You might dodge, stammer, avoid, obfuscate , or waffle. You might feel inadequate, pathetic, embarrassed and so on. Do not make something up, or stretch the truth. But rather, gauge how much candour is needed at the moment.
“I’m taking a job at NASA” is a lie. Don’t do it.
I tell people the truth. Just different layers. These next statements are all true. “I’m retired.” Very true. “I’m dealing with health care for the next little bit.” Very true. “I’ll make further employment decisions after my docs have confirmed whats going on, but mostly likely be working around veterans and the federal government”. Very true. “ Right now , I’m getting healthier and helping other guys with their journey.” Also very true. “I was in the army for 19 years and released because of injury.” Very true. “There’s job offers, but I can’t consider them properly till I get healthier.” True. “I do contract work as it comes up.” True.
But the single biggest truth here, is eventually you to come to terms with the fact that you are not working right now, you are in receipt of government benefits instead of contributing to them, and you ought to feel fine about that. You earned it, the hard way. That’s what it’s there for. So have your answers in the can, but also know that the reason it hurts to hear is you may need some more work at coming to terms with where you’re at, right here, right now. Your injuries caused by the job you loved, then caused you to have to leave the job you loved and that sucks balls. It’s awful. I’m not still ok with it either. But its true.
So let me be the one to say it to you.
Your job right now, is getting as healthy as you can possibly get, with your limitations. You’ll feel better by still claiming the identity while accepting that it is part of your past. So my advice: don’t start the sentence with what you used to be. “I was a firefighter” suggests you aren’t anymore. You are. You just don’t sling hose, pull people out of car wrecks and find old grannies trying to get out of burning buildings. But you the person, are still the firefighter persona as an identity. “I AM A RETIRED FIREFIGHTER”. Or for me “ I AM RETIRED FROM THE CANADIAN ARMY.” Give value and respect to yourself, because if you live till 97 , the values and structure you used to run your life as a firefighter, or mine as a soldier, will still be the way I conduct myself then. I will always be army, whether or not I’m in the army. And until then, your new job is to love yourself along the way.
Kate’s comments: the worst offenders that I have witnessed, who cause Brian the most pain, are those closest to him. They’re like dogs with a bone, and for some reason that mystifies me, they seem to think that by mentioning it regularly they will magically push him to “doing something”. I tend to snarl now whenever I sense the conversation going that way.
Additional comments here by Toby Miller
The “emasculation” of not being a “defender of the people” anymore added to the emasculation of not earning, not producing, not contributing and being a “taker” vice the “giver and sacrificer” all take a massive toll on men. You are not those things anymore…but you are something and that new you is still a great and valuable person. You need to learn to love your new self and sometimes that will be easier said than done but you still have an identity and it isn’t just used to be, or has been.
My buddy down in the states, Boone Cutler started the Spartan Pledge and the last line says it all to me. “my mission is to find a mission to help my warfighter family”. That’s the new me and the new many of us.
Loving who we are now is vital if we want to survive. Love yourself and those answers to that question will come so much easier