For the decade after I served a tour as an Army intelligence officer in Afghanistan in 2006 and 2007, I denied the trauma I brought home with me. For 10 years, I compared, ranked and ultimately dismissed my own combat experience. Unlike some of my friends, I hadn’t been physically wounded; fortunately, I’d never had to kill another human being. So I ignored my violent nightmares, hyper-vigilance, shame, self-loathing and emotional numbness.
I hid my symptoms from everyone. I became depressed. I eventually fell into suicidal ideation. All because I didn’t think my trauma measured up.
You, too, have undergone trauma. Armed insurrectionists smashed their way into your place of work, looking to kill the people inside. They placed pipe bombs near the building you walk into every day. It would be normal — not unique; normal — for it to have affected you. If you believe that anyone whose workplace or school was terrorized by an attack is justified in seeking counseling, you must extend yourself the same compassion.
Some of the lawmakers present on Jan. 6 have already taken the brave step of opening up, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) virally among them. Many received her candor about fearing for her life with appropriate compassion, but others — some of them her Republican colleagues — mocked it. While their craven partisan motive is as disgusting as it is predictable, the real damage won’t be to her, but in the chilling effect that sort of reaction has on the rest of you inside the Capitol that day who might be inclined to understate your wounds.
Cynical forces might seek to dismiss your trauma, to politicize your decision to even see it as trauma. Do not let their self-interested spin keep you from help. Do not let their words work their way into your head: “They never came banging on my door. They didn’t leave death threats on my desk. I shouldn’t let this affect me.” An individual brain doesn’t know or care what another has experienced, just as one arm broken slipping down the Capitol steps wouldn’t be any less serious if someone else broke both.
And for all you know, the unaffected appearance of some who survived the insurrection might be a pretense. Perhaps they’re just waiting for someone else to go first. Your decision to open up and get help might allow them to do the same. Getting help can be scary because it requires that you admit that something is wrong — and it is terrifying to think that something is wrong.
The constraints of working in the public eye only ratchet up those worries. Whether as Missouri secretary of state or later as a potential presidential candidate, I repeatedly denied the reality of my situation because — among other reasons — I didn’t think I could be so openly flawed and hold office at the same time. But I was wrong. And even if I had been right, it wouldn’t have mattered, because my health should have come first.
You suffered an injury, and it is normal to treat an injury. In fact, it is not normal to not treat an injury. Treating it doesn’t mean you can’t do your job; it simply means you can do your job better.
Eventually, I got help, and today I am living a productive and enjoyable life of post-traumatic growth. I do not dread going to sleep. I can sit with my back to a door. I love what I do, I like who I am, and I’m emotionally present as a father and husband. But I nearly waited too long, all because I didn’t think I’d done enough to earn the right to label what I experienced as trauma.
Ignore all the forces that discourage you from treating your wounds, and listen to me when I tell you what you experienced was real. You don’t have to feel this way. If you commit to trauma counseling, you can get to a point where it won’t disrupt your life.
And as for the shaming and the judging — either internal or external — please consider this article whatever validation you need. Print it, clip it, laminate it to remind yourself or anyone who shames…