I’ve heard about this word a lot over the last month. And I’m sure most of you have, too. But what does it actually mean? Not the dictionary definition, but personally, what does it mean to be thankful? What things should I be thankful for? When someone asks me that question, I’m not always sure how to answer.
Should I answer truthfully and say that I’m thankful I’m alive? That seems selfish and tends to defeat the feeling of thanksgiving and gratitude that we’re supposed to show in November. Or do I say “family” or “friends” or one of the other words that people say to stop myself from telling the truth? To keep the situation comfortable and familiar?
Of course I am thankful for my family and friends. I love them and they love me. But I feel that not sharing what we are actually thankful and grateful for—what we’re humbled by because it is such a blessing for us—we are paying lip service to the idea of being thankful.
So, yes, I am thankful for the fact that I am still alive. I wasn’t always. I’ve fought hard to be in this place I am in and I appreciate the struggles that I had to make it through to get here. It’s the best place I’ve been in a long time, emotionally. And I’m thankful and grateful that I am able to focus fully on writing and editing, which for the last fifteen years has been a side enterprise to my full-time working life.
But I still hesitate to share my biggest reason to be thankful—that I am still alive—with people when I am speaking to them. I fear their judgement. I always said I don’t care what other people think of me, but that is not always true. I worry that if I do not fit into the “mold” during a holiday, other people will find me insincere in my thankfulness.
If I tell the truth, what do they say? What kind of response would you give someone who confesses they’re grateful to be alive? I’ve had people tell me that before, that they are thankful they are still alive. And it is difficult to form a response because it is a personal and private struggle that the person is sharing with you. I am humbled by these people, that they feel I am trustworthy enough to know the pain that brought them to that place of thankfulness.
As a child, we’re thankful for a lot of things, too. Sometimes new toys, or our friends, or families. And as children I feel we are completely sincere in our gratefulness, even though it may not seem so. But as life wears away at us we learn to appreciate what we are really thankful for, and for some of us, it is more complicated than we could have ever imagined.
And for me, life wearing away brought me to the place where I can say I am thankful to be alive.
I thank God every day for Vietnam Veterans.
Without them, I wouldn’t be alive.
It sounds melodramatic, as if it’s the first lines of a voiceover in a movie about the effects of war. For me, however, it’s a simple fact.
It was the fall of 2009. I had been in individual therapy intermittently since the onset of combat related Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms in May of 2007, and it was helping. I felt steadier, I was sleeping more (though still not every night), and I was beginning to learn how to live with my PTSD.
It was hard. Harder than I expected, and I stumbled continuously, unsure of where to turn.
I felt so alone.
I was in college, away from my family, and had a few close friends but they had no experience like mine. I was involved with the Veterans’ group on campus, but didn’t spend much time with the others in the group outside of school. Most of the others in the campus group were still in the “gung-ho ‘I served in the military’ phase and I didn’t have much in common with them, as I had moved into what I call the “unsure if it was the right course for my life” phase. I’m sure most Veterans have them.
I was afraid I would never learn how to live with PTSD. So when my counselor suggested that I attend one of the group sessions offered at the Vet Center, I hesitantly agreed. This specific group was called “Depression and Self-Esteem” and I knew I was likely to be the only woman. Most Veterans groups are all men, and I was uncertain how I was going to be able to connect to them. Would they have anything in common with me besides our military service?
Turns out, I shouldn’t have worried. These men, the majority of them Vietnam Veterans, let me in and I felt comfortable there. Here were people who understood what I was going through in a way others in my life could not. And even though these men were old enough to be my father, they accepted me as one of them.
Well, not right away. It took a few sessions for me to feel comfortable with them and for the men to stop apologizing for cursing in front of me. As if I’ve never heard (or said) a curse word or two! We eventually began to connect and understand each other, even though their war had been fifty years before mine.
I spent the next two years attending group therapy in addition to my individual therapy. And for me, group therapy was the turning point. In individual therapy, even though my counselor was a Veteran, it didn’t help with the isolation that my symptoms had made me feel. Attending a group made me feel connected, and that more than anything helped me learn how to live with my PTSD.
I still have occasional suicidal thoughts, and there are a few times throughout the year which are harder than others, but I do not actively wish for it any longer. For those two years, it was a near-constant option and solution to my problems. But these men in group therapy were everything I needed and nothing of who I wanted to be.
Almost all of them were divorced. Most had been addicted to drugs or suffered from alcoholism. Most of them were estranged from family members or children who they had not let in to help during their struggles, and those families didn't understand. And I, with the benefit of being thirty years younger than they were, had time. Time to heal, time to make sure I knew how to manage my symptoms—which I knew would flare up from time to time through the rest of my life—and time to make myself ready for healthy relationships.
I am more grateful to these men than I could ever express, though I hope I have conveyed some of that here.
Remember that when you wish a person “Happy Veterans’ Day” they may not have only happy or heroic stories to go with it. Their stories may be of pain, and suffering, and loss. But I do not think you’ll ever really find someone who regrets their military service, though they may regret what they’ve lost because of it.
I am a Veteran. And I’m proud of that fact. I served to the best of my ability in the United States Army from 2001-2005. I have PTSD.
And I wanted to kill myself nearly every day for almost two years. I can’t be sure that feeling will ever completely go away. But those men helped me through the single most difficult time of my life and I will forever be thankful.
So enjoy your day off.
And Happy Veterans’ Day.
I wasn't originally going to do a post on politics. It's all over the news and I'm not sure I can bring any new insight to it. But I would like to discuss my voting history (but not who or what I voted for), and why this election has been one of the most difficult for me.
I filled in the last circle on my ballot on Friday night, put it in the secrecy envelope, and signed it. It's now ready for me to put into the ballot box tomorrow (my sister is filling hers out today and I'm dropping them both off). We have mail-in voting in Oregon so we don't actually go to a polling place, which is convenient until you set your ballot under a stack of mail and forget where you put it. But that's only happened once and I managed to find it in time to vote!
After I signed it, I was filled with relief. This entire election cycle has been a roller coaster of emotions, and I don't even have cable to see what the media is saying about the Presidential candidates. I have, however, been studying all the platforms of all national and state candidates, their beliefs, and I considered both sides of my state's ballot measures carefully before voting.
I turned eighteen in 2001 so my actual first Presidential election was 2004, but I first cast a vote in the midterm elections in 2002. I know not everyone votes in midterms, but my parents instilled it in my head that voting is a civic duty and one we should take seriously. And I have missed only one election since, as I was struggling with my depression and did not have any inclination to do anything at the time.
See, to me, all eligible Americans should be voting in every election. My parents do, my siblings do, and this one is no different. The reason I am not saying who I voted for is because I believe it should private. It is your vote, not anyone else's. And your friends and family should not directly influence your vote. Of course, the way you were raised and what you believe now will do, and that is often a result of your family and friends' beliefs being similar to yours.
By all means, discuss the candidates and issues with them. With everyone you know, in fact. The more you know, the more likely you are to vote for candidates and measures instead of voting against them. My parents have been discussing politics with my siblings and I since we were children and answered our questions regarding candidates and ballot measures every election. Study and read and be an informed voter. But you are not obligated to share who you voted for or how you voted on state measures.
Voting is a duty, and we must do it. But for those of us who may have family members with differing views, it can be difficult to vote in line with our conscience and not feel as if we are somehow less because we do not vote the same. It can be difficult to even discuss politics during an election cycle, especially this one which has been so contentious.
So what I'm saying now shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone, but I'll say it again:
Be Informed. Vote. And Keep Living.
"Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn't mean politics won't take an interest in you." ~Pericles
Writer/Editor. Voracious Book Reader. World Traveler. Veteran. Bakery Owner.