Today I wanted to talk about the war stories some of us tell, and to do that, I had planned to start this with one of my own. My idea, when I first formed the thought to do this post, was to build up the story, make it seem deep and perhaps a bit dark but without any immediate triggers, and then slap you all with a funny or positive vibe. The problem was, when I opened up the editing window and then reached into the bag of memories I have, I couldn’t come up with one. I know they’re there. I’ve already told one in another post (did not want to repeat that one), but despite the struggle and the furled brows, all the stories that came to mind were horrible, grim, and bleak. I have good ones, I swear. Funny stories from my time on ambulance, sometimes deep and enlightening or otherwise positive, but this time I kept drawing a blank.
What constitutes a war story, exactly?
When I use this term, I don’t mean just any story. The time I was dead asleep in 34 station and a supervisor put his face inches from mine before screaming “HEY!” and then laughed himself silly when I fell off the couch is not a war story. The time I was driving into work during a blizzard and wound up getting stuck in the snow only half-a-block-from the station, and then having to hike it the rest of the way is not a war story. The time I did an entire call in the worst Scottish accent ever, or when we used a Joan Jett song on the PA system instead of the siren (I Hate Myself For Loving You), or when some Peel Region medic decided to call the helicopter to block the highway and I wound up two hours late for a shift…not a war story.
That, perhaps, is why I had such trouble pulling out one to use in the introduction; a war story, in this context, for people like me, is not at all funny or positive.
Here’s the thing about them, for first responders and military veterans alike: They linger in your head, drifting around like ghosts in sheets with black eye-holes. Nobody will ever be able to understand the specific stories you tell like you can, not even me, because none of us has seen it through your eyes, but those of us who’ve felt the same fear, the same moral injuries, or the same sudden losses and threats to our own mortality like you have don’t need to. We’ve had different experiences that were exactly the same (yeah, I had to roll my brain around that one for a bit, too).
I’ve sat in peer support groups while people have told some of these, and the room was flanked by people nodding their heads and pursing their lips, sometimes trying to hide their tears, weeping openly, or even becoming angry. Nobody, nobody who hasn’t worked for a living and got some real dirt under their nails anyway, tells them without a reason, and there are two reasons that immediately come to mind.
Catharsis is the purging of pent-up, undigested emotions or thoughts; The need to share. The need to spill this gut-wrenching garbage that’s been sitting in your soul rotting it from the inside. We will often hold onto these things, these stories and how they make us feel, and lock them up. The time will come, though, when the lock fails, or you need to break it just to save your own sense of well-being. In a lesser though not unimportant note, I’ve entered into an arrangement with a friend who actually used to throw up on a specific tree during times of high stress (may still, occasionally), to be each other’s “puking tree”, to be available if only through a text message to receive the verbal vomit when we need to do that. There’s no advice given, no platitudes, maybe the odd expression of anger or sorrow depending on the circumstance, but certainly no solutions because it’s never about that.
This is why a proper psychological debriefing for first responders is so important following a difficult call, and then another one not long after, or maybe two. The rot begins pretty much right away even if we don’t notice it, and digging it out in the appropriate way can keep traumatic stress from becoming post-traumatic stress.
The day after a particularly bad one, the staff psychologist telephoned us at the station and asked if we were okay. Of course, we said we were fine, everything was good. Of course, we weren’t, and it wasn’t. His job done, though, we never heard from him again. It was the first memory I wound up digging out when I began EMDR with a therapist I paid for out of my own pocket sometime later.
No, I’m not going to tell you about the call. I don’t tell war stories anymore, but that’s not meant to be a rule for anyone else who feels they need to, in peer support groups or otherwise. I think it’s simply because I’ve become so tired of trying to purge them and yet the rot was still there, for whatever reason, that I’ve moved to other things. Like this blog. Still, I will listen to them as hard as it can be to do when someone needs to tell them because it’s as important to be the tree as it is to spew on it. If we both start bawling like little girls, then better together than alone.
The second reason you hear them told is to solicit some form of abstract understanding from those who have really no idea, no sense of immediate empathy with those of us who’ve experienced them. I call these folks the norms. That’s not meant to be a derogatory term, either. I wish I was one of them.
So you’ll hear war stories told in interviews, on podcasts or vlogs, read them in books written by first responders and vets, in an effort not necessarily to garner sympathy, though that’s not an unreasonable thing to do, but to help people wrap their heads around how it is that we, what has caused us to, appear so broken. Even then, most of the time, the very worst bits of these stories are held back because there’s a fine balance we need to reach between soliciting understanding and horrifying people. “Like a scene from a bad slasher movie” is a simile I used to use when relating one particular tale (not telling you that one, either), instead of going knee-deep into all the gloriously gory details.
In the past, I’ve heard both people like me and the norms express distaste at a war story, and frankly, you bloody well should. But please, not at the person for telling it. Save that for the situations and circumstances that put us in this mess, not at our need to express it. By being able to shift that revulsion to where it’s deserved instead of laying it on the most convenient target, the person in front of you, we can all do something to remove the stigma that keeps some of us from telling war stories even when we absolutely should.
Whatever you do, though, please for the love of all you hold holy, never ask us “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen?”
We might just tell you.