By: John Schrey, Help For Our Heroes Alumnus, Transformations BHT

So let’s talk about emotions.  Why is it so hard for us as men to admit fear, to admit sadness, or how about this one, to admit we’ve been hurt? When I say hurt, I don’t mean physically, although we probably try to avoid that, too. I’m talking about hurt emotionally hurt. Whether it is by a woman, a friend, or even an institution like our government or the Marine Corps, we seem to be afraid to say the words “you hurt me.” Two of my responses for a long time were simply, “because I’m a dude” and “because I’m not some weak person who can’t handle myself.”  It’s the second response that’s really my go-to. It allows me to be able to flash my false bravado and show you how tough I am all while hopefully deflecting from the real issue going on inside.  The fact is if you’re like me you weren’t handling shit inside.  Either you were deflecting as I just described, pushing it down deep where it would manifest itself in other ways like anger and rage, or completely numbing it out with drugs and alcohol.  For me, it was a by-any-means-necessary approach that involved all three.  The irony is if I was actually able to handle my emotions I wouldn’t need to deflect, push down, or numb them.

A guy named Louis was running a men’s group once and made the statement, “If I asked ten of you guys if you would rather talk about your emotions or get hit with a snow shovel I bet 9 out of 10, if not all of you, would choose the shovel.”  Everyone laughed and you could hear whispers like “Yup, give me the shovel” and “I ain’t telling you guys shit.”  He was right; after all, we were men not little bitches. That’s the attitude we as men are taught since birth by our fathers, big brothers, and society as a whole.  Now let’s add the dynamic of returning home from combat where having emotions could very well get you or your brother killed.  In combat, hurt and sadness must be replaced with anger and rage, and numbness is provided by a drug called adrenaline.  In combat “by any means necessary” is about not getting yourself shot or stepping on an IED and being turned into a pink mist.  This may seem a little dramatic to some but the fact is I can remember the exact moment I flipped that damn switch in 2008 and went numb to emotions.

I was clearing a route for a platoon to go into an abandoned compound during one of our first ops into the North-East part of Nowzad. Up until that point we had taken small-arms pop shots and were moving towards our objective maybe a little too fast.  We heard two large blasts go off and I was overtaken with fear.  I was the guy sweeping for IEDs and I knew I was going to have to head towards the blasts, not away from them.  As we turned the corner there were two Marines down on each side of a small alleyway.  The new objective was to get the Corpsman to the causalities safely and get them medevaced immediately.  The first dude we got to was a double amputee and he was blocking the alleyway to the other Marine who was down and I had to sweep around him and keep moving to get the other Doc to that causality.  For maybe a few seconds I was frozen with emotions ranging from sadness to shock to complete fear.  I quickly realized these emotions no longer served a purpose in my life.  My metal detector was blaring because the boot on the detached leg of the warrior in front of me had one of his dog tags in it and it obviously set off the detector so I flung the leg to the side with the mine detector without a thought and we kept it moving.  I don’t like telling war stories or elaborating on things like this because I don’t know if it’s my place to talk about fallen or badly injured brothers of mine, but I feel like context is very important in some instances to help people understand where these emotions, or lack thereof, come from in guys like me.

You see, I had to be willing to trace back these feelings and figure out when and why I started reacting to emotions in such an unhealthy way.  That was just the beginning of the work. Then I had to figure out how to reclaim my emotions and begin to feel like a human again.  It’s a weird feeling because even though I had no emotions, I had a lot of shame around the fact that I couldn’t feel those emotions because I knew I should and I wanted to.  This just perpetuated my use of drugs and drove me further away from the people I loved because I knew I was hurting them but I couldn’t stop.

So what changed?  I finally realized through therapy and from listening to guys I knew were as “manly” as they come, talk about their feelings, and showing emotions that you aren’t weak or soft if you ask for help. In fact, you’re the exact opposite.  I’ve looked into the eyes of guys prepared to run into enemy fire and sacrifice their lives and it’s the exact same courage I see when I am sitting across the table from a young man that is willing to tell me he’s afraid and he doesn’t know what to do.  I’ve also been on the other side of the table running into that gunfire and can say unequivocally they are equally brave and equally as important if you want to survive.  You have to be fearless to recover and gain your life back, but fearless in a whole other way.  You have to be willing to get vulnerable and feel again.  This one of the hardest things you’ll ever do but believe me there is no strength like complete surrender because when you do it, nothing ever has to hold power over you again.

If you are struggling today or any day please reach out and we will be there to grab you.