One of the big selling points of the armed forces in every recruitment campaign in living memory has been the feeling of belonging. Finding like minded people, sharing experiences, good and bad, but never alone. Never on your own. If you asked 10 veterans what they missed most about life in the forces, nine of them would say they missed the people they served with, the team, the banter, the camaraderie. In an environment where the strength of the team is integral to its survival and effectiveness, it is no wonder.
But that doesn’t mean there won’t be experiences that feel isolating, particularly if mental ill health and trauma are involved. We speak to a lot of veterans that, as you’d imagine, have had intense experiences in conflict. They’ve lost friends and they’ve feared for their own life, too. Years later, a common question, posed out of frustration and a desperate need to understand, is: “There were lots of us involved in that contact/incident/experience, why am I the only one still struggling with it?”
There are a million answers to this question that you could unpack in therapy, but one thing to bear in mind is that there were not ‘lots of people’ involved at all.
Have you ever been to the cinema with a group of friends? As soon as the credits roll and you’re back out in the sunlight, one of you will say “I enjoyed that!” while another will think it was awful. If you were each asked to pick your worst parts and favourite parts you’d probably have different answers. You’re friends! Which means mostly you agree on things, see the world similarly. Yet you just went into the same cinema, sat on chairs right next to each other and watched different movies. The nature of the way we interpret any experience, particularly a traumatic one, means that it is totally unique to us as individuals.
If you’ve done training for Northern Ireland you may have come across an exercise where you watch a video of a group of plain clothes soldiers being ambushed in a car (or something similar). When the video is finished you’re given a piece of paper and asked questions like:
“How many shots were fired?”
“How long was the contact, from start to finish?”
“How many soldiers were injured during the ambush?”
What’s amazing, is that when you share your answers to these questions with the people left and right of you, you’ve all experienced the event differently. Someone thinks it lasted 40 seconds, some else thinks it lasted two or three minutes. Someone thinks 10 shots were fired, someone else thinks 25.
The training is designed to teach you about the importance of information recall, about the need to stay present in the moment so you can accurately make notes about incidents that happen on the ground. But what it shows us is that we all interpret experiences in a unique way, even when those experiences are almost identical to the people around us. Some elements are in sharp focus, some are a background feature. Each of us will apply our own director’s cut to the movie unfolding in front of us.
So if you are wondering why an event or trauma that you shared with others is affecting you more adversely than it is them, just remember, they didn’t experience the same thing you did.