War, Veterans and Substance Abuse
War has long been the precursor to serious emotional and physical ailments. Before people scientifically studied the effects of stress and trauma, there was an understanding that those who returned from war often experience difficulty readjusting back into normal life.
About 11-20% of Veterans who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom were diagnosed with PTSD in a given year, according to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. The events experienced during combat can easily turn into PTSD, which can create additional stress for the individual and others during wartime.
As a society, we Americans tend to rely on substances to ease emotional and physical discomfort. With the significant increase in stress, soldiers reaching for a drink or drug to find relief should not come as a surprise. The problem is when substances seem like they are the only efficient coping mechanism, the situation can quickly become one of addiction, which brings its own host of problems to the table.
Pain begets Pain
Physical injuries are frequent issues experienced by veterans. The strain that war places on people physically exceeds what most people experience. Injuries are often grounds for a return home, which means leaving one’s comrades behind.
Minor or moderate injuries may be covered up and managed with pain medication instead of admitting that more extensive rehabilitation is needed. Major injuries mean automatic and typically permanent retirement from active duty.
Traumatic Brain Injury as well as polytrauma conditions translate to continued distress even long after returning home. Narcotics and alcohol are some of the more commonly abused substances that turn into major addictions for veterans.
Chronic pain has long been erroneously treated with narcotics like Oxycontin and hydrocodone. Narcotic pain medications are now understood to not work long term, plus they create entirely new problems for those who become addicted.
Whatever the severity of the injury, the reliance on pain medication and other substances to manage symptoms causes many veterans to develop addictions.
Grief and the Veteran Experience
The stress of war almost inevitably creates psychological distress for those who serve in the military. The psychological distress of the experiences coupled with such issues as Military Sexual Trauma or survivor’s guilt cause overload for the individual. Those who develop psychological conditions such as PTSD are in no way weak. These problems can happen to anyone, including those who never served in the military.
Grief and trauma developed during and in the aftermath of war often turns into substance abuse. The severity of psychological distress experienced by our country’s veterans often translates into substance abuse issues. Again, this doesn’t mean that our veterans are weak or defective, but instead that our society needs to focus on and promote healthier ways of coping with stress.
Substances ease psychological distress in the short term; however, they dramatically amplify the overall suffering of the individual in the long term. Alcohol and other drugs create sensation of pleasure and relief, but can cause an unstable neural state and therefore an increase in such distressing symptoms as anxiety, pain, depression, fatigue and more.
Desperation leads people to abuse substances to feel better, but those same substances make the situation worse. If no other coping skills are utilized, the individual may quickly find him or herself trapped in a vicious cycle of using and needing more.
Adjusting to Civilian Life
The trauma of war is a stressful endeavor, to say the least, but returning home and adjusting to civilian life is, itself, stressful. Movies, such as The Hurt Locker, have tried to illustrate the strain that many military personnel experience. The adrenaline rush felt throughout the movie while everyone struggles to survive and disarm explosive ends with the hero overwhelmed by the number of choices in the grocery store cereal aisle.
Returning home means a new routine, new rules, new people, and people who do not understand what those who serve in the military go through. Additionally, civilians are often unaware of how much they do not understand about military service, which can be more than mildly annoying.
Feelings of instability, exposure, a lack of structure and camaraderie lead many people to feel unbalanced, isolated and lonely. The change can be too much for some.
The increase in freedom and access to substances, like alcohol and drugs, can be a toxic combination for some veterans. Throw in the increased physical and psychological symptoms that many experience and it is no wonder many returning veterans develop substance use disorders.
Hope for Veterans
You are not alone in this struggle. We know that the situation feels desperate and hopeless; however, it is far from being insurmountable. Veterans who have PTSD, chronic pain, grief, substance abuse and any other ailment, whether it be from experiences of war or the home front, have numerous options. Many people who have experienced the pain you feel are ready and willing to help you get back to living and loving life.
Addiction treatment centers equipped to handle co-occurring disorders are expertly trained to help those with trauma, PTSD, depression or any other mental health issue. Many treatment centers also offer programs for those with chronic pain issues as the removal of narcotic pain medication does not necessarily mean an end to suffering.
If you are entertaining the idea of getting sober but are not certain if a treatment center is right for you, there is the Angel Initiative which allows people to surrender illegal substances to police without any repercussions. Whatever your particular issues, there are many people and treatment centers that can help you.
No matter how desperate the situation may seem to you now, remember that many have been where you are and fully recovered, often discovering a life far better than ever experienced before. Reach out and get the help you deserve now.