A Call for Help Adjusting from the Military to Civilian Life

I recently separated from the Air Force after six years of service (that included two combat deployments) and I’m not adjusting well to the civilian world. My deployments were to relatively safe areas in Afghanistan doing a desk job, so I don’t think I’m suffering from PTSD, but my transition out of the military has been terrible. I don’t get along with any of my new civilian coworkers, I’ve been fighting with my family since I got out, and I’m constantly struggling with a strong urge to go back in—and I still might do it. My new job provides mental health benefits and I tried talking to a couple therapists about it thinking I was just depressed, but I’ve found the civilian therapists are clueless when it comes to what it’s like to be in or get out of the military. Do you have any advice for finding a military-friendly therapist or what I should look for if I decide to give it another shot? Also, what can I do to relate better to the civilians I feel so separated from? I don’t have any friends outside the Air Force, I don’t like associating with anyone that isn’t in the military or a veteran, and I feel completely alone out here in the civilian world. Sending a request for help. —Anxious Airman
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Dear Anxious Airman,

Thanks for writing in, and thank you for your service. I can only imagine the difficulty of transitioning from being in the service overseas to civilian life. I’m curious as to why, if indeed you are more comfortable in the service—and considering that you were fortunate to have relatively safe assignments—you felt motivated to leave the service. Was or is there pressure of some kind—family, romantic partner, financial—to leave and rejoin civilian life? I wondered if this pressure, perhaps, was/is contributing to the agitation and what sounds like anxiety or need for distance from other civilians. For you, perhaps forming friendships with them would signify that you are definitely out of the military, and you’re not sure you want to be … ?

I am sure, regardless, that this challenge is more common than you realize—as is the case with every emotional or psychological challenge I come across. I, for one, see this as both a specific (in terms of leaving the military) and existentially human problem, in that many folks find social connection challenging for any number of reasons. The good news is, you’re smart enough to see it as a challenge and reach out for some help. That’s not necessarily easy to do, but it tells me you are seeking some kind of guidance and connection with others which is a very healthy impulse indeed. This also tells me you have the inner resource to overcome your challenge and find an answer. Quite often, it is in the seeking and not the finding that answers form.

My first point is practical: Have you contacted the VA or other agencies that might help you find the right counselor? I’m going to include links to three agencies I found whose mission statements include a commitment to help veterans find appropriate help. The first link here is the VA’s resource page for mental health, followed by links to two other agencies that were recommended by colleagues:

If I were your counselor or therapist, I would want to know what is symbolized or “metaphorical,” psychologically, about your return to civilian life—is it frightening or unnerving or unwanted for a reason that has emotional resonance for you?

Second, there is something paradoxical in your dilemma, in that you sound isolated and (perhaps) lonely, and yet you also state you “don’t like associating” with civilians. Again, I don’t have too much to go on, but instinct tells me you have a need to be understood and that need, understandably enough, is probably best met by those who can share your experience in the military. Which, again, leads me to wonder if the issue isn’t about leaving (or staying) in the service. Did something happen during your tour of duty that left you unsatisfied, so that returning to civilian life feels frustrating or premature? Did you want to form more military friendships but for some reason it didn’t happen? Was there a special friend you had to leave behind? Are there difficult feelings about having had a desk job that remain unresolved? Is it also possible you miss something about the military: the structure, the clear chain of command, the sense of duty and fulfillment?

If I were your counselor or therapist, I would want to know what is symbolized or “metaphorical,” psychologically, about your return to civilian life—is it frightening or unnerving or unwanted for a reason that has emotional resonance for you? For example, let’s say you had an attachment to the service as a kind of “home” and then had to leave that home in a way that paralleled earlier experiences, such as being away from home as a child in a way that was painful or sad; this might provoke current stress or anxiety over psychologically reexperiencing loss. Maybe this is why you are (from what I gather) ambivalent about forming friendships with civilians; being lonely sucks, but maybe the civilians won’t understand, and not feeling heard or understood is itself lonely and stressful.

Or maybe there is, again, something unresolved about your military experience, a hoped-for achievement or recognition that failed to happen. I’m also curious as to why you don’t return to duty if indeed you prefer to be there. Is someone in your life asking you not to do so? Is that creating a conflict of wanting and not wanting to be back among civilians? Is there an issue about friendships in general for which you are seeking some help? Is seeking help itself a little stressful? (Although you don’t indicate whether you’re a man or a woman, it’s worth noting that seeking help is difficult for many men I work with.)

My suggestion as a first step is to develop gentleness and self-compassion over whatever is happening here because I am sure that a solution can be found, and you are having a very human reaction to some as-yet-undefined challenge that, with the help of the right person, can be understood and illuminated in a way that makes more sense. I wish you luck, and thanks again for your service and for writing in.

Respectfully,
Darren

Darren Haber
Darren Haber, PsyD, MFT is a psychotherapist specializing in treating alcoholism and drug addiction as well as co-occurring issues such as anxiety, depression, relationship concerns, secondary addictions (especially sex addiction), and trauma (both single-incident and repetitive). He works in a variety of modalities, primarily cognitive behavioral, spiritual/recovery-based, and psychodynamic. He is certified in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, and continues to receive psychodynamic training in treating relational trauma, including emotional abuse/neglect and physical and sexual abuse.
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  • Maureen

    Maureen

    June 26th, 2015 at 10:43 AM

    I think that working thru the VA could be a great way to find a therapist who could be specially trained with helping with cases just like yours.

  • Kaydeen B.

    Kaydeen B.

    June 26th, 2015 at 12:42 PM

    Just so you know, the VA has a Department, the Transition Unit, for OIF/OEF/OND Veterans .We work exclusively with men and women who are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. So please go to your nearest VA for assistance. We are happy to help with your transitional needs.

  • Danny

    Danny

    June 27th, 2015 at 1:52 PM

    I am sure that every soldier from the moment they are deployed probably thinks of little else but coming back home. But I do think that many of them minimize the impact that this will have in their lives, they think that this will be the answer to their problems when many of them find themselves steeped in even more problems when they get back home. I can see that it would be quite a hard adjustment for just about anyone to make.

  • Yolanda Harper

    Yolanda Harper

    June 27th, 2015 at 6:30 PM

    This is very, very common for service members transitioning to civilian life. There’s a huge adjustment from the structure and camaraderie of the military, with its traditions and focus on service and respect, to civilian life where the focus is more on “I” and “me” and the feeling that there is little motivation for people to complete missions. There are transition units in each service, as well as through the VA. Give an Hour has therapists that can help with transitions, as well as several other organizations throughout the country.

    What many people find helpful is to collaborate with a mentor — a former service member who has already transition to civilian life. If there’s someone in the current employer’s office, even better.

    Ask any future therapists before the first appointment if they have experience with military culture and transitioning into civilian life.

    Thank you for your service, sir, and best wishes on your future success!
    Yolanda Haprer, LCSW

  • Brectammi

    Brectammi

    June 28th, 2015 at 10:18 AM

    You must seek out help before this gets out of control

  • Jorge

    Jorge

    June 29th, 2015 at 6:03 PM

    That’s tough- you are so accustom to being in a go go go environment sort of feels like a let down. I get it, I have been in that same place before. It took me months and months of coming to terms with the fact that this was my life now, and even though it was what I had wanted for so long it was still hard to get into that mindset of being in civilian life again. Plus it was hard finding employment and I started to get real down on myself too, like maybe I wasn’t cut out for this.

  • Tamara

    Tamara

    July 2nd, 2015 at 10:39 PM

    This sounds so familiar! I didn’t serve active duty, but my father did and then became a DOD civilian. We lived overseas for many years. He retired in the early 90’s. In the mean time, via Facebook, many of us military brats have reconnected and there have been lengthy discussions about transitioning, the desire to move every three years or simply just to travel. Also, a big topic is relating to civilians and difficulties finding true friends with whom to really connect. That’s just a few topics. There are many Fb pages related to Brats and service members. I belong to one named, You might be a military brat if….. There is also one for people who served in the Berlin Brigade, long deactivated, and many more. I can’t tell you how many times I have read phrases such as, “I feel I am home again,” or “This page/group has made me feel normal again.” There have been tons of reunions and many people get together for smaller reunions. Maybe one of these groups would be a place to start. Also, many of my fellow Brats have also served, or are currently serving, in the military.

  • Smith

    Smith

    July 4th, 2015 at 11:29 AM

    This sort of makes me wonder if because you become so indoctrinated while in the military if leaving the service was actually a good idea for you. It sounds like you are having a very hard time adjusting to life outside of that regimen and routine so do you think that it is too late to rethink your decision?

  • Darren Haber

    Darren Haber

    July 4th, 2015 at 10:40 PM

    Excellent comments, thank you all.

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