Just Take the Day: Mental Health Days, PTSD & Invisible Injuries
Welcome back to Coffee & Culture & even though I’m a veteran who now longer drinks coffee (I know, can’t be trusted), for todays’ lead up to the Army Birthday, I think we shall discuss PTSD, C-PTSD & how important it is to take, & talk out loud about, mental health days.
Before I talk about my own PTSD struggles, let me brag on my husband for a bit (it’s our anniversary — yes, we married on Army Birthday weekend because 4-day-weekend). He’s a retired special operations helicopter pilot (SOAR) & generally the guy everyone can agree is the coolest.
Last week, there was a day he stayed in his pajamas till 2pm — a day he couldn’t move himself off the couch, no matter how he tried to motivate himself to get into his to-do list. He looked at me sincerely around 10am & asked “what’s wrong with me today?”
We call these ‘mental health days’ in this house. Days when you have to just cancel everything & sit on the couch, or sometimes just wherever you land in a ball that day, & basically pamper yourself, because your mind is wounded & recovering from serious injuries.
Take the day.
Hubs is a badass, exactly what people think of when they say “the quiet professional”. He joined at 17, just before 9/11. He served without complaint for 20 years, & retired literally without ceremony in the midst of 2020. He’s deployed 17 times, a mix of traditional & spec ops.
If you met him, you’d be tempted to say, “well, you look just fine” as both his father & mine have said to both of us. (I agree, he does look fine 😉)
But he’s not fine. He’s lost almost 2 inches of height from neck/spine compression, he’s been shot down, he’s seen, & caused, death.
He’s 100% disabled now, & we’ve set up our lives in acknowledgement that we are a household of two 100% disabled veterans who ‘look fine’, but are dealing with some serious stuff physically — & mentally.
Most importantly, we try to talk about it, because the culture has to change.
When Hubs told his friends still on active duty — in Special Operations, still doing 14 hour days flying in combat, still seeing death, still putting themselves through things civilians can only imagine — that he got his 100% rating, they asked him how much he’d perjured himself.
“They weren’t prepared to hear the whole truth” was Hubs’ response.
He didn’t have to lie. He just had to tell the docs of the bodies he sees at night, about how we can’t celebrate the freedom we’ve fought for because the fireworks are too much. He told them about his real life.
And the truth is, we are fine…most of the time. Financially we are good (in part due to the disability money, I cannot stress this enough), physically we still have all our limbs & look ‘fine’ from the outside. If we didn’t tell you were disabled veterans, you’d never imagine.
all the things we don’t say often: that we both struggle to sleep; that it’s hard to play with our kid for long because we are so structurally damaged; that we never know which day we are going to wake up with the weight of memories so strong it’s literally immobilizing.
“Take the day”, we’ll say to each other, on the days we know are ‘the bad ones’ — & we try to help each other with that, treating it just like we would if the other half woke up with the flu, a burning fever, or a crippling migraine — because that’s just what it’s like, so often.
In many ways, we’re lucky, because outsiders believe we ‘have the right’ to have PTSD & C-PTSD, we don’t have to defend our mental injuries, like so many others do, struggling with their invisible injuries & illnesses silently & alone, afraid to speak about it because of others.
My journey with understanding PTSD & “complex-PTSD” has been long & painful, & I’m still only beginning.
Let’s start with some facts & definitions:
1) You are more likely to suffer PTSD from sexual assault than from combat
2) They don’t know yet why some people get PTSD & others don’t
3) Complex-PTSD is when you have unresolved trauma from your earlier life, that is retriggered
That number 3 is so important — because we are all well aware that the military heavily recruits people from troubled pasts. Often, our pasts are bad enough that it just doesn’t take much to trigger a massive trauma response, & it’s not always connected to the ‘bad parts’ of war.
I had my first triggering events when I was 24, deployed for the first time. This is crucial to understand, because I grew up as a child in a religious sex cult — AND I THOUGHT I WAS FINE
In truth, I seemed fine to everyone, even myself, for a full decade after I escaped. I wasn’t.
On my first deployment, the triggers abounded. Areas called rape alley, my boss telling me I’d “probably be raped during deployment”, actually being raped during deployment. And, of course, combat missions & losing close friends. Most importantly, trauma was exacerbated by not being able to leave, to gain back control of my life, in any way.
Through 2 deployments, while I struggled to maintain my own sanity, I put my concerns aside, working harder, running faster, ranking higher & higher, determined that I was fine, mind over matter and all that jazz.
I wasn’t fine, but I couldn’t talk about that with anyone.
When I finally started to crack, it came physically, not mentally. Your trauma will find a way to make you stop, to slow you down. You simply cannot power through mental health, I know, I tried.
I was medically evacuated from combat with all physical symptoms of a brain tumor.
When I got to Landstuhl, the surgeon who had the table prepped to operate, then didn’t find a tumor, asked me a question:
“What is going on in your unit that you showed up here with every symptom of a brain tumor.”
It was the right question to ask (more in the book).
Because I had never ‘taken the day’ (how could I, as an active duty officer?), instead, I had to take over a year. I still have migraines that shut me down as easily as I power down my television when my kid is done watching. I don’t get a vote, I have to take the day.
Nobody understands trauma yet, not really. I’ve had amazing care, both physical & mental, but often the doctors are still stumped. There’s no physical reason the veins in my head are a minefield, that I’m now allergic to foods I ate for years, & that the simplest things can hurt.
But, I’ve learned that what we can do is talk about it. Part of what you learn when you write a memoir, or share your own story in any way, is that you aren’t alone (trust me, I have been told I have the most unique story by many people, & still, I’m not alone). Others suffer too.
When we share our stories, we find those others. When we talk about our trauma, others feel safe to talk about their traumas too. You have no idea who around you is suffering from invisible injuries — that’s why they are invisible.
When you share your struggles, the responses won’t always be good, especially when you are first learning to talk about it.
I had a senior officer ask me “with your background, why did you ever think you could be a leader in the Army?” as though relating to soldiers with trauma & complex pasts isn’t a crucial skill to have.
You will have people belittle your struggles, or give you ‘advice’ that just hurts more. You may even have the people who should be the closest to you not support you at all.
But you’ll also start to find the rest of us — those of us who can never make the memories go away, but can start to help you learn how to live with the scars.
You’ll find people to call the day all you can do is get out of bed & make it to the stairs, where you just lie for hours, because you just can’t… you just can’t….
You’ll find those of us who won’t try to talk you out of suicidal ideology, the way those lucky enough to never have visited those depths will. We’ll just sit with you, maybe even hold you, while you battle those special demons.
You can rest assured that if you lose that battle, we’ll be the ones that remember you, that honor you just the same.
So, on this Army birthday, please remember that your injuries are not something that you need to apologize for. Receiving disability compensation is not ‘working the system’ & ‘others who need it more’ are not getting more help just because you are refusing it for yourself.
And most importantly, this Army birthday, I’d love to encourage you to stop suffering in silence. Scars aren’t only painful memories, they are signaling gear that help you to find others like you. Scars can be beautiful out in the light.
Mental health days are important, & invisible injuries are just as real as any others. We’re here, we’ll support you, we’ll even stop by & bring you soup, wine, (or maybe a little THC, depending on where you live) while you ‘take the day.’
Daniella Mestyanek Young is an American author and TEDx Speaker. Daniella has been breaking through barriers and challenging authority figures since her earliest childhood memories growing up in the horrifying Children of God Cult and on through her service and deployment to war twice. Daniella served as part of the first group of women who integrated into deliberate combat arms missions back in 2011 and has since spent the majority of her time leading in veteran service organizations to try and help folks heal and find their own definition of success after their service.
Daniella is married to the world’s best special operations helicopter pilot (retired) and speaks primarily in Brazilian Portuguese with her daughter, who sasses her back in three languages. Daniella is currently at work on her memoir, Uncultured. She can be found speaking speaking truth to power, irritating vetbros and stamping out the kyriarchy on Twitter @daniellamyoung.