08 November 2009

Coping-- when you can't get away

"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil: For thou art with me (from Psalm 23)"

I'm not terribly religious. But this particular phrase, from this particular psalm, carries a lot of meaning for me. It didn't, really, until I saw it on a challenge coin. (Those of you who are not associated with the military, and who may have no idea what a challenge coin is, can find out more in this Wikipedia article.) I issued myself one of these coins to carry; although I'm not currently in, or about to be in, any type of combat, I know plenty about the valley of the shadow of death.

Although if I'm not religious, what's the point of carrying the words of a psalm on a coin in my pocket? A soldier-- or in my case, an airman-- often has to do dangerous and thankless things in dark, unfriendly places. Dealing with the flashbacks associated with PTSD feels a lot like that. You're alone, on guard, walking through dark places with still darker shadows. The images, the sounds, of whatever happened to you-- whatever you've seen, heard, and felt, and whatever else your mind has come up with-- they're in the valley with you, laughing and screaming and taunting you.

Sometimes, I need to get away, and I can't. Maybe it's the noise, the crowd, the pressure of meeting deadlines, the lack of sleep... whatever it is, I need something to cling to. A life preserver, if you will. Back in the day, I read a book (whose title and author are lost to time) that suggested one way to overcome a panic or anxiety attack is to assign a certain routine, repeatable motion to calm. Think in terms of mediation, or yoga-- the routine can be as simple as holding your hands in a certain way, but you can learn to associate that action with calm.

I have situations where-- no matter how badly I need to do so-- I can't just get away, light candles, and do yoga while I cleanse my spirit for an hour. I not only can't freak out, I can't leave, I can't run, I can't hide. I'm stuck. That's when I reach into my pocket, and find that Psalm 23 challenge coin. I might read it, I might not. I know the words, and sometimes I say them without speaking. Other times I read them aloud.

It's not so much that any one divine power has my back. There is a spirit, a something, that has kept me going all these years, through the bad times. It wouldn't be a reach to say that I could have ended up dead or in jail, and because I'm not, I believe there is something keeping me moving. It might just be that the spirit that walks with me is my own.

I hold onto that coin, sometimes tightly and sometimes not, and I use that action to remind myself that I will survive this. I will continue to walk through the valley, and I will come out the other side. The hounds of hell-- the abusers, the missiles, the chemicals, they all have come after me-- and while I may have stumbled, the spirit that walks with me and I, or maybe it's just me and I'm that strong, are still here.

And so, I can go on.


  1. Thank you for your service. Although I have never had PTSD, I can empathize in that I wrestled with the echoes of an armed robbery for over three months. I know, it doesn't compare, but I share some measure of understanding about taunting shadows. Hang in there. Carry on. The road is long and often dark, but on the other side of that valley is a mountain covered in sunlight.

    Again, I thank you for your service to our country.

  2. What a lovely talisman and a great idea for finding some peace in difficult circumstances.


  3. Brave. A great idea, and one that I just started implementing myself - I have a little charm my boyfriend gave me for Saint Christopher (whoever that is) that says "Protect Me". It lets me know people have my back, no matter how much college shit piles up. Kudos dude.

  4. I've always known St. Christopher as a patron of protection for those who are on a (long) journey-- and college life is certainly a journey. You can find out more about him here:


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