The day that marked the end of your service has come and gone. You might have served a short term or invested most of your prime into the military, but now you are back on native soil. You anticipated the challenges of separation and transitioning back into civilian society after military life as a veteran. But now you need to ask yourself: have you truly separated yourself from the military, or are you just pretending you did?
Answer me this: Do you still bark orders at everyone around you, whether they served in the military or not? Do you continually subordinate your family to your job, working 80 hours a week or more every week, as if you were still on deployment or getting ready to be? Do you continue to rigorously workout for missions, ignoring or exacerbating injuries, even though the only one you now have is surviving an evening at the grocery store? Do you consume a meal without tasting any of it?
Here is a veteran who hasn't really worked on separation, out for a leisurely stroll.
You know that by now. Casting off the influences of a military lifestyle is ever harder, because that time in the military is part of who you are now. But so many veterans continue to let these influences control them, disengaging themselves from the civilian experience.
Certain behaviors indicate lower degrees of separation, such as:
Isolating yourself or withdrawing from life may be a sign that you haven't fully separated.
The vast majority of veterans have no idea how to truly separate themselves from the military. Many continue to live in their past, and the stigmas of therapy or other self-care follow them into civilian life. Unfortunately, in order to move on and make the most of today, you need to learn how to differentiate yourself from those previous experiences.
I am not saying, “Completely erase the experiences you had in military from your mind.” There are many qualities you have as a veteran that should be retained and should be judiciously applied. Instead I ask you to try this: can you accept that military life is different from civilian life, and that now your ability to thrive and live well depends on your ability to assimilate into this new culture? Can you maintain your core self and the things that make you great while shedding those military habits that are holding you back? Can you live life fully while acknowledging some of the discomfort that comes with doing so?
In order to truly live well as a civilian, you need to let go of that past. Otherwise, you cannot live in the present. Sticking to the same habits you had in the military is a coping mechanism, because you never learned what “separation” actually meant.
So how do you differentiate yourself from your past in the service to become more involved in civilian life?
You have already taken the first step of acknowledging the issue—that your military experiences are clashing, not meshing, with your current situation. What you need to do now is begin to understand why you revert back to these militant behaviors or never left them behind to begin with. For example, do these behaviors and actions comfort you in some way? Is there some critical voice in your mind harassing you with every move? A qualified therapist and a few close friends and family can help you work through those things.
Addressing those voices and habits is the first step. It’s difficult for anybody to change those habits because the change itself represents the death of your old life. The fact remains that you are no longer in the military. You have to grieve that loss or it will haunt you.
Once you have freed yourself from those influences, you will have the space to develop you. You had interests, goals, and values you couldn’t pursue while in the military. Live your life according to those, not just the ones the military instilled in you. Pursue what you enjoy doing, not just what you are told to do or what you think others expect you to do. Savor sensations. Do not just process them and move on.
True separation from the military means differentiating yourself from those behaviors ingrained during your service. Use those traits and skills when they are advantageous, but do not forget to return to what matters: you—and your continued growth and success throughout life. By engaging in this process of self-discovery, you can enhance your life with your past instead of getting dragged down by it.