Would You Take a Bullet for Me?
by Kristine Otero
Would you take a bullet for me? It really is this simple. It really is this black and white. It should not be, it is irrational, it is likely not fair, but it is how my PTSD brain operates in that it can concurrently catastrophize and oversimplify. Obviously, I would never ask someone this question, it is bizarre and does not make sense in the civilian mind. Until recently, I did not understand why I could not relate to my family, why I felt no emotional attachment to them. It was after the ten thousandth conversation in which I was berated for being cold and detached that I really sat down to think. The result may not be pretty, it may not be conducive to what many deem healthy relationships, but in its simplest form, this is the question I ask myself that allows me to allow others in. So, would you take a bullet for me?
When I left the army I thought I had left everything that it was, behind. Slowly I began to realize that there were aspects that altered my worldview that I did not let go of, that help to serve in many ways as my moral compass, and my ability to relate to others. Nicely packaged in a way that people think they understand, it could be said that I kept the army values. I live a principle driven life, loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage make up the core of who I try to be. However, I do not believe that these principles can be nicely packaged, or understood across the board, because they mean something different to everyone. In action, my loyalty looks different than yours.
When I took off the nice packaging and I stopped trying to explain myself or make excuses for my inability to relate to my blood relatives, it was really simple. These people, they are just people, they are a part of “everyone” and I cannot relate to them because I do not believe that they would take a bullet for me. Mother, father, brother, sister, these are titles that hold no substance to me anymore. They are just words. The person attached to the title does not automatically get my respect or loyalty because of it. In my broken brain, these titles are the same as Uber driver, neighbor, and grocery store clerk. It sounds so detached, so heartless. It feels like an admission of something shameful, but I am not ashamed. I have love for my nuclear family, it is unconditional, but it is diminutive, and there is no loyalty attached to it. I love them because of who they once were to me. When I see them, I try to see the relationship that we used to have, and appreciate them for those years. So many times I have wished myself normal, I have wished that I could have blind loyalty and respect for my family members. I have wished that I could ignore the fact that they would not take a bullet for me, and just love them.
This thought process is messy and depends on several variables. First, to love, and allow myself to be loved, I have to trust. To trust, I must have been shown at some point a level of loyalty that would create the belief that an individual would take a bullet for me. More than this, actions must parallel words. If actions are not reflective of words, a person cannot be trusted. However, if trusted, the prize is my love, my respect and my loyalty. Even with this perfect set of circumstances it does not make the relationship unconditional. These traits demonstrated to one another must continuously be nurtured, or the relationship will break, and the individual will only be a title. I do not presume that the nature of relationships is supposed to be this black and white, or hard lined, but in my PTSD brain it makes sense. In many ways, I think the way I view this one topic, is both a coping skill and a defense mechanism.
By taking the hard line and literally creating a family out of whether or not people would die for me, I am doing a few things. I am reducing the number of people in my life to only those that I trust fully, I do not have acquaintances. I do not have space for people if there is no trust. Those few that I can trust get everything from me, they get the very best of me, the very worst of me, the most honest me, and I love them with my whole heart. Most times, this is good, but it can be a detriment and a heavy burden when I am having bad days. This makes relationships that much more valuable to me, knowing that an individual is willing to love without judgement on hard days. This line of thinking as a defense mechanism is very effective at keeping out guilt, shame, and familial obligation. I truly do not care what the world thinks of me. I cannot be convinced to do anything out of guilt or obligation because a person has a title such as mother or brother.
With this understanding, who does this leave me? Who does this leave any of us suffering from detachment issues or an inability to relate, or simply tolerate? I do have a family, and I consider myself very lucky for this group of individuals that would take a bullet for me, and I for them. My immediate family is small, and consists of the matriarch, a blood relative, my cousin and her three children. My animals are also in my immediate family. My two dogs and my two cats have every bit of my unwavering loyalty and love. Everyone in my immediate family loves with their whole hearts, and without judgement.
I have a larger extended family that consists of brothers and sisters from the army, those that have literally proven that they will take a bullet for me. I also have friends that have remained constant. These individuals knew me before my brain became broken, and have continued to love me in spite of it. They have proven themselves loyal even on bad days, and because of it, we are family.
It can be painfully obvious to our loved ones that we are no longer their daughter, granddaughter, wife, girlfriend, sister, or friend. We look the same, but the soul that peers back at them through our eyes is different. Where does this leave them? These are all really good and highly debated questions, illusive and open ended. I will not speculate on the “healthy” ways to help a detached veteran. I will not say that what anyone is currently doing for them is wrong or right. I will not say that trying to relate on their level will help. From my perspective I do feel that education on the how combat related PTSD can manifest, might provide some insight into what a loved one may be going through. I do not think that it is possible to ever fully understand, so please do not try and get to that point, or set that as a goal. In fact, understanding is not at all what this is about. How can our loved ones understand, when we ourselves do not?
From a personal standpoint there are ways in which my blood relatives could do more good than the current harm they constantly punch me with. For instance, phrases like, “You are a weird one,” “You are just different,” “You are colder now,” “You should be more understanding,” and the very best of the worst, “Everybody has problems” tell me one thing, these people do not know me. These phrases only serve as affirmation that I should not divulge anything about myself, it would not be safe, and I cannot trust them.
There are also judgements thrown at me. “You make bad decisions,” “You are reckless,” “You pay too much attention to your dogs.” I can assure you that although I may make some bad decisions, which is subjective, I am not reckless. My life choices may come across as erratic or unplanned, but what people do not know is that my PTSD brain actually has plans A,B,C, and D and many “what if” scenarios already thought out. I do not act in haste, only those that would take a bullet for me are included in my planning phase, and approval is never required.
Believe this, I judge myself much harsher than anyone ever could. I constantly wonder what is wrong with me. I wish that I could love without hesitation. I want to want to spend holidays with others. I want to share my thoughts. I want to trust. I am forced to ask myself what it would take to engage more, to divulge more, and to trust more freely. It always comes back to the simplicity of whether or not I believe you would take a bullet for me.
It is my belief that there is a change that occurs at the core which guides the detachment, and becomes viewed as an inability to relate to those that we once loved without question. What differs is the way it manifests in each veteran, their thought process and altered worldview. I do not speak for the veteran community but hope that my PTSD brain, and my hard lined theory on the differentiation of family versus “everyone else” will resonate or help someone. I truly believe that the process of healing, understanding and valuing who we are today begins with forgiveness of ourselves. For me, it was a long lonely, guilt ridden road, but today I do forgive myself, and I accept myself. I know that although I do not feel an emotional attachment to many, or have a family that I feel obligated to, I am not a monster.
If I could speak freely to my nuclear family this is what I would say.
Firstly, do not speak with judgement or assumption about who you think I am. I do not need instant trust, but reserve the judgments made surrounding my decisions, and allow them to unfold before proclaiming that I am reckless. Listen when I speak. Truly listen. Do not work on a counter point to what I am saying, that can be spit out or argued the moment my train of thought ends. Treat me with respect for the adult that I have become, instead of handling me like a broken child. Mirror the behaviors you wish to see in me, because this helps build trust. Do what you say you will do. If you say you will be there for me, be there for me. If you say you love you unconditionally, stop putting condition on it in practice. If you do not understand me or something I am going though, admit it. I do not need you to understand, I only need you to act with compassion. Do not get offended when I do not share aspects of my life with you. I am not comfortable discussing hard days or bad days, because my PTSD brain tells me that you will judge me, and you will think I am a failure. I would never admit defeat to you, no matter how much I trust you. Respect my animals. You do not have to like them, but you should know that they are truly my sanity. Lastly, stop taking all of my decisions as a slight against you. I am a grown up, I make the best decisions I can for myself and what you might think of them never occurs to me.
While it may not look like it from your vantage point, I really do try my best. I may not be great at being a family member, but I think that overall, I am a pretty decent person. I am very ethical, I do have a set of morals that I adhere to at all times, and if given the chance, I am very capable of showing love. The way I love is not through blind obligation, but rather through loyalty. Even if you do not know what is going on in my life, I assure you that I do. I do not live by my diagnosis of PTSD, but I respect it, and the limitations that it creates in my life. I encourage you to do the same. Please know that when you look at me with pity and judgement wishing for the old me to come back, I would never want that for myself. I am proud of the person that I have become. Through every struggle and hard day I learn and I grow. When you are willing to accept this version of me, I would love for you to get to know me again. If that time never comes, know that I do love you for the people you once were to me.
Kristine Otero was born and raised in Denver, Colorado. She joined the Army at the age of 22 and served on active duty Army from 2003-2007, including two deployments to Iraq. In 2007 she joined the Texas National Guard and served two years before being honorably discharged. She has an undergraduate degree in psychology, and is working on a master’s degree in public administration.