Within the Tragedy Assistance Program for survivors, the TAPS Red Team works with groups of veterans who’ve been impacted by the loss of their brothers and sisters to suicide.
I was recently talking to one of the leaders of 2/7 Marines. He made the comment, “I have never known a veteran – especially a combat veteran – who didn’t occasionally have thoughts about suicide.” In saying this, he confirmed something I’ve observed over a decade of frontline clinical work with veterans. Once a person trusts me as his or her “doc,” almost inevitably, they would talk about struggles with suicidal thinking (their “demons”) at different times in their life. And this is not unique to veterans – I observed the same thing when working with civilian patients years before I started working with veterans.
Yet we somehow think suicidal thoughts are unusual. What would happen if we shifted our understanding to integrate the insight that occasional suicidal thoughts are a relatively common part of the human experience? What if we realized all of us – civilians and veterans alike – have ears that can hear the slippery, silver-tongued, wheedling voices of despair during times in our lives that are perfect storms of physical, mental, and emotional pain?
If thoughts like these are more common than we think, what can we do? This is where the tribe, much like Team Rubicon creates through continued service, can be life-saving. (Of course, therapy with a trusted professional can also be life-saving and may be necessary in some cases, but in my view, these supports can run parallel because a good doc can become an extension of one’s tribe.)
There are certain thoughts that can hollow us out over time, like the fox who quietly ate the midsection of the boy of Sparta. But the thing about these kinds of thoughts is they lose their power when they’re brought into the safe space of the tribe.
Imagine this: A person feels suffocating guilt for the impact his drinking behavior has had on his family. This person can either hold these feelings alone – like the fox in his gut – or he can bring them to the tribe. Imagine the result if he took this to the tribe and said something like, “I feel so guilty that I was drinking for the early years of my kids’ lives. It really damaged our trust and I don’t know if I can ever make it right.”
If you, as a Greyshirt with Team Rubicon, can imagine him saying this during a fire circle at the end of a deployment, then you can also hear the voices of your fellow Greyshirts, right? What kinds of things might they say? Listen closely as the voices of your peers drown out the voice of despair. That is the power of the tribe. It can protect us from being ambushed by the voices of our demons. The tribe is the army at your back that dispels the voices of despair.
I am honored to be a part of this Tribe. See you in the field.