I have to admit that I’m a relative newcomer when it comes to walls and vets putting them up to keep me and others out. You see, I’m a people person. Always have been, so when I hurt I gravitate toward people for comfort. I want to talk through my pain, and I want to be held and be told it will be okay. Occasionally, I may need a bit of quiet to think, but that doesn’t last long. Then a couple years ago, a soldier I was journeying with, not as a therapist but as his friend, put up a wall that I thought was to keep me out. I was taken aback by his actions. You see, I had been helping him a lot and thought that we had built trust between us, so the first time he put up this wall and shut me out, I was confused. The second time I was hurt and angry. After several times of him doing this, I was ready to walk out. Then I realized something. His walls were not to wall me out, but to wall himself in. That revelation changed everything for me.
Walls are often protection for those who’ve been through trauma, because to allow people to get too close means that the person who is hurting can be hurt again. Walls allow the vet to hide inside his own head, away from anyone who could hurt, or even help him. A wall can keep emotions at bay so they don’t have to be acknowledged or dealt with. My friend’s walls usually started with him not caring. “I don’t give a f***” was what I heard first. I would try to talk with him about why he should care, but rarely did that work. And then the wall went up. Sometimes it would last a couple of days, and sometimes a week. He doesn’t live near me, so his walls consisted of him just stopping responding to my text messages or phone calls. He was never mean to me, just absent from me.
I’ve learned a lot about walls from the “waller’s” point of view, and from my “wallee’s” view. First, the wall is not about me, the wallee. The walls are the waller’s way to protect himself when things get to be so stressful or complicated, he cannot cope. Or they go up when he is hurting in some way and cannot trust, and he cannot be with people who care about him or be with anyone for that matter. There are just too many things for him to face and too many things going on in his head. The wall shuts everything out, including people who want to be there for him.
The second thing I’ve learned is that the walls don’t have to be a permanent part of the vet’s life. Vets can learn to take down their walls and deal with what is causing them to wall themselves in and others out. When I see a wall going up, I’m often reminded of President Reagan’s famous line in his speech at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Walls go up and they can come down. Sometimes, like with President Reagan, it takes a bit of persuasion (i.e. therapy) to get a wall to come down. If you find yourself walling yourself in and others out on a regular basis, it is time to get help.
Finally, the most important thing I’ve learned as a friend and therapist about these walls is that no matter how high the wall is, there is a person behind that wall who is hurting and I believe, occasionally peeking out to see if someone is still waiting on the other side of the wall. With my friend, I would continue to check in each day with him. While he wasn’t ready to talk with me yet, I think he wanted to know I was still there, and that my promise to journey with him, no matter what, was still in effect.
My friend is doing much better managing his PTSD so the walls have become less, or if they go up, he leaves a window cracked just a bit. We can now joke about his Great Wall of China. However, I am also not so naive to think that his walls will not go up again. I’ve journeyed with him long enough, and have worked with enough other vets, to know that the wall is always at the ready when needed. But I’m better prepared now.
If you are a vet who puts up walls and you want to talk, you can always message us and we’ll be there for you. We understand walls, but we also understand the need to talk in a safe, nonjudgmental environment, in order to help you take down your wall.