21 February 2012

The Calculus of Coming Home

This week's homework assignment for my therapist was deceivingly simple...answer the question "Why me?" with an answer more insightful than "Why not?"

I've said it before and I could say it a hundred more times. When I was 19, I volunteered to serve my country, not really understanding what I had gotten into. Seeing the military in it's most pure form (at war) made me feel like an upside down snowglobe, waiting for the fog of plastic snowflakes to settle to reveal some magnificent landscape. Reality is a total white-out right now, and I feel like someone spun me like a top and now I'm stumbling to walk in a straight line to the exit door.

Why me? Because it took drastic measures...the three days of notice, the 9 weeks of pre-deployment training, the adrenaline of being in a warzone for 6 months, the amazing people I met along the way, and the shock of reintegration into reality...for my stubborn brain to finally face some harsh realities. Realities that have been hiding for years under the treads of my Nikes, at the end of 16 digits imprinted on a piece of plastic, or at the bottom of a tall Starbuck's latte. This is happening because until last April, I maintained absolute control over nearly every detail of my life. Then suddenly I didn't...and instead of that making me furious (my own anticipated outcome), my loss of control was the most liberating thing that ever happened to me. And that made assimilating myself right into my former life not only painful but downright impossible.

It's no secret to those who know me best that I have this underlying urge to be a people-pleaser, all the while scorning such behavior in others. I guess my own act was so convincing that over the years I managed to fool myself into thinking it was genuine. Or something. I needed to be everyone's "person," their best friend and confidante. In my Air Force life, I am guilty of some covert political wrangling, carefully aligning myself with the "right people" at the "right times" without appearing (to myself) to be manipulative. It's a dirty game we all seem to play in this warped game of reality that is life as a military officer.

But at the end of the day, advice from a near stranger after four weeks at Fort Polk still makes the most sense, and has unlocked my answer to the question of "why me?" Before I met this Army officer, no one was ever brave enough to tell me that I was trying too hard, but I'm sure they noticed. Maybe it was just glaringly obvious right then, an experienced Army infrantryman watching an outsider struggling to assimilate into his world in a few short weeks. That was far beyond anything resembling my comfort zone. So I overcompensated. And he called me on it during a four hour conversation which began around midnight.

"Lisa, you have got to stop trying to prove yourself and just be yourself," he'd said to me in an exasperated voice I would only tolerate from a bonafide badass, cigarette in one hand, beer in the other, sitting on the corner of the dirt road that led to our laundry trailer. It was probably three in the morning and his words buzzed around me like mosquitoes, lingering in the humidity, their wings quivering in the otherwise noiseless night.

In my mind I was tough as nails, but in reality I was uncomfortable in my own skin, a paradox that was not lost on me in the least as I sat in my Afghan connex some six months later, where for the first time in my adult life I gave myself permission to get lost in my own head. For ten years I had been successful in the Air Force  in spite of myself, somehow convinced that the only way to stand out was if I was willing to work harder than anyone else...and I was. Every day it felt like I, the English major, was trying to solve the quadratic equation with no idea of the values of a, b or c, where x equaled happiness and, well, the calculus of life just became too overwhelming...so instead I deferred to basic math. Five miles (by foot) plus eight ounces (by mug) plus 20 milligrams (by pill) equaled a version of happy that would just have to suffice at the moment.

Why me? Because Afghanistan was somehow the math professor who spoke English instead of Russian. The equations were no longer written in the Cyrillic alphabet. And the values of a, b, and c seemed like things I would possibly understand if I could just have a little more time to study. And if I made a conscious decision to apprentice under Issac Newton or John von Neumann instead of studying with a Teacher's Assistant.

So why me? Because why not? I'm ready. I can say without a shadow of a doubt that I've lived the most honest version of my own life, but in my mind, that was only possible in Afghanistan and isn't yet attainable in reality. I can also say that in my eyes, anything that gets me just one step closer to understanding the quadratic equation for happiness is worth every bit of the struggle. And solving for x is a journey I'm ready to take.

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