Yes, yes, I know there’s an eager crowd that would gladly come at me swinging, saying, “It’s not really your deployment. You’re at home, you’re not in a tent, or traveling overseas, sweating under a plate carrier, or hot bunking it with someone you don’t even know. How dare you.”
Well, if you’ve read my work for any length of time here at MSCCN or in the MSEJ, you’ll find that I do dare. Quite regularly, in fact.
The truth of the matter is, a deployment changes your life trajectory.
You may not be in a desert, you may get to sleep in a bed, and your food choices are far more varied… but your life does change the moment your spouse leaves. And your life will continue to move in ways that you may not anticipate, appreciate, or understand, even after they come home.
Reckoning with this is part of the work of a deployment—to pretend otherwise is to underestimate the mental and physical demands of creating a life when an essential part of your life is far away, possibly in danger.
I would pick out my outfit, finish my summer reading assignments, and dream big dreams about what the school year would be like—about the person I’d be, the friends I’d make, the things I’d learn… By week two, I was grabbing a Pop-Tart on my way out the door, muttering at flashcards, and trying not to injure passersby with a backpack that could double as a doorstop.
Before a deployment, I could envision the projects I’d tackle, the friends I’d meet in my new town (which still felt prickly), and the stories I’d have to tell when we finally got to Skype or talk on the phone. I’d have a calendar that was up-to-date, send care packages and mail regularly, and make progress on my own career goals.
Sometimes this happened, though I can’t say it ever happened gracefully or without mental strife.
I completed my first semester of grad school while my spouse was deployed (followed by immediate training), made new friends in my department, and got to know locals at the farmers market each week. I also felt like I was unravelling before my own eyes more often than not.
I’ve set fitness goals (some I’ve met, some I’ve flipped off halfway through), learned how to embroider, written reams and reams of academic papers, poetry, and nonfiction chapters, traveled to Santa Fe, Nashville, and Charleston, and mourned the death of my grandmother.
There’s no one right way to get through a deployment. Plans change, people change, and you have the right to toss all the plans you made overboard in response.
You don’t have to stay the course because you said you would, or because the pre-deployment version of yourself had a list that demands checking off.
You don’t have to throw in the towel because you have a few bad nights. On a normal day, that list still makes you feel grounded, like you have somewhere to go.
All of these methods are valid, there’s not a choice in the bunch that makes you better or worse as a person. If we’re having treats, I really like salty chips… there’s something so satisfying about the crunch. And cake. Always, cake.
- Get your team together. Whether it’s a long-distance dinner Skype date with your best friend, a weekly phone call after work, or at least one gathering a month with friends who live closer to your current home, keep the lines of communication open. Build times into your life that you can lean into and count on, and know that sometimes the people you love may not be able to meet your communication needs. A good counselor or therapist can make a world of difference, I promise.
- Be honest about what you need. Sometimes you’re going to have in-person friends and family who can look at you and see you aren’t doing well (no matter how hard you try to fake it), sometimes you won’t. Regardless of your circumstances, it’s rare to be surrounded by people who can guess what you need 100% of the time. Tell someone if you need help, and let them help (I once called my neighbor to help with a rogue yellowjacket. It was fast, I wasn’t. My dog wanted to eat it, and it was getting angry.).
- Be honest about your situation. When it comes to big goals and plans, does the kind of project, job, or volunteering opportunity you’re eyeing fit into your life? If it’s something you’re really excited about and can set SMART goals for, go for it! If it’s a situation where you set the goal and then feel completely overwhelmed, take a step back and see how you can scale it into more manageable parts. Deployments bring enough stress on their own, you don’t need help in that area.
- Hope for the good days, plan for the bad ones. Good days are a gift, they make the time pass quickly. Bad days are harder to get through. When you’re having a good day, make a list of things that never fail to encourage you, restore you, and give you a sense of well-being. Put that list (and anything you might need to fulfill it) in a box, and have it ready to pull out if you’re in a funk.
I don’t think I’ll ever look back on those deployments with fondness, but I can look at them and see them for what they were. They were challenging, heartbreaking, and always taught me something. I’m grateful for the lessons, though I wouldn’t want to repeat how I got them. If you’re in the middle of what my trig teacher might call a “learning opportunity,” (her code phrase for “pop quiz”), know that I’m thinking of you and cheering you on. I believe in you, and your ability to make this experience your own.
Story by Emilie Duck