Thursday, October 6, 2022

Veterans speak about healing the ‘Invisible Wounds of War’

Photography from the Invisible Wounds of War project's 2015 photography workshop. (Port City Daily photo / IWOWNC)
Photography from the Invisible Wounds of War project’s 2015 photography workshop. the workshop aimed to give veterans a way to express themselves, and break out of the isolation that often plagues them. (Port City Daily photo/IWOWNC)

WILMINGTON –– To say that the transition from military to civilian life is difficult is to push the boundaries of understatement.

Veterans are coming from a different world with different rules. No matter how they have served, it is likely veterans will have had experiences few – if any – civilians could understand. William Lowry served for decades, first in the Marine Corps and then in the Army; he had trouble explaining his experiences to anyone, even his own wife.

“There were things I could tell other veterans, because they understood,” Lowry said. “But my own wife, there were things I couldn’t tell her. I would just shut up the curtains. For three years, I was getting three hours of sleep a night. It took me years to tell someone I wasn’t sleeping, imagine how long it was going to take me to talk to someone about the things I felt.”

A different approach to counseling

Lowry is part of the Invisible Wounds of War project, a Wilmington-based group founded and director by Jen Johnson, a licensed counselor. The project uses writing and photography and writing workshops to help veterans express themselves, to bridge the gap between veterans and the civilian world that often isolates veterans.

William Lowry's photographic work from the Invisible Wounds of War project.. (Port City Daily photo / IWOWNC)
William Lowry’s photographic work from the Invisible Wounds of War project.. A self-portrait helped him express his feelings in a way he hoped people could understand. (Port City Daily photo/IWOWNC)

Lowry was part of the project’s first workshop series in 2015. As he explained, Invisible Wounds of War is not like traditional therapy; its goal is not to diagnosis or analyze veterans, or to force them to talk about specific incidents that may have been traumatic.

“I had been to a therapist, and it hadn’t helped me,” Lowry said. “They had me write about a specific incident that happened to the war. Bad things had happened, and some good people had been hurt. So, I did that, and it brought up some feelings, but that wasn’t really what I needed. But when I met with [Johnson], she just asked me to describe, what it would look like to be sad, or anxious.”

Lowry said his issue was not recalling – or even dealing with – a specific trauma. Instead, it was with a feeling of mistrust and isolation, a feeling that was compounded by the sense that traditional therapy put him “under a microscope.”

Working with Johnson gave Lowry the trust he needed to risk expressing himself; Johnson’s photography workshop gave him the skills to do so.

“Before I had a therapist, they would just be typing, and analyzing. And with [Johnson], she just talked to me. We just talked, so then I had trust for her,” Lowry said. “When we were working with the camera, and I could look at the pictures, I was able see, ‘That’s how that looks. That’s how hope looks. That’s how fear looks. That’s anxiety looks. That’s how love looks.’”

Lowry said he still finds himself on high alert, but his ability to push out of his isolation has improved.

“I heard people talk about wounds, you know, in war people get hurt but I realized the kind of wounds they were talking about,” Lowry said. “I’m driving down the road, it’s not like you’re driving down the road. I’m checking out everything, very aware. I’ll be at a restaurant, and I’m checking out everyone, where they’re at, what they’re doing. My wife wants me to relax and just have dinner. But that’s not how it is. Changing that will go slow. But I am able to talk to her now. To talk to my wife. I’ve been able to tell her things I wasn’t able to before.”

“People don’t understand that when a helicopter full of Marines goes down in California, it will knock me on my ass for a week.”

Many of the veterans in the Invisible Wounds of War project have benefited from being able to put into words how they feel. According to Johnson, the ability to build a narrative, to give themselves a story that makes sense, is often a crucial step in transitioning out of military life.

Life outside of service

Jennifer Brier, a former Marine, found photography was able to say what language was not. It was a crucial step in healing her psychological wounds. (Port City Daily photo / IWOWNC)
Jennifer Brier, a former Marine, found photography was able to say what language was not. It was a crucial step in healing her psychological wounds. (Port City Daily photo/IWOWNC)

Jennifer Brier, who served in the Marine Corps for 10 years, said she struggled to understand her place in the world outside of her service.

“In a lot of ways, I feel like I haven’t gotten out,” Brier said. “People don’t understand that when a helicopter full of Marines goes down in California, it will knock me on my ass for a week.”

Brier dealt with some traumatic experience in the Marines, which created a complicated relationship with her service life. Struggling with a wide range of emotions, from guilt to anxiety and many things in between, Brier found it difficult to reconcile her feelings, which made it hard to move on. These conflicting emotions pushed the boundaries of language for Brier.

“I haven’t been able to verbalize a lot things,” Brier said. “I have this delusion, I still have it, that I could go back into the service. It’s not a delusion, I guess,  I really could. I wasn’t sure what I really wanted. I was trying to put a story together, I was trying to piece together my own narrative and how I fit into it.”

For Brier, the photography class was a way around the limitations of writing.

“With photography, it helped me conceptualize things,” Brier said. “It’s harder to do writing, because there are so many barriers. I totally try to forget that people are going to read it. But with the pictures, I found a way … I felt like with photography, it was beyond language, language gets in the way. [Photography] was powerful. I feel like with photography it was a snapshot of what I was feeling, of how it is.”

For both Brier and Lowry, knowing that people would read their words and see their photographs was both intimidating and healing. Lowry said that knowing people would read his words gave him a chance to be heard without judgement.

“A person needs to be understood. I need you to listen,” Lowry said. “If you can read my words and understand, or see a photograph and understand, and accept me the way I am, than that’s healing.”

Upcoming sessions

Invisible Wounds of War will hold its 2017 writing workshop this Saturday, May 20. The photography workshop will be June 10. For registration, more information or to find out about donating to the Invisible Wounds of War, visit its website. Invisible Wounds of War operates in partnership with the Arts Council of Wilmington and New Hanover County and is made possible, in part, by grant funding from the North Carolina Humanities Council.

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