That Dark Cloud

That Dark Cloud October 14, 2010

I have put off writing about this because I know how you people are, you’ll freak out and start worrying. And frankly, I don’t want to worry you; I only want to alert you.

I wasn’t going to write it at all but I saw something on a friend’s Facebook post tonight that alarmed me. I call this fellow a friend although we’ve never met. We’ve never even had a phone coversation. I don’t know what he looks like. I don’t know what he sounds like. If I saw him on the street, I wouldn’t recognize him. Hopefully, he’d recognize me and speak first.

He’s from England so I’m pretty sure the minute he opened his mouth I’d know him. I’d probably say something like, “OH! My veteran friend!”

He introduced himself to me on Facebook through a veteran I do know.  A veteran whose voice I recognize when he calls. A veteran who traveled to Vietnam with me in 2003.

I’ve been taking a hiatus of sorts from social media. I check in but that’s about all. I’m not doing that for any particular moral reason. I’ve been otherwise occupied and not at my computer writing like usual. And there’s that other reason, the one I didn’t want to tell you about.

But tonight I logged into Facebook and was reading through those status updates and saw his post: I am a former solider who is lost. PTSD has ruined my life.

I checked back over his site and saw that six hours previously he had written: That dark cloud is coming.

I knew exactly what dark cloud he was talking about. Just yesterday I’d sent a friend a note and called my sister, and told them the same thing — That dark cloud is back.

The first time I noticed that I suffered from a “season of mourning” was 1998. I had started work on the family memoir, After the Flag has been Folded. What I remember is how I would shut the kids out of the bedroom, and curl up on the bed and weep uncontrollably. I thought it was just a culmination of other things — jobs, kids, marriage.

My doctor gave me something to take the edge off, to lessen the anxiety. Nobody called it Post-Traumatic. I’ve never been to war, after all. I’ve never suffered real trauma. I have family members who don’t even believe in PTSD. They think people make this stuff up so that they can get  others to feel sorry for them or so they can bilk the government out of their own tax dollars. Go figure.

The weeping stopped eventually and I returned to my happy sunshiney self.

Until it came back the next year.

And the next.

And the next.

I learned to recognize it. I could chart it like a menstrual period. October. The cloud. The knowledge that this was the season when my father was due to return home from Vietnam. Only he didn’t. Not like planned.

Before the memoir came out, I started spending every Veterans Day at the Vietnam Memorial Wall in D.C. I made a lot of friends there. I started looking forward to Veterans Day. It felt like a family reunion of sorts. My birthday is the day afterwards. Birthdays had never been much fun but the veterans I met did their best to make mine special. It helped to ease the dread of the day and that old familiar loneliness. My birthday, it seemed, always had me stuck on age 9.

I was so busy those first few years after the memoir came out, and so many wonderful friendships were built as a result of that book, that honestly I thought the season of mourning would never revisit me again. I thought I’d been cured of it by writing my way through it.

But then the other day that dark demon came upon me once again and this time it brought friends. Lots of them. I told my sis that I was crying so hard I didn’t think I would ever stop.

I’ve cried like that only a handful of times in my life  — when my father died, when I first visited the Vietnam Wall, when my buddy and fellow veteran friend Gordon passed, and when my girlfriend The Redhead died.

I know many of you have your own seasons of mourning. I hate that for you. I know that loneliness.

I find it hard to be around people when I’m in a season of mourning. I try not to avoid people but I can be irritable and unpleasant to be around, so a lot of  the time people will avoid me. I don’t hold it against them. I know this is a season and that it, too, will pass. Sometime after Veterans Day, after my birthday, the skies will clear and I’ll have enough focus to write coherently again. I know that laughter, not sobs, will fill my throat once more.

But meanwhile, it’s just hard. Dark. Lonely. Sad. And try as I might I cannot will my way through this. I have come to accept the crying. I don’t apologize for it. I refuse to apologize for it. Tears are part of living. Sometimes the sweetest part.

My friend Gordon once said that he hated to cry about Vietnam. And I replied, “If war isn’t worth crying over, Gordon, what is?”

Now I cry because I miss Gordon.

And The Redhead.

And my father.

And I cry for all the life they’re missing out on.

But tonight, I’m crying for my friend in the UK whom I’ve never met.

This online stuff scares me. What is a person to do when somebody writes that the dark cloud is upon them again? Or that they are a veteran suffering from PTSD?

I wrote to my buddy in the UK and asked him, what’s wrong? How can I help? Did he have someone there? Was he in touch with other veterans? I urged him to talk to somebody.

He wrote back: “I am not very good on the phone. One of my big problems I worry about others more than I do about myself. So I find it hard to reach out for help. I am one of those ex-servicemen who have found it hard to adjust to not being in the service. That is after 20 years. I see very few people I have become a Hermit. I’m off work due to my problems. I am 60 and no long sure what to do.”

I know lots of men and women just like this fellow. My friend Joe Galloway is a military correspondent. There is no help for PTSD  for war reporters. Joe was in battle with those men in the Ia Drang. The next few months is a season of mourning for Joe, too.

Chances are you know a veteran or two yourself. Or a military family. Like me, they don’t want you to make a fuss over them. I’m just telling you this so you’ll be aware. Suicide among our veterans is high. Pay closer attention to those in your circle. Be a better listener. If you pray, pray more.

They don’t really need you to fix them. They don’t need advice. They just need someone to sit with them through the long darkness that stretches out before them. Somebody who will say, Hey buddy, I’m here, right beside you. I’ve got your back.

The way any good soldier or good friend would.

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  • jaz

    There are more people sitting beside them (and alongside you) in that long darkness than they’ll ever know.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Yes, I agree. I know that’s true because everytime I write about this people respond with stories of their own long nights.

  • Steve Taylor

    Karen, this is to you from me as a way of thanks from all of “us.” Especially “us” that have not yet discovered that we can say “thank you.”

    In the Wilderness … You Are (by: Steve Taylor)

    Oh Lord,
    In the wilderness, we journey.
    That place of pain and sorrow and suffering,
    That place of heartache and darkness …

    In the wilderness, the whole of the human family must dwell,
    and yet, the wilderness must forever be a personal place …
    where in some way, no one can reach us,
    where in some way, we bear our own burden,
    where in some way, there is always a bit of darkness.

    Are you there, Lord?
    In that place? In the aloneness?
    In my pain? In our suffering?

    Are you there, Lord?

    Sometimes, it doesn’t feel that way.
    Sometimes, it just doesn’t seem so.

    And yet, in the mystery, You Are.
    In the silence, you speak … if only in a whisper.
    In the shadow, you dwell … if only in a silhouette.
    In the darkness, you shine … if only in a spark.
    In death, you live … if only in a promise.
    In the ending, you begin … if only in an eternity.

    In the incomprehensible,
    you love … bearing all, believing all,
    hoping all, enduring all.

    Lord of our tears,
    In the wilderness … with us.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Thank you, Steve. I love this reminder of God’s faithfulness yet the awareness that for each of us the wilderness is a personal place.

      • Steve Taylor

        So to be a bit more clear … “us vets.”

        • Karen Spears Zacharias

          Yeah, I knew what you meant,

  • Debbie W

    The month of May used to be my ‘dark cloud’ time from say about 12 years old till 31 – I started to see the pattern after a while too and wondered why it happened then one year I realised that was the month when I was taken from my dad and given back to my mum and I was never allowed to grieve. I haven’t suffered for a long time now and I just out it down to the fact that once I began to grieve and not apologise for it each year got a little lighter. I am reading Anne Lamott’s ‘Travelling Mercies’ at the moment and she has said two things today that have left me just savouring her words. The first was after her best friend Pammy died of breast cancer at age 31 and she grieved deeply the loss of her friend she talked about allowing herself to do that and she discovered grief gave her two best things: softness and illumination. The other thing she said I have only just read prior to cruising FB and then coming over to your blog. She was speaking about when she first started going to church and a while later she confessed that she was two months pregnant – going it solo – and how all the women just cheered and fussed over her and then started to buy her things and how they continually would slip her money, one regular giver was an 82 year old black lady who would regularly bring her sandwich bags full of coins – she said at first she felt shame but then she realised how these people were very intent on making her and her child a part of their family and she remembered a line from Blake – that we are here to learn to endure the beams of love. I can’t stop thinking about that last sentence. I think about how in my own wounded heart I want to hibernate and steer clear of others I don’t even go to a gathering of believers anymore because I always felt more judged than loved, yet Blake’s words haunt me – I often feel guilty because I am not out there loving on others the way Jesus says I should and maybe just maybe it is because I have given up on accepting love from others. I find it very difficult to reach out when I need. After my last relationship fell apart from his lies and all the crap I really felt like something broke inside me and I don’t know how to put it back together – maybe I am not meant to – maybe I am to allow others to love me and I won’t find that gift by sitting in my house just raising my kids. I don’t totally isolate – I can mix in with a crowd and I go to events at the child’s school but I don’t let anyone in anymore. Yet when the dark cloud hits full on it is the hardest thing to put yourself out there – I will pray for your friend yet I do long for a day when I could bravely knock on his door and ask if he’d like me to sit with him. I just read another story of a woman who decided on ‘loving’ those in her estate and she helped an old man in with his shopping and stayed for a cuppa and as she was leaving he started to cry and she wondered if she had said something to upset him and he told her it was the first time in fifteen years someone had stayed and visited in his home. I think that nun who helped all those poor people in India – I can’t think of her name right now – anyway I think she was right when she said loneliness is the true poverty.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Debbie: Isn’t it funny how long it takes us to recognize the patterns? I think our lives don’t allow for the sort of reflection such reconitions require.
      I love Anne Lamott. She is coming to Bend next month and I’m going to hear her. Wish you could come go with. I remember well her story of how the ladies of that community loved on her and Sam.
      I don’t think we have any idea, any idea, how many people are like that elderly gentleman who has waited 15 years for someone to sit with him.
      Funny story, tho, I have a friend who is helping an elderly gentleman. He’s 80. She’s 50. And he’s repeatedly asked her to marry him, despite the fact that she already is .. ah, loneliness manifest itself in a myraid of ways.

      • Debbie W

        Oh I would dearly love to come to Bend and see Ms Lamott with you. If you get to chat to her tell her she has very much encouraged a single mother on the other side of the world. I may seek out some of her novels next.

  • Diane

    You’ll be in my thoughts and prayers and your veteran friend in the UK.

  • Samantha Clough

    Thank you so much for having the courage to write about this. I’ve been experiencing the return of my own dark cloud, as have some of the veterans I know. Please know I’m here if you need an ear to listen or a shoulder for support. Remmember, “this too shall pass”. We’ll get through.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Sam: Bittersweet is the only word that comes to mind. Good to remember and hard to forget. And so many of those veterans dealing with so much — young and old. Hard to watch another generation of military families struggle.

  • Karen Spears Zacharias
  • Praying for you, friend.
    I am somehow still always astonished by how many people deal with this issue…most of us, at one time or another, I think.

    Thinking of you and sending you a hug. XO

  • pep

    Thanks for your honesty and candor. It really is a fresh cup of cold water for me. Today especially. Your thoughts and the comments of others are so refreshingly honest. What a relief!!!

  • Karen, you and your veteran friend are in my thoughts, and are not alone. There’s no silver lining, but thank God the sun always returns. Always.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Tony: Exactly the sort of remarks I’d expect from someone living in the Sunshine state. Thank you. Yes. There is always the Gulf Coast to remind me that even though the oil slick comes and the hurricane follows, there is always sunshine.

  • Karen, you are loved by so many people! Prayers for you and a hug my friend.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Gary: I am indeed. I’m living a life well-loved. Though bear in mind that as a journalist and an opinionated woman, I have my fair share of nay-sayers too. You, however, are the journalist everyone loves!

      • Kind of you to say – I’m not “all that” though. Love ya!

  • Karen:
    Thanks for writing. But first of all, thanks for feeling. Even that which feels at times like nothing but chronic numbness. Before we Caucasians took their culture apart, Lakota people had a description for certain members of their circle: two souls people. While Lakotas applied that understanding to something different, I’ve always found it very useful in coming to terms with the changing winds and tides of my soul. It might help to ponder that the literal translation of the term psychology is something like “that which is known, said and taught about the soul or spirit of a person.”

    Depression nearly ended my life 25 years ago. I know darkness so deep that it sometimes completely obscured light. I also know some other cloudiness that doesn’t really have to do with depression at all. It is a kind of grieving and mourning, a re-experiencing of something that has deeply cut the heart and the hope. In some ways it is a revisit of a page of history, a burden carried, a wound that has become a part of me, scar tissue of the soul. It is sometimes even a deeply empathetic sharing of the trials and pain of other human beings.

    To experience these flavors of living is, I have come to know, no longer a sign of derangement on my part. They come to visit, but they do not own or control me any longer. I have learned to name them, to accept them as friends and family who live some distance away and only occasionally visit. Out of these, I have learned to extract the words I string together into memorial poems for veterans, family members, the homeless addicts who each year die peacefully or violently under our bridges and in our doorways.

    For the few brief minutes that I read words heard aloud for the first and often only time each Memorial Day at Oregon’s Garden of Solace (Vietnam memorial), I most often dig for a year or more as an archaeologist would through feelings, emotions, images. They become a part of me, incubate and eventually come to some kind of birth. Each year as we pass January 1, the early stages of labor begin. Sometimes it peaks in March. Sometimes it extends until May 23 or 25, practically the AM of Memorial Day itself.

    Depression can lead to despair and debilitation. We have to be careful and aware of that. Revisiting a time or figurative place of grieving, mourning, intense feeling can also be a therapeutic way of relieving a burden that has been quietly building when we are quite unaware. These detours are not dead ends. So often they lead to new vision and a way to experience life more fully, more deeply. We inherit a gift to give our fellow human beings a more timeless perspective on all that we do or contemplate doing in the world.

    I’d wager that perhaps 90% of the art and music worth savoring and saving in this world has come out of the crucible commonly moistened with tears. Psalm 30 rejoices in mourning turned into dancing. But Lamentations also recognizes dancing that has collapsed into mourning. God is present in both, in all. Live them fully. Live them well. Create. Live. God is always faithful. We are not alone. So our stories continue. Prayers for your journey.


    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      I so wish every single town had it’s own wailing wall and that we made it a practice to go there and minister to one another everyday.

      Seems to me that the online constructs understand better than the local communities do that we need a place to commune with one another in times of sorrow and in times of joy. Wal-Mart just doesn’t do it for me. And neither does a church service because you don’t really commune there — you just gather. There’s a difference between the two.

      • Church… just gather… Hmmmm… You’re onto something here.

        Two years ago, I had a friend (very active in Portland’s Imago Dei Community) look over the draft of a cute little flyer w/ color pix that I had put together for an outreach project. I thought it was neat, but he looked at it and said, “It looks like every other ‘happy church’ flyer I’ve ever seen. It turns me off.” I couldn’t have paid big dollars for a more accurate assessment. He was right on.

        To be sure, if Christ does not bring us joy, we need to quit wasting our time and resources with church. But to pretend that all about us and our lives and the messy world we live in can be swept under the rug of Happy Church or one emotion is not clos to honest.

        Here’s a thought. We’re often baffled by what to do in and with the season of Lent. Sometimes we give up things or discipline ourselves, perhaps as a way of identifying with the sufferings of Christ but perhaps subliminally to make ourselves feel “worthy”.

        How about instead of beating ourselves up for six weeks or trying to self-improve to the point of deserving grace, we made Lent more a time of taking stock of ourselves and the physical and emotional burdens we carry, not just the moral ones? How about if we said, “If ever there’s a time of the year in which to wail, this is it. So I’m going to do it well and fully and deeply; and then on Good Friday right in front of God and everybody I’m going to drag the whole shootin’ match of my emotional baggage to the foot of the cross, soak the carpet with my tears and dump it. Then I’ll cocoon for two days completely empty and wait for the sunshine of Easter to see how God fills it.”

        There is a line in the poem “In Guernica” lamenting the slaughter of children caught in the crossfire of the Spanish Civil War. It goes like this:

        …and God will fill the bullet holes with candy.

        We can’t begin to proclaim the Easter gospel half boldy enough, graphically enough, until we become more honest about who we are and what really is.

        And… if God is not God enough for everything, then God is not God enough for anything. Wailing included.

  • Gloria

    Karen once again you have put into words my own thoughts and feelings. I am with you in the dark my friend. I love you and pray for you and everyone else like us are sitting in the darkness. I look forward to the day when the sun once again shines!

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Pathetic aren’t we? Or as they say down south — we’re a mess.

  • Karen- I love your heart and your raw honesty.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Thx, Ian.

  • Tom in Ohio

    Karen: It’s one of your “surrogate Dad’s”. Now I know why we met in DC that Veterans Day so many years ago now. Funny we should have the same cloudy time – I guess the Lord does work in mysterious ways. As usual, you’ve expressed my feelings almost exactly, girl! I think I explained mine to you back then as how I always got “restless” in November as the 13th and 19th dates when so many of my friends died approached. Hence my frequent visit to the Wall on Veterans Day to visit with them.
    These days I’m working with my former “Airborne” Pastor in assisting veterans, spouses, parents and children of PTSD sufferers as they work to heal their souls. It’s called Warriors Journey Home Ministry and you can check it out at:
    Stay in touch and hoping to see you in Hawaii next September.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Tom: I think that surrogate Dad thing is more like an Uncle. You’re far too young for that Dad role. But yes, meeting you and having you and Linda in my life is such a joy for which I’ll always be grateful. I’ve relished our visits over the years and if the folks in Hawaii will let me come back, I’ll join you all there next year. This ministry that you all are involved with is critical in a nation where 18 veterans a day are taking their own lives. That’s more than we are losing in Afghanistan.

  • Shauna Carmack

    Thanks, Karen. Octobers have been very hard. I’m reading this on the 13th anniversary of my dad’s homecoming. I just realized you wrote up his story as you were in your own season of mourning. I’m sorry, and thank you.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Shauna: I was going through some files the other day and came across your father’s story. I have not read it in years but the memory of his passing is one that has stayed with me. I recall the conversation around the newsroom that morning. The shock of it all. Your father was one of the most earnest Believers I’ve ever known. He had such a heart for God. I hate that he’s missed sharing in your lovely family with you. He would be so delighted at the family you and Peter have. Well, I’m sure he is delighted. But you know what I mean, him here, whooping it up with you all.

  • The Old Sponsor

    “ειρηκεν μοι αρκει σοι η χαρις μου η γαρ δυναμις εν
    ασθενεια τελειται ηδιστα ουν μαλλον καυχησομαι εν ταις
    ασθενειαις ινα επισκηνωση επ εμε η δυναμις του χριστου
    HE said to me, ‘My grace is ever sufficing to you,for in unsettledness [the dark cloud] power is developed most completely.’ Then rather shall I give glory in unsettledness [the dark cloud] that the power of Christ (the anointed one) dwell in me.”
    You have written powerfully this entire week; that is, out of the ‘dark cloud,’ and in His glory/fullness.
    Hugs forever.

  • Arlis Mitchell

    Karen, I understand your dark cloud. Loosing our oldest son,Scott, in Sept.2004 and our oldest grandson in Oct 2005 has made my favorite time of the year, fall,the most difficult time of the year for our family. I think every year, maybe I will not go through this grief and sadness this year, but the it starts in late August because that is when our son had us at his home for my birthday which was the last time I saw him alive. I know grief and pain and a sense of loss are part of life, but it does not help you go through it. I know the Lord is my comfort and peace and strength, but the pain is still there. With out HIM, I would still be curled up in a fetal position under the covers. I will pray for you when my “season of sorrow” starts, because I think it is the same time of the year as yours. Love, Arlis Mitchell, (we met through Paul Young)

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Arlis: Of course I remember our meeting and your stories. What a grief you have faced as a mother and grandmother. Unimaginable, incomprehensible. Yet, you cling stubbornly to the One who will not let us loose. Those of us who know your story marvel at your ability to press on. Prayers for you, Arlis.

  • Karen, I appreciate you writing this. You are right. So many people experience this kind of experience in the darkness. Some more than others.

    What I appreciate most about you and this post is your raw, unvarnished honesty. It is this honesty that has given people a voice and words to describe this experience.


    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Thanks, Jim. I read something by L’Engle this morning: It is only when the lion has me in his jaws that I am shaken into the courage to be meek.

      Otherwise the honesty would only lead to humiliation and who among us could bear that?

  • Hi Karen,

    I am a pastor who lost my wife to cancer three years ago. We had three children together. Because I recently remarried, some in my church seem to think the grieving must be over. But it’s not. I still at times feel the “dark cloud” come over me. The whole experience seems surreal. Thanks for giving voice to this important topic. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

  • Debbie

    Depression is so painful… prayers for you and those who suffer from dark clouds.

  • Karen, Thanks so much for sharing this. It is good for me to know. I guess I weep in my own kind of way over the brokenness I’ve seen and experienced in life. But I’ve also found that this doesn’t jive well with some ideals, even among Christians. I think Jesus would fail them in this way as well. “A man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief/suffering.”