Veterans face a variety of problems once they leave the service. Whether it’s accurate or not, many veterans feel life is a little harder for them than for most people. But what if a big part of the problem wasn’t so much PTSD or poor transition assistance — at least not directly — but rather loneliness and boredom?
(Editor’s note: This article was originally published on May 8, 2018.)
From being under a microscope to being unseen
The best and worst thing about being in the military is that it is all-consuming. It provides you with a place to be and a time to be there, pretty much 24/7/365.
You spend several months at a time deployed. When you get home, you work long hours, so that takes care of a good part of your day. Then you’ve got frost calls at the club on Fridays after work. Another weekend that month you have duty. The next there’s a mandatory fun event of some kind. Your next door neighbors are military too, so they invite you over for dinner every so often.
For better or worse, while you’re in the military, you’re always busy and rarely alone.
In the civilian world, after you walk out the glass doors, no one cares what you do. Outside of blatant misconduct that might discredit your employer, they generally don’t care much about how you live your life. They sure aren’t going to have you sit in an auditorium for eight hours on a workday to talk about why you should wear more sunscreen.
Shotgunning into civilian life is lonely in the best of times
Once you have that DD-214 in hand, your social network changes. Chances are you’ll get a job in a whole new city. Once you’re there, you’re no longer in that protective military cocoon. Your neighbors come and go silently to wherever it is they go. On one side, you have a college student whose parents pay his rent and who apparently commutes by skateboard. On the other, who the hell knows, because you’ve never seen anyone enter or leave — just vague signs of occupancy. You think there might be a serial killer with a torture dungeon living there.
It’s definitely not like the barracks, or even a typical neighborhood street in a military town.
If you do stay around your old duty station, your military friends will still have the demanding schedule you just left — plus you’re probably a sellout contractor, with the logoed polo shirt to prove it. Even if you decide to go back to your old hometown, you aren’t the same person as when you left. Unless you’re picking up that dead-end job right where you left off, you no longer fit in there, either.
Your new coworkers generally scatter to the winds after work. Unlike your previous semi-homogeneous band of mostly young male brothers, now you have a diverse group with lives as different as their backgrounds.
If you’re single or divorced, it’s even worse. You can’t party with the Friday night crowd unless you want to be the sad old guy in the club. If you don’t have children or they don’t usually live with you, you probably aren’t plugged into the whole kids soccer scene (and it would be a little disturbing if you were). Most of your peers are married, so if you aren’t, you probably aren’t going to be hanging out much. No one likes a third wheel. As far as meeting other middle-aged single folks, that guy who spotted you on the bench press at the gym was really cool, but it seemed weird to ask him to hang out after staring up at his crotch for 10 reps.
Falling into a cycle of self-isolation
When you get home you usually have nothing to do. At first, that fills you with sublime joy, but after awhile, having nothing and no one to fill the off-time becomes old. Some people handle that better than others.
Unfortunately, charming old-fashioned solitary pursuits such as painting, solitaire, and playing soulful jazz piano at dirty gin joints are far less common pursuits than things like excessive drinking and internet use. Both of those things are addictive, but they do temporarily relieve boredom and loneliness.
In the case of drinking, without anyone else to watch what you’re doing, that couple of beers after coming home from work easily becomes 3 or 4, maybe even 5 or 6. You aren’t trying to get shitfaced. You’re just hanging out, watching Netflix or playing video games, while sipping a beer. But sipping beers for several hours quickly adds up, even if you’re not trying. Vets have much greater rates of alcohol abuse than the general public.
Then there’s the internet, that great time-suck. It’s the refuge of the lonely, offering instant connections with people around the world. But that virtual companionship can destabilize your remaining relationships in real life.
For vets in particular, there’s a temptation to rekindle camaraderie on any number of vicious and misogynistic social media pages. An online life devoted to mocking civilians and treating women poorly is even more isolating — after shitting on every non-vet, and even vets who don’t live up to your standard (oh good, another POG hatefest), are you really going to go out, be friendly, and find new friends in real life?
Though I’ve wasted too many hours on social media, I’ve never thrown in with the vitriolic Facebook groups. But I see enough reposts of those groups from many of my old colleagues to know that it’s clearly a thing.
As far as alcohol, I’ve had more than my share of beers in a sitting enough times to know that I need to keep an eye on that, if for no other reason than my waistline. Along those lines, there are many other unhealthy time-killers, like overeating, smoking, and dipping that vets are especially prone to.
Admit you’re lonely. But you’re not alone
The plural of anecdote isn’t data. But it’s indisputable that loneliness and boredom have profound effects on health and well being. I can’t help but wonder if a large portion of the acute mental illness and substance abuse problems among vets might really be just the long-term products of poor social networks after leaving the military.
Some of the military’s and VA’s organizational efforts would be well spent in finding earlier interventions on that front, instead of waiting until vets’ lives go completely sideways.
And on the individual level, it’s just another good reminder to take care of each other. Taking an interest in each other’s lives isn’t a cure-all for our issues, but it does help remind us: We’re not as alone as we think.