The Power of Purpose and Laughter

August 21, 2020 | 5-minute read

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For Susan, retiring from the Navy felt like falling off a cliff.

At least that’s how she remembers it. For years, she had climbed, step by step, advancing in her career, making sure the boxes were checked. And then one day, she was done. No big send-off — just done.

“I think that’s one of the hardest things for Veterans, [thinking,] ‘I don’t have a sense of purpose now,’” Susan says. “I had such a big role in defending the country, and now I’m, like, picking up dog poop in my yard.”

It took time to adjust. She faced challenges — depressionPTSD, and the sudden loss of hearing in her left ear. But Susan found comfort and purpose in an unlikely place: the stand-up comedy stage.

“I feel so at home up there,” she says. “And just making people laugh is something that makes me feel good. It really boosts me up.”

Susan found the opportunity to chase down her comedy dream through the Armed Services Arts Partnership, which uses the arts — improv, acting, stand-up comedy, and more — to help integrate Veterans, service members, and military families into their communities. Her group met once a week to work on their material and stand-up techniques. After six weeks, Susan made her debut.

“Stand-up is something I’ve always wanted to do,” she says. “I did my debut at the DC Improv, and it was awesome. It was a big bucket list item for me. And I want to keep doing it.” She adds, with a laugh: “Because there’s so much material out there.”

Susan was in a much different place 14 years ago, when she retired from the Navy. Over the course of her service, she had served as a cryptologist, working with Morse code; in the Nurse Corps, working in psychiatry and oncology; and finally, in recruiting women to the police force in Afghanistan. When she retired in December 2006, her adjustment back to civilian life was tough.

“It was not good,” Susan recalls. “It felt strange to go outside without a bunch of gear on. I got quite a few speeding tickets my first year or two after I got off active duty, because I just was used to very aggressive driving. You’ve got to stay away from vehicles, watch that garbage bag on the side of the road — anything funky in the road, you’ve got to drive around that.”

Susan had trouble initially connecting with people and relating to friends. She found herself staying home, holding off on answering calls and emails, and passing on making plans. “I … just didn’t have the energy,” she says.

Compounding matters, Susan suddenly lost the hearing in her left ear 18 months after leaving the service. “That’s when the PTSD just exploded,” she says. “I felt very vulnerable. I felt very unsafe. I couldn’t tell where sounds were coming from. Everything sounded different. Everything was louder, or just — it almost hurt to listen to some things. And then I started to develop a lot of rage and anger from that. And I realized that something’s not right.”

Susan called VA and said, “I’d like to come see someone.” She connected with a counselor and began to try out group sessions and various treatment options, such as cognitive behavioral therapy and cognitive psychotherapy.

She learned tools such as writing — journaling about her dreams, and fears, and moments when she was angry. Exercise also became an important tool. And she made a point to socialize with people and to get out and volunteer.

The group therapy sessions helped show Susan that she wasn’t alone. “It’s not just me that has these experiences,” she says. “And when people talk about the things they’re going [through], it’s like ‘Oh my gosh, I have that too.’ And they’ve recovered from it, or they’re working on it, so it gives you hope that that’s possible.

“And it’s always good to be with other Veterans,” she says. “Even if I’m in a group, if I’m feeling good, I might be able to help somebody else. And helping somebody else helps me.”

Susan continues to receive treatment. “And I think I always will,” she says. “There may be times when I go for several months, and I’m good, and I don’t need anything. But if I sense that there’s something bothering me, something’s coming back, or I’m sensing that my thinking is starting to … kind of spiral down, I’ll get right back in to talk to someone.”

Susan encourages others to do the same. “I’m so much stronger than I was. … It’s realizing that there’s so many more things left in life for us to do.” She has that purpose back in her life. And also, the laughter.

“When you’re laughing, it’s helpful for stress. It’s helpful for your depression,” Susan says. “Humor is wonderful, and the fact that I get to have an opportunity to make other people laugh is amazing.”


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