Even though everyone has to leave the CAF one day, when it happens it can be a shock. Any change can be exciting, as well as potentially stressful. Leaving the military often means some big changes, especially if you have been with the CAF for a long time. This change will not only mean a change to your employment, but potentially, a change to where you live, and your social contacts and networks.
The majority of people make the adjustment successfully, gaining employment and settling into life after the CAF; however, some may experience uncertainty and a loss of confidence. A lack of preparedness to leave and planning for the period ahead can lead to more difficulties adapting; failure to prepare is preparing to fail.
No matter what your circumstances, there is a significant amount of change associated with the transition experience.
Most people pass through a similar progression of stages when confronted with change. Having knowledge of these stages may help people cope and provide reassurance when they feel “stuck”. Many accounts of change have three core stages, as shown in Diagram 1.
Diagram 1 – Stages of Change
Making the transition may take some time. For many, transition is not just about leaving a job but leaving a way of life. The strong sense of purpose and belonging that comes from serving in the CAF can be greatly missed when beginning a new chapter in life. When you transition, there is typically a sense of losing some part of you, or of no longer belonging. Some liken it to the grieving or change process, where people can go through a period of shock and denial, before acceptance and adaptation.
Your personal identity is shaped by many things, including your role as a member of the CAF. When we join the CAF, we join a military organization, and begin to create our military identity. We learn military language, military law, and may become disconnected from our civilian lives and friends. These are some of the realities, or sacrifices, that joining the military entails. We can see ourselves as military first and foremost. When you make the transition from the CAF, you may fell important part of your identity has been lost. The return to “Civvy Street” can trigger an identity crisis, and a need to redefine identity for the future.
The CAF military culture is strong. Years of identification and bonding with military people can sometimes make it difficult for you to form new relationships and friendships in civilian life. You may feel you have less value in your civilian roles. A disciplined service environment may also lead you to feel impatient and frustrated with civilian attitudes and behaviours that may appear to lack structure, direction, and discipline. A strong mission orientation and a focus on achieving a task are not necessarily prevalent in all organizations. Softer skills are required to shape and influence.
While the military lifestyle has built adaptability in military families, families are transitioning, too:
- Transition may mean a new place to live, new responsibilities and changes to schools, jobs, and friends.
- Families usually feel immense pride in their member’s service and may have even taken on some of the status of the military member. When a partner or other family member transitions from the CAF, families can feel a sense of loss.
- Families may find relief in the decision, seeing opportunities for new beginnings and more time together now that the demanding military career has ended.
- There may be a need to renegotiate shared responsibilities aligned to new roles.
- Families may experience stress as they navigate the transition process and make decisions for their future.
Communication at this time is extremely important. It will help to be aware of some of the challenges that people commonly encounter and what you can do to help manage them.
Make an effort to build other parts of your identity beyond the CAF before you leave, as a parent, partner, hobby enthusiast, friend, and community member.
Having a broad identity enhances your self-esteem and mental health while serving; after you leave the CAF these hobbies, civilian friends, family, and passions are likely to help reduce any sense of loss. This does not mean you should cut yourself off from your existing friendships and networks within the CAF, as maintaining existing friendship is important, too.
If you are worried about making the transition, or need assistance with some of the practical aspects, talk to someone and seek advice – from a co-worker, friend, a family member, your local base chaplain, a psychologist, social worker, CAF Long Term Disability (LTD) Case Manager, CAF Vocational Rehabilitation Program (VRP) counsellor, or a member of the CAF Health Services team. If you don’t feel comfortable approaching the CAF for help, a list of helplines and support resources can be found at the end of this guide.
Consider finding yourself a mentor – someone you respect and can call on for advice, and feel comfortable talking to. This may be someone you know who has already made the transition from the CAF. They will be able to share some of the experiences they encountered and what was helpful. They may also have tips for things you can do to make your transition easier, based on their own experience, such as:
- Plan ahead but take things one day at a time. Decision-making can be overwhelming; take it slow and don’t overlook the simple things. Break things down into manageable chunks.
- Stay active: maintain a good diet, exercise regularly, sleep, nurture your social life, and enjoy hobbies and travel.
- Be patient. The transition process can sometimes take several years.
- Get involved with the civilian community, and your new work colleagues. Become one of them.
The transition experience involves significant changes for many. This can challenge our resilience and impact on our overall health. Sometimes, it’s not easy to recognize the signs that something is going wrong. The cumulative impact of events in our lives – our relationships, physical health, jobs, and family well-being – can be challenging, and can erode mental health, even in circumstances where we previously thrived.
The Mental Health Continuum (see Diagram 2) is a useful tool for keeping an eye on how you are tracking and the potential impact transition may be having on your behaviour, what you are thinking, and how you are feeling. Common markers of mental health are grouped into themes: mood, performance, sleep patterns, physical health, social interaction, and activities. You can see how problems increase and functioning decreases as we move towards the right of the continuum. Just as health can deteriorate over time in response to changing life circumstances, it is also possible to return to full functioning, particularly when signs are recognized early and acted upon.
Diagram 2 - Mental Health Continuum
Sometimes you’ll make the transition more easily by asking for help. Doing so is not a sign of weakness, but rather a positive step towards regaining and maintaining a sense of control in life.
The key to adapting to change is focussing on what you have control over and not trying to influence things you can’t change. Don’t try to do everything on your own: ask for support and involve other people. The CAF Health Service website also provides a range of information and tools for maintaining your health.
- Avoid planning change.
- Put off things until tomorrow.
- Stop talking, especially to family and friends.
- Hide or disguise your thoughts or feelings from yourself or your family.
- Think that the family will cope with change with no difficulty.
- Underestimate the change that you will have to go through. Transition to civilian life tests most people.
- Underestimate how different “civvies" work and life can be and how competitive things are outside of CAF
- Drink too much.
- Expect to be settled in your new life quickly.
- Reject taking advice or learning from “civvies”.
- Judge people by military standards.
- Over-commit financially prior to release.
- Assume that everything will go according to plan.
- Leave it too long to get assistance or advice if you feel you need support.
- Take time to reflect on the change, and talk as a family about the changes ahead.
- Accept that building a future is hard work – so plan early and keep planning as you go.
- Remain flexible and open to change. You won’t be able to control everything.
- Continue to believe in yourself and your abilities, and try and think of change as an opportunity for you and your family.
- Accept that new ways of thinking and behaving may be required, as well as new skills.
- Recognize when you are “stuck” and don’t be afraid to seek help.
- Be open, and listen and learn from those in your new civilian environment.
- Reflect and consider how you successfully coped with stress before.
- Reflect on your own experiences as a service person and as a family. Recall what coping strategies you have used in the past.
- Make financial provision so you have access to funds around your release date.
- Actively look after the health and well-being of you and your family.
- Take advantage of all the opportunities that the CAF and VAC offer you and your family.
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