military family mental health 2014USC’s Military Family Mental Health Campaign

By: Shawn J. Gourley

I’ve already been the military spouse. But now I’m a new kind of spouse; I’m the spouse of a veteran with PTSD. Being a new kind of spouse means I have to change a lot of things in my life, but mostly it means that I have to change my expectations about what “better” looks like.

I swear people think because they came home from war alive, life should go on as normal. But it doesn’t. In reality my war has just begun. I had no training, and no one told me what this would entail. Being the wife of a wounded warrior makes life anything but normal. All of the sudden we deal with nightmares,  flashbacks, not being able to be  in large crowds, always being on alert, anger, and aggression because  our warrior’s brain has been changed. It has been changed due to injury, not because they went crazy. They return to us a different person than the one we sent away. Outsiders don’t understand, and many will tell us to leave. We hear things like, “You don’t deserve to be treated like that!” or “You just need to leave and better your life.”  We know it’s because they don’t understand, but most don’t care either. I could’ve taken that advice and left at any point in time, but what would that say about who I am? I’m not a quitter; it’s not in my genes. The warfighter mentality has rubbed off on me.

It’s funny, though, whenever I tell my story I get such a variety of reactions. I definitely get criticized for my views, and had I  not been through what I have and learned everything about PTSD, I would  be criticizing myself, too, especially on my view of what is abusive behavior due to PTSD and what is real domestic violence. It can be very hard to tell the difference between the two, but the biggest difference of them all is that domestic abuse is about control and it will never get better. But I know the difference because I know the behavior is a coping skill that was taught in the military and that skills kept them alive. Reminding myself of that helps me keep my emotions in check. Other people who hear my story just sit in awe. Some say things like, “You poor thing!” or, “I wouldn’t stay for that.” Some want to know the exact formula I used to make it this long in my marriage, especially if they are PTSD spouses themselves. Do I tell them the truth? Some can handle it, and some can’t. How will they react when I tell them they pretty much have to give up everything and will be totally broken before things get better? There are a few relationships where it won’t get that bad, but in my experience over the years, those are actually the exception, not the rule. For the rest of us, we have to learn a new way of life and a new definition for words like “normal” and “better.”

Every day I hear spouses say, “I just want the man I married back.” Things would get so much easier for these suffering spouses if they would just accept the person who came home. As with anything else in life, there is no going back, only moving forward. As Winston Churchill said (and Rodney Atkins later sang), “When you’re going through hell, keep going.”

See, I changed the way I looked at it: I can be sad that the man I married never would return, never get past it, and let my marriage fail. Or I can accept the fact that his brain was injured, love him for who he is now, and make the best of it. I had to take a long look in the mirror and realize at some point my actions were making it hard on my husband and triggering his PTSD. I had to keep a journal of his triggers, and when something set him off I would write out in great detail what was happening right before, during, and after. I also wrote down what words were said–which I used exact words, not what I assumed he said or what I meant. I wrote down any and all smells if present or if it was an anniversary date of a traumatic event. I started noticing patterns, and at that point I realized I had to accept the fact that I cannot fix him. But I CAN do a lot to improve the quality of our home life by working with him to make adjustments.

Because of that strategy of adjusting to the new normal of who he is, we are still married and life is getting better, but not better in the way that most people would think. Most people think that because life is calmer the PTSD is getting better, but in reality, it’s not. It is more that the PTSD is under control because we control our environment. That means that I had to give up activities that I enjoyed and give up some dreams I may have once had. Things like going to family reunions or shopping at Walmart are difficult for my husband, so we don’t do those. Before I spend money, I explain it to him–not because I need his permission, but because that is something that cause’s unneeded stress on him. Our life is very scheduled, and we stick to the schedule so he doesn’t get stressed. We don’t go to concerts or sporting events, and even sometimes school functions can be too much. And I don’t hand him a list of things to do because he’ll both freak out over seeing so many things on the list and forget some of them before he’s done. I also make sure he’s not left with the kids alone for too long because their high energy is too much for him in large doses.

Slowly but surely things are changing for us. Yes, my husband still has outbursts, but we have learned to just let him have them without taking it personally. I have also learned to appreciate the small gestures instead of the big ones I used to get. Instead of a fancy dinner out, I get giddy over chicken nuggets and sitting on the couch watching my favorite TV show. Most of all, though, it matters to me that he is trying. He is going to therapy and taking his meds. Both of those are helping him make little victories of controlling his PTSD. This may be all the trying he has in him, but it’s enough for me.

Maybe that sounds terrible to some people or like I am living my whole life to please him or that I’m under his control because I fear a PTSD outburst. But the truth is, I love him, and I want him, our kids, and myself to be as happy as possible. I chose this path. I chose to make our lives better despite PTSD. We deal with our reality, and as a result, we are becoming better people for it. We know ourselves and each other so much better, and we feel like we are in control of the PTSD and not the other way around. Sure, I had to give up my dreams, but now I have new ones that I like a whole lot better because they actually stand a chance of coming true.

Yes, my life is different than how I thought it would be, but I can’t really say it’s worse. It’s just a different kind of better than I was expecting.

We invite you to join us for the #MilfamMH campaign!

Mental health impacts the entire military community. No matter who you are or what you normally blog about, we want to hear your story, so we can highlight the importance of raising awareness about mental health issues, societal stereotypes and the challenges of transitioning to civilian life.

Click HERE to find out how to participate in the #MilfamMH campaign.



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