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April 20, 2011

(Your) PTSD and Me

by K. Tsetsi

–Guest post by Katie Hickey

My experience really is not much different from that of most military wives. My husband is finishing up a 6-year contract with the Air Force, and in our almost four years together, we have survived two deployments – and living in separate states, as well. What makes my experience somewhat unique is that my husband is one of approximately 20% of the current military suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). But first, a little about what lead us to this point.

My husband and I met while line dancing. He was this funny, sweet, goofy guy who seemed to not have a care in the world. He was my perfect opposite – loved the unknown and spontaneity of any situation, whereas I preferred to stay more grounded. After a year of dating before his deployment to Iraq, we got engaged, and then a year later, before he deployed to Afghanistan, we got married. He did his a tense six months there, and now he is finally home.

So, you’re saying, he came back. What’s the problem? Yes, he came back, but he didn’t come back whole. He looked the same on the outside – no limbs missing, no major trauma – but something was different.

It was small changes: the increased smoking, quicker to anger about what seemed to be small things, sleeplessness, lack of willingness to go with the flow; certainly all things that can be chalked up to “readjusting.” I felt maybe, given a few months, things would change. He would adjust and be the wonderful, caring, funny, goofy guy I fell in love with.

Around our friends and family, we pulled it together and pretended everything was normal, as if our trying really hard and wishing it to be so would make it so.

But it didn’t. There were a series of stresses in the first few months of his homecoming – mostly problems at the base culminating with the death of an acquaintance in Afghanistan. It may not have been someone we knew well, but having it hit so close to home was shocking for both him and me. It drove home the danger he had been in and shoved it in our face, so to speak.

I could feel him withdrawing more and more, and I felt helpless to stop it. I would suggest counseling, and he would get angry, and I would drop it so we wouldn’t fight. Then the accident happened.

I have always been an independent person. I like being in charge and never really had a problem with running the house and working at least one job to help out. Unfortunately, one weekend in February while we were skiing, I fell and tore my ACL. Our world changed in that minute. Suddenly, my husband was not only responsible for himself, but with me incapacitated and unable to walk or drive, he was responsible for me and the house, as well. The added responsibility started to wear on him, and the feeling of helplessness started to wear on me.

We talked less and snipped at each other more. They weren’t huge blowouts, and they never strayed toward violent, but they added to the strain on an already fraying rope. I clung desperately to the hope that I could keep it all under control if I could just keep him calm, and the harder I tried to control him, the more he pulled away. Then my worst nightmare occurred.

While going about my daily routine, I texted my husband to make sure he would pick me up from work. He wasn’t responding, so I started calling. To my surprise, the phone was off – and he never turns it off. Hours went by and panic set in, because I couldn’t find him. After about five hours of trying to contact him, I finally learned he had been arrested for getting into an altercation and was being held in jail. And that was where he stayed for the next two weeks.

Those two weeks were some of the darkest days of my life. For me to not be able to take care of myself and not be able to do anything for him, my world felt as if it were crumbling around me. All I could think was, “This isn’t my husband.” I prayed and bargained with God, asking for this to be just a nightmare, and that when I woke up from it, my life would be sane.

There were a lot of guilty feelings on my part about what I could have done differently, but after a few days, I started to look back on the events of the past months and things started falling into place. I started to understand that this was a problem bigger than us, and my husband needed help.

He didn’t have all the “obvious” signs of PTSD – uncontrollable outbursts, violent tendencies… things you think of when you think of PTSD. His signs were much quieter: the previously mentioned increased smoking, sleeplessness due to nightmares I only learned about later, his being on constant alert. I believe we both tried to attribute the things that kept piling up to other causes. He acted “normal” so much of the time – how could something be wrong with him? And we loved each other. Wasn’t that enough?

The arrest was the wake-up call my husband needed to realize he needed to seek help. What still amazes me is that even though he is active duty military, that he needed help really wasn’t the first or even second concern of his superiors. Though they were concerned for his well being, no one really seemed interested in helping him fix what was wrong. There had been issues over his 5+ years in the military that pointed to the fact that he could have used some help, and sometimes I get angry because the military could have forced him to get help in a way no one else could have. I don’t understand how we can send people into a battle zone (even if they aren’t in active combat they are still in danger) and not require intense counseling when they come back.

Thankfully, there are people out there who care and are willing to help. My husband is now seeking that help, and we received an official diagnosis of PTSD, which was almost a relief. We now know what’s wrong and that we aren’t crazy.

This will be a lifelong issue for both my husband and me. I live in fear, still, that there will be another meltdown, that he will walk out the door and never come back, that I will say the wrong thing and upset him all over again. We had a moment when he was deployed in Afghanistan when we realized we were so afraid of upsetting each other that we stuck to the trivial things and never talked about how we were feeling. If there is something good to come out of this, it’s that for the first time in almost a year and a half, we’re finally being open with each other.

Though my husband may never be the same person he was when he left, I love him, and I never doubted that. We are very early in our journey of living with PTSD, and I’d like to hear from others as they share their stories.

I started my research into PTSD when everything blew up and my husband landed in jail. I was looking for support from others so I would know I wasn’t really as alone as I was feeling. My friends try their best, but sometimes talking to someone who has experienced it can be comforting. And it’s funny – in doing my research, I found there is plenty of support out there for military spouses and families, and support for those going through deployments, but even though many know it exists, there is not a lot support out there for the loved ones of those suffering from PTSD.

I want to change that. I want people to know they are not alone, no matter how much they feel like they are. I want to provide a safe place for them to share their stories – the good and the bad – and be able to vent if they wish, to share the good days or to find a shoulder to cry on if they need it.

I want others to feel like they have a voice even when they feel powerless and know there is someone to steer them in the direction they need to help them deal with it.

If you are looking for support or want to share your story feel free to find us – www.facingtheinvisible.com.

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