Most people, thankfully, will never know what it is like to have PTSD. While that is something to be grateful for, it can also cause heartache for those who love us. Its hard enough to vocalize what is going on inside our heads, but this issue is often compounded by the internally perceived shame we fear our loved ones holding for the things we have seen or done. We often fear that how you see us will forever be changed should we ‘talk about it’ and let you into our little piece of hell. That doesn’t mean loved ones should give up on trying to empathize.
For years I knew my husbands triggers before he did, granted it took me being diagnosed with PTSD to recognize them as ‘triggers’. We are still learning how to protect the other, when to take over the everyday mundane and give them a break and when to back off for a while. It is a HUGE undertaking to learn to trust someone on that level, and we don’t have the handicap of only one of us having been downrange. I couldn’t begin to imagine how a single-military family (meaning only one spouse served) begins those conversations. Please understand though, by “conversations” I don’t mean we have poured our heart and souls out about things we experienced. We haven’t. I have plainly told my husband that I don’t want to know (after one rather unpleasant conversation where he divulged a misfired IED nearly canceled our lives together). I also understand that he may not want to hear all the gory details of war in a hospital. As my husband, he absolutely does not need to know the details relating to my sexual trauma at the hands of another soldier (though I give him credit for not killing the bastard the one time they came face to face in a restaurant off base).
There are things, no matter how close you are to your loved one, that they will never tell to another living soul. That doesn’t mean you can’t ask…however, don’t be offended if they don’t want to talk about it or worse, end up having their symptoms escalate due to events being brought to mind by well intended questions. There have been many times where someone who I genuinely believe had the best intentions asked me a question that sent me spiraling for days. Even so, sometimes just knowing that someone is there to listen should I choose to talk means more to me than they will know. Be willing to ask questions anyway. When your daughters husband visits, discretely ask them if there are things that can be avoided to help reduce any triggers. Something as innocent as a vacuum turning on unexpectedly can cause a panic attack. Planning ahead can often mean a much more pleasurable visit for everyone.
Another way loved ones can help is through education. DO NOT accept the media’s version of PTSD! Its biased and unfairly slanted by what news items make the most sensational headlines. Educate yourself by visiting trusted websites. Sites such as National Institute for Mental Health is an excellent resource for information about PTSD. The Veterans Administration also has some excellent information about PTSD. This is one time where asking questions is absolutely essential. You cannot avoid triggers if you do not know they exist. Also, don’t assume your veteran has every single symptom. There is no ‘typical’ case of PTSD. PTSD in men varies from women or children (yes, children can develop PTSD as well). We don’t all have nightmares, those that do don’t all have flashbacks, or avoidance, or panic attacks, or fits of rage. Each case of PTSD is as different as the person who bears that burden.
Something that is often well intentioned but ultimately can be very detrimental to our healing is when our loved ones over-compensate for our symptoms. Yes, there will be days where you feel like you are walking on eggshells, but it shouldn’t be every day. By over-compensating for our symptoms you can inadvertantly enable us to avoid seeking treatment. Sometimes we need a good swift kick in the pants to motivate us, the same as you might on some days. Having said that, there is one very important point I need to make. DO NOT EVER let our PTSD be an excuse for abusive behavior. Did you get that? NEVER LET PTSD BE AN EXCUSE FOR ABUSE! I hear far too often “I wouldn’t leave him if he was paralyzed, I’m not leaving him now” in one breath and in the very next they are asking how to ‘fix’ their husband to get him to stop hitting her. Emotional manipulation is ABUSE. Laying a single finger (or threatening to do so) on another person in anger is ABUSE. Keep in mind, there may be times where this is done while your loved one is deeply asleep. This is a warning sign that your veteran needs help! This is perhaps the ONE and ONLY occurrence that I would have a hard time labeling as abuse. If you feel you are in danger, get help and insist they do as well! Military One Source is an EXCELLENT place to get advice in these situations. As always, if you feel your life, or the life of your veteran is in danger…do not hesitate to dial 911. Any potential repercussions they may face (especially if still active duty) pale in comparison to the permanence of suicide.
Ultimately, the best thing you can do to help is be patient. Healing isn’t going to happen overnight and its quite probably that you will never get the “old” loved one back. PTSD isn’t like the flu, you don’t just take some meds and recover. It’s an injury that causes physiological changes in our brains. It changes the way we process emotions. It changes our ability to remember some of the most basic things (like anniversaries, events or people). More often than not, these changes are permanent. It’s through therapy and medication that we begin to learn how to adapt to our new reality and try to regain some resemblance of ‘normal’. Knowing our loved ones are there, wanting to listen, patiently learning is more helpful than any medication. Knowing they are willing to smack us in the back of the head when we neglect ourselves can be quite motivating (just make sure we know its coming, sneaking up on us is not a bright idea).
The biggest way to help us… continue to love us, as my mother in law would say, “warts and all”.