PTSD and the Families of Veterans

John Folk-Williams Health Guide
  • Combat veterans often have to live with the pain of PTSD for years, and their loved ones are right there with them, for better and worse. Depression has many ways to damage a family, from emotional withdrawal, to anger and blame, even suicide. Complex PTSD includes depression along with a level of unpredictable behavior that can not only be debilitating but also violent. Spouses and children experience every moment of these shifts and spend years trying to preserve a semblance of normality under the constant pressure of the veteran’s pain.

    I’ve referred to a few of the blogs and memoirs of combat veterans who decided to open up about their lives with PTSD. A great many veterans’ spouses - almost always wives - also write about their experiences helping their partners through recovery. Most emphasize the positive side of that life, like Tracy of The Priceless Journey, and focus their anger and frustration on the maddening government bureaucracies they have to rely on for help.

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    Other wives, like Sarah of Sitting, Waiting, Wishing, Hoping and the writer of The Life of a PTSD’s Spouse, tell quite frankly and openly the dark as well as bright sides of life with their seriously injured husbands - and all their own reactions of pain and periods when they just can’t cope. In doing so, they may be criticized harshly for breaking the unwritten code of conduct of the soldier’s wife. That code demands submerging one’s own feelings and needs to the veteran’s since he has so much more to deal with and has been through combat experiences that those at home can’t begin to understand.

    I’ve been reading a lot of these blogs that record the ups and downs of life with PTSD. Here’s a brief summary of some of the problems. I’m drawing on stories from the blogs and videos I’ve found, and you can see two of the videos and links to several sites in this recent post at my blog, Storied Mind.

    Depression is a big component of PTSD. The writer of Lima, Oscar, Victor, Echo (L.O.V.E.) describes her husband’s emotional flatness and inability to communicate and share emotion. Emotion is what she most craves from and has to keep reminded herself of the nightmare inside him he’s living with. He’s exhausted from being hypervigilant all the time, and she has to live with what he can offer when he’s feeling better.

    A child playing and raising her voice even slightly can set off a reaction of smoldering anger or a sudden outburst. If a wife leaves a door open that’s usually closed, she might face a raging stranger. There are shouts, threats, blame for causing all his problems, and he’s out the door. Or she might meet him head on, and they’ll fight each other, as the woman finally lets off some steam.

    Many vets can’t get the most violent scenes out of their heads. They wake in the middle of the night to relive the moment when a closest buddy is dying and calling for help, and they can do nothing for him. Night after night, the nightmares scare the spouse out of bed, and she can’t shake him out of his dream. Perhaps he’s on his feet searching to find his dying friend. When it’s over, he’ll just say it was a bad dream, no problem.

  • Kids learn to tiptoe around their dad’s unpredictable moods, to warn him of the slightest unusual sound - even the pop of an opening soda can, as Domenica of The Combat Veteran Spouse describes in her recent video. The household routines have to work around the veteran’s triggers, constraining every member of the family.

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    Some PTSD veterans fall into helplessness in the face of simple tasks. The writer of Wife of a Wounded Soldier describes her husband’s inability to place an order in a restaurant, baffled by a menu, forgetting what she’d just told him to order. It’s hard for him to place a phone call - forgetting what to ask about and most of the directions he received to get somewhere. She does the driving and has to take charge in every situation. It wears her down, she wishes it were different but realizes she’ll just have to get used to being the one in charge all the time.

    Gina of The Invisible Wounded and her husband hear a helpful analogy during a therapy session. The dissociation that takes him away completely is the PTSD hijacking him. That’s a great analogy for them to keep in mind when he’s gone off in that way. But then the two of them have to put up with the frustration of hearing friends say that he ought to be able to control his emotions and get over the whole thing.

    Of course, the worst possible outcome is suicide, and it’s on the rise in the military today. But it’s not a new phenomenon, and the horror of its impact is captured in a book called Flashback by Penny Coleman, which was also made into a play. It narrates the stories of several wives of Vietnam veterans who took their own lives. There is a powerful short video based on interviews with several widows who describe the changes in their partners from confident young men to tortured veterans.

    One vignette captures the terror of living with the potential for deadly violence. A woman tells of answering the loudly ringing phone one day and suddenly feeling the touch of her husband’s pistol against her temple. That was almost it for her, she said, but he backed off. Later he took his own life.

    The blogs and videos are often hard to take, but most of them also capture the upbeat times, the reconciliations after fights, trips together, improvement in the condition and, for a few, lasting recovery. I’m amazed at the resilience each woman shows in the face of so many hard realities.

    Together, these determined women create an unforgettable story of the devastating impact of PTSD on everyone touched by it.

Published On: April 27, 2010