Heart Of the Journey
Returning Lives PTSD Stole
Taking the Scenic Route
I met Mike Thanksgiving weekend, the year I had graduated with my BA, and I was studying for the law school entrance exam. At that point in my life, I wasn’t looking for a serious relationship, especially with someone in the Navy. I was planning on going to law school, and eventually, he would be stationed elsewhere, or deployed out to sea. I told him I just wanted to be friends; he told me he would wait for as long as I needed.
We had been together for a year, when he would be stationed in San Diego. I moved there to be with him, we soon became engaged, and I began my career as a freelance. Fortunately, as a freelance, I had flexibility in my schedule, which allowed me to care for Mike, when his physical issues emerged, as a result from an accident when he was a teenager. I was happy to work freelance and put aside my aspirations and needs, because I felt it was more important to be there for Mike. Mike would require two surgeries; although he had the surgeries, he was still experiencing pain, where he couldn’t sleep and started to feel anxiety. Eventually, the anxiety concerned him, and he went to a therapist, in hopes of getting relief. The therapist diagnosed him with an anxiety disorder, and recommended sleeping pills.
The therapist misdiagnosed Mike, and tried to mask the problem, rather than remedying it. It was the symptoms of PTSD beginning to emerge.
At the time, I didn’t know anything about PTSD. Undoubtedly in reflection, we focus on all the things we did wrong, what could have happened, if only… However, in the ten years Mike and I had been together, he never once told me he had experienced a traumatic event. The only reason that I knew he almost died while he was on a submarine, was because I had to explicitly ask him if he experienced a traumatic event… after I recognized the symptoms of PTSD in him. Honestly, that pissed me off. If he had told me within the first few years we were together (before he saw the therapist), the possibility that he had PTSD would have entered my mind, and I would have encouraged him to mention that fact to his therapist; and maybe, he would have gotten the correct diagnosis, and received proper treatment, and our story would have been vastly different. I was his fiancée, not a detective.
Life had settled: he retired from the military and was working as a civilian; we were finally beginning wedding plans; and we were starting to look at houses. Mike no longer talked about physical pain or anxiety, and I had no reason to not believe that he was feeling better. At the time, I hadn’t seen that something was wrong, really wrong; or maybe, I didn’t want to see something had changed— he didn’t seem happy. Mike gradually preferred to be alone, and wasn’t as affectionate with me anymore, but I thought it was the natural course of a long-term, committed relationship. I loved him, and believed he loved me. I believed that after everything we had been through: the relocations, separation while he was deployed or away at school, transitioning into civilian life, his health issues, and two surgeries, nothing could break our bond.
Our lives gradually diverged away from one another: he would volunteer to work short durations in Japan and eventually took a six-month job in San Diego, as I focused more on my writing, including military and Veterans’ affairs. I began to learn more about PTSD, and it was then, I realized what was wrong. Mike had some form of PTSD, as I began to recognize the signs in him: his anxiety, his reluctance to be social and go out, anger issues: a complete change from his personality. I didn’t realize Mike was never come back. I thought he loved me enough to work through any problems we had, saying to me: “I want a long life with you by my side, not because I have to, but because my heart desires you… I love you, I always have, I always will. Even through my anxiety I know that.”
I had encouraged him to get help, such as seeing a therapist, getting his formal diagnosis, and perhaps, attending group sessions or a support group, where he could be with other Veterans, and hear their stories and experiences. I also encouraged him to confide in people in his life whom he trusted, such as a long-time childhood friend and his pastor, but he was reluctant, believing they wouldn’t understand. I was the only person (besides his therapist and doctors) who knew he had PTSD. I hadn’t realized that Mike wasn’t getting the proper help he needed, not until he had decided to end our relationship last year. I couldn’t understand his decision, as he said he loved me, breaking it off with me was the hardest thing he has had to do, and he was unhappy he was doing it. The irrationality was what indicated to me that he wasn’t healing. I reached out for help, something I wish I had done earlier, a mistake that I will always regret. It was in reaching out that I discovered Mike also had a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). Soon, my contacts began to help me start the process in getting Mike treatment for his brain injury.
An Individual Road Travelled, Yet Not Alone. I felt powerless. I felt like a failure. I felt alone.
In writing about Veterans’ affairs, I also followed social media which pertained to the military, PTSD, TBI, and that was when I discovered that I wasn’t alone. Numerous spouses/significant others experienced and shared similar stories, including one woman, who recounted her story: she and her husband, a Veteran with issues of PTSD, had recently divorced, yet they were still connected, as they have never went more than two days without contact; he continued in pulling her in, and pushing her away. She too, felt alone, without support, feeling no one could understand what she was experiencing or why she was reluctant to walk away. I did. I understood exactly why she couldn’t walk away; the same reason I couldn’t walk away.
Despite the fact that Mike and I were no longer together, I couldn’t walk away from him. When someone, whom you have loved for a third of your life, says to you that you are the reason that he doesn’t hurt himself, you fight and suppress your own pain. For me, I would have rather lived with pain every day (which I did), than lived with guilt, of knowing that Mike hurt himself, because I wasn’t there. For that past year, I became his support system and de facto caregiver, states away. I had told him, whenever he needed to talk, to call me, and I will always pick up; on the days that he felt overwhelmed, I asked him to email or text me, so I knew that he was okay. We also, never went more than a day or two, without communication. Mike admitted to me that it caused him more anxiety, when we did not talk or communicate.
The Heart of the Journey
I truly believe it is the spouses/significant others who are the heart of this journey, where treatment programs are beginning to integrate the family: also treating the family unit, particularly the caregiver. Veterans with PTSD and/or TBI have hardships every day, where family members, especially the spouses/significant others, also experience hardships, yet are not often recognized for the roles they play, in their Veterans’ journey towards healing.
I spoke with a friend, who is a Veteran, family caregiver expert, and a spouse of someone with a brain injury, who has seen the dynamic of relationships change, due to PTSD and/or TBI. Not only is the Veteran suffering, so is his family caregiver (in most cases, his spouse or significant other, most likely, a wife). When the service member enlists in the military, he/she understands that he/she can potentially be hurt, and has accepted it; the spouse/significant other understands the risks, yet hasn’t directly “signed up” to also endure the consequences of potential injuries. Once the service member has sustained a brain injury (and/or PTSD), no matter how mild, the dynamic of the service member’s relationship with his/her spouse/significant other changes: to that of a caregiver, the person who must take on more responsibilities, and consequently, additional stress, transitioning from their roles as wife, partner, friend, and confidante, to the role of caregiver, appointment scheduler, nursemaid, and general life planner. Often times, the caregiver doesn’t realize that transition; I hadn’t realized that transition when Mike’s physical health was in deterioration, as I accompanied Mike to his doctor’s appointments, asking questions during the doctor’s appointments, giving him reminders, making sure he was eating healthy, and general care for his physical health. I felt, I was his fiancée, so these were my responsibilities.
I had asked why the family caregivers are not usually recognized; it is because they are hesitant to ask for help: “He’s my husband, I’ll take care of him; it’s my job,” and I instantly understood. Although she may have the ideation that it is her “responsibility” to care for her husband, she can grow tired of having to make all the decisions, having to do everything, or not having gratitude or acknowledgement for taking on so much more responsibility: responsibility she takes on alone. Another reason the spouse/significant other may be overlooked is that people assume she will provide care, not understanding or recognizing the toll it takes on her, physically or emotionally.
The spouses/significant others often stay in the dark in what they go through, in part because the spouses/significant others don’t want to “take away” from what the Veteran or Soldier is going through, with the ideation, “He’s the one going through this, who am I to complain?” She not only recognizes that her husband is suffering, but she is also putting everyone else’s needs first. She will never ask for help. She will never share her difficulties. She will never complain. Consequently, family caregivers can often feel powerless. However, the integrative treatment programs stress that the spouse/significant other can regain power in an uncontrollable situation, by taking responsibility for her own health and happiness. The best thing the spouse/significant other can do for their husbands and for themselves: be healthy, physically and emotionally. Although they have the ultimate strength, it is also important for the spouse/significant other to let go of the guilt, and to take off the “Superwoman cape.”
I wish I was invincible. I wish I was stronger. But I am only human; and as a human, I have my limitations. Mike finally received his formal diagnosis of PTSD, which allowed him to enter the correct PTSD therapy program; he was only a few weeks away from finishing the PTSD program when he began his first week of hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) to treat his brain injury. Mike had called me from the airport on the Sunday morning before he was to begin treatment, and texted me that evening when he arrived. I had not heard from him for a week, which was unusual. I knew that for some clients, HBOT could be exhausting, and I gave him a call on Saturday (a day he wasn’t receiving treatment), to check on his progress. Not only did he not pick up, he didn’t respond to my voicemail, when I had expressed concern for him (which was unacceptable, after a period of him not calling me at all: a time when I considered letting go, but fate determined that wasn’t the time).
It was at this point when I began to feel, not like his friend, but rather a mere instrument to his well-being. No one should ever feel that way. No one should ever be treated that way. I wanted to be his support throughout his journey, from finish to end. As much as I wanted to remain in Mike’s life, after all, we had been in one another’s lives for over ten years, I realized how unhealthy it was for me. I had hoped that after treatment, Mike would “remember” the life we shared, and we could rebuild what we had; but deep in my heart, I knew he was never coming back to me. I knew I had to let go. I supported him as long as I could, as I was comforted in knowing that he was almost finished with his PTSD program, and he started treatment for his brain injury. He emailed me later that evening, “… yes I understand it is once again not cool of me to just stop talking to you and not tell you why…” but it was too late. Mike admitted to me that he has had a hard time letting me go, but I think he, too, knew it was too late, and he had to let go: “I will say this, there will never be a day in my life where I don’t think about you, ever. It’s just another sad truth I have stupidly burdened myself with.”
Mike and I had been physically apart for a few years, and perhaps, emotionally, we had grown apart, despite the daily phone calls; despite being the one person who knew him best; despite how much I wanted to believe I could reach his heart. Mike is essentially a stranger; a stranger with a familiar face. Despite the pain I have felt and the sacrifices I have made, I believe that this was my destined path: to be in Mike’s life for these specific years, no more, no less. I was predestined to save and support Mike, and that is the reason fate had pushed me towards him. Now that I have served my purpose, fate has pushed him away from me. Because that is our destined path: away from one another, only to run parallel. It was taking this path and getting lost, which has led me to what I was meant to do, at this point in life.
Why have I decided to share such an intimate story?
I rarely write personally pieces, but a friend has suggested that I write this piece, to help others, who like me, felt like they were alone. She had said, in me sharing my experiences, it could really help other spouses, who have remained in the dark about what they go through, enduring both emotional and physical difficulties while being in a relationship with a Veteran on his journey in healing from PTSD and/or TBI. Perhaps this is my first step in helping others.
What I have learned
What I have learned is that PTSD steals lives. PTSD steals 23 lives every day. PTSD steals one life every 65 minutes. PTSD steals the lives of the living. PTSD stole the person I loved most in this life. PTSD stole the man I was going to spend the rest of my life with. PTSD stole the man who would have been the father of my children. PTSD stole the man who said to me, “You are the woman who I loved, and still love, the most,” a sentiment which continues to break my heart.
What I have also learned is that I can be a part of the solution. I wasn’t able to save my relationship, so the next best thing I can do, is to save the relationships of others. Veterans and Soldiers devote their lives to protecting our country, selflessly, without ego. Often times, they return home with battle scars; those battle scars should not be the cause of more loss, or more scars. With the right treatment, I know Veterans on their path towards healing will regain the lives that PTSD tried to steal; the people PTSD tried to steal from them.
I won’t allow PTSD (or TBI) to steal any more lives, or lives that could have been.