For far too many people, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and military service go hand in hand. Like many things in life, there are varying degrees of PTSD and sometimes it can be hard to understand exactly what you’re dealing with. As a MilSpouse, it is important to be able to recognize the signs and learn how to best navigate them with your partner.
So, what is PTSD exactly? According to the National Institute of Mental Health, PTSD comes after a situation in whichh the body’s “fight or flight” response is triggered – a traumatic event or a series of events that cause the person to have a significant reaction. The second part of the equation is the body’s continued response to the event. PTSD sufferers will re-experience events over and over, even after significant time has passed since they occurred. Sometimes these reactions manifest themselves as dreams, flashbacks or intense thoughts. They can be triggered by anything: places, people, words or noises. These re-experiences interfere with their daily lives.
As a spouse of a service member with PTSD, you play a significant role in the healing process – perhaps an even bigger role than you may realize. Here are some things I found helpful with my own husband when he returned from a recent deployment:
- Be available. I let my husband know that I am here – and that I’m willing to talk about anything and everything. No topic is off limits. Once a week, after the kids are in bed, we have a standing “talk session.” I always make it a point to ask him how he is doing and if he needs anything. I don’t pressure him to talk if he doesn’t want to, and I let him know that even if I don’t understand what he went through, I can understand its effect on him.
- Encourage him to talk to others. When my husband returned from deployment, he went through several tests, and it was recommended that he see someone with the VA to talk about his experiences. He was resistant at first because, like most service members, he prided himself on being able to “handle it.” He put off that first visit for months, but luckily, they kept insisting. I never pushed him, but I let him know that it was OK to go, and if nothing else, maybe they could chat with him and tell him he doesn’t have PTSD. Turns out he does, and they can help!
- Be mindful of overwhelming situations. Noises and places are two big triggers for PTSD symptoms. When my husband first returned home, I talked with my kids about why it was important to not make loud noises/scare/jump on daddy. I also tried to ease him back into society – it’s tempting to want to go places and do things right after your spouse returns because you have missed out on so much while they were gone. But I realized that I didn’t need to have him come to the store with me or go to a busy restaurant during his first week back. One thing he has shared with me is the difficulty of understanding what is and is not a threat. During his deployment he was in an area where everything was an active threat: kids, cars, dogs, strange objects in the road. It was tough for him to let that go and realize that those things were not an immediate threat to him here at home.
- Help him help others. My husband has told me that he considers himself lucky because he has a good support system in place with me, family and friends. He has people he can talk to and joke with that understand him and his experiences. He is adjusting back to civilian life much better than some of the other soldiers in his unit. One of his closest friends is struggling with severe depression and suicidal thoughts after their return. My husband takes a lot of that burden on himself and is trying his best to help – my job is to encourage them to spend time together doing things that they both enjoy.
Whatever form PTSD takes and whatever effects it has on your family, know that there are resources available and people who can help. Never be afraid to ask for help, it may save a life.