PTSD and the Family: Maintaining Your Unit

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From Somalia to Iraq Ashley Lambert-Wise’s husband, Rob, has served in both the Marines and the Army. Stateside today, he’s engaged in battle with an invisible foe: posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Battling Bare founder, Ashley, explains, “Rob’s second deployment to Iraq really intensified his symptoms. He became more angry and mean; more heavily into drinking and isolation. The sweet, cuddly, gentle and thoughtful man I married had disappeared.”

Ashley confides that it’s not just Rob whose identity changed: what defines their marriage and family (they have three children) altered too.

“This stranger, PTSD, comes into your life so subtly it takes years to realize you’re no longer in control. Suddenly everything revolves around avoiding triggers. Your private time together, your family time – it all has to be carefully managed to avoid outbursts until you finally look at your family and say, ‘Who is this?’”

Ashley’s experience is not unique. The effect of hyperarousal, mood alterations, avoidance and re-experiencing (hallmarks of PTSD) distort survivors and their loved ones deeply and over a long period of time.

On a fundamental level PTSD changes how survivors see themselves and their place in the world, plus how others see them too. How PTSD changes an identity (our perception of what defines us) is one of the illness’ least discussed aspects—even thought a positive identity grounded in a sense of safety and control lies at the foundation of successful recovery and a sustained family unit.

Maintaining a stable identity for yourself and your family while supporting the identity-in-flux of your spouse is challenging. Still, there are concrete steps that can provide continuity:

1. Deeply educate yourself about PTSD

This is a condition driven as much by the science of neurobiology as by the psychological impact of trauma. Understanding that it’s not “all in his head” (plus how to use science to reduce symptoms) is critical to the health of both yourself and your relationship.

2. Stop trying to go back to how things were in the past.

Your spouse will never be who they were before the trauma(s) they experienced. The more you expect that the more distant they will become. Instead, meet your loved where he or she is by looking for how you can connect to them as they are today. Identify common ground moments; as often as possible engage your partner in new (and comfortable) ways.

 3. Be proactive in the present.

While you will want to, resist the urge to fight against the changes. Suspend all judgment and acknowledge the alterations in your spouse, relationship and family. Every day ask yourself and/or your spouse, “How can I make this moment just a little bit better?” Then make a choice and take an action based on the answer.

4. Plan for the future.

You cannot help someone who does not want to be helped. Focus your efforts on researching coping strategies and treatment options so that when a healing opportunity arises you are prepared.

As a spouse you’re in a difficult position: You can see what’s wrong and you have ideas for solutions but often meet resistance. This is natural because for survivors, coping with PTSD is a relentless exercise in trying to stay safe and in control emotionally, physically and mentally.

Healing presents a terrifying prospect of danger, threat and uncertainty. Survivors feel more safe and in control ignoring or denying the problem.

As a caregiver your toughest role will be respecting resistance (both its silence and noise) even while devising a strategy to face the changes—often alone at first, and then hopefully together when your spouse finally feels ready to tackle the PTSD beast.

Michele Rosenthal is an award-winning PTSD blogger, award-nominated author, founder of HealMyPTSD.com, post-trauma coach, host of Changing Direction radio and author of Your Life After Trauma: PowerfulPractices to Reclaim Your Identity (W. W. Norton).

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  • Guest

    I would add, “get counseling for yourself” to your list. I have discovered that there are resources, such as Veterans Centers, who will also offer free counseling to spouses of military personnel dealing with mental health issues. Start at the Coaching Into Care website at http://www.mirecc.va.gov/coaching/ and view the resources they list.

    • ken

      This is sage advice as two are fighting PTSD.

  • Doc

    I think the first comment hit the bullseye. The biggest problem from a family sounds easy for anyone except someone plagued with PTSD. There happens to all families. Everyone is on board because they are about to peel the shell of this hardboiled egg that has been excellently built. It’s fortified so no one can see the real person except the genius construction engineer who has built an impenetrable wall which he only allows himself in. I know because I was in that domain. So a smart wife that hasa degree in that particular field the Husband stands a fighting chance to get to all the great courses you will share with your team. It’s not a miracle cure but it’s pretty close. A lot of negatives in the form of stumbling blocks cab be quickly tossed along the pathway. So I would support not to get withdrawned should they stumble. It’s credible to try and turn it into a joke and have a good laugh. Laughter is a miracle PTSD drug if used in an effective individual. The treatment plans will wash those years of dug in isolations. My Dad was a WWII Aviation mechanic. He was in his 2nd year of Aviation engineering and wanted to be a pilot. They said they were in the Island Hoppings and to train a Mechanic took more time then a Pilot. So he re-evaluated and said once the War was finished, they said they would train him as a Pilot. It took close to 6 years but his chance was open. By then he got tired trying to work on an AC close by. He was not given a level field. They always were under Jap sniper attacks. He was chosen to work on the aircraft that carried the bomb. They were sectioned off from the others and sworn to secrecy. They built a special section just for those who were working on this plan. After the first one Hirohito didn’t refuse so they dropped the second one on Nagasaki. We called Hirohito and said the next groups of bombs into Tokyo. The red phone to lit up and rang what happened was they surrendered. There was no 3rd Bomb. The same with PTSD. when it wants to rule you the classes help you learn how to deal with it. The class is small but everyone has the same problem. That makes it easier to become friends and help one another out. We learn’t to survive with our squad or platoon and we were closer then Brothers. It hasn’t changed. The first class was lik we knew each other from over 40 years ago. Put 15 Vet’s and watch what happens. A Brotherhood all waiting to help each other out. I thank my team and really enjoyed being with them. Knock that shell off you hard boiled egg so we can see inside we are all the same and suffer the same way. Being together helped hurdle all of us back to a world of people that aren’t as fortunate as us Veterans. We will always exist and share the same gladness and sadness but holding together we are invincible!

  • kelley stanfield

    not realizing how bad my husband was really doing. when his group returned from his 2 deployment to afghanistan he was not the same. as a first sgt. he felt very much the protector of his men and women in the helicopters squad he was in. they encouraged the troops and himself to report ptsd when they got back and out of 131 the ones at his base all but 3 needed counceling.what they did not say is they would be put on the mnd list which is another name for we are finding a way to get rid of you. long story short my husband fgound a dr. to take him off that list and gave them 4 months to his retirement date.and he was out by december 2014. he was drinking at least 30 plus beers a day and pot and working at his old job again. he was drunk and mean half the time and other he was tryijg to be best friejnds with our 18, 19 and 21 year olds instead of their dad…things were getting crazy i started catching him at lies and women.but the worst came on the day aft er jhe retired from the guard after 24 uyears and our marrige of 23 years. he came jhome from work at lunch with our friend to serve me with divorce papers!. i have never been so hurt and devestated in my life.he had a lawyer which he used tghe last of our savings for. 2 or 3 girlfriends 1 that jhe started phone skype sex during the last deployment a neighbor, myself, our 3 college kids just begijning and i ha ve just been horrified he said he wanted a new life but he says he is jot happy and he is not good for any of us. i realluy still love him i want him to be okay though and as i want my kids to move on and start their lives. every thing i have believed in has been cracked muy last kid moves ourt tomorrow.m;y house will be empty for the first time in my life burt he won’t be here we are all having a realluy hard time.i also figjht mulsdtple sclerosis which had finallu went into remissiojn yntil recenrtly and i am actually having trouble walking and talking again and i was doing sooo good lost almost 45 pounds. i am lost