For many veterans’ spouses, we’ve watched our partners struggle not only with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but with other mental health conditions, as well. Around 80 percent people with PTSD wrestle with at least one other co-occuring mental health condition in their lifetime.
What many people don’t see is the impact PTSD and comorbidity have on vets’ spouses.
We’re invisible people with a story to tell about how our partners’ wounds have become our own, a story about how we’ve made our relationships work against all odds.
It’s a story you need to hear.
PTSD and Comorbid Disorders
There are many other physical and psychiatric problems that veterans may face along with PTSD, such as:
• Substance abuse
• Borderline personality disorder
• Panic disorder
• Acute stress disorder
• Social anxiety
• Obsessive-compulsive disorder
• Generalized anxiety disorder
• Dysthymia (chronic depression)
• Suicidal ideation
• Physical problems usually associated with a traumatic brain injury
• Neurocognitive issues usually associated with a TBI
Depression is a widespread problem for veterans with PTSD, with the disorder being three to five times more common in people with PTSD than in people without it. In one study, 45 percent of veterans with PTSD also had depression. Combat vets with PTSD and depression are also more likely to attempt suicide than veterans who have only PTSD.
Despite depression being one of the most common co-occurring disorder among vets with PTSD, it seems little is known about the topic.
Many veterans come home burdened with remorse and guilt. From the people I’ve spoken to, some of them can’t forgive themselves for the things they were forced to do. They come back to us numb, their minds unable to process the terror they experienced, and after a while, some of them start to lose hope. They may not know where to turn for help, or they may think they don’t deserve help. These people can get stuck in their PTSD and depression for years.
Many veterans try to self-medicate their comorbid disorders, which brings us to another common issue: substance abuse.
One-third of veterans with PTSD fit the criteria for problem drinking, even though alcohol can get in the way of treatment, make some symptoms of PTSD worse and set the stage for more trauma, such as car accidents, fights and sexual assault. Some veterans drink or do drugs to try to regain some kind of control in their lives. They’re trying to get a little sleep and drown out the explosions in their heads. They’re trying to feel OK and normal again.
Veterans drink and do drugs because of endorphin withdrawal, too. When we go through some kind of trauma, our brains release huge amounts of endorphins, neurotransmitters that blunt our pain so we can cope with what’s happening. When the trauma is over, our endorphins are depleted, leaving us feeling sad and empty, and driving many veterans with PTSD to get high and drink too much. They can’t find any other way to make themselves feel whole again.
Impact of PTSD and Comorbidity on Veterans’ Spouses
Behind our struggling veterans often stand their suffering wives, unseen heroes whose sacrifices no one seems to notice. How do our partners’ battle wounds affect us?
For some of us, our lives feel out of control. We’re always waiting for the next emergency, the next legal problem, the next catastrophe. As the years go by, we feel more and more isolated, lonely, tired, sick and angry.
Sometimes we develop symptoms that are similar to our soldiers’ symptoms, as well, such as:
• Problems sleeping
• Chronic stress
• Issues with concentration
• Emotional exhaustion from being close to someone who’s undergone trauma, especially if we know a lot about what happened
• Physical pain and issues, like headaches, indigestion, and being prone to infection
• Substance abuse
Some of us even get vicarious PTSD as a result of being exposed to someone else’s PTSD episodes. In one study, 32 out of 56 veterans’ wives showed at least one sign of secondary trauma, while only three of them showed no signs. Obviously, PTSD doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
We’ve watched our veterans struggle with nightmares and insomnia and anger that can erupt out of nowhere. We’ve learned how to go about life tip-toeing around because we know someone we love is in constant pain.
We’ve watched our husbands and wives get impatient with the kids, lose jobs and go to jail.
We’ve learned how to survive by pushing our own feelings, our own hurt, aside so we could make room for someone else’s pain, someone who needed us. Chances are, our partners have nowhere else to turn.
To complicate matters more, depression and alcoholism may also contribute to higher rates of domestic violence in veterans’ marriages. Fifty-five percent of military couples affected by PTSD in one study reported some type of physical altercation at some point during their marriages.
How could all of this not change us?
Obviously, PTSD and its associated conditions don’t happen in a vacuum. So how can we learn to cope with our spouses’ troubles and the ways they impact us?
Coping With PTSD and Comorbidity
Clearly, PTSD and its co-occurring disorders are challenges that many veterans’ wives must learn to deal with, usually with little to no support. How do we do it?
I’ve been with my husband, an Iraqi War vet with PTSD and a couple other problems, for five years. As you can imagine, it’s never been particularly easy. Here’s how I’ve learned to cope.
1. I’ve learned everything I can about PTSD.
Learning about the condition that touches every aspect of my husband’s life has helped me to handle it somewhat gracefully. I don’t have to take things so personally. My husband isn’t angry at me. He’s angry at himself.
It’s easier to check my responses when I remind myself that he’s hurting just as much as I am, if not more. It’s easier to handle flashbacks and anger outbursts now that I know a few techniques for doing so. I know what my husband needs from me, and I know how to take care of myself.
PTSD and comorbid disorders don’t just go away, so we have to learn how to live with them without losing ourselves.
2. I’ve learned how to forgive myself.
Being in love with a wounded veteran doesn’t come with a handbook. We aren’t taught how to support someone with PTSD, so, for me, it’s been a lot of trial and error.
I’ve had to forgive myself along the way. I’ve had to give myself permission to be an imperfect wife who makes her share of mistakes. There have been times I’ve messed everything up and just made matters worse. Out of ignorance, I’ve said things that have cut my partner deeper than any knife could ever go. I’ve lashed out and then taken it all back.
I’ve learned to forgive myself for being human. I’ve learned to extend a little compassion and grace towards my husband’s most loyal and trusted ally — me.
3. I’ve kept a little bit of me for me.
When we’re close to someone with a lot of emotional damage, it isn’t hard to lose ourselves in the struggle. It’s important we do what we can to keep a little bit for ourselves.
I love to write blogs and read books and take pictures of nature. These are things I do for me and only me. This is the stuff no one can take away because it’s a part of who I am.
It’s the same perspective I had when my son was an infant. I dedicated myself to taking care of another person, but I refused to lose myself in the role. We don’t have to neglect ourself to be loving mothers and wives.
This is especially important when we’re married to a veteran with PTSD and other psychiatric disorders. We need to know who we are and what we need to do to keep some kind of peace with ourselves and the world.
4. I’ve dealt with my own baggage.
Let’s face it: I dragged plenty of my own emotional baggage into my relationship, and that’s the only baggage I can really do anything about.
I’ve learned to handle my own depression, anxiety and problems sleeping and the effect those issues have on the people I love. I’ve had to look at how easily I can get impatient and frustrated with our son. I’ve taken a good look at the trauma I’ve lived through and how it shapes the person I am today.
It’s tempting to point at our spouses and say the damage is all their fault. At some point, though, we need to take responsibility for the harm we’ve done, too. We need to find ways to let ourselves heal and move on before we can help anyone else.
5. I’ve drawn some boundaries.
This took a while to learn, but once I did, it transformed the relationship I have with my husband. Sometimes I don’t feel like dealing with someone who’s drunk and blacked out, so I don’t. A PTSD episode starts to feel unsafe, so I step out of the room. Or maybe I still feel resentful about the way my husband handled a particular situation, so I say what I need to say and tell him what I need from him.
We can feel it when something is unacceptable to us or simply too much to bear. We feel drained, nauseous, fed up,and deflated. Perhaps we feel ourselves taking responsibility for something we don’t own, or we realize our boundaries have been re drawn so many times, we aren’t even sure what we’re willing to accept from other people anymore. That’s when we need to learn how to say “no.” We don’t have to feel guilty for taking care of ourselves, either. We have enough guilt as it is, and some of it was never ours to begin with.
Moving Forward With Compassion
Marriage is about taking care of one another, and it’s no different in veterans’ marriages. We can learn how to balance our time and energy between taking care of our loved ones and taking care of ourselves.
We all deserve a little grace and empathy. Just like our veterans, we’ve made sacrifices that have gone unnoticed and faced demons most people could never imagine. We can’t change what happened to our spouses. We can’t fix them, either. All we can do is learn and grow and try to understand one another. The more compassion we have for our veterans and ourselves, the more room everyone has to connect and heal.