My husband, David, was a peaceful, calm military physician until he went through a terrifying event that lasted about a year. By the year's end, he had changed dramatically. He had developed PTSD.
The pleasant, easy-going man I married had disappeared. In his place was an emotional stranger who sometimes woke up screaming in the middle of the night. Where he had once been the leader of our family, he now needed me to take the reins.
My heart broke with what seemed like incurable grief. What was I to do? How would I hold our family together through this crisis? We had two school-aged children — a daughter in fourth grade and a son who was a freshman in high school. The weight of the family was now alone on my shoulders since David lived in a world of pain and suffering, unable to function as a head of the household.
But gradually, I learned how to cope with greater responsibilities while David learned to manage PTSD. Here are some things that have helped us as a family over the years:
Seeking Medical Attention
As soon as severe symptoms occurred, I took David to a psychiatrist. That doctor immediately diagnosed him with PTSD and started him on medication. It took about two years for the doctor to find the correct combination of medicines to help control the illness. Other treatment options were also available to David through a nearby hospital that offered a variety of programs for people living with PTSD. As David learned about PTSD through these programs, he began to deal with it in a more proactive way.
Preparing for Trauma Anniversaries
During the initial trauma period, David struggled most on specific dates of the year, leading me to mark the calendar to remind myself to be on the lookout for any signs of agitation or depression during those dates. When I would see those symptoms, I would then discuss them with David, and then he would contact his doctor to increase his medications until his symptoms improved.
Controlling PTSD in Ways that do no Harm
David knew that he needed to overcome the fearful memories that haunted him. His faith and forty years of exercising self-control helped him through the struggle. He chose to overcome unwanted thoughts in positive ways, such as listening to calm, encouraging music, or watching comedies on TV. He read books with positive life messages. He also made the conscious decision to avoid unhealthy ways of coping, such as using alcohol or drugs to numb the pain.
Maintaining Good Social Connections
David's natural response to PTSD was to move toward isolation; this was dangerous because isolation often leads to suicide. We countered this tendency by deciding to meet with a small group of friends once a week. These friends listened. They cared. They loved us. They validated our experience of suffering, which helped us to let go of some of the pain.
Building Healthy Family Ties
Though David tended to withdraw even from our children, I encouraged him to spend some time alone with them each week so they could talk. I also spent regular time alone with each child. They needed to feel loved. They needed the opportunity to ask questions about their dad's illness and get some honest answers. Together, we became a strong team.
Releasing from Blame
When David would express guilt for bringing this situation on us, I would say, "This was not your fault! Stop blaming yourself." I chose to be always on his side, always supportive.
Coping As A Spouse
I shared what I was going through with a few close friends as well as my pastor and a counselor that I would see on a one-on-one basis. Only a few of my friends had some experience with PTSD, but they were still willing to listen, learn from, and encourage me. Receiving patience, compassion, and feedback from my closest friends helped me gain a better perspective on my family's new challenge. I learned to be careful not to mention anything that might trigger David's PTSD symptoms. I also learned to forgive those who had harmed my husband, which thankfully I did because I was not able to find any peace until I was finally able to truly forgive them. I chose to laugh and enjoy the good times and not let unforgiveness rob me of joy.
After years of repressing my own panic and fears, I became aware that I could no longer feel some good emotions. I had not lost compassion for David's suffering, as some do. However, I did distance my heart just enough to avoid experiencing panic and fear. This distancing resulted in the negative effects of being unable to experience good feelings, too. Thankfully I decided to sought help to face my fears and to regain my joy.
I found closure when I wrote about the initial trauma and its effects on our lives. I had kept meticulous records during this difficult time. However, it took sixteen years for me to be able to face the trauma by writing a narrative account on it without experiencing a black cloud of depression settling on my spirit. Until one day, I knew it was time to write about it. I remember having tears running down my cheeks as I wrote the entire rough draft of the story. It took me a total of three weeks to complete, and it was the fastest rough draft of a book I had ever written. When it was published, I shared it with our grown children. Seeing it detailed like that helped them find closure, too. I recommend journaling (writing down your feelings and thoughts regularly) to those who have a loved one with PTSD.
The pathway that David and I chose to follow kept our family together. It strengthened us, and gave each of us a deeper compassion for those who suffer. I believe that both of our children are now successfully working in professions that serve people in need because of what they went through as children who had a father with PTSD.
If you are suffering from PTSD or living with someone suffering from PTSD, don't try to go through this alone. If you are unable to find a support group on your own, ask your doctor if he knows of any local PTSD support groups. He will usually have resources to suggest.
If you have no one willing to join you on your journey, please feel free to connect with one of our free and confidential online mentors. Our mentors are not health professionals and cannot offer clinical advice, but they can offer an attentive ear and a compassionate heart as fellow-journeyers in life.
Editor's Note: David is a fictitious name, chosen to protect her husband's privacy. The book mentioned above, One Step Ahead of the Devil, written under the pen name S.M. Hausen, is currently being made into a movie.
This article was written by: Sheri SchofieldPhoto Credit: Milan Popovic