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 in 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-age children — a daughter in fourth grade and a son who was a freshman in high school. The weight of the family was now on my shoulders alone 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 the PTSD. Here are some things that have helped us as a family through 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 sufferers of 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, so I marked the calendar to remind myself to be on the lookout for signs of agitation or depression at those times. When I saw those symptoms, I talked them over with David and he contacted his doctor to increase his medications until he felt better.
Controling 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 of avoiding 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 to be able to ask questions about their dad's illness and to 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 myself was going through with a few close friends, my pastor and a counselor on a one-on-one basis. Few of my friends had experience with PTSD, but they were willing to listen, to learn and to encourage me. Understanding and feedback from my closest friends helped me gain a better perspective on our 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. 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, but I had distanced my heart enough so that I would not panic. This had the negative effect of blocking good feelings, too. I sought help to face these emotions 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 the event, but it was sixteen years before I could write a narrative account about it without a black cloud of depression settling on my spirit. However, one day, I just knew it was time. I was ready. I began writing, tears running down my cheeks, until I had the rough draft of the story written. It took three weeks, and it was the fastest rough draft of a book I had ever written.1 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. It gave each of us a deeper compassion for those who suffer. Both our children are now successfully working in professions that serve those who are in need, perhaps because of what they went through as children of 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