This post refers to signs and problems that we, as a family, encountered with PTSD once de-mobilization came and went. Again, this has been based on my husband’s experience and not every soldier will experience the same symptoms. While some of the symptoms will be the same, many will differ from soldier to soldier.
The most confusing aspect, I think, of PTSD is not knowing what accompanies this disorder. If you are a spouse or family member, more than likely you already know from firsthand experience that your soldier is having issues. What all this entails? No one knows unless you are already familiar with it or already been diagnosed. Although the military gives you short list of “what you might expect,” sometimes it’s nice to know what all the symptoms are so you are better prepared. This alleviates that “deer caught in the headlight look” when one of these symptoms shows up.
I would like to reiterate that the military did not give me a user-friendly manual to go by, so all of these I personally experienced myself, with no prior knowledge of the subject . I have been to the Army sites, Mayo Mental Health Clinic and many PTSD resource sites searching high and low for answers, but the best I can offer you is experience and put it into layman’s terms we can all relate to and understand. We, dear readers, will compare our scars. Some of which we were informed “could possibly happen” and some they failed to mention at all.
What I think is funny is that the military gives you this hypothetical “this might happen to you” scenario but in jargon most people don’t understand. I am a smart cookie, college educated and a reader, but no less I still didn’t understand most of what they told us. Yellow Ribbon ceremonies were not something we had the luxury of during this time, but I can say having been to several as an FRG leader, that they are only touching the tip of the iceberg. As we have learned from history, tips of icebergs can sink whole ships.
I like how they give you one- or two-word explanations of flashbacks, hyper arousal, numbness and avoidance leaving you thinking “Uh huh, got it”. Then you are facing all this, and it’s more like “I wasn’t really paying attention!”. Now it’s not that you weren’t paying attention intentionally, it’s just that you have homecoming on the brain and that’s all you can think of. If you don’t have a full explanation of what these terms are, you are pretty much left in the dark and it’s a little too late to be prepared.
Flashbacks or Intrusive Memories: Well, this one is self explanatory and although I haven’t been able to witness it firsthand because I am obviously not psychic, it simply means reliving the traumatic moment for minutes or days at a time. My husband did tell me one time it was like having a digital camera in his head, flipping through those moments over and over again. Some smells can come back to haunt him, sometimes sounds…all as hallucinations. Sometimes he can think of other things and clear his head, other times he can’t seem to rid his mind of anything but those horrific images. This one is hard to deal with because my husband suddenly has them with no warnings, sweats profusely and can become very agitated. Simple things like a car backfiring or sudden popping noises can send him on a downward spiral really fast. The smell or site of blood also causes him to have serious issues with flashbacks.
Upsetting Dreams/Nightmares/Night Terrors: Through nightmares, my husband has said he has relived moments of terror for many nights after he came home. Most of which I could make out, some of which I realized what had happened after speaking to one of his fellow members about some things that happened over there after the fact. In this discussion, I realized then what my husband was screaming about or mumbling about in his sleep. I have witnessed one-sided conversations, screaming in the middle of the night, moaning and groaning, yelling for his privates and specialists to “bunker down” or fussing at them for not listening.
Then we have the bloodcurdling scream of terror which can pretty much scare the hair off your head if you are deep asleep yourself! I have learned that he can be pretty violent in his sleep and have suffered my share of bruises in the process. Waking him up from these can be a job too, as most of the time he is so into it, that it’s hard to rouse him awake. I can say now after some heavy dosing of Trazadone (most commonly used for nightmares in PTSD), that I can have a halfway decent night’s sleep.
Avoidance : The only doctor I can really relate to is Dr. Seuss, so I can’t really define and understand what avoidance is. According to the Mayo Clinic, avoidance includes : “Trying to avoid thinking or talking about traumatic event, feeling emotionally numb, avoiding activities they once enjoyed, hopelessness about the future, memory problems, trouble concentrating, difficulty maintaining close relationships.” Well, that beat my initial thought of avoidance as being just the avoidance of family. Open communication is something that doesn’t happen in our marriage – not for the duration of our marriage, but especially since he has been home. It’s not just about avoiding war-related topics, it’s pretty much anything and everything.
The most we talk about is what he might want for supper that evening or perhaps the latest about his mother if he listens to me long enough to rant. I have absolutely no idea what is going on with my husband’s life. What a shame huh? Considering this used to be my very best friend and that we shared everything with each other. He avoids large crowds, any type of crowded small places, family, me and the list could just keep going. Every once in a blue moon my PTSD Vet will out of the blue relay some information on his ventures in Iraq to me. What he has told me has left me horrified and shocked, so I can understand why most of them don’t want to talk about it.
Emotional Numbing: Oh yeah. What irritates me about the military’s “maybe/might/possibly” definition doesn’t quite explain the lengths to which this numbness goes to. He doesn’t care about anything or anyone. Period. He doesn’t care what he says, how he hurts people, how he lets them down. He doesn’t care if he hurts himself or any consequences of his actions. He doesn’t even try to act like he cares. That’s not emotional numbing, Uncle Sam, its emotional death. It’s the end of my old husband and friend. It’s an empty shell of a person with no heart and no conscious. They don’t feel anything, they don’t care about anything and they just feel nothing.
The most common complaint of combat PTSD veterans is that they know they should feel something, they just can’t. Their minds have lost that hardwire to be capable of feeling. The soldier might go through the motions of saying what you want to hear, but do they really feel apologetic? Do they feel love and happiness? Nada on all the above. They are simply just there. You will come to see me refer to my combat PTSD veteran with many names – some nice and not so nice. “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, “Pod Person”, “Empty Shell Man” are my three nice ones. All I feel best relate to the situations and moods my husband has. “Pod Person” is what best fits this description because they left a normal person, came home like something from outer space where an alien has switched them with a pod person. They sound like themselves, they look like their old selves, but inside it’s just a walking empty zombie.
Avoiding Activities He Once Enjoyed: Let’s revamp that phrase. Let’s add in, avoids all family members, buddies at work, loses interest in fishing (which was his all-time favorite pastime), working or putzing in his garage, and, of course, spending any time with his wife or kids. This has to be the one of the hardest things to deal with because most of the time the spouse or significant other feels it’s them and, trust me, talk about a slap to the old self esteem! The only activity I can say my husband still enjoys and doesn’t avoid is football. Any and all football. I think with football fanatics, we could have a nuclear meltdown outside and the world be lost…but as long as football is still on television, hey, it’s all good. I sometimes come across things that were purchased as hobby items, some never used but once or twice, and it saddens me because he has lost so much interest in everything.
Hopelessness About the Future: I can honestly say I really don’t understand this one and perhaps in my situation this is the only one that has me stumped as far as a layman’s definition. I know he hasn’t mentioned school, growing old, concerns that we have a pre-teen on our hands and driving lessons to deal with soon or college plans…nothing. He says he has absolutely nothing to look forward to and doesn’t want to. We used to sit and discuss how we would live up here on this ol’ mountain, discussing our dentures and hope that the grandchildren raise a white flag before coming up the driveway so pappy don’t shoot. That comforting rocking chair of a future holds no place with him anymore. Most couples can look forward to growing old together, sharing the memories or what can be with our children, but my vet just doesn’t have an interest in any of it.
Hyper Arousal: In the beginning when I first heard this term, I thought it pertained to sex! Naturally, after researching (insert blush here), I realized that it had nothing to do with that at all! The best way I can define this for you is this: when your vet comes home and sleeps with his gun. Perhaps he wakes up and reaches for his gun. Constantly watching behind his back as if something is going to walk up behind him, entering a room and sitting with his back against the wall, or fear of coming up on a corner on a street where he can’t see around it. I have also seen my husband walk into a place and immediately scout out all exits, carefully look around all the place for “out of place” patrons or suspicious characters. To put it simply, the vet is on guard all the time at any place. They can’t seem to relax, and they don’t seem to understand they do not have the same potential threats as they did overseas.
Memory Problems and Trouble Concentrating: His memory seems to have gone MIA somewhere between Iraq and Tennessee. Still looking for it but I think I am slowly losing hope that it will be found. I used to think he was so preoccupied with other things that he would simply forget…but it’s getting worse and the more I think about it, the more I see it in everyday things. Some days it’s just forgetting what I told him to pick up at the store or simply forgetting family obligations or promises made. It can be appointments, work days or medications. “I forgot” seems to be a daily statement from my husband and sometimes can be the most infuriating aspect of PTSD, especially when something is important. Most of the time it’s like dealing with someone who has ADD. We later determined that my husband was suffering from Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) which can also add to the severe memory loss. Double Whammy for us and all I can do is pin a note to his shirt and hope he gets to where he needs to be. Much of my time is spent reminding him to take showers, shave, take his medicine, eat and even to get up and go to bed.
Difficulty Maintaining Close Relationships: Ain’t dat de truth! Seriously….who thinks of this stuff? Should this even be a number in this classifications of symptoms? I mean, looking at the top signs listed here, one could ascertain that holding down a committed relationship would be quite hard, perhaps not just for the person with PTSD but for the significant other! I have learned that the vet will often push aside their spouse and pretty much destroy everything in their path. I don’t think it’s intentional though, it just somehow happens. I think they intentionally punish themselves out of guilt and frustration, and we as the family are just too good for them in their minds. It’s easier to lash out and push away, than it is to try to cope with what’s going on in their heads.
Anger and Resentment: It can be any little thing and any big thing. I find that he is angry about everything most of the time. I’m not always sure what it is about, and sometimes the anger is geared towards me. I find myself wondering, “What did I do wrong this time?” This happens on a weekly, if not daily basis, when it’s at its peak. Resentment: I find that sometimes I feel he resents me for being here. Resentful that he has children, resentment towards the military, resentment towards the air that he breathes. In the almost four years with my PTSD vet, I have learned that we as spouses/significant others are really just scapegoats. Often times they don’t realize they are being so nasty or mean, other times they black out and are not even aware of anything period. Perhaps guilt stems their anger, maybe it’s just because a deeper part of them realizes they lost so much of themselves over in the white sands of Camel Country. This anger can turn into emotional outbursts, volatile behavior and aggressiveness so do be cautious.
Sleepwalking: This was first when I knew something was wrong the first few days he was home. He would fall asleep and then when he was deeply asleep, the games would begin. Sometimes it was yelling out or kicking. Other times I would wake up after feeling movement and find he was standing on the bed trying to work with what reminded me of control buttons, invisible on the ceiling. How in the world this over 6’5″ man detoured the ceiling fan that was going every night continuously amazed me. Other times he was walking around not only the bedroom but the rest of the house, looking for someone although I never caught his name. Other times he would wake me up and grab me and curse at me. Scared me to death! I mean, getting woke up out of the blue and finding this pod person standing over you and cussing you, doesn’t say “Good morning star shine!” The hitting and the kicking was just about too much for me.
One night, I woke up and he started yelling about someone not paying attention. When I tried to gently wake him up and say “Honey, it’s me”, I got his hands wrapped around my neck and called all sorts of names. Once I hit him back and said “Dammit, let go!” he stopped, rolled over and went back to sleep. I never told him about that night, not knowing if 1. he would believe me or 2. it would make him feel bad. I knew he couldn’t help it. I haven’t had a good night’s sleep since then and it’s been over three years. I installed baby gates near any stairs, child locks on doorknobs, and missed enough sleep that I will be seventy before I get caught back up.
Going Anywhere in Public is Difficult: Ok let’s face it, most men don’t want to go grocery shopping with their spouses or head to Wal-Mart because, well, Wal-Mart is sometimes a cornerstone to hell if you catch it on a busy day. I guess in the short amount of time we have had to spend with each other, I am so desperate for time with him that even grocery shopping allows me to feel like he is with me. Some places he gets irritable and cranky, other places where people start bumping into him, he flips out and starts cussing. Sometimes he just gets so bad I get embarrassed, and he ends up leaving and I end up by myself on the verge of tears.
At one store, security was actually called on him because they thought he was threatening me. Advice number one: Tell Home Depot management that you have a vet with PTSD and cops do not play well in their PTSD-screwed-up world. Our children love love love Chucky Cheese, and although I can honestly say that place makes me want to be an alcoholic, sometimes a parent must endure the crappy stuff just to see their children smile. He, on the other hand, would rather stay home, letting me face the questions of “Mom, how come we can’t go here or there” and then try to explain that places like that upset Daddy or simply that we will go another time. I resent that. Extremely so. I resent that we can’t go anywhere without an episode or ruining it for the whole family. Some days I just give up on the idea of making memories other than ones that are made here at home or simply any memory that doesn’t include him.
Paranoia: Gosh, where does one begin? Since he has been home, there have been so many accusations, I could not even remember all of them even if I wanted to. Some have been just out and out ludicrous, and others have been so hurtful that I am not even sure I could ever get those comments out of my head. They range from having supposed affairs while he was gone, poisoning him via his meals during supper (although we all ate from same pot and at same time), stealing money from our account and hiding it in a secret stash (what money? It’s not like we are making 100 grand a year!), and the most hurtful of all……accusing me of getting pregnant on purpose with our two children. Even accusing me of getting pregnant from another man while he was gone and trying to pass it off as his. I got pregnant within the first two weeks he was home, and throughout the whole pregnancy felt no matter what I did, I could not prove to him that this was his child.
Naturally, once he saw his son and the tell-tale trait of his side of the family, there was no denying it. His paranoia can range from driving along side large tanker trucks on the highway (I have learned to drive behind them or speed up to pass them), paranoia about neighbors or people in our community that might be terrorists, to even children who suddenly walk up or near him. The list is endless here with the paranoia, and sometimes I want to smack him upside the head and tell him how silly he is being on some things.
Ruins Every Important Moment or Holiday: Sabotage I tell you, and I can’t figure out why! It doesn’t matter whether it’s Christmas or our anniversary, there is either an instigated (by him) fight or he acts like this total monster so we are all angry at him and the event is ruined. Nowhere in all this PTSD resource information can I find anything remotely pertaining to this. I like to think this is linked to the “no happiness” zone of PTSD because if we are happy, he is supposed to be and the “pod person” just can’t be happy at all. I can’t remember one single family get together or holiday/anniversary/birthday that hasn’t been ruined in the almost four years he has been home. It has gotten so bad that my children shy away from holidays because they “know how dad gets”. From my preteen’s perspective, I can see how he understands it. But from my four-year-old? These words should never be spoken out of his beautiful innocent mouth.
High Sex Drive: I think this has something to do with the adrenaline rush, or perhaps his medications. He could have sex or four times a day every day and never be happy with anything less than seven days a week. I read that one of his medications causes his sex drive to be higher, but seriously? No woman could stand it seven days a week! Now, this is in the first stages of being home. Later down the road, the sex drive is abruptly halted due to medications that the VA puts them on which can cause the downstairs departments to go on a very long vacation. The issues with the high sex drives can be a problem because here we are slowly careening towards infidelity and porn/sex addictions.
Violence: He often gets mad and then he wants to “kill that person” who ticked him off, of course not literally but still he can just go on and on to the point I get angry at him. Sometimes it seriously concerns me and I haul his butt back to the VA for a routine check. Often enough this type of behavior makes me think of him as a child in a bout of a temper tantrum and my only hope is I can find something to pacify him. There have been several occasions where I have pushed him out of my way when he has gotten up in my face to scream and only because he is so close he is spitting in my eyes. Now although domestic abuse is not occurring in our household, I can say that our brand new home has taken a few hits for the team and Home Depot and Lowe’s are now my favorite stores.
I can’t stress to you how important it is to GET OUT if violence occurs in your home and it causes physical harm. It can get worse, and there is absolutely nothing you can do to fix it. They can often blackout or zone out, leaving them more dangerous and volatile. Some of our men can kill their spouses with bare hands, so it’s best to walk out, call the police, whatever you need to do to put your family in a safe situation. You can love someone and have to walk away, there is no shame in that. You as the spouse/significant other have to care for yourself and especially if children are in the household.
Blackouts: Sometimes he experiences blackouts when driving down the road and does not know where he is going or how he got there. Other times when he gets in his tirades, he doesn’t remember doing something or the things he says. It’s like another part of him takes over and his mind is no longer there. He can literally walk into a store and be there for hours. I have had many calls where I have had to go pick my husband up because the store thinks he is “casing” the place. He goes in and thinks its 10-15 minutes, when in reality he can be there for five hours and never once realize it. Driving down the road while doing this is extremely dangerous, so therefore I must drive him now to where he needs to go.
Everything is Everyone Else’s Fault: Let’s play the blame game, ladies and gentlemen! I don’t know if this is even relevant to PTSD, but seems to be consistent with other spouses I have spoken to whose spouses have PTSD. I can’t even get an apology without him adding a “But so and so ticked me off”, or “I’m sorry, but you constantly nag”. Ummm, ok. It seems to be a constant thing whether it be at work, friends or at home….it’s always someone else’s fault. Most of the time though, I take the blame for any and all….even when he doesn’t tell me what’s wrong. Blaming is actually easier for them to do than it is to face up to their own failures and issues.
The Stupid Syndrome (Seeking Adrenaline Rush): The Stypid Syndrome, as I so lovingly refer to it, can be from anything that gives them an adrenaline rush. One night under the influence of several Busch’s and Jack Daniels’ products, he mentioned that doing stupid stuff gave him the same high or adrenaline rush like he had every time he would go outside the wire overseas. Some can be petty incidents, but other times I want to smack him upside the head and yell “Are you stupid or do you want to kill yourself?”. Hence, the name “Stupid Syndrome”. The stupid syndrome can also be linked to infidelity, stealing and even murder. There are many case studies being done with Veteran Prisoners serving life sentences for killing someone all while on the search for a high shot of adrenaline. Smaller things can be driving while intoxicated and speeding dangerously. The rush that they had every day in a war zone is often very hard to duplicate so they are constantly seeking more and more. It’s like a terrible addiction. Their brains are permanently hardwired to live under duress and in the “flight or fight” mode. Once they come home, they don’t know how to duplicate this same process, and they need it because that’s what they are used to.
Secrecy and Lies: Not really sure how to describe this one. But I have all of these incidents rolodexed in my memory like men often claim we do. Mostly it has to do with money or financial transactions. Others can be as small as saying he was at a friend’s house when he was actually somewhere else. At times, I often think he has an affair, as any sane woman would automatically think when there are lies and secrecy, but everything he has done has been verified. So why lie about something so piddly and unimportant? In the entire time we have been married (pre deployment), there were no lies and no secrets….just since he has been home. He can lie about the smallest of things and leaves me to wonder why he even bothers. If you are going to lie, lie BIG. I never knew my husband to be a liar and since he has been home, I can’t trust him as far as I can spit, which isn’t very far.
The Infamous “D” Word: Now I admit that since he has been home things have been so complicated and stressed, that I have said if we could not work things out or if he didn’t love me anymore, then I should leave. I partially accept responsibility for the words I have said, but it seems to me like sometimes that is the only way I can get him to listen. However, in self-defense, when he gets angry, he says, “I don’t love you anymore” or “Go away and leave me alone”, constantly. I have tried to explain to him that this “I hate you, get out….wait don’t go I love you”, is not healthy for me or the family. Hell, it wouldn’t be for anyone!
So why is it that when we get angry the big ugly “D” word comes out? Is divorce really what he wants? I don’t know. Some days I feel if the kids and I left, he would probably kick up his heels and cheer! Another part of me says he really doesn’t feel that way, it’s just an easier way to hurt me because he is hurting and has no one else to take it out on. The biggest part of me wishes though that the man I loved and married would look at me and say, “If you leave, you will take all of my happiness and I can’t live without you”. Sigh….the romantic in me. Guess this is no movie, ladies, because the leading man failed to rescue his one true love.
Self-Medicating and Addictions: Now I haven’t really been faced with anymore than drinking heavily on occasion, but there are more and more spouses filling the e-mail inbox on my blog asking about porn addictions, gambling, alcoholism, drugs and infidelity. I can’t really give you much of a definition on this, but I think it’s a temporary band-aid that covers up all the emotions they are going through. Our biggest issue here is with money. Exorbitant spending/shopping addictions were a big problem with my vet but one we have been able to solve. Self-destruction is a common thing with PTSD whether it be small or big problems and ones that needs to be addressed ASAP.
So there are my vet’s mental battle scars laid out before you. Kind of scary if you look at them for the first time and are not experiencing all these, even more enlightening if you are seeing issues in your soldier. I really like when the military and professionals tell you if your soldier exhibits these signs then seek help immediately! Before I get to deep into that topic, lets save that for another time! For those who actually made it this far, I hope you found some comfort knowing that you aren’t the only one who is going through all this. If you are going through this or something else, leave a comment! There is always something I have missed or not experienced but is important to share with others.
This did happen to me.
~Uncle Sam’s Mistress~