Today is the 12th annual "National Survivors of Suicide Day." It's also a day of healing for survivors of suicide loss around the world.
Every day 18 veterans take their own lives; every 36 hours, an active duty soldier does. The pain is immeasurable, not only for the one who cannot bear it anymore and takes his or her own life, but also, importantly, for the ones they leave behind. They wait for time to heal those wounds; but it's almost impossible for time to do that; the loss is so great, particularly where there was also great love.
Because of how many veterans die each year at their own hand, affecting so many others in suicide's wake, we wanted to honor these relationships by asking a wonderful woman to tell the deeply true and deeply painful story of her own loss of her love to suicide. By telling the truth about these stories, and bringing this sadness into the light that truly so many share, we can embrace one another in the courage and compassion it takes to carry on. Marilyn has graciously shared her story, below. We are blessed to have her presence here.
"The Language of Suffering and Healing: Lessons Learned from Loss and Life with a PTSD Vet"
Suffering has its own language. Old words take on new powerful meanings, and some words that formerly brought up feelings of joy now are redefined with fear and terror.
When you live with and love someone with combat Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, you develop a new vocabulary related to the disorder/the suffering. The word “anniversary” used to be one associated with dressing up, going out to dinner, exchanging cards and gifts of love. Then it came to be associated with the anniversary dates of horrible, tragic events from the war -- i.e. the day a buddy was blown out of the air in his helicopter during a mission. The word “trigger” has a common definition referring to a part of a gun -- now it referred to a smell, a sound, a sight, a verbal exchange, a situation that could set off rage, depression, anger, or isolating.
My late Vietnam vet husband, Denny, suffered with severe combat-related PTSD. Truthfully, we both suffered from his PTSD. Even though technically I wasn’t a soldier in Vietnam, it seems for a time, during the final ten years of our marriage, I became a prisoner of that war.
I feel I need to let you know right off that this story does not have a happy ending. On December 9, 2009, my husband successfully completed suicide. I say “successfully completed” because he had tried numerous times before in the last several years, but I had been able to save his life those other times. Not so, this time.
So now, in reality, I have my own set of “triggers” and “anniversaries” stemming from Denny’s PTSD behaviors and suicide. I am sure these will be with me the rest of my life; but hopefully, with focused healing work they will hold less sway with my emotional well-being.
Countless articles, journals, blogs and books have been written about combat PTSD, each one with its own unique focus. In this reflection piece, I can only do two things: I can share my own personal experience of living, loving a Vietnam vet who eventually committed suicide; and, I can share what I have learned from these experiences. After all, isn’t that what it’s all about? What happened in your life, and what you learned from it.
The moment I met Denny, I knew my life had been forever changed. I felt a connection with his soul I had never before experienced -- and I’m pretty sure, I never will again.
He was a professional storyteller who came to my fifth grade classroom, to enhance the reading curriculum and increase the students‘ academic performance through an artistic approach. He taught the students a love of story and characters through the sharing of folktales, fairytales, and the narratives of his own personal experiences. And, oh, the personal experience narratives he had had in his life! Denny told of sailing a boat during a Nor’easter, living in a tree house in Peru and hiking the Machu Pichu trail, fighting forest fires from a helicopter, hitchhiking across North America -- more adventures than most of us could ever dream of having. And he told his adventures with a gleam in his eyes and a song in his heart.
But another story was being written during his time in my classroom, and that was our story. We fell in love, got married, and between the two of us raised seven children (from previous marriages) and four grandchildren. Our marriage was far from fairytale perfect, even in the beginning. We had both been married and many hearts were broken in our coming together. But we endured and learned and clung to each other through the good and the bad times.
At about the 12 year point in our relationship, a new entity/force entered the picture. This was an uninvited presence, unrecognized at first – but the behaviors it produced and the unwanted consequences it set in motion seemed to have a life of their own.
On September 11, 2001, when the planes crashed into the towers in New York, and the war ensued with Iraq – for Denny, this was the final unleashing of his own, internal war. He had been battling this war privately for years, but now, his inner battles consumed him. At this time, “our” war with PTSD began in earnest. PTSD was the new entity in our marriage, and 9/11 was the trigger.
Within two weeks after 9/11, Denny was in a mental hospital due to suicidal ideations. I had never even heard that term, “suicidal ideations,” before, but my vocabulary education was just beginning.
Denny was depressed and despondent. After his release from the first of many behavioral hospital stays, he felt somewhat better for a while and the depression meds seemed to help.
But periods of happiness and calm were short-lived and mostly non-existent. He began canceling his performances due to severe anxiety attacks. Much of his time was spent on the couch under a sleeping bag watching certain movies over and over. The movies -- Gladiator, Fly Away Home, and SeaBiscuit -- all had the same theme, personal triumph over adversity and challenge. But they also had a lot of sadness and tragedy embedded within them.
It was also an extremely confusing time for me.
Denny had been such a force of talent and admired by many. He performed before audiences of thousands, but now, he was a shell of his former self. He had also been my rock of strength, my touchstone for love and sanity in life. Now, he struggled just to survive each day. He once told me during his intense depression times, that he felt like he was walking through life with a heavy rubber suit on. Very sad.
Waiting for the diagnosis
Denny still had not been diagnosed with combat PTSD. The doctors we were seeing were on the civilian side, and they missed the combat connection to his present day state of being. His diagnosis was “severe chronic depression and anxiety.” Under their care, he received some therapy, numerous anxiety and depression meds, and even 15 rounds of electric shock therapy – at Denny’s own request. He so desperately wanted to feel “normal” again.
Over the next several years, his behaviors escalated to include: alcohol abuse, drug abuse, repeated suicide attempts (always by taking meds), extramarital affairs, physical abuse, severe anxiety attacks, night tremors, rage, isolation, and flashbacks.
Each of these were ongoing and extremely painful events to deal with and live through, for both of us.
Eventually our local doctor suggested we take Denny to the VA, suspecting his combat experience was in play with his ever-increasing risky and damaging behaviors. After a 45 minute intake interview, I learned the term that seemed to define our current situation and the outlook for our future: combat-related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Denny had it and he had it bad. His time in Vietnam as a helicopter pilot had damaged him mentally, emotionally and spiritually. And it seemingly had returned to completely claim its victim.
The VA knew more about his PTSD, but for Denny their attempted therapies, meds, support groups, etc. did not work. He was spiraling down and I knew if I did not get help for myself, I would go right down with him.
I had joined Al-Anon (a 12-step program for people who loved someone with addiction) when it originally seemed like Denny’s problems stemmed from alcohol and/or drug addiction.
It was not easy to join a support group because I had always believed I could fix or handle any problem that came along in my life. Only it was obvious my methods were not doing any good in this situation, and if anything, I was only getting into a depression myself. In those Al-Anon meeting walls/rooms, with those other suffering people, my first ray of hope began to appear.
I started to learn and accept some critical information to save my own sanity: I did not cause Denny’s problems, I could not control his behaviors, and I could not cure him. The people in my Al-Anon group, my sponsor, the readings, the meetings were the beginning of my effort to find my own peace - no matter what was happening with Denny and our marriage. Before I felt hopeless, confused, angry, out-of-control, and frustrated trying to get him the help he needed and trying to fix him. Now I was beginning to feel some peace.
Love and loss
I also learned in these meetings about loving detachment -- that I could still love Denny but detach myself personally from his actions. In other words, his choices were not about me -- no matter what he said or did. It was never about me - it was always about him and his suffering. His pain had begun long before I met him even though the drastic behavioral manifestations did not appear until much later in his life -- about 30 years after the war.
After Denny was diagnosed by the VA, I was asked to join a support group for women married to or living with a vet with combat PTSD. This group met weekly at the VA and was facilitated by a woman counselor. The other ladies that attended these meetings have become dear friends through the years. Their marriages were practically cookie-cutter versions of my own. The same issues, the same behaviors, the same frustrations, and ultimately the same sense of loss -- for that was the bottom line for us all. We all felt that we had lost the man we fell in love with. That man did not exist anymore. It seemed we lived with a man/child made of ice -- frozen emotions, feelings frozen in a time and place inaccessible to any of us. Ultimately, whether Denny could not heal or chose not to heal, I will never know.
The beginning of the end
In the first few days of November 2009, Denny and I had an argument that set off a trigger for him. He went into a severe rage and physically attacked me. I was lucky to get out alive. I left our home of 20 years, as I had three times before when it was not safe, but this time felt eerily different. It felt
“of the end,” somehow.
I moved into an apartment and after a few weeks passed, I began returning Denny’s almost hourly phone calls and innumerable texts and email messages. He was not doing well, to say the least.
He could not remember the attack fully but he did feel “shame” from it. He begged me to come home but I told him I could not until he committed to serious long-term mental therapy and it was safe for me. One of the last emails he sent me said, “I want to be loved so desperately, yet have no patience for love”.
On December 8, 2009, he called me two different times and threatened suicide as he had so many times before. I called the VA suicide team and the sheriff’s department to tell them what he had said. They checked on him twice that day, both times he was able to convince them he was fine – remember, he had been a professional storyteller.
But sometime that night, he decided he had had enough suffering. I cannot speak to what went through his mind at the end, but I know he swallowed many bottles of VA prescription meds and the next morning, he was gone.
It is too painful to describe seeing him in our bed that next morning, so I won’t . I can tell you this, after the medical examiners took his body, they handed me gloves and bags and told me I had to dispose of the “hazardous waste” of our bedding due to the contamination of his bodily fluids. That scene, that experience is now one of the triggers/anniversaries that haunt me. As I continue to choose to heal, I know the pain will be lessened, but that memory will never be erased.
Denny’s suffering ended that day – and mine took a new turn. Attempted suicide is horrible; completed suicide is devastating.
Turning to healing
But there is a new language and a new vocabulary I am learning now. And that is the one of healing.
During the worst times of his PTSD and my resultant confusion, I began to understand through support groups the difference between adjusting and adapting. Whenever I had tried to “adjust” -- i.e., Denny’s behavior, circumstances -- my life only became more frustrating and out of control. When I learned how to “adapt” -- I began to have more control over my life and emotions. By learning how to adapt, I became proactive instead of reactive. I sought out the help I needed through understanding friends, family, but most critically, through the hard work of consistent participation in support groups of my peers.
Through all of these experiences, I believe I have become a more compassionate person. I have learned not to have expectations of others -- only of myself. That does not mean I cannot have boundaries for acceptable and unacceptable behavior -- and I do. However, I find I do best when my focus is on my own behaviors and setting realistic expectations for myself.
I have learned we are all on our journey together and alone. When we are together, we must do all we can to love, support and help ease the suffering of those we are with; and when we are alone, we must find ways to do this for ourselves.
The most significant lesson I learned -- above all else -- is the importance of reaching out and accepting help. We all need to be able to let go of our egos -- to realize we don’t have all the answers and that there are others out there who share in our suffering and trials. When you can dedicate yourself to getting the help you need in these situations, there will still be pain, but you need not suffer.
My suggestions would be to find support groups in your area, through the VA or the Vet Centers. Read related articles, books, online resources, blogs, websites that offer wisdom and support. Whatever you do, remember you must take care of yourself before you can be of any good to others, and that includes your vet.
I am so grateful to have known and loved Denny. I am so sorry for all the pain he endured and I am hopeful he has found the peace he could not find here on this earth, in this life. And I miss him every day more than I could ever have imagined.
My wish for those reading this is the following: If you recognize yourself and your loved ones in any of this writing, that you will reach out, seek out, and accept the help that is available for you.
May you learn the lessons you need that will guide you on a journey of compassionate love for yourself and all those in your life.
Editor's note. In addition to being grateful to Marilyn for sharing her story so graciously and courageously, we also need to share some resources. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has a well-stocked website filled with resources, linked here, including a section on "Coping with Suicide Loss," linked here. Their website is well worth a look. There's also the "Fierce Goodbye" website, a faith-based perspective on suicide, based on a documentary (put together by the Mennonites), linked here. And on the military veteran side, the American Widow Project, most of whom have been widowed by war -- and yet a few by suicide -- is linked here, with the stories of suicide linked here. For more material from our website here on suicide, as it relates to veterans with PTSD, click here. Additionally, crisis and hotline phone numbers are listed here. With love to all concerned...
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