I went to a retreat recently for combat veterans and their families. The retreat is in its third or fourth year of existence, and did a fine job with its core mission, which was providing community for veterans who had lost the camaraderie they'd experienced with other vets in combat. In theory it would also have been a supportive experience for family members who ordinarily might not find anyone else to talk with about living with and loving a combat veteran. PTSD wasn't the focus by any means -- it rarely came up -- but of course because of the demographic, many of the people at the retreat were struggling with the experience of having, or living with, someone with combat-based PTSD. And since the focus of the retreat was building community, not therapeutic counseling, the PTSD topic was somewhat of the elephant in the room, at least to me. So many people experiencing it, on one side of the aisle or another (veteran or spouse), yet few addressing it directly and certainly no one officially.
Here are a few observations, based on the experience of spending almost five days with the group. The observations are my own; your mileage may vary.
In addition to the things done well -- community-building, family support (particularly for the children), recreation opportunities, good food, and neat opportunities for bonding among the participants and creative expression -- there were some difficulties, which I think speak to the topic as a whole these days, or the state of affairs on PTSD and the military. Despite the numerous initiatives addressing the topic of PTSD and the military, based on what I saw and experienced, I questioned how much was really getting through. Family members seemed to be living in the midst of PTSD but not being really aware of what PTSD was or how it could affect their relationship.
Civilian spouses, predominantly women, talked about their husband's unpredictable violent tendencies, unwillingness to communicate, or withdrawal, sleeping and crying, without being aware that those were elements of the PTSD he suffered from combat.
Younger spouses appeared justifiably frightened and unsure of how to "read' the signals -- often fearing that they were now bookended by two violent men in their lives -- the father they'd grown up with and left young to marry their husband, and now their husband, returned from combat but without enough progress under his belt in addressing his own PTSD, either through medication or therapy or any other means. The experience was highly raw, and still unfolding. The dominant theme among these young women seemed to be FEAR and CONFUSION, as well as a certain amount of co-dependency. Fear over not understanding their husband's PTSD and confusion over how to interpret the signals or how best to manage the chaos. And co-dependency in contributing their reaction as part of the problem. Their best solutions? My guess: love, support, and EDUCATION -- primarily about the main topics of concern to them. What PTSD is, and issues around co-dependency and safety (domestic violence, safety planning, communication skills, etc.)
Older, theoretically more "mature" spouses, who had endured decades of their husbands' military service and repeated deployments, were sadly not much to look up to for the younger women. The primary theme of their communication seemed to be RESENTMENT. And a pronounced tendency to locate all their problems externally: the slacker husband, his terrible family, the town they lived in to be close to his family, etc. If you were looking for a genuine sense of love and appreciation for the combat vet, despite his shortcomings, well, that appeared to be in short supply. (Which is not to gloss over the exceptional difficulties of living, for years, with someone unpredictable, violent, or withdrawn -- or having to cope single-handedly with the considerable demands of keeping the family on track by yourself. However...)
The trouble with resentment is that it festers, and is a good emotion/reaction to address/move through/and move on -- not a great place to camp out, somewhat indefinitely. It's a short hop from resentment to bitterness, and neither of those are about communication and growth. Prescription? A growing focus, daily, on GRATITUDE -- things to be thankful for and appreciative of, not things to pick apart. Wherever your focus is...that's what you get more of. So why tempt fate with only criticism, when gratitude is also an option? Even the book of Proverbs talks about a "cheerful" (or joyful) heart being "good medicine," but a "crushed spirit dries up the bones..." (Proverbs 17:22.)
(Years ago, when Oprah was doing her "Remembering Our Spirit" segment, one of her consistent tools was the gratitude journal...and the challenge to every day, before bed, find one, two or three things to be grateful for. Many people found the (corrective) experience had the power to change their lives. That on top of addressing the legitimate issues and concerns? Much more positive...Here's a link to what's involved in keeping a Gratitude Journal.)
I remember two years ago when the subject of the "Eyewitness to Combat" series contacted me through this site, and shared that his own family (in his opinion) were frustrated with him and his search for healing, and basically tired of listening to him on the subject. I remember him saying a version of this, that in their opinion, "You were only in combat for two years...how is it possible that you're not OVER it yet...how has it dogged you all these years?" But the reality is, it had. It's not what we want, sometimes, it's the hand that we're actually dealt. And that was his hand...and that was theirs. The same is true today.
What I wish for these spouses is comfort, understanding, good communication, and ultimately JOY. I think of the great women I know, like Kathie Costos, who DO get what it's like to be married to a combat vet with PTSD, and who have excelled, not crumpled, under the strain, and who do what they do with LOVE. (Here's a link to her downloadable book about living with and loving her husband, "For the Love of Jack.") I think of the woman spouse who wrote the post several years ago, linked here, and used with her permission, which absolutely taught some truths about being married to a vet who you still LOVE and BELIEVE IN, but who is suffering on his own path with PTSD. I think of Britta Reque-Dragicevic, who I've written about before on this site, who wrote the wonderful (and real) book, "Close to Home: A Soldier's Guide to Returning from War," available here. I think also of the great resources in Patience Mason's work and Aphrodite Matsakis', and how their work has helped all of us to understand the dilemma of what a combat veteran struggles with, from the spouse's perspective, so much better. I think of the ongoing guidance I get from people like Kathie Costos (mentioned above), who has such a great understanding of the communication skills needed to interact with a combat vet with PTSD, but from the important perspective of loving them for who they are. And don't forget the resources on this site: communication skills, caring for the caregivers, sexual intimacy, and a fabulous resource list of books and articles for military spouses and family, broken down by topic, linked here.