Into the dearth of "good news" about combat veterans with PTSD and their partners comes the remarkable love story of Josh and Helen, who met and fell in love AFTER his service, his suicide attempts, and his PTSD diagnosis. While PTSD can seem like the "third partner" in a relationship -- the ever-present elephant in the room -- in Josh and Helen's story, it's what brought them together, and love, wisdom and maturity is what keeps their union intact.
I had the pleasure of getting to spend a few days recently with Josh and Helen, and was impressed by both of them, and the sheer fun of their relationship, which can be too rare among partners where one has PTSD. I was struck by Helen's clear-eyed, open-hearted approach -- the education she sought about PTSD, as she was falling in love with Josh -- and the way in which she's really becoming a wise "spokesperson" for how love is possible after PTSD. For all the broken relationships out there, and all the partners barely enduring and tolerating one another, I felt like Josh and Helen's story needed to be told, so I asked Helen to tell it. Just as a point of reference, Josh served in the U.S. Army from 2002 to 2008. He was honorably discharged in 2008, and served in Iraq from 2005 to 2006.
Here is Helen's story:
"I met my husband Josh on December 27th, 2008. That's about two years after he returned from Iraq and about two months after he tried to commit suicide for the second time. He was at my house attending an after-Christmas-before-New-Years party that my then roommate Chris was throwing, and he was there against the medical advice and wishes of the team of specialists overseeing his psychiatric care at a well-known men's inpatient program for PTSD.
He was home for the weekend to visit his family and in order to do so he was required to fill out a schedule of where he'd be, what he'd be doing, and with whom. If they'd known he'd be at that party, they more than likely wouldn't have let him go home. And if they knew he'd meet me, they'd probably have chained him to the wall. Of course I don't know that for certain because it's not the way things happened. He did come to the party, I was there even though I had other tentative plans that night, and we did meet each other.
Josh told me later that he wasn't looking for anything other than to feel normal for a few hours. He hadn't really expected to feel comfortable at all and certainly had no intention of telling me that he had PTSD. Again, not the way things happened. He started by telling me that he was a soldier which really intrigued me. In my head I can't help but equate military service with nobility, honor, and authority, probably because the only other people I knew that had been in the military were my grandfather -- who had served in the Navy in World War II -- and a family friend who took unfair advantage of my googly eyes at the tender age of 15, later dubbed "evil Army guy" though I never really associated the service with the man.
I had heard of PTSD and sort of knew what the letters in the acronym stood for. It was a pretty basic concept; formerly known as "shell shock" which Great Uncle Paul, Grandpa's brother had. I remember thinking when it became apparent that Josh and I were going to have a relationship that I should probably be concerned, but I wasn't. I don't know why. I had also heard that men with PTSD could be violent and do harm to the people they most loved. But then again, so can most of the people I know. I knew I'd have to educate myself on what exactly PTSD is, a fact that was compounded when I came up against some opposition from a friend of mine who thought Josh would kill me and then take his own life. She thought this because a friend of her grandmother's had been murdered by her husband, a veteran of either Korea or WWII. I started with the basics (the basics being the extraordinarily reliable source of Wikipedia....you can't tell, but that was written in a sarcastic voice) which actually gave me a pretty decent base.
From there I moved on to other sources including the VA, National Institutes of Mental Health, and last but not least, Josh's therapist. Josh took me to see him because, he said, "I want you to know what you're getting into". Among other things, what I learned was that, aside from the fact that Josh's PTSD was focused inwardly and therefore he wouldn't hurt me, he was being monitored by so many mental health professionals as well as regulating himself that he was the least likely person in the world to do so.
We got lucky. One of the most interesting things I learned was that PTSD is, for lack of a better word, normal. When a person is placed in an extremely traumatic and/or stressful environment, their mind enacts hyper-vigilance, paranoia, insomnia, etc. to enable survival. In a war zone, PTSD is useful. It's when the soldier comes home in time of peace that there are problems. Actually, many people with PTSD have it because of domestic violence. Some people get it from car accidents. The list goes on.What Josh told me really helped him was that I didn't push. When he told me about Iraq, I didn't launch questions at him that he probably wouldn't want to answer. I waited. I focused on him as best I could, I listened carefully.
Eventually he opened up to me, but the fact that I fostered an environment where he felt safe to talk about it, without judgment, without questions, without a sense of urgency helped him immensely. Communication is not our weak point because both of us took a chance at being safe with one another. At first it was scary, but it was completely worth it. One of the most important lessons I've ever learned thus far is that sometimes you have to choose to love. I took on the attitude (I was newly in love so it wasn't too hard for me...plus he's awesome) that he was (and is!) the most incredible, sexy, wonderful, manly man on Earth. I tell him frequently that he is an excellent provider, that he takes good care of his family, that he satisfies my basest urges (*giggle*), that I choose him and marry him every day and will have only him for the rest of my life, and most importantly that I love him so much and love him for who he is. I mean every syllable of it, it's completely true, and I stand by my bold statements and declarations. My heart melts every time because I see him sheepishly look down or puff his chest out, or I notice that he's walking just a little bit taller. He loves it, and his life is made easier and he is made happier knowing that I adore him and that I'm there for him (and he responds in kind).
This is not to say that it's always a cake walk. It isn't. Marriage is hard enough work without mental illness in the mix. His anxiety will act up, he'll get scared, he'll feel depressed and useless and insecure and jeez, we haven't even gone in to MY issues. But he knows that I'm always there for him. We made the conscious decision to put in the effort to speak, to care, to look out for one another, and to work through our arguments and disagreements. Sometimes that is damned hard. But in the end, loving him is easy because of it.
I know that our relationship is different than many other spouse-vet relationships for a variety of reasons. First, I met Josh after he came home from Iraq, after his suicide attempts, after he started treatment for PTSD. I never had to wait for him, never had to live away from him during deployment, never had to worry that the phone would ring or I'd get a knock on the door. I didn't have children to be both mother and father to while he was away, never had to experience my husband being a different man now than he was when he left me. I don't pretend to know what that must have been like.
But if there's anything that I can offer, anything that WE can offer, it's that there is hope. Josh was convinced once that the only good thing he could do was destroy himself; get rid of the burden. Find peace in death, in drinking, in drugs, ANYTHING. He had a plan in place to move to Seattle with just some basic gear with which to live on the streets, and he chose Seattle because their Department of Public Health has a clean needle exchange program. Almost two years later, he's married with a loving wife, a service dog who needs him, two cats who love to annoy him, a sound support system, and more and more he is learning that he's not alone. I am, and by choice always will be, his biggest fan, his cheering section, his advocate, his confidante, and his partner. As his wife, my job, my goal, my honor, my privilege and my pleasure is make sure he never feels otherwise."
Editor's note: The photo of Josh and Helen is used with their permission.