Older couple driving a car.

A Marriage Odyssey

PTSD makes for a rough trip.

By Mary Tendall
This article is a brief chronicle of a married couple’s journey through PTSD, from 1995 to the present. The names have been changed, and Carole and Mac are pleased that they can offer their story to other veterans and their families.

1995: Asking for help

In 1995 I received a phone call from Carole, asking if I could help her husband, Mac. At the time, I was subcontracted with a VA Vet Center, and was able to work out of my private office location. Our local veterans service officer had told her to call me since her husband refused to enter a VA facility. She had given him the ultimatum, “Either you get help or our marriage may be at an end.” (She was still feeling angry because only three weeks before calling me she had heard for the first time, after nearly 20 years of marriage, that her husband was a Vietnam veteran.) Mac made the appointment.

Since finding out that Mac had been in Vietnam, Carole began reading everything she could about PTSD, and was stunned to learn that her husband fit all the criteria. Prior to her reading, she had always believed that their challenges were unique.

At first Mac came in for individual treatment. Like so many married veterans entering treatment, he thought Carole was the one with the problem, but he readily admitted that he was very different from his days before the war. He needed to understand why he had changed so much after his tour of Vietnam, and why many of his symptoms were getting more severe as time went on. By showing Mac how the brain changes as a result of combat, he said the same thing I hear from so many others, “Why didn’t anyone ever explain that to me?” Once we had established trust, Mac learned several ways of controlling his reactivity. Now it was time to tell his combat story.

Since finding out that Mac had been in Vietnam, Carole began reading everything she could about PTSD, and was stunned to learn that her husband fit all the criteria. Prior to her reading, she had always believed that their challenges were unique.

Although some of the story was part of his initial VA mandatory intake, this storytelling took on a new dimension. Mac’s observations about himself deepened, and he later said, “I felt like I was back there, and also that the two of us were listening all at the same time.” In a way, that was true. Trauma release and resolution were done first using EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy) and later with BrainSpotting, as well as using relaxation modalities to keep him focused. After several months of working with Mac, he agreed to enter a veterans support group. When he heard other men with similar issues, it helped him to realize that his unresolved symptoms were much the same as other members of the group.

Setting goals

Mac’s goals:

  • Anger management.
  • Time alone with no interruptions.
  • Better sleep.
  • Save the marriage.

Carole’s goals:

  • Increased emotional intimacy.
  • More social life.
  • More family outings.
  • Teamwork with disciplining children.
  • Sharing one bedroom.

Note that Mac’s goals reflected what he needed individually, while Carole’s were related to the relationship. After the goal setting, it was decided that Carole would also receive individual treatment.

At our first session, Carole said, “I notice that I now have some of the same symptoms as Mac, such as isolation, anger, and ‘walking on eggshells.’ ” We discussed her goals. and I helped her to understand what combat trauma is, and showed her some ways to take care of herself while she struggled with his reactivity. She also learned about her own reactions to him and how to communicate more clearly to Mac so that he would listen.

Taking a break

After two years of treatment, we all decided that it was time to take a break from therapy. Mac and Carole were financially stable, their older son was in college, and they had met some of their goals with significant success. During this time, some of the group members urged Mac to file a PTSD claim with the VA.

I told Mac I would support him through this process, knowing that it often brought up stressful memories. He decided that he would call me if he felt unstable during the process. John did need support, and we continued to work together during the next 18 months, because his retrieved records and contacts with members of his old unit caused him to relive forgotten events that intruded into his daily thoughts, in addition to causing nightmares. (I have a process that eliminates nightmares, so we were able to eliminate those new nightmares very quickly.) During this time Mac applied the many tools he had used in the past and ultimately, he was glad he went through this second phase of therapy to “get rid of so much that was stuck way down inside.”

2000: Mostly holding their own 

Carole checked in with me by phone every six or eight weeks, or as needed, and she had created a support system that was working well for her. Mac’s nightmares had not returned, but his need for frequent isolation continued.

2012: Smooth sailing

Phone check-ins as needed with both Mac and Carole. Mac has been active on his computer, connecting with “old war buddies” from his unit. He has retired from full-time work, and has done part-time tax work from his home. He and Carole are now grandparents, and they love visiting the grandkids as often as possible. Mac’s son Jake had recently become interested in talking to Mac about Vietnam, and has read numerous books and articles since his best friend returned from Iraq a changed man. Mac was happy to have this new focus with his son. His other two children remain more distant from Mac, but he described their relationship as “respectful.”

Retirement isn’t at all like what my old dream was. I had to create a new dream, and stop comparing my life to my friends’ lives who are now living my old dream.

Except for immediate family members, Carole’s life has been quite separate from Mac’s. She has retired from teaching and enjoyed volunteer work and traveling with friends. She also spent as much time as possible with the grandchildren.

2014: Retirement, contentment, and changing dreams

When I spoke to Mac and Carole about writing this article, they were very pleased that they could share their story. They want people to know that each stage of their marriage has offered a new set of challenges for each of them. They looked at each other and laughed as Mac said, “Don’t leave out the fact that there was plenty of yelling at times, threats of leaving, tears, guilt, therapy for the kids, botched plans, and eating pride over and over.” And they always had a deal that they would put an agreed-upon amount of time between their reactivity and coming back together to discuss their differences. (Now they report very little disagreement since they have developed an acceptance of their differences, and have capitalized on what they have in common.)

Carole says, “Retirement isn’t at all like what my old dream was. I had to create a new dream, and stop comparing my life to my friends’ lives who are now living my old dream. But I’m happy and have a good life, and I’m glad I stayed with Mac. Carole has decided to add mindfulness classes in the future, and will continue her meditation group and yoga classes.

In reference to what Carole said about her retirement dream, it’s important to change the dream (as Carole did) if the original dream is filled with unrealistic expectations. Since Carole knew she wanted to stay with Mac, once she was able to realize that her old dream wasn’t realistic, she was able to move forward and create a fulfilling retirement.

Mac started a mindfulness group, and says, “I would never have done that in years back.” The VA, in some hospitals offers similar classes, and if taught by a skilled leader (a skilled leader is very important), these classes have been helpful in reducing stress and increasing healthy awareness along with a sense of self worth.

Carole and Mac want to be clear that this has not been a fairy-tale marriage. They have both worked hard to get where they are now. Each of them hit a time when they just wanted out of the relationship. With the help of a solid support system, they were never alone while dealing with their personal challenges.

Suggestions

After 20 years of working on their problems, Mac and Carole
have learned a lot. Here are some suggestions they think can help others.

  • Get individual help from a skilled therapist, and be sure you’re comfortable with this therapist before starting.
  •  Find group support with others who have similar issues.
  •  Choose a close friend, whether in person, by phone, or the Internet, who is willing to listen, and with whom you can listen.
  • Volunteer if you have time. (Mac is helping young veterans with tax issues, and Carole helps in a group of veterans’ wives.)
  •  If you are not religious, find a spiritual sanctuary. Churches and nature are good sanctuaries.

 


You are invited to contact Mary Tendall with comments and/or questions regarding PTSD. Her e-mail address is maryten@jps.net.

*Names and some situations in this article have been changed. Some photos may include models who have no real-life relationship to the story or any PTSD issues.

 

Mary TendallMary Tendall, MA LMFT, has worked for over 20 years with combat veterans and their families, as a licensed psychotherapist, specializing in combat-related PTSD. She has consulted for the Gulf War Resource Center, National Public Radio, and Newsweek. She continues to work with combat veterans and their families, and is affiliated with several national non-profits whose goal is to help veterans, such as VietNow, Soldier’s Heart, Train Down, and America’s Heroes First. She can be reached by e-mail at maryten@jps.net.