We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again. It’s not too late.
By Mary Tendall
The expression, “The Sixties” now has new meaning to Vietnam veterans. That old term which related to Vietnam, hippies, and a cultural shift, now translates as, retirement age, a time of reflection, sore muscles, too much free time, constant television, war-time memories, and in many cases, numerous regrets at missed opportunities. Life partners and adult children often experience an emotional distance from their veteran loved ones that stems from misunderstanding and regrets on both sides.
Recently Johnnie*, a Vietnam veteran, explained that he knew his wife of 35 years was disappointed in him. “I don’t know how she has managed to stay with me for this long.”
Johnnie is retired now, and he had always figured that this would be a time to relax and get things done around the house. In fact, just the opposite has happened. Johnnie’s spare time has become a burden to his sense of well being. Those household repairs have piled up, and just thinking about them (and hearing about them) causes him to retreat immediately into some excuse or distraction.
He knew his wife of 35 years was disappointed in him. “I don’t know how she has managed to stay with me for this long.”
He says that the unfinished home projects “hang around my neck like a ball and chain,” even resulting in a need to isolate from his wife. At night he falls asleep on the couch watching television (usually the History Channel), only to be awakened in the middle of the night by another Vietnam-related nightmare. By then he is wide awake but unable to even make it to the bedroom, so he rolls over, with the TV still on, hoping to get a couple of hours sleep before his wife gets up. Family gatherings are avoided whenever possible.
Johnnie’s story is not unusual among retired veterans. A scientific perspective would explain it very simply like this: Johnnie’s combat-ready nervous system never completely released its old programming. That has resulted in his continued need to isolate, irritability over trivial issues, anger outbursts, and emotional numbness.
In addition to individual therapeutic help, he actually joined a Vietnam-veterans group, (something he swore he would never do).
In addition to that is a phase of life issue, that for Johnnie, consists of numerous regrets over his symptomatic be havior over the years, and the realization that it has significantly impacted him and his family. Ironically, those regrets have caused him to isolate even more.
It took several months for Johnnie to be able to understand the roots of his past and present reactivity, and to take realistic steps to create some positive changes. Johnnie looked for help because he didn’t want to lose any more time “wasting my life.” In addition to individual therapeutic help, he actually joined a Vietnam-veterans group, (something he swore he would never do), and found that nearly all the others in the group shared the same issues no matter how different they seemed from each other.
He then offered his family some reading material to help them better understand his symptomatic behaviors. (“No excuses, just explanations.”) It wasn’t long before his adult daughter and his wife joined him in long talks that helped to bring closure to old resentments. Johnnie’s son remains distrustful of his father to this day, and only time will tell if that relationship will improve.
At this time Johnnie is hopeful for his future. He spends more time with his wife, in activities that interest them both. He talks with his daughter once a week, and has agreed to visit her and her family more frequently. He looks forward to taking his grandson fishing on the next visit. He says, “The best I can do is just take it a day at a time, and most days look a little better.”
What is most important for Johnnie is that he now has hope. He never believed anything in his life could change for the better at this late stage. Johnnie, his wife, and his daughter now can relate to the past with a greater understanding of why things happened the way they did. And he knows that it is not necessary for him to share his “war stories” with his family in order to heal. He has another outlet for that if needed.
It was very important for all of them to have received information and insight to be able to move forward without resentment, guilt, or shame. And Johnnie says he has recently completed one of those dreaded household tasks.
Dora is the third wife of Hal, a Vietnam veteran. She sought help because she was ready to leave Hal. He had made it clear that he was not interested in getting any help as a couple, and certainly not individually from some stranger. “I love him very much, but I feel like a stranger in his presence,” she said, tearfully. She and Hal have been married for 15 years. “When we first met he seemed fine, and was always eager to help around the house. He even took my son hunting and fishing. What happened?”
I love him very much, but I feel like a stranger in his presence.
Dora’s story is not unique. It was only five years ago that Dora even found out that Hal had served in Vietnam as a medic. One of Hal’s friends from his unit had found him through the Internet, and called one evening. Dora was astounded to hear Hal’s side of the conversation. That call seemed to “crack open a dark place in Hal.”
Because Hal refused to seek any kind of marital or individual help, Dora believed there was no hope for their relationship to continue. With help, she learned that the very state of mind that was necessary for Hal during combat, (black and white thinking, emotional numbness, and hyper vigilance), was now the same state that separated them.
By learning the reasons for his reactivity and isolation, she was able to depersonalize most of Hal’s behavior. (Not easy.) She also had to look at her own shortcomings during their attempts at communication. Now she works hard to focus on what she still loves about Hal.
Although Hal is estranged from his three other children from previous marriages, he has remained a good role model for her son. She describes him as a good man with a wonderful dark sense of humor during their better times. And Dora now realizes that Hal is probably not going to change.
She has found outside social outlets so that when Hal props himself in front of the TV every night after dinner, with two six packs, she has made other plans to either go out with friends, or to pursue her own interests in the home. She has created a room of her own in the house that used to be an unused guest room. She has learned to avoid problem-solving if either of them is triggered, and was told to find the specific time of day for conversation when they both feel the best.
She describes him as a good man with a wonderful dark sense of humor during their better times. And Dora now realizes that Hal is probably not going to change.
For Dora and Hal, that time is 10 o’clock in the morning, during coffee. Dora laughed when she said that she no longer walks on eggshells around Hal. She revealed, “I now know that he never wanted me to do that in the first place.”
Dora’s changes have already improved their relationship. She has decided to give the relationship another chance. “Now that I realize that I am no longer a victim of Hal, I have so many options for the future. I don’t know exactly what the future will hold, but no matter what happens, it will be for the best. Hal seems more comfortable around me. I’m optimistic.”
*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 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.