Men aren’t the only ones who suffer from Vietnam War-induced PTSD.
In this article about PTSD, Mary Tendall and Jan Fishler look at what a husband’s PTSD can do to a family – and what we can do about it.
By Mary Tendall and Jan Fishler
Although these PTSD articles are co-written by Mary Tendall and Jan Fishler, this article mostly relates to the individual experience of Jan Fishler.
Being the wife or partner of a Vietnam War veteran – especially one who has been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – is anything but easy.
I know. I’ve been married to my veteran for 16 years, and I’ve known him for 30. If I had known then what I know now about war trauma and the effects it has on the soldiers and their families, our lives together would have been very different.
I would have understood his anger, his hyper-vigilance, and his need to isolate. I would have seen that his overprotective nature was not about control, but about safety. I would have known that his problems with intimacy, his unwillingness to take me out, and his depression were just some of the consequences of trauma.
If I had known then what I know now about war trauma and the effects it has on the soldiers and their families, our lives together would have been very different.
I would have believed him when he said, “Don’t take it personally,” because it really wasn’t about me. If I had known then what I know now, I would have learned about triggers and how to diffuse or avoid potentially volatile situations. I would have known that his insistence for order was, for him, the difference between life and death.
I would have had empathy instead of anger for his limitations and emotional numbness. I would have been kinder and more loving instead of frightened and lonely.
If only we had known help was available
Most of all, if I had know then what I know now, we could have gotten help earlier. The healing could have begun sooner, and we could have avoided the confusion and pain that consumed our relationship and caused unnecessary emotional suffering to our children.
Most of all, if I had know then what I know now, we could have gotten help earlier.
Although I didn’t know it then, I was fortunate enough to learn it before our marriage became another statistic, while there was time to share that information with others so that the understanding and the healing could begin.
The choices you have
If you are the wife or partner of a veteran who knowingly or unknowingly suffers from PTSD, you have a few choices: you can blame and complain, you can leave, or you can use the situation to grow – intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. In my case, I went through a process that began with anger, resentment, and blame. I blamed my husband for my unhappiness.
The things I hadn’t noticed
Before we were married and before his knees gave out, my husband and I were friends who shared a variety of activities – from jogging and rollerskating to sailing on the open ocean. Because I had a job and other friends, I didn’t realize that in addition to being a lot of fun, my would-be husband had nightmares and flashbacks that kept him up, watching television, most of the night. I didn’t notice that he had issues with authority, with trust.
I had no idea that he suffered from an invisible disability that acted like an invisible shield, containing his feelings and emotions until they would burst like a “bomb with no fuse,” as he often explained his outbursts.
I had no idea that he would avoid holiday celebrations and other special events. I had no idea that he suffered from an invisible disability that acted like an invisible shield, containing his feelings and emotions until they would burst like a “bomb with no fuse,” as he often explained his outbursts.
It wasn’t until after we were married and had children that my husband’s behavior intensified. In addition to working full time, he became a compulsive gardener, rarely coming into the house until dark. At one point, our daughter, then five, watched wistfully as her father was planting something and said, “Maybe if I was dirt, Papa would pay attention to me.”
Walking on eggshells, and what about me?
In addition to isolating from the family, my husband’s over-protective nature, vigilance, and reactivity caused me to “walk on eggshells.” I never knew what might trigger a frightening outburst. It might be the sound of a helicopter flying overhead during the fire season, or the smell coming from a restaurant, or an unmade bed.
I was angry and wanted out of my marriage. It seemed as if our life was always about him and his needs, but what about me?
The fun-loving man I had married had become unpredictable, demanding and controlling, and I felt lonely, abandoned, and very unhappy. I didn’t know anything about war trauma and certainly didn’t comprehend the impact that sights, sounds, smells – even symbols could have on my husband’s nervous system. He blamed me for everything that went wrong, and I blamed him for how I felt.
I was angry and wanted out of my marriage. It seemed as if our life was always about him and his needs, but what about me? The truth is, most vets are completely unaware of the impact their behavior has on their families.
Getting some help at last
Eventually I complained to a friend who directed me to a support group for wives of vets. I was apprehensive about participating in a group, but I was so desperate to feel better, I would have done anything. The group consisted of about 10 women of varying shapes and sizes – all married to combat veterans – all there to share their stories. By the time I left the meeting, I knew my husband had PTSD; that I could learn ways to cope with and improve my current situation, and that there was help for him if he was willing to take advantage of it.
Eventually I complained to a friend who directed me to a support group for wives of vets.
Armed with a brochure about PTSD, which included a list of symptoms, I went home and presented the information to my husband. He still didn’t believe there was anything wrong with him, but “to make me happy” (in other words, to get me off his back) he agreed that “just one time” he would see the therapist, Mary Tendall, the co-author of this article. Mary had a lot of experience and success in helping vets and their families recognize, cope with, and heal their disabilities.
That was six years ago. Is life now perfect? Hardly – but it is better. Medication and therapy have helped my husband. He has released some of his ghosts, and in the process has learned ways to cope with and heal the psychological wounds. Individual therapy, a supportive group of women, and knowledge about PTSD have helped me. With time, my anger has turned to empathy and my fear has turned into determination.
I now know that the wives of veterans are incredibly courageous, capable, and strong.
Because of my connection to other women, my loneliness has dissipated, and the only person I blame for anything is myself.
I now know that the wives of veterans are incredibly courageous, capable, and strong. We’re the glue that holds our families together. We’re the stability and refuge for men who, because of war trauma, often take us for granted. We’re also the ones who can facilitate the healing process by healing ourselves first. Rather than demanding love and attention from my husband as I once did, I have learned to take care of my own emotional needs. I have also learned to see my husband not as the person he became because of his trauma, but as the loving person he really is. The more love and kindness he receives, the more he is able to give. Finally, I have come to see our relationship as a healing journey that began with anger and confusion, and is heading in the direction of understanding and love.
Although individual and group therapy were extremely helpful to me, and are well worth it if you have the time and financial resources to undergo a therapeutic process, there are many other things you can do to take care of yourself and improve the quality of your life.
- Realize that your partner has a disability that needs to be treated with kindness and compassion.
- Read about Vietnam and about PTSD.
- Blow off steam to a close, trusted friend.
- Learn effective communication techniques – take a parenting class or attend a mediation seminar.
- Join a support group. If you can’t find a group that knows about war trauma, join any group that supports your growth.
- Write your feelings in a journal. Read the journal aloud or into a tape recorder and listen to it with compassion.
- Be good to yourself. Take a long, hot bath, read some fiction or poetry, call a friend on the phone, meet a friend for coffee, get a manicure – anything that elevates your mood.
- Walk or exercise daily.
- Stay present. Focus on the things that are working in your life.
*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.
Jan Fishler is an author, writing coach, and creator/presenter of a series of writing workshops. Her memoir, Searching for Jane, Finding Myself, is available on Amazon. You can learn more about her at janfishler.com. She is married to a Vietnam veteran.