Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Awareness Month is full of images and stats about struggling service members. They can’t sleep because they keep reliving their experiences on the battlefield. They’re distracted. They’re agitated. On edge. All with good reason.
But you know what there’s no good reason for? Excusing abuse because someone has PTSD. I’ve worked with domestic violence from both sides for decades, and victims often downplay the seriousness of domestic violence because their service member loved one has PTSD. I’ve heard it from clients, and from my own military spouse friends, many of whom have given me permission to share their stories anonymously to help others.
“I’ve been taking care of my husband, and I’m happy to do it. But, his anger…he gets angry at the slightest mistakes,” one military spouse told me. “My kids and I are anxious all the time. He is punching things, screaming at us. We love him, so we stay. We endure. I will always be there, but its taking a devastating toll. My health is suffering, and the kids are too.”
If someone is aggressive towards others, or themselves, after a traumatic situation, it’s a warning sign—a symptom something is seriously wrong. But many military spouses hide in the shadows, taking on the abuse as a responsibility–their contribution to the military family.
This is not okay. There are important differences between symptoms of PTSD versus abuse. There is a line.
“You know, it was supporting my husband. It was supporting a war hero. I thought, ‘well, this is my job, you know?’ He went and did his job, and this is mine.”
So what can be done? It’s a delicate situation. The service member needs to decide if they’re willing to receive, and actively participate in, treatment for PTSD.
PTSD is not an excuse for violence against oneself or another.
It is a medical condition as a result of a traumatic experience, and should be addressed as such.
“When you hide it, it makes it hard for people to believe that it happened, and then it makes you stay in that abusive relationship because you want everybody to think your life is perfect.”
Many in the military community are afraid to speak out, either because of fear of retaliation from their abuser, or because they don’t want to be labeled a victim. They’re scared of losing their significant other, worried about money, worried about how this could all impact their service member’s career or security clearance. And then there’s the love and worry for the abuser. Their spouse who they know has been through so much.
We don’t want to blame the person struggling with mental illness, but we also don’t want to perpetuate a negative view of mental illness. This is important. Remember this one thing:
Abuse is abuse. Don’t be afraid to call it what it is.
And don’t be afraid to get help. The good news is, social support—especially for the spouse—may counteract or reduce some of the symptoms of PTSD. Also, with support and treatment, people do get better.
On one side, you have military and veteran families suffering in silence. Living in a difficult reality. Trying to hold it together. Walking on egg shells. Dealing with isolation. Suffering with low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, and secondary traumatic stress. Wanting life to be normal. Supporting their spouse and fearing the moments when they are not themselves.
On the other side are tens (maybe hundreds?) of thousands of service members and veterans who live with PTSD, and are never violent toward anyone. In fact, the violence is often turned inwards against themselves.
Does PTSD cause violence? There is a link. But not everyone with PTSD is violent, and not everyone who is violent has PTSD.
We don’t know what the numbers are, but even it’s infrequent—which I suspect isn’t the case—these spouses who suffer in silence deserve our attention. Especially given the devastating, sometimes fatal, damage of abuse in the home.
This is the second post in our 5-part series on PTSD in military families. Read our first post, and follow along next week, where we’ll explore service member guilt and how they cope with the effects of PTSD on their family.
Posted by Ingrid Herrera-Yee, PhD, Project Manager, Military Spouse Mental Health Profession Pipeline