A Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) diagnosis is often the start of a scary and unknown journey for both the service member, and the military family. Studies show at least 20 percent of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have suffered with PTSD. Life after combat can feel like a raging battlefield.
Add in PCS moves, more deployments, transitioning or separating from the military, and other life changes, and PTSD symptoms get worse.
Left untreated, PTSD affects every member of the military family.
Just ask Paul*, an Army veteran, who served 5 combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. He was adamant that getting help was a sign of weakness.
“I had no respect for people who went to a shrink. I thought it was dumb and it wouldn’t help.”
That is, until his own PTSD diagnosis, when he realized help was his only option.
“I was emotionally abusive,” Paul admitted, “I didn’t know it at the time. I mean, my wife was amazing–she never complained. Even when I yelled and got angry all the time, she was steadfast. It wasn’t until about 7 months ago when she had had enough. She wanted a divorce.”
PTSD symptoms can include things like anger/irritability, sleeplessness, headaches, re-experiencing, hyper-vigilance and an overarching feeling like they’re not themselves—something Paul struggled with, and feels tremendous guilt about.
And the guilt is what plagues many service members who have been diagnosed with PTSD. Many know they’re being terrible to their families, but don’t know how to stop.
“No one talks about service member’s guilt,” Paul shared. “We talk about the difficulties we have with our families, but not the guilt we feel for causing it. Believe me, there’s so much guilt. It’s an awful feeling.”
Paul has had bouts of unemployment, and underemployment. Like many service members, Paul was in a highly specialized job while in the military, and once he returned to the civilian world, it was like none of that skill mattered. He felt like a square peg trying to fit in a round hole. Losing the comradery of having his brothers and sisters in the Army was equally as devastating.
“I was in an MOS that I loved,” he recalled, “but the trouble was, once I got out, I could no longer find meaning [in my life]. I felt miserable, daily. This trickled down into my family life. I was a jerk and I still feel guilty about it.”
Paul remembered his wife begging him to get treatment, but it wasn’t until he noticed the profound changes in her—suffering health and signs of depression—that he finally got help.
Like most service members on PTSD medications, Paul dealt with side-effects that made life at home even harder. From headaches, to feeling like he was in a constant ‘zombie-like’ trance, Paul’s depression got worse…and his guilt even heavier.
“It has affected my family deeply. It has affected me deeply, too. The overwhelming feeling of anger I feel just takes over. It’s like I’m not myself,” he explained. “I had such a hard time feeling anything but irritated. And my family couldn’t do anything. I mean, no matter what, I’d get irritated with them. And then later I’d realize just how much I’ve affected them.”
Paul’s four children now see a therapist, and his family attends counseling together, too—something he says he never considered doing when he was still in the military.
“My family means the world to me. I think back and wonder if it had continued what would have become of me [if I didn’t get help]. What would my family be like?” Paul shared through tears.
It’s important for Paul and others battling PTSD to know how they’re affecting their families. Paul continues to keep his own actions and feelings in check, but he worries about those who haven’t received the treatment to help them do that.
“I think of my fellow soldiers, my brothers in arms. I see their pain. I see their marriages falling apart. I see their kids suffering. I see me in them,” he explained. “It’s easy to blame my diagnosis for my behavior…I did it all the time. But, it was hurting those I love, those I counted on, those who counted on me.”
Paul’s advice to other service members living with PTSD, and who may feel the same guilt he does, is simple, “Get help. Talk about it. Talk to your buddies you haven’t heard from in a while. Put a name to your situation, so it becomes normal. Just don’t be afraid to get help. Because there’s only two options if you don’t: either your family implodes, or you do.”
This is the third post in a 5-part series on PTSD in military families. If you missed our first or second post, check those out, then follow along for next week’s post, where we’ll talk about the use of PTSD as a ‘catch-all’ for all mental health issues. Is it PTSD, or could it be something else?
Posted by Ingrid Herrera-Yee, PhD, Project Manager, Military Spouse Mental Health Profession Pipeline
*Paul’s name has been changed for this story