It was 2004, several months after he returned from Afghanistan, I knew he was suffering, heck, we were all suffering. So the diagnosis of PTSD was not a surprise. I attended the workshops about what PTSD was, how it affects the brain and how I could support my partner. However, I was not given much information on what it meant to me and my family and things for me to do to prepare for the long haul. It would not have taken away all my struggles because it is not an easy road no matter the path you choose, but it may have lightened my load. So I am sharing them with anyone who might find themselves in similar shoes and hopefully I can lighten your load.
1- Please take care of yourself first. Sometimes it is going to seem completely impossible, and it will, in fact, be VERY difficult. There will be times when you need to put your oxygen mask on first before you can help the others (and that includes children). This doesn’t mean that there won’t be times when you put your wishes and desires on the back burner (as any mother can relate to). But when the shit hits the fan, you need to figure out how to get some oxygen if you hope to be able to give it to others. This might mean calling for backup asap, or maybe taking you and your kids away from the scene for a day, or 2 or 3. This is going to feel counterintuitive at times, you will likely feel the need to care for the ill person first, but this is not sustainable. You need backup, you need support and you need to have a way to refill your own self. This is an ultra-marathon, not a sprint.
2- Remember that you have choices and can make decisions. With every situation, there is a choice. Staying or leaving, that is a choice. Sometimes it may feel like choosing between a rock and a hard place, but it is still your choice to make. Don’t let others make decisions for you as no one knows what goes on in your home, or in your mind. People will want to influence your decisions and may even overtly tell you what a ‘good’ spouse would do, or a ‘good’ parent, or simply a ‘good’ person (yes, this really does happen, but remember they are not in your shoes). I do not believe that anyone has the right or even ability to tell you what you should do. If you and your kids are safe from abuse, then the decision is yours.
3-You can change your mind. People change, circumstances change, and you can change your mind. It’s OK. Give yourself permission, remember it’s your choice (refer back to #2)
4-Get professional support for everyone involved, or at least make it available. Family and friends can be amazing, but if that is your only support, it is likely not sustainable. Find out what counseling services are available for you. If you don’t want it through the military or work, look for community resources. Talk to your doctor, talk to your kid’s school guidance counselor. If you meet a counselor and you don’t feel a good connection, look for someone else. Don’t give up on this! Trust me, it is key to your health and your family’s. If you don’t feel the need it now, know where you can go. Even young children can benefit from a neutral person they can talk to about anything. Kids can be extremely aware of emotional stress and it is critical that they too have a safe place to express concerns with no guilt or additional worry. You may feel like you are their safe person, and you likely are. But they may not want to add to your stress by telling you what’s on their mind.
***Family and friends are not a replacement for professional help. They know the people involved, they have relationships, histories and their own concerns, but more importantly, they are not trained to carry the load. Talk to them, vent if needed, but whenever possible, enjoy their company by doing things that nourish you both. Relationships are not meant to be one-sided and often break down if one person starts to feel overwhelmed by the other person’s needs. This is not weakness, or failure to love someone, it is just how relationships can thrive or stagnate.
5-Know what you will tolerate and what you won’t. Set boundaries. Have a timeout signal or word that anyone can use to press pause on a situation before it escalates. Walk away and come back when people have calmed down. Identify your priorities, tell your partner and have others in the household do the same.
6-Make fun a priority. When survival seems to be the theme, fun is often seen as a luxury enjoyed by others. But planning for fun will remind you what is possible. Play a board game, play frisbee, watch a funny movie, go to a comedy show, whatever will help you relax, smile and laugh. This may seem trivial, but a life without laughter and fun is not much of a life.
7-This is not a life sentence. Like after any traumatic event, our life can change instantly. To the point, it may be unrecognizable to us. You may not like any of the changes, but where do you want to go from here? What possibilities are out there? Think big! Don’t judge them, don’t worry about the ‘how’ to make them happen at first. Just allow yourself to look forward and imagine what you’d like things to look like in the future. How will you feel? Write them down. This practice keeps your ‘forward thinking’ muscles active. Nothing may come of these ideas, but it is still important to think about them.
8-You deserve a good life. You are not weak, or a failure or a bad spouse or parent, just because really shitty things have happened. Remind yourself on a daily basis that you are a strong and worthy person. Write it down and leave yourself reminders. It is critical to our ability to cope that we believe 100% that we are strong and worthy people regardless of what shitty things have happened. They do not define you, the story is not over.
9- Stay active and take care of your body (as best you can). I got so tired of hearing this that I wanted to throw things at any person who dared tell me. But I can’t deny the value of it. Our bodies need to move and not just move around the house and in and out of the car. I mean really move. Walk every day if you can, stretch, if possible, take a yoga class, go on a bike ride with the kids. As much as possible, make it a daily habit to get out of the house and moving. Science has repeatedly proven that our emotional well-being is positively affected by daily exercise.
10- Be grateful. Again, I totally understand that this is nearly impossible when you feel like your life is in chaos and you are in survival mode. But taking a few minutes every day to think about the little things that went well that day, keeps those ‘forward thinking’ muscles active. Maybe it’s as small as the fact that there was no line up at the grocery store, or you got all the green lights on your way home from work. Maybe its the sunset, or the rain that watered your grass so your yard looks green. By taking the time to acknowledge these things, no matter how small, your brain will start to look for them throughout the day.
I hope that these 10 lessons (which are in no particular order) are helpful if you too are on the journey of family life with PTSD. Please leave a comment to share which one resonates the most with you, or any that you would add.