Lately I have been hearing from readers and friends about their loved ones who are struggling with PTSD. Apparently, some of my readers are here trying to find ways to support their loved ones and I love that! I know someone who can relate - my wonderful husband Jeff. He has really been through so much with me and the way we live with my PTSD isn't perfect but he is able to support me better now because I am able to communicate better with him. I had to do the work but knowing he believed in me helped so much! It has taken a lot of therapy and a lot of honest conversations between us about my illness and how I feel but I think it's drawn us closer and made us both realize how wonderfully blessed we are. I thought if he wrote a reflection for all of you about how my healing journey has affected him that it might offer a new perspective to this conversation.
It was the middle of a July night. We were together on the bed at our vacation home on Cape Cod. I held Elena in my arms in the dark as she lay paralyzed by the after effects of what she witnessed that day over three years earlier waiting for me at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. The gravity of what she was dealing with was hitting me like the flu- slow at first, then all at once. That night was the first time since the initial minute after I learned about the bombing that I, too, felt scared. I had a sense of what was wrong, but no idea what to do to help.
We persisted for the rest of our month-long vacation in this state- Elena being tired, or sad, or whatever other label I could put on it so that I could try and compensate and make our vacation ‘normal’. But none of the coping skills I’d developed through all sorts of trauma in my life to that point were working.
Shortly after arriving home to Arizona, things came to a head. It was a couple of sleepless nights for her since our return when she asked me to call her Aunt Laura, a nurse. After spending some time together, Laura suggested I take Elena to the emergency room. I look back now and realize that this may have saved my wife’s life.
It was in the emergency room that night when I first heard my wife tell a doctor that she didn’t feel safe in her own body. Thoughts of suicide were starting to sound like a better outlet than further coping with her growing issues of anxiety and insomnia. I thought we were on the path to real help when the E.R. staff merely gave her some pills to help her sleep and sent us home with some phone numbers for mental health facilities to call in the morning to see about getting evaluated. The good news was I now fully grasped the depth of her condition. The bad news was that it was REALLY bad.
That next morning, we walked into a mental health facility. My wife was a shell of the woman that I had met almost 13 years earlier. The youthful, playful, confident 23-year old I once knew was filled to the brim with symptoms that were overwhelming her. Never in my life will I forget the leaving the facility that day after her admission- having left my wife inside, just her shoelaces in my hand as I walked out the door.
Those next 5 nights Elena spent hospitalized were a blur. I was trying to work, move two kids around under a veil of normalcy, and be available to support my wife. All of this without having a clue what the future looked like when she came home. I didn’t even know what her diagnosis was at this point.
Finally, some hope came into the picture. On our brief phone call over the weekend, Elena informed me that she could likely come home on Monday if she did all of the things her doctor told her. This was great because she was sleeping and eating even less at the hospital than she was at home. And, we had a diagnosis: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
I’ve watched over the past year as my wife has transformed herself into a new person. She’s not the innocent young woman I met 13 years ago. She’s also not the woman who checked herself into that facility 14 months ago. She’s a new version of herself. This version is akin to a mental health warrior. She’s got the skills, the discipline and the tools to fight- all carefully crafted since she left the hospital that day. I’ve watched as she literally told herself in the mirror that she wouldn’t give up....wouldn’t give in...would fight all that this disorder could throw at her. And I’ve done it in quiet awe.
I’ve been trying to distill what I’ve learned from this whole experience (which is unlikely to ever be entirely over) since I was asked to write this post. I think the most important thing from my vantage point is that it’s ok to not have all the answers. Men tend to think in a linear fashion- something is wrong, so I must do something. I was like that at the beginning, and when I didn’t have the right answer to ‘fix’ this I just kind of went on as if nothing major was wrong (which was wrong in itself). It wasn’t until I got scared that night holding my wife in the dark that I knew it was better that I succumbed to not knowing the answer. Being helpful meant not getting in the way. It also meant that success for Elena in overcoming the overwhelming effects of her PTSD had to happen without my direct intervention. This doesn’t mean that she doesn’t have my unequivocal support because she does today and will continue to have it for as long as the fight with PTSD is still there. But giving her the space, support and freedom to explore her healing is where I think I’ve been most helpful.
‘In sickness and in health’...that was the deal. ‘Til death do us part’...thankfully, not yet.