“I just want to close my eyes and go to sleep,” he said with a sadness I immediately recognized causing the hair on the back of my neck to stand up. “I just want to go to sleep and never wake up again.”
These are the words my husband spoke to me just a few short months after returning home from his second deployment in Afghanistan. We had been in the middle of yet another argument about his reckless behavior that at this point brought us to the brink of divorce. He was having night terrors, vicious mood swings, drinking to get drunk every night, driving like a maniac, always on alert in public, taking inappropriate risks, and most of all just going through the motions of being a husband. I was done feeling angry, exhausted and at the mercy of one of his latest mood swings- after seven years of marriage I was ready for an ending myself. It would have been easiest to walk away, yet somehow I knew better. It was when he said those words that the alarm bells went off in my head and I knew without a doubt I was dealing with something much bigger than a failing marriage. I was dealing with a soldier who was suffering from PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. That is when our lives changed forever.
We spent the next five years coping any way we could with ineffective therapy, a third deployment and prescribed medication that was as effective as treating cancer with cough syrup. We saved ourselves by seeking out therapy that worked for us, through the few support groups that existed, finding alternative therapies like equine therapy, and just being stubborn enough to realize that someday things would get better. We did what worked for us and we suffered in silence, knowing that others were suffering to but feeling powerless to affect any change. It wasn’t until a recognition from the Army that PTSD was a real condition brought on by prolonged exposure to traumatic events during war, an increase in veteran’s suicides, and an increase in the military divorce rate that my husband and I felt a duty to discuss his personal ordeal.
As a senior Non-commissioned Officer he felt it was his responsibility to put a public face to what had essentially become a private issue. In the course of dealing with our own issues surrounding PTSD we had met countless other veterans suffering in silence. A culture of “suck it up and drive on” prevailed in and out of the services, to the point that we were attending the funerals of soldiers who’d ended their life in my husband’s own unit on a somewhat regular basis. We talked about it, we discussed it with anybody who would listen. We were hopeful that our openness about PTSD might save the lives of others who felt isolated and alone by an issue we all share. But our little personal outreach program wasn’t big enough to handle it all. We needed to do more, no matter the cost to my husband’s reputation as a still active NCO or the personal embarrassment of what we’d endured. So we met with a local newspaper reporter, who’s well written story sparked the interest of a national television news producer. At one point I found myself sitting in my living room speaking to Mr. Bob Woodruff of ABC World News about my husband’s attempted suicide just a few years previously. The story was focused on a woman who’s husband had successfully committed suicide, contrasting with my husband and I who had somehow survived the ordeal of his attempted suicide. Mr. Bob Woodruff asked me a question I’m not sure I could answer to this day- “What did you do differently that saved your husband’s life?”
That simple question haunts me to this day. At first I thought and said- it’s not fair to ask me that not knowing the circumstances of this other veteran’s suicide. My second thought was, there wasn’t much that anyone could have done differently and I attribute some of it to luck. I had learned pretty early that when someone decides to commit suicide, especially a soldier, it’s often not easy to recognize the warning signs- I was lucky in that I spoke the language not only of a soldier, but of someone who’d herself attempted suicide once. That would have been my answer if I were hard pressed to say what made my situation different, I did say it was my education and personal experience that made a difference. I had educated myself about PTSD and it’s symptoms since my own experience with it years ago. I had been date raped in college back when no one was calling it that and part of my recovery involved support groups, counseling other survivors, volunteering at battered women’s shelters, volunteering on a suicide hotline and finally working at a Vietnam Veteran’s Center as an intake counselor. I recognized PTSD in myself as well as others pretty easily- I don’t consider myself an expert, but I knew it well. I spent years soaking up as much knowledge as I could about PTSD, it’s symptoms and possible cures. What I can tell you now, without a shadow of a doubt it that it never goes away. But I can promise you that once you recognize PTSD, you receive effective therapy, and as time passes the symptoms lessen. My husband is still in active service. He has found a therapy program that works for him. He has good days and bad days- but the bottom line is he has days, months and years he would not have had if we hadn’t recognized and treated his PTSD.
Today is National PTSD Awareness Day. If you had told me seven short years ago when my husband was threatening to kill himself because he couldn’t deal with the pain and suffering he was enduring because of the war that this day would come… I’d have called you crazier than what we were going through! I wish I could say it’s been an easy battle to fight, but it hasn’t been. We struggle everyday with the invisible scars of war. I get asked a lot “How do you cure PTSD?” My answer you don’t… but you do educate yourself so you can help lessen the affect of it’s symptoms.
I look back over the course of our journey through PTSD and I realize that I’m blessed. And because of the journey we undertook along side countless others I’m proud to say there is a PTSD Awareness Day! Even if you don’t have PTSD or know someone who does- taking time out of your day to research it, educate yourself and hold our military accountable for continued treatment of this epidemic that act alone will honor those who fought the battle and paid for it with their life. It’s sad to know that we send our men and women to war only to have them die on the home front because we didn’t recognize they needed help. You have the power to change that by educating yourself. The first rule of war is to recognize the enemy so you can defeat it- and although this is a battle we’re fighting within ourselves, it’s one that can be easily won!
A few links for PTSD Awareness-