A few weeks ago, I bumped into an old friend whom I have not seen for a while. We were very happy to see each other and we shared how the pandemic has impacted our lives in the contact that we kept and having to remain at home for long periods of time. We grew up in the same neighbourhood so we enquired about each other’s parents and their well-being during this time. She also mentioned that all three of her kids are doing online schooling, similar to my little ones, and we laughed over the fact that we have become home-schooling teachers overnight. It was only when I asked about her husband and how he is keeping, that I saw a dark shadow creep into her big eyes. She paused for a bit and then continued that they are “getting there” …
Her tone suddenly changed and I could see that she was trying really hard to be pleasantly optimistic about how it is going with them. I allowed her to explain for a bit and then watched as she slowly turned away and looked into the far with a deep sense of longing and nostalgia. She turned back and looked me in the eyes and asked: “do you really want to know?”. I nodded and we turned towards my car where we sat and spent about an hour talking about what it is like for her living with and loving someone who suffers with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder).
“I still love him you know. But I cannot always handle his anger outbursts or the silent treatment I sometimes get for days. I feel so distant from him. Many days I feel like I do not know this person, it’s like he has become someone else almost overnight. I cannot just walk away…I feel like that too for many days. In my silent moments I convince myself that I deserve better, that I deserve a husband and father to our children, that the one I see and encounter every day is someone else and that I want my sweetheart back!” She gently starts crying and wipes away the tears with the back of her hand.
“You know, those nights when he was out working his shifts as a paramedic, I always prayed for his safe return and I was always so grateful when I heard the key turn in the door in the early hours of the morning. These days, the hurt and pain of resentment is the first thing I taste when I open my eyes in the morning. He stopped working months ago because it just became too much. At one point I supported him in any way possible when he decided to study to become a doctor. I was really hopeful that things would change, but it actually became worse. There was a stranger in my house who pushed me away and who would not talk with me, and I did not know what to do. I constantly feel emotionally drained and exhausted because I still need to learn all the triggers for his outbursts of either anger or silence. I find myself walking on eggshells most days, but I love him and I still hope and trust things will change for the better”. I could see she says this to encourage herself, and in my heart, I hoped that this will become true for them.
“The one good thing is that he started seeing a therapist, someone like you, who will help him work through the issues and changes he experiences. When he was first diagnosed with PTSD, I never for one moment thought that it would be so tough. We had each other, we promised that we will stand by each other, we knew that our love would carry us through, it had before, so why not now. His therapist suggested that we see a marriage counsellor as well, so that we learn how to cope when there are episodes that seem out of control. And to learn how to rekindle the intimacy in our relationship again. I also started reading about PTSD much more and realized that I need to take better care of myself. I also have the kids to think of and as they grow older, they are definitely more perceptive and ask all sorts of questions to try and understand what is happening with their father”. I listened as she became more calm and almost peaceful and reassuring herself really that everything will work out.
“My aunt comes to help with the kids these days and I really appreciate her presence and guidance when she is there. You remember her husband was in the second world war and we always laughed and said she must be so ancient. Well, these days I gained new respect for her. Without me having to say much, she one day said to me that she understands and that she will support me with whatever is going on. She even suggested I join a support group on Facebook for the wives of partners who live with PTSD. I was pleasantly surprised and thought to myself “not so ancient after all, if you know about Facebook”. So, I really enjoy having her around for that extra support”.
She looked at me with a faint smile and asked: “Are you shocked, surprised or disgusted? I know many people judge me for tolerating the apparent mediocre to poor marriage I have. I guess for me it was always about keeping hope alive. To persevere for the better and the worse as we promised on that happy day. And because I love him so much. I still love him and I still love us. I know that PTSD can be devastating for most marriages. I just read about it the other day. For many people it becomes unbearable when PTSD enters a marriage, and then the only way up seems to be the way out.”
She smiles again and squeezes my arm: “For now my friend, I am not there yet. I am taking better care of myself so I can be stronger, for both us, and I look ahead, I slowly move forward, so both of us can move forward.”
I watch as she gets into her car and drives off. I sit there for a while and recall the story of a life lived with PTSD. I realize how easy it is to choose to give up, but I also realize how easy it is to choose the opposite – to not just give up. I just had a witness to that…
As we observe PTSD Awareness Day tomorrow (26 June), we are reminded of how PTSD can affect relationships on many levels. It is important to seek help from a Mental Health Professional as soon as a diagnosis has been made and to make use of support groups for marriages, families and friends, and learning how to cope in work life.