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PTSD and the Family: Maintaining Your Unit

From Somalia to Iraq Ashley Lambert-Wise’s husband, Rob, has served in both the Marines and the Army. Stateside today, he’s engaged in battle with an invisible foe: posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Battling Bare founder, Ashley, explains, “Rob’s second deployment to Iraq really intensified his symptoms. He became more angry and mean; more heavily into drinking and isolation. The sweet, cuddly, gentle and thoughtful man I married had disappeared.”

Ashley confides that it’s not just Rob whose identity changed: what defines their marriage and family (they have three children) altered too.

“This stranger, PTSD, comes into your life so subtly it takes years to realize you’re no longer in control. Suddenly everything revolves around avoiding triggers. Your private time together, your family time – it all has to be carefully managed to avoid outbursts until you finally look at your family and say, ‘Who is this?’”

Ashley’s experience is not unique. The effect of hyperarousal, mood alterations, avoidance and re-experiencing (hallmarks of PTSD) distort survivors and their loved ones deeply and over a long period of time.

On a fundamental level PTSD changes how survivors see themselves and their place in the world, plus how others see them too. How PTSD changes an identity (our perception of what defines us) is one of the illness’ least discussed aspects—even thought a positive identity grounded in a sense of safety and control lies at the foundation of successful recovery and a sustained family unit.

Maintaining a stable identity for yourself and your family while supporting the identity-in-flux of your spouse is challenging. Still, there are concrete steps that can provide continuity:

1. Deeply educate yourself about PTSD

This is a condition driven as much by the science of neurobiology as by the psychological impact of trauma. Understanding that it’s not “all in his head” (plus how to use science to reduce symptoms) is critical to the health of both yourself and your relationship.

2. Stop trying to go back to how things were in the past.

Your spouse will never be who they were before the trauma(s) they experienced. The more you expect that the more distant they will become. Instead, meet your loved where he or she is by looking for how you can connect to them as they are today. Identify common ground moments; as often as possible engage your partner in new (and comfortable) ways.

 3. Be proactive in the present.

While you will want to, resist the urge to fight against the changes. Suspend all judgment and acknowledge the alterations in your spouse, relationship and family. Every day ask yourself and/or your spouse, “How can I make this moment just a little bit better?” Then make a choice and take an action based on the answer.

4. Plan for the future.

You cannot help someone who does not want to be helped. Focus your efforts on researching coping strategies and treatment options so that when a healing opportunity arises you are prepared.

As a spouse you’re in a difficult position: You can see what’s wrong and you have ideas for solutions but often meet resistance. This is natural because for survivors, coping with PTSD is a relentless exercise in trying to stay safe and in control emotionally, physically and mentally.

Healing presents a terrifying prospect of danger, threat and uncertainty. Survivors feel more safe and in control ignoring or denying the problem.

As a caregiver your toughest role will be respecting resistance (both its silence and noise) even while devising a strategy to face the changes—often alone at first, and then hopefully together when your spouse finally feels ready to tackle the PTSD beast.

Michele Rosenthal is an award-winning PTSD blogger, award-nominated author, founder of HealMyPTSD.com, post-trauma coach, host of Changing Direction radio and author of Your Life After Trauma: PowerfulPractices to Reclaim Your Identity (W. W. Norton).

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