Caring for a Service Member/Veteran with PTSD
By Linda Kreter
One of the most challenging aspects of PTSD is that it may affect the entire family, from veteran to children to aging parents. It is remarkable how realistic the movie American Sniper demonstrated the effects of combat deployments and PTSD on the family – and this is a good thing, since acknowledgement is the first step toward growth.
Since these injuries are invisible, for those surrounding a returning service member or veteran, behaviors may be misinterpreted, judged, and even condemned by those closest to you. Family and friends are strong social supports, and healing is helped with knowledge and compassion.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is the body’s reaction to a traumatic event. With the combat veteran, it may be the body’s response to seeing or experiencing exceedingly horrific things. The symptoms of PTSD may not come neatly wrapped and obvious, and may become more pronounced over time. Family may feel at first as though “something’s different”, and maybe it’s a period of readjustment or he or she needs some transition time after returning from deployment.
The body and mind can react very strongly to a traumatic event – and so can that of those around them. Some of the symptoms a friend or family member will recognize are possibly watching them reliving the trauma during the day with flashbacks, at night with active nightmares — or chronic insomnia with anxiety. Perhaps ‘walking point’ end to end of the house or apartment – this quickly exhausts the family. Many couples talk of difficulty with closeness, intimacy, and abrupt irritability and even increased aggressiveness. This is often what the family or a friend sees – without knowing the rest of the story. This unpredictability is one of the most difficult to deal with and explain to others, or even yourself. Secondary PTS/D may occur among family members as they live certain aspects of the condition daily.
Living with such a person, even if you’re sympathetic and you love them can be hard. Who finds it easy to walk on eggshells, lacking restorative sleep, and listening to harsh remarks? Now enter the extended family and friends. What they see is only a partial picture, and it can be very, very confusing, and they can in a well-meaning way try to support you. Or not.
Let’s face it: people fear what they don’t understand. They may only see the isolating sullenness, or what they perceive as a negative attitude. They may be fearful that if those harsh words they just heard are any indication, than how does he or she treat you when they’re not there? Families may truly try their best to care – but they are helped with guidance and information.
By learning more about PTSD, talking about it easily and when it’s not on display can help both you and your close family and friends. “You’ve probably heard, Mom, that PTSD is a normal coping mechanism when a person goes through a traumatic event? Sometimes ‘Jim’ will need quiet and you may think they’re being standoffish, but that’s what helps them. Other times, you may see a hair-trigger temper outburst, but that’s not all the time.”
Another problem for family members is that they may feel judged by negative comments. No one likes to be judged, especially when they are not the ones working through PTSD day in, day out. It may help to sit them down initially and share what you know about PTSD, ask them to learn more and show them where to get the information. But, when you do your best to share the information, sometimes it just won’t register – why? Because he or she acts NORMAL most of the time. So, scared, uninformed people can make family life more difficult.
It’s helpful to have a signal between you and your service member/veteran so they have a way to say “I’ve had enough, I’m out of here”. If you know noise levels escalate a situation, discuss it beforehand. If a crowd is too overwhelming, then leave and do what’s right for your family.
Recognize that others will not always get it, despite your incredible patience, education, reinforcement, and reminders. Guard your home relationship, and if that means new traditions, and new ways of coping, then go with what works for you. We all know families who now live in remote places, finding peace with fewer stressors, and others who’ve adapted with some accommodation. Health and wholeness is vital to good quality of life!
Linda Kreter is the founder of WiseHealth and VeteranCaregiver.com and a subject matter expert on caregiving and military family support.