Military Spouses: Are You Experiencing PTSD Symptoms?

PTSD affects military spouses

Four months after a 15 month deployment, Jenny began having vivid nightmares about leading her soldiers into enemy territory. In her dreams, Jenny witnessed every member of her squad get “picked off, one by one”, she recalled. “I would wake up almost every night in a cold sweat, clutching my chest where my weapon was supposed to be. I kept thinking ‘why didn’t I shoot back? Why didn’t I save them?’ That’s right around the time I’d wake all the way up and realize: I didn’t save them because I wasn’t really there.” 

Jenny has a condition known as Secondary Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). One evening after returning from deployment, Jenny’s husband had been drinking heavily and told her about his combat experiences. “I wanted to be his shoulder and his kind ear, so I listened even though it scared the crap out of me”, she said. “I had no idea it would have that big of an impact on my soul.”

Symptoms of Secondary PTSD often mimic those of Primary PTSD, causing nightmares and reactions related to a traumatic event that they may not have experienced but were exposed to through the re-telling of events. “I may not have actually been there myself, but the stories that he’s told me replay in my head like a horrific movie”, said Jenny. “My body may not have been there physically, but he took my mind and heart there as if I had been.”

Jenny began having panic attacks and became very wary about public places. It got to the point where she wouldn’t even respond to text messages from friends wanting to hang out. “What would I talk about with them? I couldn’t tell them any of this…they would think I was crazy! Even I thought I was going crazy”, she said.

It wasn’t until her mother came to visit that Jenny realized her world had been turned upside down. “My mom kept telling me the light was gone from my eyes. I kept telling her I was just stressed trying to get back to normal after the deployment and my husband was already gearing up to leave again in a few months. But she said ‘Look in the mirror and tell me if you buy that answer’”.

Jenny had lost almost 20 pounds from her already thin frame. Her face didn’t look just tired, but completely wrecked and she’d been in pajamas for more than a week. “I had been so busy worrying about my husband that I had completely neglected myself”, she said.

After consulting with her doctor, Jenny was referred to a psychiatrist who diagnosed her with Vicarious Trauma, also known as Secondary PTSD. Treatment helped her realize she had been so focused on caring for her husband and his PTSD diagnosis, that she pushed the emotional toll on herself to the back burner.  “I wasn’t ‘all better’ overnight, but after each visit with the therapist, I learned more about myself. Eventually I became more aware of my emotions and stopped pushing them down as much.”

When Jenny’s mother came back for a visit a few months later, she was pleased to see the light had returned to her daughter’s eyes. “My mom is the only one who will really call me out if she thinks something is wrong. She was a military spouse too, so she must have seen what I didn’t.”

If you or someone you know may be experiencing these symptoms, seek help immediately. There are many resources available, including your primary care manager, the Give an Hour program, or Military One Source.

“Just look in the mirror”, said Jenny. “If you can’t even recognize yourself anymore or someone calls you out on that, listen to them and go get help. We aren’t any good for anything if we can’t even take care of ourselves.”

Posted June 13, 2017

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