Thankfully, my husband Kent is comfortable with me sharing our journey and growth process. For the both of us, we endeavor to be vulnerable for two reasons. One, it keeps us both accountable for continued growth as a couple and two, we hope it helps others in their growth and healing process.
I never thought in my wildest imagination that I’d be married to someone in the Military, let alone dealing with military PTSD residual. Yet, here I am. It has been and continues to be a journey with ups and downs. Most people that know me, know that I am always open to learning new ways of doing and being. However this has become one of my toughest life experiences to date.
To help you understand our relationship, I need to take you back some years. Kent and I met each other at San Diego State University in the (um) early 80’s. We were two wild-eyed (feral acting) 18 year olds from Southern and Northern California. You know the scenario. Old enough to live on our own but yet so “green” in life experience. At that time, I was seeing a football player and my now husband was my “play-brother”. People thought at the time, we favored and always thought we were brother and sister, so we went with it.
After about three years, I left S.D.S.U., got married, had children, got on with life – we both lost track of each other. Fast forward some 25 years later, we each had been previously married and divorced for ten years. One Saturday afternoon in June in 2008 I received a printed letter from Kent all the way from Iraq. It was surprising to hear from him and to find out that he had to do serious research to find me. Who knew there were so many Chrystal Allen’s in Los Angeles? The name is so common now, I even had someone who had my exact name spelling falsely use my ID. Kent explained later that, “I had to use your sister’s name just to find you. I have always remembered how kind you were in college”. I was super impressed, even flattered by the work he put in to find me. We began to correspond via email and then by phone to reconnect, and grew a close friendship that later went deeper.
While in Iraq, Kent later admitted he realized something was going on with him emotionally (but didn’t know exactly what). He noticed that he was regularly agitated, even often angry and this was affecting how he dealt with co-workers and people in general day-to-day. He reflected on how others were treated in the military when they had breakdowns. In his opinion, they were treated as “broken objects” that needed discarding. Because of this, he kept his emotional issues to himself. Keeping his feelings to himself, did not stop some staff members from taking notice. Kent was asked to see a base therapist, who then asked a few basic surface questions and sent him back to work. It wasn’t until months later that Kent was able to attach the bouts of anger to outside business and personal dealings that began to trigger him negatively. The triggers caused an irrational thought process. On his second assignment in Iraq, he realized that he was experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. It became even more apparent, while traveling as a Military Police Officer to various provinces to provide training – certifying custom agents/agricultural. One tour in Afghanistan became extremely stressful due to issues at work and an incident of racism in 2009, which became the catalyst for a deep seething anger. From there he went to Ft. Stewart GA, where he was kept for observation for three weeks.
Overall, Kent had been overseas for about three years in a stressful and sometimes (he felt) hostile environment. From there he returned to the U.S. 2009, we were married and lived in TN for (2 ½) years, then decided it was time to choose a warmer climate. One choice was New Mexico another was Arizona. We settled on Arizona, since it was close to Los Angeles, where my family was.
Kent, knowing only military life, went back into the reserves in (Scottsdale, AZ), then in 2014 his mom passed away. Fortunately, we were able to spend a few days with her before she transitioned. In June 2015 Kent was off to New Mexico / Ft. Bliss for two months for deployment training to go Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp aka GTMO in Cuba https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guantanamo_Bay_detention_camp.
August 2015 his unit flew into Ft. Lauderdale, then from there to GTMO.
Cuba was a new experience and fresh start for Kent, where he was a platoon Sergeant. The first six months were fine, but then a platoon sergeant got fired and Kent was given a raise in position with more stress involved – dealing with 30 newly deployed soldiers and competitors for his position. Looking back Kent felt like his strict disciplinary work style caused issues for him, which caused a “pile on” of soldiers against him, which led to severe emotional distress. In 2016 he was referred to a therapist at Ft. Bliss, then put on medication for symptoms of PTSD.
With all the back and forth assignments we have been married a total of 13 years but 4 /12 of those were while Kent was on active duty, away from home and under duress, which took a major toll on our marriage.
As it was, we needed to learn about each all over again every time he came home from duty and now the extra added element of how to maneuver through the effects of PTSD was a challenge.
Once Kent retired after 33 years of service and two degrees and was home for good, we had to learn how to live together cohesively. This was no easy task. I had my own childhood trauma. That coupled with having to deal with Kent’s current PTSD and childhood trauma was not easy to say the least. We were both however willing to do what it took to make our marriage work and heal individually.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that occurs following a life-threatening event such as military combat, natural disasters, terrorist incidents, serious accidents, or physical or sexual assault. Approximately eight percent of all people will experience PTSD at some point in their life. That number rises to about 30 percent for combat veterans.
I can attest to the fact that symptoms of PTSD created problems with trust, closeness, intimacy, communication, decision-making, and problem-solving. Once Kent was home and retired he often felt useless, with loss of interest in social activities. On many occasions I felt pushed away because I myself hadn’t served in the military. I was often left feeling “how could I possibly understand what he was suffering” being a mere civilian. This definitely made me very resentful towards my husband but I held it in (not a healthy response). Understanding PTSD and its Effects on Marriage (psychcentral.com).
My personal frustration with Kent was listening daily to the same stories of mistreatments done to him in childhood, the military and in personal and romantic relationships. I would hear these “mistreatment stories” over and over and then over again. I could almost recite them verbatim. We differ drastically in our approach to trauma. I like to forget about the details (not good either), he likes to remember and retell the stories. I later read that focusing daily on past hurts could lead to psychosis. How Kent and I approach issues in life, our approach to people, money and handling problems is starkly different. This always is why, startlingly, we work well, not perfect.
Episodes & Hard Conversations
Honestly, when I first experienced a few of his “episodes” (what he and I call anger outbursts) my first instinct was to run in fear. “OK, do I need to flee for my life?” were my initial thoughts, on more than one occasion. Realizing something was seriously going on with him and he wasn’t able to control these episodes at times, I gave him a choice. It was either therapy to definitely figure out the root of the outbursts, or I would have to go. He wanted me to stay and work it out.
According to: https://psychcentral.com/blog/understanding-ptsd-and-its-effects-on-marriage#3
People with Post-traumatic stress disorder can maintain or rebuild successful marital relationships with dedication, commitment, and perseverance by:
- Attending individual and couples counseling regularly.
- Being open and honest with feelings. Sharing.
- Being respectful and compassionate.
- Learning and practicing problem-solving and communication skills.
- Integrating fun and playfulness into life.
- Learning relaxation techniques and engaging in them alone and together with one’s spouse.
- Being compliant with medication, if prescribed.
- Avoiding addictive substances such as drugs, alcohol, gambling and pornography.
We were dealing with at least three of these issues. Since treatment is essential for post-traumatic stress disorder, we had to have a hard conversation about how to get help and incorporate changes into our marriage.
The Toll It Took On Me
While my main focus was on Kent, because I had become his ever attentive caregiver, not stopping to think about the emotional toll it was taking on me. Not only did Kent have PTSD, but he had to have a metal plate inserted in one foot, had damage to his rotator cuff due to years of carrying heavy backpacks and was dealing with Lupus. While I was happy to be my husband’s caregiver, I never even considered the secondary trauma it may have been causing me. Secondary Trauma and Military Veteran Caregivers: Smith College Studies in Social Work: Vol 79, No 3-4 (tandfonline.com). Secondary traumatic stress is the emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the first hand trauma experiences of another. Each year more than 10 million children in the United States endure the trauma of abuse, violence, natural disasters, and other adverse events – Secondary Traumatic Stress | The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (nctsn.org).
Realizing that the more his stories were repeated to me, I too was feeling the effect of his trauma. But wait, I was a victim of child molestation, had I also done this to my children? Had I rehearsed my trauma so much that it adversely affected them? Looking back, I believe so. I could now see how this trauma could become generational – What a lightbulb moment.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can develop following any exposure to trauma—including trauma another person experienced. A military spouse may get PTSD after learning about or otherwise being exposed to trauma their partner faced. This is sometimes called vicarious trauma or secondary trauma – GoodTherapy | Is It Possible for Military Spouses to Get PTSD?.
According to a “Good Therapy” blog, “military spouses who act as caregivers for their loved ones can experience compassion fatigue. Over time, the demands of continually caring for someone can deplete empathy. A spouse might begin feeling resentful instead of compassionate. Compassion fatigue can harm the relationship, and it may lead to worsening symptoms of PTSD in one or both spouses”.
The same blog goes on to provide some self-care strategies that can help military spouses cope include:
Limiting exposure to triggering media, such as war movies or graphic news stories.
Taking frequent breaks from caregiving. No one can provide 24/7 care with no support. Schedule time to do things that make you feel good several times a week.
- Talking to loved ones about your own struggles and trauma.
- Joining a support group for military spouses.
- Getting plenty of exercise. Exercise can help with depression, trauma, and anxiety.
- Getting adequate sleep.
Two impacts of secondary trauma:
Secondary exposure to trauma has also been associated with the burnout dimensions of emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation and reduced levels of personal accomplishment (e.g., Craig & Sprang, 2010).
Individuals can protect against and manage secondary traumatic stress by practicing self-care through regular exercise, a healthy diet, and sufficient sleep. Activities such as yoga or meditation can be helpful in reducing general stress.
Where are we now in the process?
We are still learning and growing – we always will. I can say for certainty that because my husband did the hard work, which included therapy, taking the correct combination of medications and remaining accountable, he is not at all the person he was 10 years ago. By us both doing the hard work on ourselves individually, it has helped us as a couple. We love each other and are best friends.
What helped me?
I worked separately to regain and keep my spiritual connection. Reading my bible, poetry and things of personal interest helped tremendously. When I stopped doing these things, it took me to a sad, dark place. Most wives and mothers can put the things they are most passionate about “on hold” to care for others. Often, they are made to feel selfish if they put their needs first. This should never be the case. Without a healthy balance we are no good to anyone.
Another thing that helps me is engaging in creative activities, such as crafting, painting, or writing. Areas of improvement for me include spending more time outside and doing relaxation techniques.
As I reflect and share our personal journey, my hope is other caregivers of those having experienced PTSD or STS don’t feel so lonely in this ongoing journey to emotional wholeness. Helping other veterans and their families has also been therapeutic for us. We founded https://www.maricopaveterancarecenter.com/ a non-profit in Maricopa, AZ, where our core mission is to change the way the world defines, views and treats veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other mental disorders so that every veteran can live life to his or her fullest potential.