How I Support My Loved One With PTSD
Author’s note: To protect my loved one’s identity, as he volunteered to share some of his experiences as long as he remains anonymous, please note that in this story my partner shall be referred to as "Sam.” I am also using a pen name to maintain our privacy.
I am ashamed to say, I may have been one of the people who glossed over PTSD before having a personal experience with it. Like many people, my knowledge of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder came from seeing it portrayed in many crime dramas, movie plots, books, and advertisements. But I didn’t really know anything about the disorder until PTSD affected someone I care about, my partner, Sam.
I have known Sam for a very long time. We met when we were just teenagers, over 30 years ago.
The Early Years
Sam is an avid sports fanatic and played football throughout his school years. I was a member of the dance team and a flag twirler. I had an innocent schoolgirl crush on Sam and was always the first to run and hug him after each game. Back then, we were just friends.
After high school, we drifted in different directions. He went off to Oklahoma for college on a football scholarship. One day, he had to return home because his father had committed suicide. I was there for him, and we had a fun summer that year in spite of the circumstances. In hindsight, I realize this must have been the beginning of his habit of tucking away the hurt. I don’t think people talked about PTSD back then. It was taboo to get counseling or discuss problems outside the home. I can recall him telling me the details of his father's death, and then I went to his house, and he acted like nothing tragic had ever happened.
When we were younger, people thought there was more than friendship between us, but there wasn’t — at first. Once, while at a friend’s wedding, we danced together and I felt we had chemistry, but we didn’t act on it. We went on to lead separate lives. He joined the military and led a bachelor’s life. I got married to someone else and later divorced.
Returning from War
Social media wasn’t really a thing back then, and we didn't keep in touch very well. I found out that he was deployed in Somalia. Many years passed. I can recall a phone conversation with Sam while he was at home. He said that he had been discharged, was suffering from PTSD, and couldn't leave his room. I learned later that he returned to Iraq on an independent contract. He survived and returned stateside, but with battery acid burns on his face, neck, and arms.
The Signs of PTSD
Sam contacted me out of the blue 12 years later via a Facebook message, back in August 2016. It was almost one month after my ex-boyfriend walked out the door on me. Sam said that he’d had a stroke, but that he was okay and he wanted to catch up. I was excited to see my friend and fill in the blanks from the last 20 years, but I had to summon some courage to go see him. I didn't know what to expect. When I got out the car, he was there to greet me. As I drew closer to him, I noticed his scars but I wasn't put off. We embraced as though zero time had gone by. It brought an odd sense of relief — a feeling of knowing someone's spirit and being comfortable with its imperfection. We both knew we were looking at each other differently but didn't say much about it. Both of us let our feelings be known in subtle ways. Being with Sam has been a beautiful experience, but not without many bittersweet moments.
Since reuniting, I have been by his side to witness his demons firsthand. In some ways, Sam is entirely the same, but make no mistake about it — his glances at absolutely nothing and nowhere reveal a darkness that I fail to describe adequately. I know this is PTSD.
Sam refers to his illness as "survivor’s guilt." He carries this invisible burden with him. It must be heavier than the hundred-pound pack he carried around during the war. He prefers to keep to himself and not to interact with others. He doesn't exactly sleep, only rests in little spurts, and he reacts to every little noise as if the enemy is here among us. Our dog keeps him grounded. I like to think that I keep him grounded, too. Often, though, the dog is his preferred companion.
PTSD Can Surface in Odd, Unpredictable Ways
One time, our sewer line broke. Sam got down on his hands and knees to fix it. I asked him if he needed help, but he yelled at me, screaming a reply that didn’t make sense. I left the house and went on a long walk. I recalled one of the traumatic war stories he'd told me — I’ll spare you the gory details, but I made a connection and realized that fixing the sewer had triggered a painful memory, causing his outburst.
Sam later apologized and attempted to explain. But he didn't have to. I already knew. The point here is that PTSD can reveal itself in very odd ways. Try to be prepared for the fact that it often presents itself differently every single time.
PTSD’s Effect On Our Relationship
There have been times when I really needed Sam, and he wasn’t emotionally available. I have learned to accept his limited emotions over time because it has forced me to level up on my self-esteem and feel confident without reassurance from him. I get asked often what keeps me in the relationship. There are many answers to this question, but one of the big reasons I love him so much is that when he says something endearing, it is profoundly meaningful. When Sam smiles, he is completely present. I live for those times.
Unfortunately, because of the stroke, the glimpses of intimacy are indeed rare. He is constantly waging war with himself over the effects of the condition. Because his dominant, right side was affected by the stroke, it is difficult for Sam to put on his clothes, tie his shoes, or button his shirts. When I try to flirt or compliment him, he is unable to receive it. He often, to my discomfort, refers to himself with derogatory names. Because he lost the use of his right arm and leg and developed a speech impediment, he feels awkward and unattractive.
I have learned that his identity was wrapped up in the very thing that crippled him — war. The stroke was caused by a thickening of the blood unrelated to war, but nonetheless, the effects of the two events are essentially one and the same: defeat, shame, and confusion.
As of writing this, his arm is “coming back to life,” so to speak. The speech impediment has improved. His leg works, but he still won't be running around in combat boots anytime soon.
One thing that people might not realize is that PTSD can be silent. Sam often spends long periods of time without uttering a word or interacting. I think he is living in his memories. I don't disturb his private time; I respect it. I believe, in a strange way, he needs to live in these memories. They validate his existence and allow him to grieve the events that brought him to this point.
How We Cope With PTSD
Because of his father's suicide, Sam refuses antidepressants. His father was on them at the time he took his life, and Sam worries they may drive him to do the same. I personally don't know if being on medication would help or hurt him, but because he has never hurt me or himself to this date, I respect him enough to make his own decision.
Because we’re trapped in a bureaucratic nightmare of medical insurances, VA (Veterans Affairs) assistance, Social Security Income, and the like, we spend as much time filling out paperwork as we do at various doctors offices. The VA didn’t offer the kind of care Sam needed so we often have to travel to different neurologists to assess his condition. The stroke seemed to exacerbate his cognitive function. He is currently undergoing speech therapy and sensory integration therapy. His right arm seems to be the most affected. The speech seems to be coming back well.
Specialists are trying to determine how to separate the symptoms of stroke and the PTSD. He has agreed to take Lexapro for the anxiety. I am not positive it works yet as he still gets very anxious. The severe panic attacks are treated with Ativan. He dislikes the side effect of sleeping so much, so this medication is a last resort. He has also been referred to a psychiatrist specializing in PTSD. But Sam hasn’t felt comfortable enough yet to get the help he needs. He loses patience before he can even find a therapist he trusts. Trust is everything to an ex-soldier. Luckily, Sam doesn’t self-medicate with alcohol or drugs.
What benefits him:
- Space and time to himself
- Documentaries (which distract the mind)
- Companionship from his dog
- Love and understanding
- Unconditional friends
- Routines and predictable surroundings
In closing, I have to tell my truth about the situation. It isn't perfect or easy. Sam rages and explodes when frustrations exceed his ability to deal with them. I have seen him demonstrate every possible emotion. He pushes loved ones away, tests friendships, and can scare the daylights out of people who don't know him. I take time to myself when I need it and recalibrate. I think taking time for yourself is a must when you have a loved one with PTSD.
I respect Sam to make his own choices regarding his recovery. I believe that everything happens for a reason, and the reason doesn't have to make sense. I would say to anyone walking in similar shoes to dig deep, hold on, and let the PTSD occupy some space — just not every space.
If you or someone you love suffers from PTSD or any other mental health challenge, check out these great mental health resources.
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