In the final installation of my PTSD Awareness Month series, I wrote about the book Wounded Warrior, Wounded Home by Marshele Carter Waddell (co-authored by Dr. Kelly Orr). I e-mailed Marshele, told her my and Mark’s story, and asked if I could interview her. I was thrilled when she said yes, and I hope that her words offer just as much help and comfort to you as they did for me. Thank you, Marshele, for sharing your heart!
When my U.S. Navy SEAL husband returned from Iraq with only a broken leg, I praised God that he was home safe and sound. In the months that followed his homecoming, I sensed that his leg was the least of our concerns. Although he was recovering physically, his soul still walked with a limp. His unseen wounds, caused by war zone experiences, went unmentioned, unnoticed and untreated. Slowly but surely, these invisible injuries infected our marriage, our children and our family life. He was home with us in body; but, in his spirit a war still raged. From irritability and irrationality to nightmares and emotional paralysis, it became very clear to me that my veteran husband was suffering from post-traumatic stress. For two years my husband denied any need for help and unintentionally led our family into a land of silent suffering.
For more than two decades, our marriage had survived everything that a special operations career could throw at us: frequent deployments, long separations for training and real world conflicts, serious injuries and surgeries as well as multiple overseas family moves. The stress of my husband’s job was nothing new for either of us. That may explain why my husband’s frustrations and underlying anxieties caused me no new concerns at first. It was “all systems normal” and “steady as she goes,” or so I thought. Hope for the Home Front: Winning the Emotional and Spiritual Battles of a Military Wife and its companion Bible study were penned before I knew anything about the beast that would raise its ugly head when Mark returned from the frontlines. Military Life 101 was cakewalk compared to the challenges that came home in Mark’s mental rucksack. Our “normal” defined our life and activity. We were living it; but, we didn’t understand it. Mysteries rarely make formal introductions, but move in uninvited and we live among them sightless for a time.
When was the turning point? Or are there several, continuous turning points?
Night and day, the invisible wounds continued to whisper. After several more combat deployments, my husband’s wounds were hemorrhaging and demanding to be seen, heard, tasted, touched and treated. Medical evaluations and government assessments diagnosed Mark with chronic and severe PTSD. A couple years later, neurologists, psychiatrists, and brain scans confirmed that Mark had incurred multiple and extensive traumatic brain injuries from his combat service. In some respects, it helped to know what we were dealing with as a couple and as a family. Finding the name for a cluster of disturbing symptoms, whether it’s a dry cough or deadly cancer, is always a relief of sorts to the one who suffers and for his closest family and friends. It gives us an initial fresh dose of hope that we can find a way to make things better. Yet, the bittersweet comfort of the diagnosis is short-lived because as an individual, as a couple and as a family, we were still faced with PTSD…the Pain of The Shattered Dream.
How does one honestly acknowledge the seriousness of the PTSD/TBI problem, yet not wallow in self-pity and despair?
Encountering self-pity and despair is going to happen. However, wallowing in it is only one option. I have had to learn to bracket these very normal emotions and to give them reasonable deadlines. We all need to feel what we are feeling. But we must make a choice how long we will stay stuck there. I have found that finding and connecting with others on similar journeys and continuing to learn as much as I can about the two conditions give me hope and strength one day at a time. Yet, when friends cannot be found and information rings hollow, my faith in God and His promises to us has been my trustworthy anchor through all of this.
What should a wife do if her husband with PTSD/TBI refuses to get help, or if he doesn’t think anything is wrong?
I encourage every woman I meet to seek professional counseling for herself whether her husband does or not. In most cases, it is the woman in the life of the veteran—wife, mother, sister, daughter—who seeks help first. Statistics have shown that nearly 80% of all veterans who seek help did so because a woman in their lives cared enough about herself and her veteran and her family to seek help and information and resources first and knew where to refer her veteran when he/she was ready for help.
At 41 years old, I walked into my first counseling session not sure what I would find, a bit embarrassed to have sunk so low that I needed mental health care, but desperate for any morsel of help.
I had dreaded the exhausting process of bringing a total stranger up to speed on my life. We were years deep into this mess. We had wandered so long inside this maze, I was convinced no one could ever find us. Yet, somehow I knew that if I didn’t allow the wounds to be reopened, irrigated, scraped and allowed to regenerate new life that the injuries would turn gangrenous and we’d be done.
What are the five stages of grief and why do spouses experience these when dealing with PTSD/TBI?
When a veteran suffers from posttraumatic stress and traumatic brain injury, every member of his/her immediate family experiences the effects and, in many cases, suffers what is known as secondary acute stress. This secondary traumatic stress resembles the universal and potentially complicated process of grief. Spouses, parents and children of warriors pass through phases of shock and confusion, hurt, anger, guilt, fatigue, fear, and finally, acceptance.
Even with faith, courage and the discernment to apply God’s promises to a very dark situation, the results of war can be emotionally scarred homes, major depression, addictive behavior, substance abuse, divorce or suicide. However, with the right guidance, professional counseling and resources, informed community and church support, these same individuals and families can find hope, healing and wholeness.
What are some simple ways a wife can encourage her husband on the road to healing?
First, be patient with him and with yourself. His road to healing and your road to healing are going to look somewhat different. Accept the fact that you are living in a very stressful situation. Just accept that. Then, realize that you cannot fix him or heal him. That’s not your role. Your priority has to be taking care of yourself in the process and learning as much as you can about PTSD and TBI and where the reliable resources are. This information not only gives you hope, but equips you to respond in challenging situations in healthier ways. Wounded Warrior, Wounded Home, the new book that I coauthored with Dr. Kelly Orr, is focused on how family members can and should take care of themselves on this journey.
What can we do, as wives of wounded warriors, to make sure we are healthy, too?
Confusion, relentless anger, false guilt, endless exhaustion, and disabling depression did not add up to the life I believed God intended for us as His children. My fears conflicted with my faith. And though smaller than the tiniest mustard seed, my faith began to speak to the mountain standing in our way. These are the five steps I took and still take to create an environment of healing for myself.
C – Connect with your Creator, your close friends, your community ministries, and your counselor.
L – Lean into the Lord as you learn all you can.
I – Intercede and get intercession.
N – Nourish your body, mind and spirit.
G – Give back; get involved.
I invite you to learn more about each step in this “recipe for resilience” in Wounded Warrior, Wounded Home, chapter 7.
If there is no “cure” for PTSD or TBI, what is our end goal? Is healing a life-long journey?
Most “experts” would tell you to accept your new normal. Allow me to share how I feel about that term. Here is an excerpt from a blog post I wrote recently:
Can we dump the term “New Normal?” Is there anyone else out there who dislikes that expression as much as I do? Can we just click and drag it to the trash bin right now?
The “new normal” is the convenient catch phrase that so many folks use to refer to the rearranged life you have to keep waking up to and wading through after something uninvited and painful decimates your dreams. It’s much more than the frustration of not being able to fit into your size 8 jeans anymore. It’s more than the the myriad of minor adjustments and recalibrations that the seasons of life demand of us. John Mellencamp nails it, “…life goes on long after the thrill of living is gone.” For some the uninvited guest who rudely rearranges your stuff is a serious illness or a divorce. For others it’s a hurricane, a flood or a fire. For others it’s a tragic accident. And for still others, it’s the aftermath of combat.
I’m here to tell you right now that there is nothing normal about life after trauma. Nothing. There is not one thread of “normal” in the tapestry you’ve worked your entire life to weave that now hangs in shredded ribbons and rags. There is not one glimmer of “normal” seen through the shattered lens you once used to view life, love, and faith.
I know, you’re right. I’ve written entire chapters in more than one book on the New Normal. I’ve stood at podiums across the country and preached the New Normal in my sincere attempt to encourage you to accept graciously what life has dealt you. But, honestly, I can’t live with the term anymore. Will you forgive me? Can we expunge this from our lingo? It doesn’t work. It doesn’t fit. It just doesn’t reflect the truth of what life is after trauma.
My question to you is this: can we reject the misnomer and continue to embrace faith, hope and love in a messy life redefined by what onlookers may call an unhappy ending to a story that started off so well? I say yes.
Here’s an idea: let’s give the New Normal a taste of its own medicine. Let’s give the New Normal a new normal. I suggest that we divorce ourselves from this wrong way of defining life after trauma and adopt a better term: Pressing On.
I can’t take credit for this better concept. The Apostle Paul coined it nearly two millennia ago when he wrote, “Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:13-14 NASB)
Eugene Peterson nails it even better than Mellencamp in The Message: “I’m not saying that I have this all together, that I have it made. But I am well on my way, reaching out for Christ, who has so wondrously reached out for me. Friends, don’t get me wrong: By no means do I count myself an expert in all of this, but I’ve got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward—to Jesus. I’m off and running, and I’m not turning back.”
The next time you hear or read the term “New Normal,” I challenge you to replace it with “Pressing On,” and then to remind your heart of Paul’s words in Philippians 3:13-14. It rings true. It encourages me to keep waking up and to keep looking up. I’d much rather press on toward the good goals God has for me than to be sadly resigned to an unhappy ending.
Goodbye, New Normal. Not so nice knowin’ ya. Hello, Pressing On. Ah, isn’t that a better fit?
Earlier this year, Hope for the Home Front launched “Hope for the Heart” online community support groups. In just a few months, we’ve tripled the number of groups available! You can learn more by visiting our web site, www.hopeforthehomefront.com or our Facebook page, or by sending an email to email@example.com. These groups are private, closed communities and are a safe place for any woman connected to the life and service of a combat veteran of any U.S. conflict.
Ways to find out more about Marshele and her ministry:
Purchase Marshele’s books at http://www.hopeforthehomefront.com/store/
- Wounded Warrior, Wounded Home (co-authored with Dr. Kelly Orr)
- When War Comes Home: Christ-Centered Healing for Wives of Combat Veterans (co-authored with Chris and Rahnella Adsit)
- Hope for the Home Front