What if every day, on your drive to work, you were at risk of hitting a mine and
exploding? How would you cope, knowing that, at any time, your enemy might jump up
beside you, in front of you or behind you? Imagine your co-workers, great individuals
who you know and love because you lived with them. What would it do to you to watch
them die or see them dismembered?
You return home and your loved ones are so excited to see you. You look into their
smiling faces, feel their warm hugs and it overwhelms you. You love your family but you
feel numb, detached and confused. You long for your colleagues because they were
there and they understand what you have been through. You experience waves of
anger and sadness. At times, your emotions feel like they may swallow you up. You
don’t know how long these feelings will last. Will you ever be the person you were? You
feel damaged and you seek ways to numb the pain. You may decide to drink or take
medication, just to sleep at night and survive the flashbacks every day.
At home, it’s business as usual, garbage needs to go out on Mondays. Your partner
wants to have sex. Your children have missed you and they are clamouring for your
attention. You may vent your anger at your spouse, scream at your children to “leave
you alone”. It’s not their fault, they didn’t cause this. This leads to guilt, self-loathing and
depression. You may drink or medicate yourself further. When you are alone, you cry
quietly so no one will hear. Your tears help you release a small dose of pain. You
witness your family’s reaction to the new you; a stricter, more withdrawn you, and that
hurts too. You wish you could go back to being yourself but you are not that person
anymore. You long for the company of those who were there with you. They, like you,
are trying to get through each day, feeling like impostors in what used to be “their life”.
So what do you do? How do you move on as a family?
Safety. Establishing a sense of safety from the inside out is key. Finding where you feel
safe in your body is a first step. Connecting to that part by breathing and focusing on it
can help you ride the waves of emotion as they work through you. Try to recall a really
positive experience, focus on what you heard, felt, saw, smelled and tasted (if
applicable). Use this memory as an anchor when you are having a challenging day.
Normalcy. Understanding that your behaviors are normal reactions in the context of
what you have been through is a second step. It’s easy to see only pathology and feel
helpless to change anything. Your “symptoms” are normal ways of coping with the
extremes you experienced while on duty. You must numb yourself to complete your
tasks. You must be hypervigilent in order to survive. Rage is a normal reaction to seeing
friends killed or hurt. Sadness is a human reaction to grief. You are grieving the friends
you lost, the life you had that is no longer yours and the fact that you are not the person
Support. Connecting with others who have had similar experiences helps support your
healing. You know they will not judge you. You can each share whatever strategies have
helped you cope. You can just “be” together, knowing that it’s ok to be who you are right
now. Everyone in the room understands.
Time and Space to Heal. Healing is a long process. It requires support, patience and
time. Find a place that feels safe to you, surround yourself with people who feel safe as
well, breathe calm into your body, express your grief (go out in nature and scream),
release your anger (punch a piece of clay and create something, paint it out on a huge
canvas, write about your experiences), empower yourself to conquer the feelings of
helplessness (join a support group, find a way to help others who are in your situation or
new soldiers). Be compassionate and loving to yourself.
Partners. Partners of people who are suffering have quite a challenge. They try to
create normalcy in a chaotic life. They are the target of their partners’ emotions and
withdrawal. They don’t fully understand what is happening and what to do to make it
better. When children are involved, they worry about the impact of their home life on
their children. Will they be ok?
Safety. First and foremost, partners must find a way to feel safe. A great way to do this
is to read up on post traumatic stress disorder. Their loved one may not be diagnosed
with P.T.S.D. but some of the symptoms could be present. Communication with one’s
partner is a significant factor in remaining safe. Discuss the partner’s triggers. Come up
with a plan to avoid as many of them as possible and, to deal with some of the
inevitable behaviours in a constructive way. Perhaps, there is a signal when the partner
needs time to vent or to calm down (like a time-out gesture). The partner can then take
the kids out for ice cream or go to a friend’s house to give the loved one a chance to
release whatever is coming up at the time. Another signal (like holding a hand up to say
stop) may indicate that it is time to go out for a walk, chop wood or attend a support
Compassion. The next step is to express compassion toward their loved one. It’s
important to keep in mind that none of their behaviours are “about them”. If the partner’s
behaviours are received with compassion, not reaction, they will subside more easily.
Boundaries. It’s important for both partners to set clear boundaries (is this mine or
not?) and to be vigilant about self-care practices (I eat well, I exercise, I get support
when I need it, I find a way to vent my emotions, I make time for my friends).
Commitment. It is crucial that both parties know that they are committed to the
relationship: to being compassionate, supportive and together “through thick and thin”.