Thursday, December 07, 2006


Something happened this week, in the midst of all this angst, that has given me a little bit of hope. Not a lot of hope, it must be said. More like sitting in a very dark room and seeing a little pinprick of light. It might go out, it might turn out to be nothing, but even seeing it is better than just sitting in the dark.

I filled in a survey a few months ago for "wives" of Vietnam veterans, which was all about levels of psychological distress and coping methods. And now I have found a sort of summary of that report, which shows that approximately one-quarter of us have extremely severe levels of depression, anxiety and stress. The study attributes this to secondary trauma, resulting from living with a traumatised person. It is apparently more likely to happen with "wives" who have also had traumas of their own that aren't related to their partners.

My Big Dude has Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome from his time in Vietnam and he has it pretty badly. It was the first problem that was ever diagnosed. He copes so well with it most of the time that most people wouldn't see that in him. He doesn't have those stereotypical behaviours like getting aggressive, go crazy in shopping centres, etc, but living at close quarters with him, it's obvious.

But what reading this summary paper is making me think is that I tend to view his PTSD as something he deals with. I haven't generally recognised how many of our issues as a couple may be caused or impacted by PTSD. This paper here is really making me think, because I see a lot of the issues it talks about in veteran marriages in our relationship. Issues around emotional numbing and disengagement, sexual problems made worse by his anxiety about it all, my own issues around caring for him - its all there. Not the violence, thank God. My Big Dude, after seeing all that killing in Vietnam, is now so gentle that he can't even bring himself to go fishing.

But even more, it's this paper that is striking me. It talks about the long-term effects of trauma as not just a collection of symptoms and behaviours, but as being about trust:

Trauma destroys the trust relationship of the victim with themselves and the world. This creates an inordinate amount of stress on the mental, emotional and physical capacities of the victim whose coping behaviours and belief structures have been shattered by trauma. The victim no longer knows how to act or what to expect from the world in order to survive. The victim develops characteristic symptoms described as post-traumatic stress disorder.

Apparently people who know the traumatised person and have frequent exposure to them often also end up with many of the symptoms of PTSD, in a kind of secondary trauma. A lot of the studies that are done are actually about the effects on therapists, but I think this is also really true of partners:

The experience of vicarious symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder may challenge the caregiver's basic faith, heighten a sense of personal vulnerability, distrust and cynicism about the human condition. The therapist may experience profound grief and feel as though he or she were in mourning with the victim.

That first quote, about the shattering of trust between the traumatised person and the world, well, that's exactly how I feel. Perhaps I don't have a "faith problem", so much as a trust problem. I seem to have lost that trust that the world is somehow good, that God is somehow good despite all the suffering, that terrible things won't just go on and on. I feel like something within me has been shattered and broken. I am starting to feel like those poor little dogs you see in psychological experiments who are given electric shocks to make them leap over a barrier. The first few times, they leap fine. After a while, with too many shocks, they stop. They just sit there, getting shocked over and over again, and they go completely passive and lie there whimpering. They no longer believe that they can stop the shocks coming, and they just can't make themselves keep jumping over the barrier.

I am wondering if the fact that I feel so inexplicably bad, so untrusting, so helpless, so kind of fundamentally flawed and broken, is because I am experiencing some kind of secondary trauma.

And I am wondering if I am experiencing this now because the Big Dude's general coping with his PTSD has been particularly bad this year. He has functioned great as a dad, our relationship has actually improved, but he isn't doing well. This is the first year that he has actually described himself as depressed, booked himself in to see a psychiatrist and been willing to take anti-depressants. He hates all sickness related labels, hates seeing doctors or specialists of any kind, hates talking about his feelings or dwelling on anything bad, and hates taking drugs, so the fact that he is doing all these things suggests to me that he must be feeling absolutely desperate.

The Big Dude and I, despite our issues, have always been close. What affects him, affects me. It's not just the way he behaves that affects me. It's the way he feels. We have this strong, empathic link. When his father died, I was on the other side of the country, I didn't know it had happened, but that day I was overcome by a feeling of grief and sadness and I didn't know why. When he told me what had happened, it was a confirmation rather than a surprise.

I know there is no magic bullet for issues like human suffering, spiritual angst, etc, but there are treatments for trauma, including secondary trauma, and there are some coping methods that work better than others.

So I am also wondering if I should see a counsellor at the Vietnam Veterans Counselling Service - for myself.

Because I swear, I seem to be going under, I feel like I am drowning and it's not like me. I like the tag line on this page: "Honour the dead but fight like hell for the living". I, too, am still among the living and maybe I need to start fighting like hell for myself.


Blogger Satan said...

Em, firstly {{BIG HUGS}}. The image of the dogs getting shocked until they give up trying to make the hurt go away has always been purely heartbreaking.

Secondly, see a counselor if you even have a passing desire. I love talking a shrink's ear off. It's very, erm, therapeutic.

Good luck, luv!

4:09 PM  
Blogger C-Marie said...

I was diagnosed with PTSD over 10 yrs ago - which, of course has NOTHING to do with what your Big Dude has gone through and what he is now dealing with but I DO understand it - and yes.. care for yourself as you would care for him.
Trauma is like a pool of water that ripples...until it has to make an impact.
I feel for you and commend you - BIG HUGS, ALWAYS!!!

5:03 PM  
Blogger Rob said...

"So I am also wondering if I should see a counsellor ..."

I'm in agreement with the other ladies. By all means seek out help. You must. You can't cope long term on this all by yourself. You owe this not only to yourself, but equally so to both Big Dude *and* Little Dude. Good luck to you Em, we're all pulling for you guys!

5:11 PM  
Blogger Just Me said...

Wow - what a vulnerable post! I have to echo others in saying that it could only help to see someone. And Kudos to you Big Guy for overcoming a lot of his barriers to get the help he needs. You both are in my prayers.

6:12 PM  
Blogger oldbear said...

Hi Emily, will you PLEASE go see a therapist?!

Even if their style and content are not suitable for a LTR as your therapist, they will doubltess impart some knowledge, perspective,and awareness to you.

As I have often said, even the guys who were not "combat veterans" (lots of non-combat activites can be just as terrorizing or life altering as being a grunt if you are doing them in the wrong place at the wrong time.) get messed up by service in a war zone.

For those who were actually in combat the rate of problems and their average difficulty, is much higher than for non-combatants.

The over-riding thing I have seen is a general detachment from positivity/hope which can manifest itself in the "Fuck it man, dont mean nothing mentality", fatalism to accept possibly changeable bad circumstances, and a belief that the other shoe is ALWAYS out htere waiting to drop. But I aint a shrink so WTF do I know? Just mho.

I first got to be around a lot of the vets in 70s when my buddies mom started tending bar at a "old" soldiers bar. She lived with one of the customers who was a returned ietnam veteren, and the guys would let us hang out while they talked in the garage. Lots of crazy stuff for a ten-ish kid to listen to, but I am glad i did.

I have worked with lots of these guys (my employer is ajobs for veterans company),and they all have been pretty good guys to me. SEEMS like the guys who went thru the most over there have always been teh nicest to me! Sad they are now almost as forgotten as Korean vets, except for few bumper stickers. I wont ever forget my friends and what they went through.

For those of you too young to have heard about it, and who want a different view of how things were for a lot of guys, Try reading "everything we had" by al santoli. For fictional account of lfe in a mrine company in the field, "Fields of fire" by Jim Webb.

With all the stuff going on nowdays it is more important than ever we as citizens do our part to control and scrutinize (as much as possible)where, when, and how troops are deployed.

Sorry you have to bear the burden with your big dude, Hugs and prayers ot you.

7:06 PM  
Blogger O272 said...

Take care of you, Em. Go talk to someone!

8:05 PM  
Blogger freebird said...

Absolutely, Emily, go for it - and let us know how you get on.

2:08 AM  
Blogger LBP said...

Throwing in with all the rest. Hugs to you all.

6:35 AM  
Blogger Desmond Jones said...

Interesting, now that you mention it, Em. I kind of wonder if I don't have a touch of something like that myself. (I promise that I'll blog in more detail about some of what we went thru w/ our kids; I really will).

And, the whole 'secondary effects' thing - just makes sense. If the suffering of someone you love doesn't affect you, then I question how much you love them.

You're a good woman, Em, and the BD is fortunate to have you. . .

7:49 AM  
Blogger Ali said...

Emily, you do, you HAVE to fight for yourself! As a victim of trauma myself, I know what it's like to spend years and years in depression, and huney, it's not worth it. Every day is so very precious! As the Big Dude will probably attest, we're all just living on borrowed time here. Every day is a day we probably shouldn't have had, so we have to make the absolute most of it.

I went to a councillor for 3 years. For the first three it didn't really seem to do much, but since I've stopped, I realized how very much he actually taught me. Now, when I have panic attacks, I know how to react- I know what to do. My partner remarks how happy and bubbly I am all the time- not something you'd expect from a person with an anxiety disorder and chronic, biological depression!

So go, you are worth it. And you need to be happy.

You MUST be happy. You are worth it. And your life is worth it.


7:54 PM  
Blogger hasarder said...

I was involved with that particular councelling service for a few years.

It seems one of the first steps for many people was realising that the problems they experienced were related to a larger thing that affected so many people. I spoke to heaps of vets, their partners and kids who all had the same kinds of problems in their families.

I had thought of asking you if you'd been there before, but you don't have an email address.

6:02 PM  

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