What It's Like to Be in Love When You Have PTSD


Just like most mental disorders, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is only just starting to become more widely understood. This was quite apparent to me in the interactions I’ve had when discussing it.

The first time I mentioned my diagnosis to my brother, he responded in confusion, “Isn’t that only for war veterans?” Another time, I was going over a pre-op questionnaire with a nurse who asked if my PTSD was related to military service. I certainly understand why they were confused. It took me years to understand what I was experiencing were symptoms of PTSD and many more years before I was able to manage my symptoms.

The official DSM-IV definition for PTSD is “the development of characteristic symptoms following exposure to an extreme traumatic stressor.” Even a quick Google search “causes for PTSD” shows a snapshot in the Google Answer Box:

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can develop after a very stressful, frightening or distressing event, or after a prolonged traumatic experience. Types of events that can lead to PTSD include: serious road accidents, violent personal assaults, such as sexual assault, mugging or robbery.”

Even people who are familiar with PTSD can misunderstand how the disorder functions for different people. Nothing has made this more obvious to me than loving someone who has survived a war. My partner is a survivor of the war in Bosnia in the early 90s and although he doesn’t have PTSD himself, he knows a lot of people who do. During a recent panic attack, we started talking my way through it and he said, “I don’t get it. I know a lot of people who have PTSD and they don’t struggle like this.” (Before you get angry, please know he meant it in a sweet way. As in, he hates to see me struggling.)

I had two answers for him:

1. Don’t be fooled, we all struggle.

First and foremost, yes, they probably struggle just as much as I do. You just don’t see them struggling. I’m sure 99 percent of the people I know would never guess I could be completely immobilized by a panic attack. I’ve just got really good at hiding it. The reason he even “gets” to see me struggle is because I trust him and I’m able to work through my triggers around him in the safe space that is our home.

The fact he sees my panic attacks can sometimes make them even worse. Although I have learned it is so much easier for me to communicate to him when I am struggling, I still sometimes try to power through it on my own. I try to tackle the monster in my mind before it gets out into the real world where it simply looks… “crazy.” Sometimes, I don’t recognize the trigger for what it is until it has sucked me down the rabbit hole.

Once I am in the throes of a panic attack, it is magnified by the fear this panic attack will be the one. The one straw that breaks the camel’s back. He will realize he doesn’t want this in his life anymore. I certainly wish it wasn’t in mine, but unlike me, he has the choice to leave. This choice, this possibility we could once again be alone to face our monster, multiplies the fear tenfold and more often than not, it makes things much worse.

2. I am in love with my greatest trigger.

It was a huge shock, both for him and myself, to realize this. Even though my PTSD trauma was years in my past, for me, being in a romantic relationship forces me to face one of my greatest triggers on a daily basis. For me, being in love while having PTSD is the definition of a love/hate relationship. I want to be in a relationship, to truly open my heart to someone, but the idea of making myself vulnerable makes me cower in fear. I want to experience the joy and excitement of moving in together, but instead dread losing my safe place. I want to enjoy intimacy, but cannot focus because of the screaming in my mind.

I want to get married, buy a house, have a children and grow a family without being terrified each step towards these dreams is another obstacle to prevent escape. I want to feel love, but opening up my emotions enough to truly love also opens the door for the demons I try so hard to keep at bay. It’s not possible to feel something as strong as love and remain numb to everything else.

I have read so many articles claiming love is a journey and this couldn’t be more true for those of us with PTSD. Sometimes, instead of stopping to smell the roses, you first have to show us they are there. Sometimes you will have to push us along and be patient with us when we slam on the brakes. And sometimes, even when we can’t see where this journey is taking us, we can look back and realize just how far we have traveled with pride.

Follow this journey on Alyce’s blog.

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