In roughly the last three years, my husband and I have gone from dating, to living together, to married, to our first child, to a cross country move. In that same space of time, he has been deployed three times, had two long training TDYs (temporary duty assignments), and various other separations and TDYs. Added up, we have spent nearly one and a half of the last three years apart. Such is the life of a military family — especially one in which the active duty member has an operations job. My husband loves his job, and he’s good at it, and it never even crosses my mind to ask him to do something else. That doesn’t mean this life isn’t difficult. And like everything else, the separations this life demands are made more difficult by anxiety.
My anxiety during our separations stems from one of two places. The first is fear. Fear of the dangers of his job. Fear of not knowing if something were to go wrong. Fear of what he has to do and see and how it might affect him later in life.
The second is my personal self-worth. If other spouses are hearing from their husbands and I’m not hearing from mine, I question my worth. If he says he’ll call and doesn’t, it makes me question my worth. If he sounds even the slightest bit frustrated with me, I question my worth. If he questions my parenting decisions, I question my worth. I should be more clear, when I say question my worth, what I mean is that in each of these instances, he is verifying my deeply held irrational belief that I am not worth time, energy or love. The number of panic attacks I had in my son’s first year of life (my husband was gone for two to 10 months at a time, give or take) is too many to count.
The above sources of my anxiety may not seem to intertwine much, but in my mind, they go hand in hand. Here’s how a basic spiral to a panic attack looked at the peak of my anxiety.
I haven’t heard from him in three days. I hope he’s OK. I haven’t heard any news reports for the area, so I’m sure he’s fine. If something had happened someone would have called me. Unless something is happening now. Maybe I’m anxious because I can sense something is wrong with him. That’s silly. Nothing is wrong. He’s probably just super busy, or maybe the internet is down. Or maybe his helicopter came down. Remember that one time he almost crashed and the pilot didn’t recover until they were three feet from the ground? Remember how unsafe those damn machines are? They come down literally all the time. I look up crash statistics. OK, maybe not all the time. I’m sure he’s fine. He’s just busy or the internet is out. I try to distract myself with social media. Well, Jane’s husband just Skyped with her, so the internet is working fine. Well that sucks. Does he not want to talk to us? Did I do something to upset him? Why doesn’t he want to be a part of our lives while he’s away? Well, I wouldn’t want to talk to me like this either. I’m not exactly a joy right now. Look at me, finding fault with him while he’s there doing what he’s doing. I’m a terrible person. I’m not worth talking to. If he does call, I should be super happy and only talk about happy things. But he won’t call. He doesn’t want to see me. I look a mess anyways. I should put on some makeup in case he does call. I’m too tired to put on makeup. Not like this baby will let me put him down long enough to do it anyways. He could do so much better than me. He could get a spouse who is gorgeous and takes care of her appearance every day. I wonder if he’s talking to any other women while he’s gone. Maybe he’s talking to other women instead of me. Not like I could blame him. I wouldn’t want to talk to me either. I’m just not worth it. He couldn’t possibly love me. I’m not worth the love. We’re probably not going to make it. He’s probably going to trade up. He deserves better anyways. I find myself crying uncontrollably. I start shaking, my heart racing. I find a corner and hug my knees, trying to focus on my breathing.
See how that devolves from normal fears to irrational beliefs that my family was over? Here’s the kicker. I was actually in therapy for a few months of this separation, but my therapist never asked about anxiety symptoms. I had experienced these sorts of “meltdowns” for so many years that I thought it was normal, or rather, I thought it was just a personal failing, not an actual condition.
To be clear, again, my self-worth is no one’s job but my own. My spouse is not responsible for my self-worth. I do not want him to compensate for my beliefs on the subject, I want to progress to the point that I no longer hold these irrational beliefs. His actions in no way cause my panic attack, my own irrational thought processes do that. Would it have happened if we had more regular communications during separation? I honestly don’t know, but I’ll touch more on how my anxiety affects my spouse in another blog.
On the reverse side of this, the most recent separation occurred after I had began therapy using a cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) approach. We went the first full month of his deployment without speaking because of technical issues, and I didn’t have a single panic attack. I had typical fear about where he was, the dangers of his job, the lack of reporting from the immediate area to keep me informed, etc., but no panic about his safety or my self-worth. I missed him. I still cried a couple times, I still wore his sweatpants, I still ate too much pizza sometimes, but not once did I have to hug my knees and breathe it out from the safety of a corner.
Anxiety is a bitch. It has a way of telling me that my worst fears are eminent. When my spouse is away from me — and especially when he is in a war zone — those fears are even more real. It’s not as much of a mental leap to believe those fears could come to fruition when there are statistics that prove the danger.
If any of you experience panic attacks, have past trauma that affects your current thought processes or find yourself making irrational leaps in your stream of consciousness, please realize it is not typical and it can be treated. The right therapist and approach can make all the difference in the world, and can make living this military family life much more bearable.
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Thinkstock photo via MariaArefyeva.