What I Learned About Loving and Supporting a Veteran With PTSD
I fell deeply in love with a man within a year of my divorce. He was the one I had been searching for. He had a gift for listening and coaxing my story out of me. Growing up in a family of three siblings and parents who argued frequently, attention and affection were sporadically given. I found it difficult to believe I was being heard as I was often told I was being ridiculous and that “it was simply not true” that I was not understood. Silence about feelings became a refuge.
We met in a meditation class, and when he showed sincere interest in who I was, I was elated. A submerged self began to blossom. My story peeled back petal by petal because he wanted to know, because he laughed, because I was interesting to him. And because of this long-awaited deliverance for validation, I did not see the full spectrum of him and the interior demons he grappled with until later.
As a Vietnam veteran in the late 60s and a career as an EMT, he bore witness to tragedy and violence beyond his control that left indelible emotional wounds, that incited unpredictable volatility and retreats from interacting, now more commonly known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
We dated off and on for years before I realized there was a name for how he interacted with me and others who cared for him. I loved him more than I had ever loved any man and invested in learning to navigate how to be with him. Patience, taking care of myself, and seeking support for us as individuals and as a couple were essential.
Nights were often full of short movies about people he had known in Vietnam. A troubled teenage boy sought his help and he never knew what happened to him. A sergeant spoke to him, his limbs decimated from a bomb. A room full of bones that needed to be matched to the remains could be sent back to families.
I learned not to ask which dream he’d had or in which variation. I learned how to sit with him, saying nothing, until he was ready to speak. This was not a science experiment where dosing with a different ingredient would yield a happier outcome. My silence without expectation did not threaten or push. He needed room to recognize the present from the past, to verbally protest the unconscious intrusion. I waited. I bore witness.
His touch lit me on fire and tranquilized me all at once. I had never felt such tenderness. I returned the same in kind and he gave me all the credit for our “spectacular” intimate life. It felt good, and I wanted more. He said as much as well, but an invisible reluctance lurked. I tried harder. I believed I was not doing something right. I asked him questions. He said it would be OK to just please me. It was enough for him to feel close. I didn’t believe him. He would then announce he needed a break. The fear painted all over him made me hesitant to ask how long, or if I could call. I questioned whether or not I could be a relationship with him that did not include sex.
“This is the best I have ever had. But there’s another guy inside who is repulsed by the idea of being close. I have to listen to him, too.”
I watched and listened for how I could make the guy who enjoyed being intimate so much arrive and stay present.
I then let this go, recognizing his warring feelings were not a game. I studied his words matched with his body language. They sometimes contradicted one another. I listened to that dissonance. I learned that what was said was not always what was meant. Loving him didn’t have to manifest sexually. I wanted that, but love is more than touching. Paying attention to the vibration of what was too much or not enough mattered greatly, too, and perhaps even more. When touch is a trigger for fear and loss, reassurance is not expressed with a hug. Sitting with him on the bed or at the kitchen table, quietly, allowed him space to let the flood waters run their course and for the idea of being safe to be reborn.
When we first dated, I took offense at him canceling our plans with a two-hour or 30-minute notice. I blamed myself that I was not valuable or interesting enough to inspire ease in keeping his commitment to spend time with me. He would feel bad and occasionally tell me to come anyway, saying that my presence was a comfort, but I came to regret showing up during those times, believing too strongly in my power to unhinge him from his stuck and sour mood.
I learned to expect a phone call at the 11th hour. I learned to create a blueprint for how the afternoon or evening would roll out if he decided not to visit. I planned to go for a walk, go swimming, call a friend, write, clean the house — low-stakes, interchangeable activities I liked doing and was always happy to have more time available to do them. I learned how to say, “It’s OK. I hope you feel better. Let me know if things lift for you,” and mean every word. I loosened my grip on having any expectations and opened myself to the mercurial nature of our spending time together. I treasured it because I could not count on it.
When we were together, he was open and available. He wanted to spend time with me. There wasn’t anything obscured, repressed or denied. Neither of us had to work hard to overcome the shadows of a restless night.
I felt the weight and fatigue of exertion and knew I needed more. I questioned if there was a boundary to my love — if I would give up and walk away.
“I need a better toolbox for when you feel afraid,” I said.
“I don’t know anyone who knows how to deal with what I’ve got going on inside. I don’t even want to look at it. I don’t want to talk about it. I wish it weren’t even there. I will go if you find the person.”
Reflexively, my friends wanted to protect me. In their eyes, it was too much work and not worth the effort. I heard their words, but I also had never felt such a strong resonance with another person. Leaving him would make me hollow inside. But, we needed help. I was tired and he wished I understood what it was like for him. I would never know his turmoil as rooted in shared experience. I could be many things, but never one who would know intimately what he grappled with daily.
I learned I needed to educate myself on PTSD and especially among Vietnam veterans. PTSD wasn’t even identified as a mental health condition until 1980. There was no national support of them while they served nor when they returned home. Ousted, alienated, there was no safe space to turn. A counselor was a necessary ingredient for our interactions. She identified his behaviors as “normal” considering what he lived through. She had the larger view and tools to map out a way of being together. It was possible. There was reason to hope. She was a lifeline.
I learned too that I needed the support of those who were in a relationship like we were, too — that this wasn’t “crazy” or impossible, or a waste.
Our relationship didn’t look like many others I knew. We didn’t live together. A lot of our visiting was done over the phone. We were apart enough to miss each other and valued our time when we got together. I knew I would go to any lengths to prove the bottomless well of my care for him, and for me, that was all that mattered.
Photo by Bruno Aguirre on Unsplash