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A 6-Step Guide to Living and Loving With PTSD

When I was 24, I remember shifting in the seat of my therapist’s office while she diagnosed me with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“What do you mean? I questioned. “Are you sure?”

It didn’t make sense to me that someone who encountered emotional and mental abuse in relationships could be categorized with the same disorder as combat veterans. While the trauma I experienced was immense, it took me quite a while to process that I was diagnosed with PTSD, and honestly felt undeserving when compared to the latter.

Soon, I learned trauma affects us all in various ways and our diagnoses can be very different but also share similarities. Stress-related disorders can occur from many incidents, whether inflicted from a toxic relationship or by serving our country. Five years after my abusive relationship ended, I entered a partnership with someone who also has PTSD. Most people who understand PTSD know the difficulties of living with the disorder or even caring for someone else with the condition. I am diagnosed with the same mental setback as my partner and am learning how to love and nurture his disorder while dealing with my own. Through my experience of having a partner with PTSD from being a combat veteran, combined with the diagnosis of my PTSD from an abusive relationship, we have discovered some interesting ways to care for one another through our own experiences. I am sharing my story to serve as a guide for what living and loving with PTSD is like.

1. Ask questions and listen.

When your partner is ready to discuss the traumatic event, listen closely. Listening to each other’s story of what brought on such a painful condition is key to understanding what may aggravate a sensitive memory. Taking mental notes as they share their story can allow us how to properly cope with one another when these hidden wounds are reopened. The fact that you want to learn more about a loved one’s condition, and how you can assist them, is impactful. Be mindful of these conversations, though, as they may not want every detail to be shared.

Disclaimer: Oftentimes, those with combat PTSD do not want to feel embarrassment, shame, fear or losing a loved one’s positive perspective of them after sharing the trials faced in combat.

2. Be patient with each other.

If you notice your partner is mentally uncomfortable, you must have a lot of patience. It’s important to ask what you can do to ease the pain of flashbacks; this goes for PTSD from an array of circumstances. Your partner may not always be willing or able to verbalize what is racing through their mind when you ask, but believe me, being there beside them for emotional support makes all the difference. Be patient and present.

3. Be mindful of triggers.

While we share the same umbrella diagnosis, this does not mean we have the same mental disruptions. Be an attentive partner because triggers may surface that even the person living with PTSD wasn’t aware existed. It is important we work through the pain and find solace together. By being mindful, we can address the damage more gently and figure out the appropriate techniques or precautions to take should an episode occur. It’s also important you be aware of the negative coping behaviors that often are associated with PTSD (such as drug use, alcohol and self-harm).

4. Have a safe word.

Sometimes, a flashback will occur unexpectedly, so it’s a good idea to have a safe word to say aloud so your partner knows you are not doing well. For example, if I have a trigger and I am unable to verbalize my thoughts, I will simply say “not safe.” This allows my partner to understand something mentally uneasy is going on, and to take my hand in order to get me out of a public setting and into a comfortable and familiar place. Not only is this a way to make a comfortable exit, but it also keeps the one with the trigger from feeling embarrassed or making a scene.

5. Plan ahead for dissociation.

With PTSD, panic attacks are common, during which dissociation can occur. This is when your loved one may lose touch with reality. Often, flashbacks can become so intense that my partner or I will believe we are back in the situation from our trauma. In my partner’s case, he travels back to a war bunker. It’s important to be reminded you are in a safe environment. For us, having present-day photos handy, with both of us in them, helps bring us back to reality and realize we are not in harm’s way any longer. We also have “safe” reminders we wear each day, like a ring or bracelet we can touch and understand who and where we are during emotional turmoil. I recommend wearing a tangible item like these at all times, just in case.

6. Nurturing the guilt of a breakdown.

It’s important to remind someone experiencing a PTSD episode that they do not need to apologize or feel guilty for breaking down. The reassurance will help allow them to calm down more easily instead of worrying about “ruining the evening.” In fact, “spoiling” with love and affection after these spirals is comforting — knowing you are going to be present for the good and the bad. In my case, it is comforting to know we both share these experiences from time to time so that we can understand each other a little better, and from that learn how we can continue to grow as a team. I have discovered instead of saying “sorry for being a mess,” to instead say “thank you for being here for me;” my partner is slowly learning this grateful dialogue as well in order to eliminate any shame he may have otherwise felt.

Photo by Theodor Vasile on Unsplash