As some of my readers already know, Husband spent a year in Afghanistan’s volatile Kunar province with duty stations at COP Nangalam and COP Honaker-Miracle.
The VA diagnosed him with moderate PTSD in 2014, bringing his total disability rating to 80%.
Though the onset of his PTSD began in combat, it was exacerbated by his ex-wife when she attacked him shortly after his return from Afghanistan. We’re lucky in that his symptoms haven’t reached the most severe level – he doesn’t have flashbacks and he’s usually not hypervigilant. Also, his symptoms don’t affect him on a daily basis, but they do show up often enough to cause some problems when he hears an unexpected loud noise, gets caught in a crowd, or hears a woman speaking in the abrasive tones his ex often used with him and the kids.
He uses coping skills to mitigate stress-reactions to triggers – for instance, he gets a little jumpy when people unexpectedly walk behind him, so he tends to sit with his back against a wall. He doesn’t like to feel trapped, so he always finds a clear path toward the exit. He also likes to be in a position that allows him to see everyone in the room.
Unfortunately, even with these protective measures in place, he still suffers from symptoms at least once or twice a month, and we ran into an unexpected onset of reactionary stress only a few hours after the Parenting in SPACE conference ended.
Instead of heading for home immediately after the conference, we spent a few days enjoying a delayed honeymoon. We started in Chicago, an amazing place to spend an evening of romance.
We’d planned on visiting the Field Museum. Unfortunately, we didn’t make it there in time (we were too busy enjoying our new friends and saying our farewells, of course!), so we hopped on the internet to find something to do. I stumbled across several rave reviews for a show put on by The Neo-Futurists.
“What do you think?” I asked Husband. “Seems a little hipsterish.”
“Sounds fun. You know I went to a performing arts boarding school for a year, right?” he asked, smiling. “Hipsters aren’t going to bother me.”
And off we went. We were having a fantastic time, enjoying some child-free time where we did not even talk about issues relating to the kids! Such a rarity!
We had a great time driving to the theater and walking together… But then we got in line to enter the theater and Husband suddenly became very edgy.
“I want a cigarette,” he said.
“I don’t think you should smoke here in the line… That’s kind of rude, isn’t it? I have your e-cig –”
“No, I want a real cigarette.”
“You’ll have to get out of line, and we might miss our chance to buy the tickets. The website says they sell out quickly.”
“Fine. I’ll wait,” he said, clenching his jaw.
I bristled. Maybe he’s changed his mind, I thought. “Do you still want to go?”
“Yes. I said I wanted to come, didn’t I?”
We entered the theater in silence and went upstairs into a large staging room and sat along the wall. “Okay, now I’m going for a cigarette.”
“But the show’s about to start.”
“I’m grown, I can smoke when I want to!”
“Do you want to leave?”
“Why do you keep ASKING me that?”
“Why are you ACTING like this?!” I hissed.
“Acting like what?”
I stared at him. Do I really have to tell him he’s acting like a total jerk? I thought. I sighed. “I’m getting a Coke,” I said. “Do you want anything?”
“No. They’re probably like, two bucks each or something.”
I went to the concession stand and got him a Diet Cherry Coke anyway because he loves Diet Cherry Coke and I wanted him to snap out of whatever it was that was going on in his head. But his mood didn’t change at all when I handed him the soda. “Thanks,” he said. “I gave that guy your seat so we have to share this little bench.”
“No problem… Nice and cozy,” I said, smiling.
“Can I go have my cigarette now?”
Just then, an actor from the show came out and asked everyone to form two lines. Apparently most of the attendees that evening had been to the theater before because the lines had already been formed. I got up and started walking to the back of the line. “No,” Husband said. “We’re getting in the front.”
“But……… That’s kind of rude, don’t you think?”
“No! We got here first! And I don’t want to get in the back of the line!”
“So, just because you don’t LIKE a rule means it doesn’t apply to you?” I asked.
“Right,” he said, nudging me into the front of the line.
I decided not to argue (I channeled a little “script” from SPACE that reads, “I love you too much to argue with you!”) and the people behind us either didn’t notice or didn’t care that we were cutting in front of them, but I was embarrassed and irritated that Husband was getting so cranky during what was supposed to be the kickoff to our honeymoon. The actors led us into another room where we had to form yet another line to receive a customized name tag.
“Awesome, another line!” Husband said.
“What is your PROBLEM?! Do you want to leave? We can leave!” I said, a little more loudly and forcefully than I intended.
“Why do you keep ASKING me that? I am FINE!”
“Well, you were in a great mood and now you’re acting like an asshole!”
Oh yeah. I went there. On our honeymoon! And we never fight. I can count on one hand the number of real arguments we’ve had during the entirety of our relationship. But there we were, tempers flaring in the middle of a strange theater, surrounded by strangers.
“I just DON’T LIKE LINES. And now we’re standing in another line for a stupid name tag.”
It was then that I noticed… Husband was speaking loudly, with pressured speech. He was standing in an “at attention” position, his shoulders were squared, his jaw was clenched, and his hands were tense. He wasn’t smiling – he was grimacing. He was, basically, assuming a defensive position to protect himself from some threat he’d perceived in his environment.
And that’s when it dawned on me. Standing in line triggered my husband. He was having a PTSD episode.
This realization turned my empathy back on and quelled my anger. I put my hand on his shoulder and said, “Oh. I didn’t know that.”
“Name?” the actor making the name tags asked Husband.
“HUH?!” he snapped. The actor pointed at the name tag. “Oh. Vince.”
“This means nothing,” he said as she handed him a tag emblazoned with the words ANGRY BANANA. “She just had to come up with a name for everyone. She probably has like, a list of pre-determined names that she picks and chooses from.”
I exploded with laughter. “Are you serious right now?!” I asked. “Out of all these people, she wrote that on your name tag and you’re trying to tell me it’s a coincidence?!”
My laughter – not at him but at the absurdity of the previous twenty minutes where we failed to connect on the level we’re used to – was enough to bring him out of his cranky downward spiral into PTSD Town. Soon we were back to our silly selves who enjoy each others’ company and hardly ever bicker, quarrel, argue, or fight.
We settled in for the show, which, by the way, was bizarre and hilarious and a great time. Some of our favorite short plays in the hour-long performance include: “Seventh Grade Stage Cross,” “A Quoted Example of a 9-Year-Old Misunderstanding the Concept of a Certain Social Issue,” “Space, SPACE! (I’d love to go, I don’t mind dying, wait what?),” and “You are not allowed to be the person that you want to be, for you have to write emails, forever writing emails, until you are crushed by those waiting for your infinite sea of emails.”
After the show, Husband instantly lit a cigarette and smirked at me. “That’s better!” he said.
I laughed. “I didn’t know lines were a trigger for you.”
“Neither did I, apparently.”
“Well, I’m sorry I didn’t recognize the shift in your behavior for what it was. Looking back, I should have known… Your posture alone should have clued me in to the fact you were having a PTSD problem.”
“I didn’t know either! I just thought you were being weird all of a sudden!”
Hug. Kiss. End scene.
So, to summarize, getting in line instantly triggered Husband and his whole demeanor shifted from jovial to insufferable. And though I could clearly see he was acting inappropriately, he could not. Nor did he recognize that he was triggered.
In fact, he thought I was acting like a jerk because he didn’t realize that I was responding to his negative vibes.
So, if a 32-year-old man who knows his diagnosis and understands the symptoms associated with his condition can’t recognize recognize his behavior when he’s triggered by something he’s never been bothered by before, why on earth do we expect that from our children?
How is that fair?
Well… It’s not fair. Clearly.
We’ve been trying to force a seven-year-old girl and a six-year-old boy to operate with a level of mind-body awareness that even adults fail to achieve.
That, my friends, is completely unfair and totally absurd, and my husband’s PTSD episode really drove that home for us that night.
We’ve also used husband’s adult insights as a stand-in explanation for the kids’ behavior until they’re old enough and aware enough to help us understand them with their own words.
My husband wasn’t trying to be rude the other night, and neither are the kids when they’re having their own mental health issues. Just like Husband, they probably have no idea why we’re always reacting to their behavior with disappointment, sadness, or anger… and that’s because they probably don’t even realize that they are triggered and behaving poorly!
And how awful it must be for my kids with trauma issues, to see others around them getting frustrated and angry with them for things they can’t help, for things they don’t even realize they’re doing.
Ugh. It makes my heart hurt, knowing that I’ve responded to their distress in such horribly unhelpful ways. I’m their mom. I’m supposed to help them through their troubles and overcome them, not add to them. Right?
But, now I have this great insight from Husband and from the conference, and I’ve just enjoyed a five-day break from mothering and adulting and I feel pretty darn good. I’m committed to doing better, to helping the kids instead of hindering them.
So. How can I do better now that I know better?
Well, I can stay calm when they get into a funk because now I now their behavior isn’t about me at all. It’s about the trauma they went through.
I can accept their shrugging shoulders when I ask them, “What’s wrong?” and I can quit asking that question over and over and over, hoping for a different answer each time I ask.
I can ask them what I can do to help, and if they even want my help. And accept their answer if they don’t.
I can quit getting angry with them and instead empathize with their struggles. Because getting angry at someone suffering from PTSD is completely absurd, while offering love, empathy and patience is anything but.
And I can love them. I can love them through their negative behaviors.
And I will.
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