In the latest in a series of blogs about health care for ex-service personnel, wife Jane (not her real name) gives heartfelt insight into what it is like for the families of veterans scarred by what they have seen and been through:
When asked if I would write down my thoughts and experiences of living and supporting someone with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), I was happy to do it, although how different it feels sitting in my home doing this.
It’s taken me a good week to do, as I have had to pick the moment when I’m emotionally strong enough to give the most honest encounter of my experiences – so here goes ….
I grew up with no links to the military and didn’t even grow up in England, so when I moved to the UK and met my husband Tony, I was a bit unsure of anything to do with military life. At the time, he was waiting to get back into the army as he was finding it hard to settle on civvie street.
It was a whirlwind and I fell in love with this kind, caring man. A year later we were married, Tony was back in the army and we moved onto camp – this was a totally alien experience for me and one I struggled with – I felt I didn’t fit in.
Just after we’d had our second child five years later, Tony decided to leave the army. I was thrilled about this, but things soon became very strained between us – Tony was in and out of work and never seemed happy.
I remember the day when I realised something wasn’t right. We’d had family over to visit and Tony sat in the corner playing video games barely talking. I felt angered and frustrated at this man I was now living with. He also began speaking to me about vivid dreams involving knives, which made me scared and confused, so I started hiding our kitchen knives.
The next few years were very unsettled with us moving to the country I came from for a fresh start, but instead things just got worse and Tony ended up in hospital after collapsing due to a panic attack. It was at this point that Tony opened up to me about an event that had happened when he was in the army. (I later found out it was just a small snippet to test my reaction).
We decided to move back to the UK in the hope of a more settled future. But I couldn’t have been more wrong and our relationship hit an ultimate low – we even talked about separating, but I couldn’t leave – every now and again I would see the man I’d married and loved and knew I couldn’t give up.
Tony then started to experience deja vu – and I did what I always do …’Googled it’. I insisted he see his doctor as I feared for a tumour. However, he came back with anti-depressants for suspected work related stress. After two days of taking them, Tony chucked them in the bin as he didn’t need tablets and was ‘strong enough to deal with this’.
By 2012, I could no longer cope. I would drive to work but was too scared to get out the car. I was becoming completely irrational and was so stressed – my doctor said I was living in Tony’s waves and he needed to get help. Thankfully he did and he started to see a counsellor for help.
Later that year though, I was faced with Tony in my bedroom doorway, armed with a weapon, panting and shouting. I wasn’t scared as I felt I could resolve this situation, but as I approached him, I could see that he had no idea who I was or where he was -he was back in a conflict zone. At this point I knew I was potentially in danger and managed to shut him out of the room and dial 999. The police were amazing and stayed on the phone whilst my husband ran around our home, shouting as if he were in some conflict. Armed police took him to the station and I remember sitting on the pavement outside feeling ultimate sadness and loneliness –the one man who should protect me was gone.
He ended up being hospitalised and was diagnosed with PTSD. He had to stay in a secure unit for a few weeks as he was seen as a risk, which made me feel so let down and angry as I had to be the one to agree to this in order for him to get the right care. I was insistent, however, that my children see their dad every day, which was scary for them. They were amazing though and I couldn’t be prouder of how well my little girlies have dealt with it all.
It was here that Tony was put in touch with David Wilcox at the South West Veterans’ Mental Health service. Once Tony engaged with David he started to understand everything so much more; we all did.
After three years of therapy, Tony returned to work in 2015; it was a hard step but something he was desperate for. He had to go to a very small quiet company as he doesn’t cope well with many people and noise. Our family life is deeply affected, too, as there are restrictions on everything we do. Our girls are amazing and accept there are certain places we can’t go with Daddy, certain places we can’t sit and certain times we can’t go out. They know never to come up from behind him or startle him in any way; we all carry on as if its ‘normal’ but we know it’s not!!
A couple of years ago on New Year’s Eve, Tony disassociated at midnight at a friend’s house due to too much loud noise – what a great start to a new year!! The frustration you feel when you just want to do ‘normal’ things that other people can do, yet it never works out. It was scary and in front of our girls it was very tough. Our youngest daughter’s voice is able to generally bring him out of disassociation so she came in and spoke to her Daddy and it worked; what a brave little girl with a lot on her shoulders.
More recently, he disassociated at work and was taken to a mental health hospital where I sat with him for three hours. He didn’t know I was there or who I was, but he was safe and secure. He has been left with a stammer and is back in therapy and unable to work. My eldest is in therapy, too, as she has seen and experienced too much.
Living with someone with PTSD is not an easy task. We never know one minute to the next what his mood will be like, when he is next going to explode or next become very withdrawn from the family. The girls and I are a tight unit, however it’s made me a paranoid mum – I used to struggle with letting them go to school as I felt I needed them with me to keep them safe. I am better with that now though.
I spend so much of my day thinking about how Tony is going to be if I say certain things or how to phrase things so as not to anger or upset him. Sometimes, though, he is his own worst enemy and won’t do the things that we know will make him feel better and therefore help the whole family, but that is work in progress.
All I can say to anyone who is living like this is to get help. Flag up your concerns and don’t sit back and wonder. If you don’t feel you are getting the correct response then keep going back. You may feel alone like I did, but you are not. I felt I lost friends and at times the support of my family as I chose to stay in this turmoil, but no one understood that there was something wrong with him.
I always had a feeling there was a problem, I just didn’t know what it was – I had never heard of PTSD.
NHS England would like to hear about your experiences and views of mental health services for veterans and explore the reasons why some people have not sought or received support and treatment. Find out more and complete the survey. The deadline for responding is 31 March 2016. Findings from the survey will help to ensure that future mental health services for veterans best meet the needs of those who have served in the armed forces.