April 2, 2010

Can a Combat Veteran Heal Enough to Have a Longterm Healthy Relationship

I received this email last night and wanted to share about my response,
My name is Sally. I came across your blog while researching PTSD. As a child, I was diagnosed with PTSD, which has lead me to pursue study in the field of Psychology. I am currently and undergraduate student in Some State with hopes of attaining my PhD and working with Veterans. I first and foremost, want to Thank You, for the incredible sacrifices you have made for our country.

Secondly, I was wondering if I could get your opinion on something. I am currently in a relationship with an Infantry soldier stationed at Fort Somewhere named Bob. He will be returning to Iraq for the third time in October. He has not been diagnosed with PTSD, and I do not believe he suffers from it. However, it seems like there are parts of him missing. Although he has never opened up and talked about combat experiences, and I have never asked him too, he has on occasion briefly mentioned some. Any attempt on my part to inquire further is always shut down.

Bob feels he has a duty to keep those things within himself because it would be wrong to share them with anyone who hasn't experienced combat. I understand his feelings, and respect his wishes. Bob does not seem bothered by memories of violence and death as he does from being cheated on while he was on his second tour. Because of this Bob's ability to trust people has been shattered. He cannot open himself to people who love him. He has a really hard time expressing emotions and affection. He is by far the hardest person to communicate with I have ever know. Ironically, as a child I was in the same position. My life will forever consist of a struggle to balance my tendency to disassociate myself with others, and intense desire for protection in love. His condition brings back memories of my former self. He clearly needs love and affection but can not allow himself to receive it. The fact that he is still enlisted, and conditioned to shutdown emotions in order to simply do his job does not help matters.

My question to you is this in your opinion? Can any of us, diagnosed with PTSD, veterans, or both heal enough to have longterm healthy relationships?
Sincerely Sally
My response:
First, I would like to stress that under no circumstances do you push Bob to talk about his combat experiences. This is an intensely personal event in his life. To fully appreciate his situation one would have to go through the crucible of war, as I am sure he has pointed out. A combat veteran generally will take years if not decades to reconcile the memories, emotions and former value structure that war will shatter asunder.

The reason he cannot talk about his experiences in combat or war has to do with the fragmentary nature of dissociation. Before going into combat I experienced a moment when fear and terror nearly crippled me; the weight of which crushed upon my body until I had an eerie perception of them being expelled from my body. At that point it felt like I had crossed through a curtain into another reality, one that I am sure that I have never completely left. From then on I was dissociating my former self into a combat self to survive the fires of war. To kill another person requires that we displace our value system and adopt a combat values structure. Further, to survive combat we must disconnect from our emotions and form a foreign relationship with all of our former selves and compartmentalize them into sects to draw upon as needed.

When you ask your combat veteran to talk about his experiences it can trigger these conflicting selves or compartments which may register as an attack, further triggering his defensive mechanisms. Your combat veteran has forged a bond with his combat buddies that one could never find the right words to describe. By being asked about things better felt unsaid he may feel as though he would be betraying this attachment to his troops. I call this entanglement of bonding, trust and attachments as the "troop organism". Imagine having your arm cut off and try to describe that you can still feel it but know that it is lost. This feeling of loss and betrayal may be what stumps him and shuts him down when confronted with questions of his combat experiences.

Can we heal enough to have a long-term healthy relationship? I have no simple answer. I can say that with enough time and patience from both that, yes it can happen. I have been battling PTSD and depression for 19 years, the last 5 years have been the best. I have had many years of therapy and recovery to gain the sanity that I hold dear today. For me it has been a long time coming.
In the upper left hand corner you can find further reading on what to say or not say to your combat veteran concerning his or her experiences in war.

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