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One Couple's Journey with PTSD

Author Sharlene Prinsen describes the night she first began to understand the sources of her husband's PTSD and the journey that lay ahead for both of them.

The war in Iraq had dragged on for three years by that time, and the television was full of special news programs and investigative reports about the ongoing battle. As I watched some of them, the term post-traumatic stress disorder jumped out at me more frequently when the programs featured soldiers who struggled when they returned from overseas.

As I listened to the soldiers' stories, I started thinking more about Sean and the military. In all our years together, he had only really opened up about Bosnia once, on a night the previous summer when he had consumed more than usual at a friend's house after work. He had stumbled home that night around eight o'clock, shortly after the kids had gone to bed and had slumped into a chair looking completely wiped out. I remember sense something very strange about his mood and instead of feeling anger and annoyance at his condition, I had approached him gently. I sat next to him and put my hand on his arm without saying a word, and then he just started to gush: "The kids…those kids. I can see their little faces. I just couldn't help them. There were so many of them…I couldn't help them… I couldn't give them what they needed…"

His speech had been slurred, and it was hard to understand most of what he said, but I had been able to capture a small glimpse of the scenes that Sean was trying to describe---crowds of children (some of them missing limbs or eyes or otherwise bearing scars from a war-torn country) surrounding the American soldiers in Bosnia, begging them for anything---money, soda, water, attention. As Sean rambled on that night, he seemed so overwhelmed and horrified by his memories that he wept like a small child himself, until he finally passed out.

The following morning, of course, he had been unable to recall the whole conversation, and I had never found the right opportunity to bring it up again. Nor had I felt a compelling need to do so. It is hard to imagine that after all I had witnessed to that point, I as still unable to connect the million dots that were practically flashing together on a neon sign. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Sean had already received two diagnoses of PTSD in the previous two years. He could have checked nearly every box on the checklist of PTSD symptoms, yet neither his counselor not his psychiatrist at that time chose to address it.

Now a year later, in the summer of 2006, after watching yet another program about troubled soldiers from Iraq. I grew more curious. Lying in bed and unable to sleep. I finally found the courage to ask Sean a few questions. I broached the subject indirectly, by asking. "Do you talk with your therapist about your time in the military?"

"Not really," he answered. "Not at all?" I replied, a little surprised. "She never asks about it," Sean explained. That shocked me a bit. His current therapist was well aware of Sean's indecisiveness over the past four years about whether to re-enlist, and she herself had listed PTSD among Sean's diagnoses when she had assessed him more than a year ago.

"Well, don't you think you should talk to her about it a little bit?" I asked, nervous about how Sean would react to my incessant pushing.

"What's there to talk about?"he asked, clearly uncomfortable.

"I don't know--you tell me. I don't know anything about what happened to you in Bosnia." I paused for a moment, then added. "Will you talk to me about it?" He grew a little agitated, but then signed and surprisingly asked. "What do you want to know?"

"Anything. Everything. Just tell me what you did there." I pleaded. I don't know that I could have ever prepared myself for the stories that came pouring out of my husband's mouth, and I don't know what finally made him open up after so many years--perhaps he just needed to release it. But I do know this--I was not equipped to handle what Sean was about to share.

Sean didn't yet divulge any details about being in life-threatening situations--that would remain a mystery for several more years--but he did share in graphic detail the human tragedy he had witnessed or heard about in Bosnia. I sat in horror as my husband described the atrocities committed by the Serbs as they sought to "cleanse" their region of certain ethnic groups--tortures, executions, hanging corpses, ditches strewn with skeletons, burned villages, mass graves, rivers clogged with bodies of raped and mutilated women, bodies of innocent children with obvious signs of torture. He described the terrified faces of the people he had to stop at NATO checkpoints--men, women, and children whose lives were in his hands while he had mere seconds to decide if they were friend or foe. He spoke of the stench of death so rancid that he and his fellow soldiers had to burn their clothes at night, and he described the wails of anguished family members that he had to turn away when they tried to collect their loved ones' remains from the mass grave he was guarding. His voice cycled between quiet, seething anger and flat, dead emotion as he purged himself of the filth that had been poisoning him for the past six years.

After only fifteen minutes, I couldn't listen anymore. I covered my ears and asked him to stop. Sean seemed almost satisfied, as if he knew all along that I wouldn't be able to handle it, and I had finally proven him right.

For advice on opening communications with a loved one who is struggling with trauma, see "How Can You Talk to Loved Ones about Their Trauma?"

For more on PTSD, see "A PTSD Survivor's Story: A Soldier's Account".

Excerpted from Blind Devotion: Survival on the Front Lines of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Addiction by Sharlene Prinsen. Hazelden Foundation, 2012.

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