Families can gain skills to cope with loved one's PTSD
Author reflects, provides advice on the impact of PTSD on family members.
In this excerpt from Shock Waves by Cynthia Orange, the author provides practical advice on managing one's own reactions to a loved one's PTSD symptoms and illustrates that understanding one's limits may do the most to promote healthy recovery.
Balance and Boundaries
After many years of relative silence about his combat experience, there came a time when it seemed like all Michael thought or talked about was Vietnam. On the surface, I appeared to be the picture of encouragement, but things got out of balance. My resentment grew in direct proportion to my "selflessness." I gave up my computer and office so he could write about war. I stayed out of his way. Sometimes he'd wake me up late at night to read me what he'd written, and I'd listen, both as a supportive spouse and as a writing teacher. When I tried to talk about my feelings or my writing, he'd often cut me off, interrupt me, or tell me to go to sleep. I shrank further into his shadow, wondering, when will it be my turn?
Trauma throws lives and family dynamics off balance and can shift the healthiest of boundaries. Appropriate boundaries are the way we differentiate ourselves from others. They protect and preserve our individuality and help us keep our self-esteem intact. When trauma comes, appropriate boundaries are easier to describe than they are to set. Trauma survivors might establish rigid boundaries, shutting out those who care for them the most. On the other hand, their family and friends might have few boundaries or forget about boundaries altogether as they focus more and more on their loved one and less and less on themselves.
Messages we received as children about rules and boundaries might be reactivated, and we find ourselves responding to the trauma in much the same way we saw our parents and even grandparents handle crises when we were kids. I came from an enmeshed family system with weak boundaries where members got all tangled up and involved in each other's problems and lives. Michael, however, came from a disengaged family system where isolation and secrets were the norm. As his trauma symptoms grew more severe, he retreated. In an attempt to rescue him, I invaded. Michael was too numb to know his needs, let alone express them. I knew my needs, but suppressed them in favor of what I imagined his needs to be.
Healthy boundary setting often starts by reminding yourself that you didn't cause your loved one's trauma, and-as much as you may want to-you cannot cure it. Remember the Serenity Prayer? Change what you can change.
My brother has definitely challenged my boundaries and tested my boundary-setting skills. I think this is because of his PTSD. But the more I learn about trauma, the better I'm getting at setting appropriate boundaries with him. It's still hard, but I keep trying because it's important for me to have a relationship with my brother.
Simply put, when we set boundaries, we set limits. We learn when to say no, and when we say yes, we do so out of choice, not guilt or obligation. As we become more aware of our own needs and feelings, we become more respectful of others' needs, feelings, and limitations. We concentrate more on improving ourselves and less on controlling or fixing a loved one. Setting boundaries is such a grown-up thing to do!
A dear friend modeled healthy boundary setting on a recent visit. When the National Guard fired shots on May 4, 1970, that killed four Kent State University students in Ohio, he was close enough to see one of them fall, and rushed to her side to help. She died as he tried to hold her neck together until the ambulance came, and he still harbors the memories of that traumatic experience. When we asked him to join us at a rally a while ago, he grew quiet and seemed a little anxious, but was able to explain how political gatherings are one of the triggers that reignite the trauma of that day decades ago. He didn't make up an excuse or risk a relapse of symptoms by thinking he had to come along to please us. We so appreciated his honesty, and because he was so clear, we were able to give him our genuine support. He honored his boundaries by staying home; we honored ours by going.
We take care of ourselves when we accept responsibility for the consequences of our own actions and reactions, and sort out what we can and cannot control. By taking personal responsibility, we move beyond blame and shame. We are bound to make mistakes, but we don't punish ourselves unmercifully for them; we learn from our mistakes and move on. We learn to quiet that incessant chatterbox inside our head that drones on and on with negative self-talk, and replace it instead with a loving voice that convinces us we are strong and worthy. We understand that we have choices, and that we can choose to take the path that contributes most to our personal growth and happiness.