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It’s the first time retired Sergeant Ted Peacock has smiled all weekend, and it’s a phoney smile that doesn’t reach his eyes.
His family is gathered for a portrait, and feels obliged to put on happy faces. Son Callum wears his dad’s expression, too old for a 10-year-old. Mom Angelle’s smile is wan. Only eight-year-old Dominic lights up, not from joy, but perhaps in the hope that smiles might lead to it. The Peacock family is a testament to enduring love, but you don’t have to know them long to understand that joy is fleeting, hope a necessity.
“This life is… about all I can handle.”
A few clicks of the shutter later, and the true family portrait emerges: Ted has disengaged. Callum has been asking to leave, and has kept at it, as kids do, knowing chances are good they’ll eventually wear down the parent. But that tactic doesn’t work with Ted, who has post-traumatic stress disorder and withdraws when overwhelmed, as now. He’s wandering the recesses of his mind. It won’t be long before he physically withdraws, too, to his retreat in the garage loft. His fingers are fidgety—a sure sign he’s had enough. Seeing this, Callum has also withdrawn, clapping his hands over his eyes.
The camera captures Angelle trying to re-engage everybody. She has put on a brave face so often it’s now a natural expression. Dominic seems to be watching her for clues and cues, possibly something he’s done his whole life. He probably learned about walking on eggshells before he took his first steps.
The Peacock’s Nest, a pretty house with a wraparound porch, white fence and copse of trees, is a half-hour drive into the tranquil countryside north of Morinville, Alta. On a late winter afternoon, only the lowing of cattle on a nearby farm breaks the silence. In this peaceful setting an ordinary family struggles daily with an indefatigable enemy that has wounded them all.
The acreage is equal parts investment in the Peacock family’s future and the mental health of Ted, retired sergeant of 1 Combat Engineer Regiment, his effervescent wife Angelle, a teacher, and their sons. Ted functions best in a peaceful setting. The disability award, popularly called the lump-sum payment, he received for his PTSD wound made the purchase possible. Ted is 42, a former warrior who doubts he’ll ever again be well enough to earn a living. “This life is…about all I can handle. Just with my family of four I get flustered pretty much every day.”
It hasn’t always been this way. “We used to go dancing,” says Angelle, sharing a wedding photograph—handsome and confident soldier, pretty wife, expecting an unclouded future. They met before his second overseas tour, to Croatia in 1994. They were married July 20, 1996. Angelle was seven months pregnant when he returned from his third tour, Bosnia in 2002. “Everybody was saying Ted was really different,” said Angelle. “He was more quiet and reserved. He’d started drinking more.” But he took parental leave after Callum was born, and the two developed a special bond. Dominic was born before Ted returned from his first tour to Afghanistan in 2005. He became distant, edgy. “We weren’t the first priority,” says Angelle. “I got to the point where I said, ‘I’m ready to leave.’ So we went to counselling, and it helped.”
After the next tour, everything changed.
Instead of the break he had requested after his second tour to Afghanistan in 2007, Ted was told he was being promoted and his leave was cancelled. That sparked his first PTSD meltdown. “I said ‘I need to talk to somebody because I’m freaking going to hurt somebody; there’s something wrong with me.’” He was given sleeping pills and a day off. “I came home—got drunk and just freaking broke down.” He destroyed his prized garage sanctuary and raged into the night.
Angelle phoned Ted’s unit. “‘What do I do, what do I do?’” And the person she called said: “‘Why are you calling me?’” The next day Angelle became a warrior, too. “I fought because Teddy had no voice.” She accompanied a zoned-out Ted to the base and the battles began. “I would not accept a social worker. I would not leave until I saw a psychologist.” Someone from mental health was brought in and told her Ted couldn’t have PTSD because it wouldn’t have shown up yet. “I’m like, ‘Really? Then you tell me what the hell it is.’” Angelle was told Ted had been diagnosed with adjustment disorder and major depression after his first Afghanistan tour. “Like really?” Angelle scoffed, pointing out Ted had been deployed again, without treatment, shortly after that diagnosis. Previously very respectful of army brass, Angelle lost it at the end of the day when that same unhelpful person she started with began lecturing her. “When that man started gobbing off…I told him off and grabbed Teddy and hauled him out of there.”
Despite the confrontational beginning, Ted and Angelle praise the support and encouragement Ted received from the Canadian Forces, particularly his regimental sergeant major. Ted was quickly diagnosed with PTSD and started therapy and medications. He was medically released after he ticked over 20 years of service, entitling him to a full military pension.
Angelle was raising two small children while her husband wrestled his demons. “It was like I had three kids,” she says. In the early days, she had to remind him when to eat, to shower, to take his medications.
personnel with mental health issues
She had to deal with his symptoms. He crashed through windows in the night to wrestle phantom enemies in the yard. He’d look for tripwires while mowing the lawn.
He lashed out in his sleep, kicking, hitting, punching the air during nightmares. He moved from the bedroom, first downstairs, then eventually to the garage. “He said ‘I don’t trust myself to be in the house with you,’” remembers Angelle. He left notes saying he was going to hurt himself. “I didn’t know what I was coming home to.” Her voice tightens, the tone rising. “I’d make the kids stay in the van while I walked into the house…” Tears fill her eyes and she swallows hard. “You have that taste in your throat and mouth.” It isn’t just soldiers who have flashbacks.
Angelle’s mother and friends urged her to leave. “I said, ‘He’s not going to hurt me.’ I was never scared for myself, because honestly, I was [his] rock.” But she was certain that if she did leave, Ted would hurt himself.
Finding the right combination of medications to control symptoms was difficult. “There were days Ted wouldn’t make it out of bed. He would go deeper into the dark ugly. And then I’d go upstairs and cry in the bathroom because if Teddy saw me he’d take it as a direct hit at him. I couldn’t be mad, couldn’t be sad, had to be happy all the time.”
Eventually Ted’s medications were sorted out at Homewood Health Centre in Guelph, Ont.
Three years later, he’s still in therapy, still on medications, still dealing with triggers. His memory is foggy. He searches for words as he speaks. He has insomnia. He doesn’t like to socialize. Driving is challenging; he’s triggered by the noises and smells and he gets flustered easily.
His family displays similar symptoms. They are hypervigilant, especially aware of one another’s moods and situations that might trigger Ted. Callum has been particularly affected, overwhelmed by the move, a change in schools, Ted’s PTSD, a grandmother’s death. Ted and Callum were very close, but now Ted is not as playful or responsive. He sleeps a lot, disappears into his loft. As Ted has withdrawn from the family, so has Callum. “I see someone who is pulling away from everything, which is exactly what Ted did. And he’s depressed,” says Angelle. He isolates himself playing online games, a sore spot with his parents.
PTSD and medications have made Ted emotionally distant. He’s irritable, and often simply walks away when piqued. As Ted pulls back, Callum pushes. Angelle is the gasket between these two hot-running parts. She’s been on antidepressants for more than three years. “I can’t relax. I think it’s because I’m always so worried about how Ted’s going to react.”
On a Saturday Ted drove the family to the kids’ hockey games. He’s fidgety when they arrive at the morning game, so Angelle suggests Ted make a coffee run, thus avoiding changing room mayhem. Two double-doubles, one large, one tea. Before he’s out of the parking lot, Angelle texts the order, knowing Ted won’t remember it after the two-block trip to Tim Hortons. She greets him with a smile when he returns, sees he’s still flustered, then sends him on another errand so he can avoid the chit-chat of other parents.
Angelle keeps one eye on him as she socializes, has an ear cocked when he’s talking to the boys. She marks when he heads outside when he’s overwhelmed. She registers when he gets out of bed to head for the loft, as he does at some point every single night because sleep can be elusive for those with PTSD. Ted is an ever-present blip on Angelle’s radar.
When Angelle started her PTSD journey, she was among the throng of military spouses who don’t know what’s available to help them deal with their spouse’s PTSD, or who can’t find the right help or not enough help, or can’t get help right when it is needed. It’s taken a long time to build up military services for PTSD—and aid to families has lagged behind. Now that the Forces and Veterans Affairs Canada are slashing budgets, will such services thrive—or even survive?
There is no denying that over the past decade the Canadian Forces has improved services to families and is genuinely concerned about family support. But good intentions can’t overcome several inherent problems, not the least of which is the fact that more than 80 per cent of military families don’t live on military bases. “One of our key challenges is making families aware of current services,” says Colonel Russell Mann, director of Military Family Services. Short-term and crisis counselling is available to families through the Forces’ Member Assistance Program and can also be arranged through the Family Information Line.
“I guess there’s support out there,” says Kathryn Linford of Victoria. “I just never…looked into it.” Married in 1986, she moved a dozen times as her husband Chris climbed to lieutenant-colonel. He’s gone two rounds with PTSD, first in the 1990s; then a rematch ended his career in 2012. “I know the military has said over and over there’s support for this, but I just don’t know where to find it.” Chris was posted to Victoria from Edmonton in 2010. “The first year here was pretty much hell,” Kathryn said. Chris was in therapy and she missed a child who stayed in Edmonton to attend university. Kathryn didn’t check out the Esquimalt Military Family Resources Centre, believing its programs were centred on small children. She didn’t know anything about the Operational Stress Injury Social Support (OSISS) family peer network which serves military and veterans’ spouses.
Military Ombudsman Pierre Daigle questioned in a 2012 report whether support for families coping with Operational Stress Injuries is coherent and effectively meets their needs. He chided the military for not communicating directly with families, since information is often not passed along by the serving member, and for not passing enough information along to the Military Family Resource Centres, the main conduit of information to families.
Military Family Resource Centres, which are partly funded by the Forces and located on bases, have evolved from the grassroots social support network of yesteryear, to offering professional services, counselling and referrals. They deliver specialized support for families struggling with PTSD, notably The Mind’s the Matter online educational videos and group programs for kids. But their professional services are not yet robust, said Greg Lubimiv, executive director of the Phoenix Centre for Children and Families in Pembroke, Ont., a 20-minute drive from CFB Petawawa. Services are not standardized across the country and some have a single social worker with no clinical backup. As well, some military families, fearing stigma, prefer civilian mental health services.
cases of severe PTSD over the next few years
Prior to 2006, only a dozen of Phoenix Centre’s caseload of 1,000 were military families. But that changed after Canadian troops relocated from Kabul to Kandahar in November 2005 to take up a deadlier assignment bringing Afghan forces and police up to speed and rousting out Taliban. By summer 2006, eight Canadian soldiers had been killed—more than in the four previous years together. The combat death tally reached 32 by year’s end and 180 had been wounded in action.
Phoenix Centre suddenly had 100 military families, with 15 to 20 on a waiting list. “It was a special issue, we needed extra funding,” says Lubimiv. But the province said it was the Department of National Defence’s problem, and DND said military family health care is a provincial responsibility. The provincial ombudsman had to sort out the jurisdictional wrangle. In the end, the federal and provincial governments shared funding, about $500,000 biannually.
Last year the military withdrew that funding so it could increase services on base, and the province followed suit, believing military families would now go there for help. The Phoenix Centre lost its funding to serve military families–but it didn’t lose its military families. New military family clients now join the queue for publicly-funded service, and face up to a six-month wait for help.
Many of the support services for military families—notably medical care and education—are provided by provinces, not federal government departments. “Accordingly, the solutions to military family imperatives are rarely simple and usually involve extensive effort,” noted the 2012 report by Canada’s military ombudsman. While the military has been ramping up family programs, there have been staff reductions and ongoing reorganizations of family support administration at a time when stability and focus are needed to deal with continuing family fallout from the combat mission to Afghanistan, estimated to include 10,000 personnel with mental health issues and 3,000 cases of severe PTSD over the next few years.
Exhausted from day-to-day crises, families dealing with PTSD have no energy to search for services, and no patience with red tape. “They are going to give you one chance,” says social worker Helena Gillespie, the family liaison co-ordinator at the Joint Personnel Support Unit at the base in Edmonton. “If they’re sent to someone who doesn’t understand military culture, if they’re misled or given a wrong phone number, or they call and no one answers, they’re gone.”
Families could be better served, Gillespie says, if they were involved in the members’ treatment program from the beginning and if it were recognized that families affected by OSIs need more than basic services. “They need some clinical support of their own.” And they should be treated in step with the military member.
Although all Canadians have access to provincial health-care coverage, the Forces health-care system was developed so those serving have fast and easy access to medical care designed for their unique and specific needs. Only slowly has the realization dawned that military families might also have unique and specific needs related to military service, needs for which the civilian health system is not equipped. Like how to deal with PTSD in the military culture, where self-reliance and manning up to pain and difficulty are virtues, even for families.
While Ted Peacock fell apart, Angelle manned up, dealing with his bizarre and frightening behaviour, keeping on top of his medical needs and appointments, juggling her job and caring for their two boys. She had to fill out the mountain of military forms, each with acronyms she didn’t understand, and all with deadlines. Ted was incapable of helping, let alone doing it himself. She couldn’t rely on base services because they were only offered during her working hours, and getting to the base involved an hour of highway driving. As well, military uniforms were one of Ted’s triggers.
Things weren’t much better after Ted left the military, when the Peacocks started dealing with Veterans Affairs Canada.
The New Veterans Charter, which came into effect in 2006, gives Veterans Affairs Canada more latitude to provide services and benefits to family members, says Anne Marie Pellerin, director of Case Management, Rehabilitation, and Mental Health Services. Spouses may take advantage of career retraining if the veteran is unable to and short-term crisis counselling is available through Veterans Affairs Canada’s Assistance Service. Operational Stress Injury clinics services are also available to families when mental health issues are related to veterans’ conditions or will contribute to their treatment plans. If the veteran opted into the Public Service Health Care Plan when leaving the military, the extended benefits program covers a portion of family treatment costs. Veterans’ families can also take advantage of the OSISS family peer support network.
But veterans’ families are also often unaware of what help is available, especially if the veteran has not applied for Veterans Affairs Canada benefits.
In 2011, Veterans Ombudsman Guy Parent received 600 calls related to family issues. “Families often call for help in times of crisis, when urgent assistance is needed and they do not know where to turn,” states a 2013 report. “During the period of transition from military to civilian life—a time when support services are needed the most—families of injured or ill Canadian Forces members should not be faced with reduced or eliminated services,” the report goes on to say. As part of federal government belt tightening, Veterans Affairs Canada is closing eight district offices and cutting up to 800 positions, nearly 20 per cent of the 4,153 employees it had in March 2009. Back then it had 219,150 clients. It had 211,675 at the end of 2012. The department says the cuts won’t affect service as their client base is declining as Second World War and Korean War veterans are lost to age. But critics argue the complexity of modern veterans’ cases will make up for that loss, and the cuts will result in poorer service.
“Veterans Affairs Canada is very underpowered,” says Angelle. “I think we’ve gone through three or four different caseworkers.” Every time there is a change, Ted has had to re-explain his file and gets upset, and Angelle has had to tell the new caseworker to call her, not Ted. “Maybe you should just read the file before you call,” says Angelle. Just talking about receiving a letter with the department’s return address gets Ted riled up.
“Part of me wants to say they’re doing a great job,” says Angelle, “and part of me is saying they’re an insurance company that’s going to nickel and dime you whenever they can.”
Veterans Affairs Canada determines benefits by considering the seriousness of the disability and how much of it is attributable to military service, then expressing that as a percentage. Ted’s disability was initially assessed at 36 per cent. “In my mind, 36 per cent injured is still functioning in society.” Not someone unable to hold down a job or reliably help out around the house. Angelle appealed the assessment, and ended up before the Veterans Review and Appeal Board. “It was absolutely horrific. I sat there and cried. Three strangers sit across from you and judge you. And then give you what they think is reasonable for how they see your life in the matter of the one hour or two hours that you have with them.”
Ted’s disability was reassessed at 73 per cent. Among his VAC benefits are the lump-sum disability award and Veterans Independence Program housekeeping and groundskeeping benefits. Ted has not taken advantage of career transition services, doubting he’ll ever hold down another job. The family income is lower, but luckily, says Ted, Angelle has a professional career and he was able to retire at full pension.
Money is likely to be tighter for Master Corporal Jake Wilkinson of 1 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group Headquarters and Signal Squadron in Edmonton. Jake could be medically released before he qualifies in four years for a full military pension, and his wife Sherrie does not have a high-paying job. If he is released, he wants to take advantage of the career training benefits of the New Veterans Charter.
The Wilkinsons live about 15 minutes from CFB Edmonton, in a house filled with jumble, laughter and good spirits. And love—lots of love. It’s evident in the teasing, the touching, the way they finish each other’s sentences, share laughter. Jake, Sherrie and their blended family of sons—Connor, 20, Lucas, 14, and 11-year-old Ethan—handle their PTSD experiences with humour and honesty. But they don’t joke about the lack of support. “I hate to say it, but the military mental health services, they failed us. Like absolutely huge,” says Jake.
In Afghanistan in 2008 an IED blast injured Jake, claiming an eye. After the initial flurry of tests and treatments, he began having memory problems, couldn’t stand crowds, would get angry very quickly. The Forces paid to send the Wilkinsons off base for marriage counselling. But symptoms got worse. Jake became suicidal. When he went in for some tests in 2010 he was astonished to discover that he had been diagnosed with PTSD and major depressive disorder in 2008. “They said that he fell through the cracks,” says Sherrie.
Their experience getting help for Jake wasn’t one to inspire confidence.
“I went to the distress clinic four or five different times,” says Jake. Follow-up phone calls were promised. “A week later I’d go in and ask why nobody had called, and they were, ‘We forgot about you.’ How could you forget?” It took months before Jake got help from the Forces. Meanwhile, their marriage counsellor set Jake up with a therapist off the base. “If I hadn’t seen her, I wouldn’t have made [it through] those extra months.”
Veterans Affairs Canada is closing
district offices and cutting up to 800 positions, nearly
per cent of the 4,153 employees it had in March 2009.
Jake eventually did get therapy and medication through the Forces. “When I came back to work, they were very accommodating.” Jake was still in the Forces this spring, on doctor’s orders working part-time, and expecting eventual medical release.
Their oldest son also received short-term counselling through the Forces’ member assistance program. As Jake started to unravel after his return from Afghanistan, Connor became anxious and overprotective. “I was staying home constantly, not going out. Not doing anything at all. I had to make sure Jake was OK.” Afterwards, Jake was still on Connor’s mind, but that no longer kept Connor housebound.
Sherrie knew she needed help, too. “But with the wait to get in and my schedule and having to start all over again with someone new, the thought of it was all too much.” The younger boys were helped by a group program for children of parents who’ve experienced trauma.
More than 50 kids have participated in the program, developed in the Edmonton Military Family Resources Centre by Helena Gillespie and her twin sister Jerris Popik, a family support worker, in partnership with The Royal Canadian Legion and Alberta Health Services. Now called iSTEP (Individual Success Through Empowered Peers), it is available for use at centres across the country. The group offers a safe place for kids to talk. A private blog allows older kids to anonymously ask questions.
“The program will help them develop a support system of their own, and learn practical skills to deal with feelings and stresses,” explains Gillespie.
Sherrie Wilkinson says it gave her boys a place to talk freely about their feelings. But the Wilkinsons remain deeply skeptical of military commitment to members with mental health issues, let alone their families. Now that Canada’s combat role has ended, Sherrie fears cutbacks in services will affect members injured in future. Adds Jake: “And if it’s not there for the member, it’s not there for the spouse, [and] kids.”
Several terms have been coined to describe the assault on family mental health—vicarious or secondary PTSD, caregiver burnout or compassion fatigue, secondary traumatic stress syndrome. Family members experience the same categories of symptoms—re-experiencing, avoidance, arousal—as PTSD sufferers. Those with PTSD revisit the trauma through flashbacks and nightmares; to avoid triggers they become emotionally distant; and they’re irritable and jumpy. Mindful of triggers, families constantly shield or rescue the sufferer; they distance themselves emotionally or become depressed; and are easily provoked to anger, resentment and guilt.
“I think you could safely say anywhere from 30 per cent to 50 per cent of family members will experience some fallout when living with someone with a serious mental health condition,” says clinical psychologist Norman Shields, research head of the Operational Stress Injury National Network.
The most common fallout is depression, says Shields. Spouses feel they have no control over their partner’s symptoms; kids feel their world is spinning out of control. Therapy or programs that help families focus more on what they can control are helpful.
Then there’s anger.
The family van is pulled over on the highway shoulder. Ted’s hands are over his ears, his eyes are closed. He can’t cope with driving, the kids’ kibitzing and Angelle wanting to discuss a purchase she thinks was unwise.
“Can you guys quit fighting?” Callum says.
“We’re not fighting,” replies Angelle. “We’re OK.”
“Is daddy going to hurt somebody?”
“No. Have you ever seen daddy hurt somebody? Why would you say that?”
“I don’t know,” Callum replies. “Because he’s mad.”
Children know anger can lead to violence—they’ve seen enough evidence of it in cartoons and TV cop shows, the evening news and the schoolyard. Some also see it in their own homes.
How has Jake’s temper affected his family? Ethan pipes up: “It means I know how to fix wallboard.” The family uses humour even here. Would a visitor like to see holes Jake has punched in the walls? They laugh about how Jake “fixed” a bathroom door stuck shut—he booted it open; the door still needs fixing—now it won’t stay closed. Jake’s hair-trigger reactions have affected the way he and the boys play. Connor and Jake used to enjoy sneaking up and startling each other. The first time Connor attempted it after Jake’s return from Afghanistan, “I was inches away from being punched.” Although Jake has never been violent with the family, the boys are wary of what might happen if Jake has a PTSD reaction while they’re roughhousing.
But kids aren’t the only ones upset by anger. Caitlyn, wife of a retired major still being treated for PTSD, hesitates as she picks her words. “Philip’s anger can be very…easily…sparked. It used to really frighten me…and sometimes it will still upset me.”
Hearing this alarms her husband. “Am I angry at you?”
“No,” she says. “But sometimes it feels like it. It’s just anger, it’s not at me. I just happen to be in the fallout zone.”
The Canadian Forces has a policy against family violence. Military Police have noted spikes in violence following some units’ returns from Afghanistan. In 2005 and 2006, 39 Forces members were charged with assaulting spouses or dependants. That rose to 132 in the next two-year period. Military family violence is likely under-reported, says the federal department of justice, because victims are reluctant or unable to disclose abuse; the Forces know military spouses turn first to family and friends for help. Research in the United States shows increased violence and aggression in military families struggling with PTSD, and that violence increases with the severity of symptoms. In one group of PTSD veterans, 42 per cent said they’d been physically violent with their partners and 92 per cent admitted verbal aggression.
After deployment, there’s a short honeymoon period. “‘Oh, thank God, mommy’s home, daddy’s home, we want peace,’” says Lubimiv. And then reality sets in. “It can be difficult for any family, but for a family with PTSD, it can be explosive.”
Jessica didn’t get the honeymoon, but she definitely experienced the explosion. Jessica is not her real name and she has moved several times since these events. The man who returned from deployment was not the husband who’d gone off to war. He had PTSD and an injury to the area of the brain involved in sexual behaviour and judgment as well as sympathy and empathy, the ability to understand and feel sorrow for another person’s suffering. She’d been told to expect changes, but nobody told her where to go for help when her husband lost his temper, refused therapy, gave up medications, got drunk. “I thought ‘What kind of a world am I in for?’”
It was a nightmare world.
“Lying in the same bed scared the living crap out of me, because I didn’t know if he was going to have a PTSD moment,” says Jessica, meaning, whether he’d choke her. Once he locked on, she had to fight him off. “It was like fighting for my life.”
It got uglier. He’d be gone for days at a time and would react violently if questioned about where he’d been. He came home drunk and naked in the middle of the night, and Jessica was pretty sure he hadn’t been skinny dipping. She had herself checked out for veneral disease; the tests returned negative. Jessica wasn’t walking on eggshells, she was picking her way through a minefield.
Jessica at last fled the marriage. “At first you’re in denial. Then you’re in a mode of ‘OK, we can fix this.’ Then you’re in a mode of ‘Oh my freaking God, I have to protect myself and my kids.”
per cent were physically violent with their partners
per cent admitted verbal aggression
After the separation, Jessica got a job, then took out student loans to train for a new position. For several years she and her kids have had dozens of therapy sessions covered by her provincial health plan. Jessica is on antidepressants and one child is on medications. She worries about their futures. “Growing up around PTSD, they don’t get to be a kid.”
Jessica is angry at the Forces. “You did this to us, you should be helping us.” And she’s angry that because she’s separated she does not qualify for help from Veterans Affairs Canada, though her kids do qualify for some benefits through her husband. In cases like these, where the split is due to violence linked to PTSD, services to families shouldn’t have to flow through the veteran or military member, she says.
What Jessica wants now is an apology, or at least admission of responsibility. “I want someone from the military, a man—not a woman—but a man, to say ‘we understand what you’re going through and we’re sorry. We’re sorry there was no help.’”
There’s this theory of love that boils it down to three components, sides of a triangle labeled passion, intimacy and commitment. The sweet spot smack dab in the middle, the place where long, happy marriages are made, is the perfect blend of emotional closeness, sexual attraction and determination to stay together. It’s pretty much impossible for a military marriage to ride that sweet spot for long, what with lengthy separations during deployments and training, frequent moves, long hours and the duty-first mindset.
PTSD adds to the challenge. Numb feelings and emotional distance play havoc with intimacy. Unpleasant symptoms and medications often cause erectile difficulties and low libido, squelching passion. Anger, resentment and guilt erode commitment. Since the war in Afghanistan began, the military divorce rate in the U.S. has increased by 68 per cent. A veteran with PTSD is twice as likely to divorce, according to the U.S. National Center for PTSD, and three times more likely to divorce two or more times.
Emotional distance is particularly hard to take. “You give and you give and you give and you give,” says Angelle, “and you get nothing in return. That is very hard.”
Numbing and isolation may control anger and anxiety, but they also prevent experiencing positive emotions, like happiness. “You can’t have a good laugh with someone if you’re not talking with them,” says Shields. PTSD sufferers often avoid socializing, meaning their spouses also miss out on fun and friendship. Emotion-centred couples therapy can help, says Shields. It focuses on the bond between spouses, and helps rebuild intimacy.
Ask Angelle what keeps her going, and she’ll reply: “Hope.” That, plus compromise and accommodation, tools polished by frequent use in marriages affected by PTSD.
Ted Peacock accompanies Angelle to parties, but at some point excuses himself to seek out a quiet place. “Our friends understand he’s not being rude.” Ted hangs in longer than he’d like, Angelle leaves earlier. And they juggle the boys’ sports practices and games around Ted’s ability to cope on any given day.
The Wilkinsons have not let Jake’s aversion to crowds deny the boys the fun of their annual trip to K-Days (Edmonton’s summer exhibition)—they simply choose less crowded days and times. Jake has had to give up coaching his boys’ teams, and at home, Sherrie makes sure he doesn’t have more than one lad at a time to deal with.
Accommodating lack of passion is not so easy. It’s hard not to read lack of sexual response as anything other than rejection. “I could dress myself up in anything from any lingerie shop and I got no reaction,” says one wife, who wants her name—and her husband’s—kept private. “And so it just…it knocked me down.”
One U.S. study found 85 per cent of combat veterans undergoing PTSD treatment had erectile dysfunction, compared to 22 per cent of combat veterans without PTSD. Couples with passion problems should have a frank talk with their doctor, says Shields. Switching medications might help. The problem is that the system that regulates the flight or fight response also regulates sexual arousal, so medication that tones down anxiety and hypervigilance also dampens sexual response.
For most families, the storms pass. A new normal is established.
Around the PTSD symptoms, Caitlyn and Philip have a romantic relationship, the flowers-and-poetry variety. Their eyes soften whenever their glances meet, they touch each other often, soft, lingering touches. Philip’s speech is littered with quips and quotations and Caitlyn is often delighted by his asides.
They are free and easy discussing the challenges of living with PTSD. They met before he went into treatment, and lived together for several years before marrying two years ago. The marriage has been important to his recovery, says Philip. “She’s my rock. Without her, I’d just wither away. I’d be one of those colourless old men.”
Philip’s nightmares and flashbacks have all but ceased, but he’s still in therapy, still wrestling with demons. He often has to leave midway through social events, and still has memory problems and a quick temper. “Life is a series of compromises and accommodations,” says his wife Caitlyn. “It’s just stuff we have to deal with.”
Ted and Angelle’s marriage is hanging in there. All question of Angelle leaving the marriage was settled years ago when they sought counselling after Ted’s first tour to Afghanistan. “That’s one thing about being a military wife—you know you can do it alone,” says Angelle. “I remember saying to Ted, ‘I love you and I want to be in your life. I choose to keep you in my life.’”
Resentment faded the day she realized Ted also longs for a return to normalcy, to get back to the marital sweet spot. “My husband doesn’t drink, doesn’t do drugs, doesn’t do Internet porn or gambling or fighting. We don’t have screaming fights. He doesn’t take medication holidays, he listens to the doctors. He goes to therapy and he wants to get better. Nobody wants to wake up and think ‘today’s just going to suck.’ And so I know that every day Teddy is trying his best, and that’s all I could ask of anybody.”
Ted Peacock knows why his marriage has survived. “Communication and respect for each other, those are the biggest things. We talk. And we talk and we talk and we talk. We talk. And we talk.”
He doesn’t mention love, but the evidence is right there, on his body. Ted’s most visible tattoos run down the inside of his arms—the names and birthdates of his sons. Between his shoulder blades is a maple leaf emblazoned with a capital A, symbolic of Angelle, who’s always got his back, he says.
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