Military caregivers: When you’re the one with PTSD

For the past eight years I have been caregiving for my veteran who has severe PTSD and a Traumatic Brain Injury and a bunch of physical injuries. I never in a million years thought PTSD was something I myself would ever be diagnosed as having.

I have been facilitating caregiver support groups and educating my peers on this very topic. Imagine my chagrin and annoyance to realize I have it, too. Irony sucks, folks.

My PTSD was induced both by a physical trauma incurred in surgery and in response to the rage and volatility the first few years of helping my husband manage his symptoms and adjust to his life as a wounded veteran. Looking back, I was in such denial.

I suffered a horrible physical trauma in surgery. I was lying on the operating table when I suddenly became aware of a burning, sharp, horrible pain in my guts. I tried to yell and scream, but I had a breathing tube down my throat. I tried to move my hands to indicate to my surgeon that I was awake and aware of what was being done to me, but my hands were restrained. I couldn’t move my feet. I tried to roll my eyes around, but they had placed a wash cloth over my eyes so they could not see me moving them or blinking.

I was wheeled into recovery and when I told the nurse what happened, she immediately got my surgeon in the room with me. When my doctor asked me what I’d heard, I repeated the order of how she manipulated my organs and spoke to her assistants. Her face turned white. The head anesthesiologist came into the room and she looked horrified. They gave me pain relief and apologized.

Five days after the surgery, I was done with my narcotic pain medicine. It made me queasy and I still hurt. I moved myself onto Tylenol, and I felt much better. The first day I went to take a nap and all of a sudden, I heard the sound of blood pounding in my head. It was so loud I couldn’t fall asleep; my heart was pounding like it was going to explode.

I suddenly felt energized, like I had just had a shot of adrenaline into my bloodstream. This kept going on, well into the night. I couldn’t sleep.

Two business days later, I called my surgeon’s office and I asked if the sound of the blood in my ears was some weird side effect from surgery. She said, “No honey, you’ve experienced some physical trauma. You need to talk to your counselor.” Lucky for me, I had a counselor I was actively seeing. I got in quickly with her and told her what happened.

It is easy to logically come to terms with something, but it is challenging to get that primitive part of the brain to digest that as well. The primitive part of our brain is what helps us survive. Its function is learning pain and making our bodies and minds respond.

This wasn’t such a big deal, I thought. I just needed some sleeping pills so I could rest and heal from surgery and be an attentive caregiver to my husband and be able to stay awake to drive him to his appointments.

Well, it turned out to be a much bigger deal than I acknowledged. I couldn’t fall asleep. My brain wouldn’t let me. That annoying sound of the blood pounding in my ears and my heart feeling like it was going to beat out of my chest just wouldn’t quit. “Your brain remembers the last time you went to sleep was during surgery and you got eviscerated while being awake. Your brain is trying to keep you from that happening again,” said my counselor. Interesting. It really did make sense to the logical side of my mind. So I asked her the fastest way to fix the healing of this trauma. The gears spun in my mind.

I asked my husband if he heard blood pounding in his ears when he is triggered by something. He said he doesn’t hear the blood, most likely due to the tinnitus from the blast injury and his TBI. However his heart does pound in his chest when he is in a crowd or sees a tire on the side of the road or if someone he doesn’t know shows up on our porch.

I finally had a better of understanding of how he feels in certain situations. One day he walked up on me while I was drying my hair and my startle reflex almost caused me to hyperventilate. I was so annoyed with my reaction to something I even had partially heard.

My counselor recommended Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), based on how recent the trauma was and how I was logically reacting to the situation. EMDR incorporates both talking about what happened and how you are feeling and your current beliefs while either looking at a light bar back and forth with your eyes, or holding on to a set of electric paddles.

It was tough. I can’t lie. I would get frustrated with myself as I figured I could just forcefully think this out of my brain. I couldn’t. Recalling a moment of trauma is not fun. It is exhausting. However, EMDR really has helped me. I still startle super easy and I still have that mommy alarm that makes me wake up for every little sound. Sleeping next to a veteran with serious nightmares is not quiet or a movement free sleeping environment.

I don’t want to imagine the horrors my husband and other veterans have nightmares about. I know it’s bad. I wish I could take those away from him. I know EMDR is not a cure for everyone, but it did help me. I hope if you are having PTSD from trauma or combat and can’t sleep at night, that you find a good counselor to help you.

There is no fast fix. However your symptoms can be managed. I have seen a lot of improvement in how my husband responds to various things. It isn’t perfect and it frustrates him. However, he has helped me identify some of the things that make him anxious and I help him work around those things, which makes it easier. Coming up with a plan of what you will do if a trigger happens can help both you and your veteran. Just getting my husband somewhere with a wall he can put behind his back helps a ton.

PTSD feels like a normal reaction to something horrible. It is nothing to be ashamed about and there is strength in getting help. Please don’t suffer alone. 

By Tara Plybon,

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