Surviving PTSD as a Spouse – By Cheryl Gansner

Today’s Veterans’ PTSD Project story is from Cheryl Gansner, Operation Homefront’s Wounded Warrior Wives Program Coordinator.  I believe that her story will move you as much as it did me.  Donate to Operation Homefront through the Combined Federal Campaign (CFC) using code #12526. I highly recommend Cheryl’s blog:

Surviving PTSD as a Spouse

By Cheryl Gansner

My husband was severely injured by an improvised explosive device on July 28, 2006, in Kirkuk, Iraq. Once he arrived at Walter Reed, the thought in the forefront of my mind was his physical injuries. I knew about PTSD and had studied it in college but I never knew it would present itself immediately. I remember in vivid detail the night I saw it surface. He was lying in bed and a nurse came in to take his vitals. He started screaming that she was an Iraqi and was going to kill him. She was so panicked that she just backed out of the room and closed the door.

Even though he was on large amounts of pain medications, my husband couldn’t sleep. When he did sleep, he was restless and had nightmares. Then, the agitation began. He became short-tempered, paranoid, bitter, mean and even suicidal. This affected our relationship, as it became more like that of a parent and child, and I was exhausted from trying to make him well.  That is when I decided to get help and find the counselor that saw him as an inpatient. She said that she would continue to see us, and, thankfully, my husband was very open to seeing a counselor.

My husband and I started seeing the counselor three times a week. He would go, I would go and then we would together. Our counselor gave us exercises to help open the lines of communication, and we talked about how his symptoms impacted me.  Together, we worked towards a diagnosis, and our counselor was very thorough – she didn’t just slap a diagnosis on us. The medication cocktail started working at the same time and we were able to move forward together to find a combination that worked.

I knew we had a lot to work through, so we kept moving forward with counseling. (It is amazing how quickly resentment can fester, and we decided to squash it as soon as possible.) We learned how to balance our duties in the marriage and I learned how to behave less motherly. Towards the end of our stay at Walter Reed, I finally learned to let go of the reins and let him take more of a lead.

For me, it was hard to be patient and let go of that control. My husband missed some important appointments because of his depression, PTSD, and TBI, and then he had to suffer the consequences. It was a hard thing for me to let go, as I am very organized, but I knew that the only way he was going to get better was to let him stand on his own.

My husband was very supportive of me reaching out and meeting others who knew what I was going through, so I started talking with friends to gain support for myself. I found Operation Homefront’s Wounded Warrior Wives online forums, and I would go there to vent and ask for advice. While some of the other wives advice was helpful, it just really meant a lot to me to have someone to listen to me. I knew I would eventually figure out how to navigate this process but at least I wasn’t alone.   It really helped to find others who truly knew what I was going through.

I attended a retreat with the Wounded Warrior Project. It helped to meet a lot of these women who I had talked to online in person. My network and support system continued to grow and it helped tremendously when the bottom truly dropped out on my husband. When he decided it was time for him to get help, one of my friends from the retreat told us about a clinical trial to help with his TBI and PTSD. My husband was open to trying it and left a week later. Since my husband has returned home, he has been more engaged, his memory and depression is better and he is finally on a great combination of medications. We got involved in adaptive sports where my husband can talk with other Veterans about what he is going through. It helps him to have friends who understand what he goes through every day, and it helps me to see him succeed through sports and get a part of his life back that he lost.

One of the most important lessons I learned through our journey was that I couldn’t fix him; I couldn’t force him to talk and it just made things worse. We also learned coping skills that help.  For example, if we go to restaurants on the weekends, we wait in the car and ask the restaurant to call our cell phone when our table is ready as to avoid the crowd. In the restaurant, he sits with his back to the wall and he requests a seat where he can see everyone. It is hard sometimes because there are things that we used to like to do together that we just can’t anymore, but it’s part of our new normal and we accept that.

There are great programs that can help you and your family.  For example, Wounded Warrior Wives has retreats and many of our friends have been helped through Project Odyssey.  Also, inpatient programs can really work.  Most importantly, keep researching new programs and techniques that might help your Warrior, and never give up.  There is a way for your loved one to get a piece of themselves back.

About the author: Cheryl Gansner graduated from Austin Peay State University in 2005 with a bachelor’s degree in Social Work. She worked only a few months with at-risk teens when her husband was severely injured by an improvised explosive device in Iraq. She had to put her career on hold and travel to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC. At the end of their stay in DC, Cheryl worked part time with the Veteran’s Affairs Vocational Rehabilitation program. In August of 2010 Cheryl began working with Operation Homefront’s Wounded Warrior Wives Program as the Program Coordinator. There, she is able to share her experiences and help others who are going through the same hardships. It has been an honor for her to give back to a community that means so much to her.