Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Maybe It's Not All the Military, After All

Lying in bed one night, staring at his side of the bed--which was, once again, empty--sobbing uncontrollably, I started to wonder what was truly causing all of my grief, all of this anxiety. Is this really all happening because of this life? Am I really this distraught over him being gone--again--or is there something more, something deeper? My husband has been to Iraq three times, Afghanistan once, and countless other remote areas prior to these wars. While we weren't together for all of these deployments, we have spent the majority of our relationship at war. No, actually, we've spent our entire relationship in a war--either with him deployed, or with us dealing with the ramifications while he's home. And now, he was gone just for a school--a short, six week stint that is as normal as Sunday brunch (perhaps more so) to any military family. So, why am I now having an uncontrollable meltdown?

I realized that my fears are connected to much more than this military life. Yes, there is the persistent frustration and exhaustion associated with having to deal with everything on my own--again. Yes, there is the anxiety and sadness associated with your life partner and best friend being away--always. And yes, there is the constant worry about what may happen, even when he's just a few hours, and a gloriously non-interrupted domestic, phone call away. But, there's more ...

We've been so wrapped up in dealing with my husband's trauma and the effects this war, these wars, have had on us. The mood shifts, the nightmares, the depression. The memories that are too strong and too unimaginable for him to ever erase. Those memories that he is now starting to share with me. A development in our relationship that I am grateful for, although these images now haunt my thoughts and dreams, as well. But, there's also this nagging feeling that I don't feel safe--again. That I may never truly feel safe. As I lie in our bed crying, trembling, I feel completely and utterly vulnerable. Afraid. And I know that, although being at war has caused the fire of fear to spread throughout our relationship, it didn't light the match.

As women, most of us are dealing with trauma and fear that stem from far before the Iraq and Afghanistan wars began, possibly far before we ever met our spouses. About half of women have experienced some form of sexual assault in their lives--including attempted and completed rapes. Half. And about one out of every five has been in an abusive relationship. Some are facing these issues right now. As women, we deal with sexual harassment, discrimination, and countless other struggles, each and every day. We are cautioned by loved ones and our own internal voices to park in well-lit areas, stay near friends, don't go out too late alone, keep our children close. We are constantly bombarded by reminders that we are not safe. That our children are not safe. At least, not completely. And, for many of us, facing the reality of war, and of our partners never returning the same as they left, adds to these already existing layers of fear. I know it did for me.

I was sexually abused by my step-grandfather my entire childhood. I disclosed the abuse to my grandmother (who raised me) when I was 15. She threw me out of the house. I dealt with the effects of this abuse for years. And, by dealt with, I mean ignored, ran from, jumped into unhealthy relationships to avoid, and lived in denial of--until I finally started to face it. After a lot of hard work, and incredible support from friends, I started to truly believe that it was not my fault, and that he could no longer hurt me. I even dedicated my career to helping other abuse survivors.  I finally, truly, felt safe.

And then ... we were at war.

My husband is the only man I have ever truly felt safe with. I can lie with him, completely vulnerable, and know that he would never hurt me. Never. I finally got to the point that I could trust him, wholeheartedly, without reservation. But yet, he leaves me. And when he is leaving to fight for us, for all of us, my own guilt won't let me be truly angry with him, or face how very scared I am to be vulnerable again. But, with him safely just a few hours away, my true feelings begin to emerge. I am angry at him for leaving me again. I am angry because I feel vulnerable. I am angry because he was supposed to protect me (as much as that statement makes my feminist skin crawl). And most of all, I'm scared. Even as I type that, my stomach hurts, because it's not something I like to admit. I'm scared because I love this man so very much. And I know that I can't protect him. I can't protect him from going back to war. And I can't protect him from the horrific things he's had to endure. And if I can't protect him, maybe that also means I can't protect myself, and neither can he. After all, isn't he now just as vulnerable as I am?

I have always been fiercely independent, and the thought of relying on anyone--especially a man--even if only for love and support, is frightening. The thought of relying on someone who is also now broken in some way--well, that's almost unbearable.

I have learned through my work with victims of sexual and domestic violence that trauma is like an onion. It's layered and complex, with repeated trauma building upon our prior histories. As we add on years of war and deployments and fear, the onion gets bigger and bigger. And for me, this onion has now, once again, brought me to tears. Uncontrollable, relentless tears. If I only look at the outer layer of this onion, it looks to be born completely of war and the turmoil of this military life. But, if I do that, I am missing the true culprit, the core, of my anxiety and distress. For me, and I believe for many women, the core is fear.  Fear caused not only by this war, or any war, but by a lifetime of experiences, often including abuse and assaults.

I felt overwhelmed by this realization--that I now had to revisit and re-address my own trauma. But, I knew that I would have to before I could truly help my husband, and myself. Now, I use my own experiences to relate to what he's experiencing. We compare things that trigger memories for us--the cologne worn by my grandfather for me, the smell of anything burning for him; the feeling of vulnerability for me; the feeling of rejection for him. We compare nightmares, and offer each other comfort. And we reassure each other that to be hurt does not mean that we're broken, it means we're human. Bonding through trauma may seem odd for some, but for us, it's life changing. It's necessary.

Before we can ever truly feel safe with our soldiers, we have to feel safe with ourselves. And if we haven't yet been able to face the past trauma we've experienced, or if it's just time to revisit it, there's no better time than the present. While the thought of facing your own trauma while also experiencing his may be daunting, the alternative is impossible.

I am comforted by the thought that all military spouses stand with me, as I stand with them--as spouses, as mothers, as women. And together, we can free ourselves of fear, and finally feel--truly--safe.

1 comment:

  1. You not only speak to my heart - you speak my heart. Thank you.