It takes an exceptional person to love a warrior, especially one whose battle doesn’t end when they come home. However, when I first started dating my veteran boyfriend (now husband) and was introduced to the daunting world of PTSD, I felt far from “exceptional.” I felt afraid, utterly alone and hopeless. In spite of my counseling background, I was completely unprepared.
As a result, I decided to learn all I could about how to support my husband while still taking care of my own needs. My research—combined with the input of many others with similar experiences—led me to write the book: LOVE OUR VETS: Restoring Hope for Families of Veterans with PTSD (available on Amazon).
Based on my research and experiences with my husband, I have compiled a list of what to do and not do when communicating with a loved one battling PTSD.
- Pity them
- Fear or avoid them
- Try to fix them
- Assume you know what they're going though
- Say any of the following:
- “Aren’t you over it yet?”
- “You’re crazy.”
- “Just get over it.”
- “It’s all in your head.”
- “Just be stronger.”
- “At least you weren’t wounded.”
- “I had that, but I got over it.”
- “Pull yourself together.”
- “It’s all in the past.”
- “Suck it up.”
- “Move on.”
- Treat them with kindness and respect
- Acknowledge the depth and reality of their struggle
- Encourage and support them
- Try to imagine a day and night in their shoes
- Accept that you will never fully understand
- Invite them to explore resources together if they want
- Respect their need for space
- Offer to go with them to a local Veteran Center, VA, doctor or counselor
- Pray/hope for them
- Listen to them
- Love them
- Realize that with PTSD, every day is a victory
Remember to Take Care of Yourself, Too
It’s also important not to forget about your own self-care while supporting your veteran. Those who love someone with PTSD are susceptible to compassion fatigue. Just like secondhand smoke, compassion fatigue can truly take its toll on the loved ones. Dr. Susanne Babbel reports in Psychology Today that caregivers who help traumatized people may develop their own PTSD symptoms. Also referred to as vicarious traumatization, experts have found that self-care techniques can reduce susceptibility to the internalization of compassion fatigue.
It’s easy to ignore our bodies’ warning signals when we fail to take care of ourselves. If you are experiencing things such as insomnia, indigestion, anxiety or grinding teeth, make sure to tune in to your needs, communicate them, and address them.
If you are feeling alone and overwhelmed, I encourage you to learn all you can about PTSD and discover what resources are available. Reach out for help and connect with others for support. We all need to know we are not alone, and that there is hope.
No one is exempt from PTSD. It can permanently and profoundly impact anyone. But there is hope. With faith, love, support and resources, any person can thrive in spite of PTSD.
Thank you for loving your warrior.
And please check out NAMI Homefront—a free, 6-session educational program designed to address the unique needs of family, caregivers and friends of those who have served or are currently serving our country. The program is taught by trained family members of service members/veterans living with mental health conditions.
Welby O’Brien has a Master’s Degree in counseling from Portland State University and a teaching degree from Biola University. She has authored Love Our Vets: Restoring Hope for Families of Veterans with PTSD, Good-bye for Now (grief support) and Formerly A Wife (divorce support.) She is also a contributing author to Chicken Soup for the Soul: Divorce and Recovery, Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Spirit of America, as well as Shepherding Women in Pain.