Post-traumatic stress disorder is a crippling mental condition that has long been associated with military service, but the truth is that it can affect anyone and can be triggered by any number of traumatic experiences, such as sexual abuse, being the victim of a physical attack, childhood trauma and the sudden death of a loved one, among many other potential catalysts. It's not the objective strength of the experience, but the SUBJECTIVE event the person believes they experienced and so many factors go into creating a traumatic event.
A person suffering from PTSD may experience vivid flashbacks of the traumatic event, nightmares, nervous breakdowns triggered by some cue that is in some way related to the traumatic event, avoidance of certain social situations, irritability and dramatic fright responses, such as exaggerated flight or fight responses to being spooked (becoming panicked or lashing at others).
Living with PTSD can be a major impediment to a normal daily work routine, but much more so in relationships with loved ones. Being in a relationship with a partner suffering from PTSD can be quite the emotional trial for anyone, as you can feel a lot of frustration relating to your loved one’s new vulnerabilities, listlessness or willingness to open up to you. As your loved one’s mood swings wildly from anger to crying sessions, it may seem at times like you’re living with a complete stranger.
It’s important to understand that your loved one did not choose any of this. They didn’t choose to experience trauma, and they certainly didn’t choose to have PTSD. Blaming them or feeling resentment towards them for something that is completely out of their control will never help matters, and while trauma does change a person, they are still, at their core and being, the person you fell in love with.
Recovery from PTSD can be tricky. Trauma is often compared to scarring. The trauma will always remain, leaving a sensitive patch on the soul, but the degree to which it affects our lives should decrease if given the opportunity to heal properly, and as their partner, it is your task to make sure they get that opportunity to heal.
So what can you do to make sure the person you love heals?
1. Be Patient
Our society can be very unforgiving towards people suffering from mental illnesses. We tend to allot people a grieving or recuperation period after which we expect them to “get over it” and get back to normal. Your loved one is likely feeling this condescending pressure to go on with their life as if nothing happened on all fronts, and so it is upon you to create the one safe place where their pain is treated seriously and where they can deal with it on their terms. Don’t rush them, don’t signal in any way that you’re waiting for them to get better, just stand by them.
2. Don’t Take It Personally
PTSD is often characterized by mood swings, anger, and social withdrawal, and often, when you live with someone suffering from PTSD, you can feel like the target of your partner’s irritable behavior, or even feel like the person you love is purposely shutting you out. It’s critical that you understand none of this behavior has anything to do with you or your qualities as a person or as a partner, and so the last thing you should do is take offense. The worst behaviors often manifest in places or with people the traumatized person feels safest. If your partner is distant, angry or in an explosive mood, stay calm, ask how you can help them and give them space if they need it.
When your partner talks about their trauma, listen and do your best to withhold judgment. It doesn’t matter if you’ve heard it before, or if something they say offends your sensibilities. Listen to them and be supportive. Talking about the thing that makes them hurt is a natural way of coping with it and processing the pain to the point that it becomes manageable.
4. Join Them in Therapy
PTSD can be the loneliest place in the world and having a partner that doesn’t “get it” can make it so much worse. Consider joining your partner in therapy sessions, so you can get an unguarded look into what they’re going through. In fact, as caring for a person suffering PTSD can be rough on you, too, consider couples’ counseling. A couple doesn’t need to be on the brink of divorce to seek professional help that will help them function better as a team, and if there ever was a crisis that required this kind of therapy, this is it.
5. Manage Triggers
Learn what can trigger a depressive bout or emotional breakdown in your loved one. These can be certain conversation topics, sights or sounds that can evoke the trauma, dates, people or places that remind them of the event, pressure, and situations that are linked in some way to the trauma (a funeral, seeing a car accident, watching soldiers in battle on TV, etc.). Learn how to avoid these triggers with your partner and try to learn what calms them down when they’re in this vulnerable state.
6. Take Care of Yourself
As mentioned above, taking care of a loved one can be quite the burden, especially when it seems, at times, they’re doing everything to shut you out. Remember you are no good to them if you’re mentally frayed yourself. Get your own circles of emotional support to get through this, be they professional or personal. Get enough sleep. Foster your social life, friendships, and hobbies. Take good care of your body, and make sure to take some “me time” every now and then, to do the things that bring you joy.