WINCHESTER — Molly Heim does not always know how to cope when her husband, Dana, has an outburst due to his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Dana, 69, is a retired veteran who served in the Vietnam and Gulf wars.
“Once, I told a joke that caught him the wrong way, and before I knew it, he’s barking at me,” she said. “I just got out of the house.”
One night Molly, 68, left their Frederick County house after an outburst from Dana. She stopped at a church close to their home in search of someone to talk to but the doors were locked.
“I sat in the parking lot and cried,” Molly said.
Eventually, Molly discovered she suffered from Secondary Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which affects the spouses and families of those with PTSD. It was in that moment she realized there must be others like her who have no outlet of their own.
Molly and Dana’s story
Dana joined the in 1965 prior to graduating high school. He served in the Vietnam War from 1966 to 1967. After returning home, Dana drank heavily to cope with the battlefield images in his mind.
“If I drank one drink, I would drink a gallon,” he said.
His drinking affected his relationships. A few years after returning from Vietnam, his first wife left him, and Dana decided to leave the .
Dana met Molly about seven weeks later in 1972, and the couple married that same year.
Certain triggers can cause anxiety and stress for Dana. Fireworks and the smell of gunpowder or sulfur put him on edge. A flashback can take him back to the battlefield, and for a moment he sees bunkers and barbed wire. In nightmares, he experiences war all over again. He also has unexpected bursts of emotion. His eyes could fill with tears in a moment of pride for someone else or while reading a human interest story in the newspaper.
When Dana first experienced these symptoms of PTSD, he did not fully understand what was happening. He had heard phrases such as “shell shock” or “delayed stress,” but not PTSD.
“We were told to suck it up,” he said.
While Dana was experiencing PTSD, Molly did not know what to do.
“There was never anyone for me or the veterans’ wives,” she said. “There was no counseling for us.”
Molly said she developed Secondary PTSD. Someone with Secondary PTSD may feel frustration, anxiety and hurt feelings because of actions by their loved one.
According to information from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs at www.ptsd.va.gov, at least two studies have reported lower levels of happiness, reduced satisfaction in their lives, and more demoralization in partners of Vietnam veterans diagnosed with PTSD compared to partners of veterans not diagnosed with PTSD.
“About half of the partners of veterans with PTSD indicated that they had felt ‘on the verge of a nervous breakdown,’” the site states.
Molly learned about alcoholism as a way to try to understand Dana’s behavior. One aspect of alcoholism that parallels PTSD is placing blame on others.
“He’d tell me I was the reason his life was bad, and that was a lie,” she said.
Dana said PTSD, like alcoholism, harms everyone.
“You’re hurting your family and you don’t even realize it,” he said.
One night, Molly gave Dana an ultimatum for his drinking problem. They were out with friends, and she saw that Dana was drinking too much. She told him he could choose a soda and she would stay or he could drink another beer and never see her again.
“Dana asked ‘What do you want from me?’” Molly said. “I said ‘I want you, and I want you sober.’”
Dana has been sober since 1985.
But Dana missed the camaraderie of the military. When a friend told him he could join the Army National Guard and possibly drive tanks in Germany, the thought appealed to him. He joined the Guard in 1974.
He fought in the Gulf War in 1990 for seven months and retired from the military in 1992 — serving a total of 26 years.
After retiring from the military, Dana experienced ringing in his ears. He said it took two years of a friend telling him to visit a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) clinic before he finally decided to get help. He visited the Stephens City office and was referred to the clinic’s parent facility in Martinsburg, W.Va., where he was supplied with hearing aids.
While at the Stephens City office, Dana had an uncontrollable moment when he started to cry.
“I was told, ‘You have to see a counselor. You have PTSD,’” he said.
Learning to cope
Dana was assigned to Mary Beth Williams, a psychologist who works out of Warrenton. In the beginning, he wasn’t keen on the idea of seeing a counselor. Every week he would say, “I don’t need it,” but he would continue to go back. Shortly after starting, he had a pivotal moment during a group session with 27 others who shared stories similar to his.
“It was like a mirror to my life,” he said.
Dana has learned a lot about coping with his disorder by visiting Williams. For many veterans, they have seen and experienced things others may not understand.
“The person at home has no idea what happened,” Williams said. “The veteran might not want to talk about it. They may end up with a serious drug or alcohol problem because they want to avoid people. They might not want to be with family or friends because they want to isolate themselves.”
Williams said there are a lot of people with PTSD who went through experiences like the Vietnam War but are just now stepping forward to talk about what they went through. One of the reasons for this is many Vietnam vets are now retired and aren’t focused on other priorities like a career.
It isn’t just veterans who experience PTSD, but anyone who goes through a traumatic experience, especially a sexual assault or an abusive childhood.
While not all PTSD sufferers have the same symptoms, some signs of the disorder can include nightmares, reaction to triggers, avoidance, anger, hyperactivity and being very cautious and on guard.
Because of counseling, Dana is able to handle his symptoms and take a moment to remind himself that he isn’t back in Vietnam.
“It doesn’t really go away, I just learned to deal with it,” he said.
Although it is best for both the PTSD sufferer and his or her loved one go to counseling, Williams said it can be beneficial even if the person experiencing Secondary PTSD is the only one who seeks help. Talking through the issues with a professional can help in understanding what the PTSD sufferer may be feeling and ways to help them feel safe in various situations.
According to information from the national Disabled American Veterans (DAV), there are a few ways loved ones can help, such as listening, being patient and paying close attention to what the individual has to say.
“The veteran needs to believe that you want to understand what he or she has gone through,” according to a pamphlet from the DAV called “Living with Traumatic Stress.” “This belief is built on a foundation of effectively listening to each other.”
Offering encouragement and staying optimistic are helpful, as well as offering advice if the individual is willing to receive it. It is important to ask the individual about offering advice before it is given.
It is also important for the loved ones of PTSD sufferers to take care of themselves.
“You can be most helpful if you also pay attention to your own needs in the relationship,” states the DAV. “Recognize that like the loved one who has experienced severe stress, you are not alone. Seek support from other people.”
Connecting with others
In the past month Molly has meet a handful of people experiencing Secondary PTSD.
“The sad thing is I’m discovering there are people who don’t know what it is,” she said.
She is still learning about it, but believes that a large percentage of people with PTSD most likely have a spouse who also suffers.
Molly is concerned for area families of veterans returning home from Iraq. Sometimes the veterans are not the same and neither party knows what to do about it.
“These veterans have young families and spouses who don’t have a way to get help,” she said. “They need somewhere to go.”
An issue that Charles Hunter, quartermaster with Veterans of Foreign War Post 2123, has come across is some veterans battle with the stigma that comes with PTSD. They aren’t willing to share with the world, or their families, that they struggle with the disorder.
“The veteran sees it as a sign of weakness,” Hunter said. “But it’s a sign of extreme stress. Many are reluctant to come forward and admit they have a problem. That makes it hard on their families, too.”
Hunter has not personally met someone with Secondary PTSD, nor does he know of any local groups that are specific to families suffering from the disorder. He said the VFW, like other organizations offering services to veterans, is a welcoming place for veterans and their families if someone wants to talk.
Molly on a mission
To Molly’s knowledge, help isn’t readily available in the area for those who suffer from Secondary PTSD.
“There’s no counseling service available that is specifically for Secondary PTSD,” she said.
As a way to provide an outlet for these individuals, Molly wants to restart the Chapter 9 Disabled American Veterans Auxiliary in Winchester. The auxiliary, a group of wives and loved ones of disabled veterans, fizzled out in membership and attendance about four years ago.
Through the auxiliary, Molly wants to set up a support group for those experiencing Secondary PTSD and work to bring in counselors who specialize in the disorder. To get the group going again, it needs at least 10 new members.
“My goal is to have someone to talk to for all of us,” Molly said.
Dana, who is a member of the local Disabled American Veterans chapter, said counseling helps him manage his symptoms.
“Counseling is a safe place for me, but there is no safe place for her,” he said. “She needs a place to vent and talk.”
Dana has been supportive of his wife’s efforts to restart the local auxiliary.
“I’m behind her 100 percent,” Dana said. “She’s seen me through some pretty bad times.”
To reach out to Molly about the auxiliary or starting a support group for sufferers of Secondary PTSD, call her at 540-974-9345.
More information may be found at www.ptsd.va.gov.
— Contact Jackie Puglisi at firstname.lastname@example.org