As ever-increasing numbers of soldiers are being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the need to understand this complex and troubling experience grows larger. In order to better understand what soldiers are going through, I interviewed the wife of a veteran who was diagnosed with PTSD. Shelly is not her real name, but Shelly and her husband are real people and I have known Shelly for several years. This interview took place in January 2009.
Dr. Call: Thanks for agreeing to this interview, Shelly. I appreciate your willingness to share your experience. So your husband is a veteran of the Iraq war?
Shelly: Yes, he is. He did a 13-month tour in 2005-2006.
Dr. Call: And when was he diagnosed with PTSD?
Shelly: In the spring of 2007. Many people think that in order to have PTSD, a person has to experience the symptoms during the traumatic event or right after it, but that's not true. Many people have delayed-onset PTSD, which surfaces a few months after the event is over. That's what happened with my husband. He seemed okay when he first got back, but then he started becoming depressed and he couldn't sleep.
Dr. Call: So how did he get help?
Shelly: He went to the mental health clinic at the military base. That was one of the most frustrating things about the experience. He kept going to the clinic and telling them that he needed help, that he was having trouble. But they kept sending him away. When he was having a panic attack, they told him to go home and lay down. They told him he would be fine. So he had to keep going back - 4 or 5 times - before they finally listened to him and gave him some help. I was really proud of him for being persistent. If he had listened to them and not gone back to the clinic, I don't know how he would be today. If there's anyone out there who is seeking help, don't be afraid to insist that you need help. "The squeaky wheel gets the grease," they say. That's definitely true in the military.
Dr. Call: Have his symptoms improved since being diagnosed with PTSD?
Shelly: Yes, they have. After he was diagnosed, he began seeing a psychologist and a psychiatrist on a regular basis. I think that really helped him. He takes sleep medication now, which has helped his insomnia so much. And he also takes anxiety medication, which helps him to stay calm when he gets anxious. Pairing these medications with therapy has done a lot for him, and he's a lot better off than he was two years ago.
Dr. Call: How has his PTSD affected you?
Shelly: For a long time, he didn't want to ever go out and do anything. He was depressed a lot, and I thought it was something I had done. It did have an affect on our relationship, but I tried to be patient with him and just give him time. To all the friends and family members of soldiers with PTSD, if there's anything you take from this interview, it should be this: give them time! Don't expect them to be the same person they were when they left. It takes time to recover from a horrible experience like war. Be patient and give your loved ones your support.
Dr. Call: Is there anything else you think is important for people to know about this topic?
Shelly: Many people won't understand what you are going through. One night after being in a crowded place, my husband got anxious and became angry and he punched a wall with his fist, breaking his hand. After hearing this story, some of my friends looked at him like he was a monster. This incident scared me, but I knew that my husband was just having a hard time adjusting to the little things, like being in a crowded store. I was patient with him and I stood by him when people walked away shocked after hearing the answer to the question, "What happened to your hand?" My point is that some people won't be able to understand what we are going through because they've never had to experience it. But that's okay. There are people who do understand and want to help. Don't hesitate to ask for help if you need it, because that's the only way you will get it.
Dr. Call: Thanks again, Shelly, for sharing your experience.
Shelly: You're welcome. People need to know that they are not alone in this.