Eight million Americans live with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) –a debilitating condition in which frightening thoughts or flashbacks continue months or years after a traumatic event. PTSD is especially common among military veterans who’ve lived through combat.
PTSD isn’t just hard on the people who have it. It can take a toll on their spouses, children, and anyone else who cares for them day-to-day. WebMD asked Emily Emmons, wife of a military veteran, what it’s like to be a PTSD caregiver. She shares her insights on getting the right diagnosis, and coping with the stress this disorder can bring. Her story is also featured as part of the Hidden Heroes initiative that supports military caregivers.
WebMD: Your husband had symptoms for eight years before he was diagnosed with PTSD. Why did it take so long to get a diagnosis?
Emmons: He kept showing signs, but his doctors just kept telling him that he needed to try to be a contributing member of society for as long as he could, and minimized his symptoms. He was a counterterrorism expert, and his job was important to him. So I think he just minimized what he was feeling. If the doctors didn’t think it was a big deal, then he didn’t see it as a big deal.
WebMD: What kinds of symptoms did he have?
Emmons: He used to have two to three migraines a week while he was still working full-time. Night sweats and terrors, severe migraines, sinusitis, severe anxiety, and sleepless nights were just some of the symptoms he suffered from on a daily basis.
WebMD: How was he finally diagnosed?
Emmons: We ended up going to our family doctor, because one day he just couldn’t do it anymore. It was like his body started to shut down and he couldn’t control any of his emotions. While we were waiting for the family doctor to see us, they had him sit down at the mental health phone. He sat there and answered five questions, and I just remember the look on his face. Because they were validating that something was, in fact, wrong. His VA [U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs] doctors had been ignoring him for all that time. We both felt relieved because we were finally on the right path, but I remember it felt devastating. What did that mean for our future?
WebMD: What treatment did the doctors give him?
Emmons: They put him on a whole bunch of drugs and talk therapy. The medicines altered almost everything about him for over a year, and then he couldn’t do it anymore. The physical side effects affected him significantly and it wasn’t worth the benefits. But he gave it a try.
WebMD: What has helped his PTSD?
Emmons: We found that being outside in nature helps. When he’s outside in the backyard, whether he’s planting pineapples, building a new fence, or just sitting there watching things grow, he’s reconnecting with nature and planting things that will eventually feed our family. He has a game plan. I’m grateful that it gives him something to do and something that he feels good about. He still relies on a few medications for his migraines, but he’s no longer taking the PTSD medications. The medicine made him so anxious that it wasn’t worth it for him.
WebMD: What do you do to help him get through his day?
Emmons: I try to remove daily demands and minimize any expectations that give him anxiety or put pressure on him. I manage the day-to-day stuff, which gives him time to focus on spending time with our daughters and doing things that bring him joy. I have also minimized expectations on myself and reduced the number of activities we get involved with, so we’re not always running to the next event or practice. We live a pretty simple life, and I think that really helps, too.
WebMD: What has the experience of being a caregiver been like for you?
Emmons: I’ve been managing his care for his migraines and other symptoms since the day we met, but I didn’t realize it. We had a young family, and I felt like on most days, we were just getting through the day. Now I realize that I had been navigating my way through his PTSD symptoms and triggers for many years. We were in couples’ therapy sessions when the therapist said, “You are a caregiver to him. You have been caring for him all this time.” Validating all that I’d already been through, it was very freeing to hear her say that to me. I’ve never looked at myself in the same way since.
WebMD: Do you sometimes feel overwhelmed by all of your responsibilities?
Emmons: Yes. I have moments that I feel overwhelmed, but I have to say that with time and continued commitment to each other and our family, things continue to get better. We started a nonprofit organization that offers hands-on education in natural farming for veterans and their families, and I work for a U.S. congresswoman, both of which are empowering to me, because I feel like I can be part of the solution. I’m glad that I can work from home, because I’m there when he needs me, but he also has time to work on his own projects. I have to admit, I do find myself constantly reevaluating demands or squeaky wheels versus real priorities.
WebMD: How do you make time for family — and yourself — with everything that’s going on?
Emmons: I have set pretty good boundaries with our family space and time. Sundays are off-limits for everything. It’s just family. We can stay in our jammies all day long if we want, without any expectations. At the end of each night, we color in adult coloring books. I find that not only are they relaxing for me, but they’re relaxing for my kids. My husband sits on the sofa with his eyes closed, and I know he enjoys that time, too. I also try to take what I call “gratitude walks” every day. I take five minutes to walk outside and take pictures of the beauty around me. I’m grateful for what’s changed, and what’s stayed the same. It gives me that moment to focus on the beauty and simplicity of it all.
WebMD: How did your husband’s PTSD change your family life and relationship?
Emmons: It forced us to become really good communicators. He was gone [for work] 80 percent of the time before his diagnosis. We had to reconnect with each other and relearn how to communicate together. I feel really grateful that we’ve had this time. And couples therapy was definitely helpful, because we always knew that we had an outlet.
WebMD: What do you think is the biggest misperception about PTSD?
Emmons: People equate PTSD with anger. Most of the time, it’s not anger but anxiety that they might say or do something that’s embarrassing or out of the norm. The social anxieties our veterans go through are so often not addressed, and that’s such a big part of the challenge.
WebMD: What would you tell others to look for if they suspect a loved one might have PTSD?
Emmons: If you think your spouse or loved one has PTSD, you need to go and find local resources and get them evaluated. I think we undermine our gut instinct and our feelings. If you’re thinking, “This person might be struggling,” then yes, they’re probably struggling.
Read more about PTSD in the special report, “Faces of PTSD.”