I awaken with a start this morning in a cold sweat, feeling like a drowning victim resurfacing. I gasp and jump to my feet, my heart and mind racing; my body moving involuntarily. I’m having a panic attack. It doesn't always happen, but when it does, there is a black hole inside my chest that I can only describe as pure, hopeless terror. I struggle to quickly throw on my clothes.
It is a sunshiny Saturday morning, and I don't have to work today. My beautiful wife is in bed, and she tells me to stop and breathe. I ask about our kids, and she calmly says they are fine. I ask about money and our rent. “We have plenty of money right now,” my wife reassures me. “Our rent is paid, and it's the middle of the month.” We're about to have a slow Saturday morning with pancakes and coffee. Maybe some cartoons for the kids. I can sit in my chair with my laptop and relax. I stand in the bedroom doorway, half-dressed, and breathe to the sound of my wife's words. She is right of course. There is absolutely nothing to panic about.
I have come to understand that this panic attack is the result of something called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. My first wife emotionally abused me, using our child against me. I spent more than ten years jumping through her hoops, believing she was putting him in danger or would steal him away from me. In order to keep her happy, I went into debt voluntarily to give her extra money beyond the child support, so she would agree to stay in the state. I did this to continue visitation with my son, though the court appointed me equal custody. The custody agreement was one thing, but it wouldn’t have stopped her. At least, not according to her threats. How long it would have taken me to get him back was a question not easily answered. What it would have cost was definitely beyond my means. My only choice was to keep on her good side in order to continue a stable relationship with my son.
Homelessness, alcoholism, job loss, fractured family relationships – once I began to struggle in my relationship with my ex, I began to struggle in everything. To keep her happy, I put every other relationship I had in jeopardy. I stayed strong in the face of each problem, but privately, I lived in constant, debilitating fear, knowing another crisis was just around the corner. Drugs and alcohol helped me cope, but eventually became detrimental. They were my way of hiding from reality, as was my increasingly antisocial behavior. I had been living through a traumatic and stressful situation for far too long. I had spiraled into a deep abyss.
PTSD is common in soldiers who have seen combat, in rape victims, in natural disaster victims, in attack victims; really in anyone who has lived through a situation which was traumatic. For those who have been traumatized by a marriage and a prolonged divorce in which a child is used as a tool of manipulation, PTSD is unfortunately a reality. As a man, it was the expectation of my family that I remain strong, get over my failed marriage, and work amicably with my ex-wife. In fact, my calls to my mom asking for help were stressing her out, so my dad eventually called me and told me to stop bothering her with my problems. That was my official cue to be a man, quit my whining, and tough it out.
Men are often expected to work alone. It's almost one of our American societal mores. However, isolationism or social withdrawal is a symptom of PTSD. Reaching out can be extremely difficult because someone with stress as the result of reaching out in the first place (as in a marriage) will be far less likely to jump at the opportunity of risking entering into or furthering an existing relationship. Simply put, PTSD sufferers have an excruciatingly hard time asking for help. And men in particular who do reach out are often scorned for being weak.
What’s to be done?
The first step is for us to change our perception of what happens to a person during and after a traumatic relationship. This is why I have written a book series about my experience. It’s hard to identify with someone in such a circumstance if you’ve had no prior experience with it. If you say, as my parents did, that a guy should be in control and tackle his problems by himself, you misunderstand what the problem is, and it is very easy to dismiss someone who is in a tailspin such as I was. It seemed most everyone I knew was telling me to pull myself up by my bootstraps. And, by golly, I did.
I did exactly that. I worked harder than I ever had to keep my family somewhat together, to continue to do exemplary work at my job, and even to help support my ex. I supported her financially by giving more than the court ordered me to. I supported her physically by helping fix up her house, even giving her the half I owned free and clear by signing a quit claim deed. I even supported her emotionally by listening to her rants and trying to help smooth things over with people she needed to keep in her life. I did more than I should have.
Still, in the end, having pulled myself up by my bootstraps was not the way to get rid of the detrimental effects of PTSD. That’s the problem: PTSD doesn’t just go away. It lingers and is re-triggered again and again. You fight it bravely, but it continues to resurface. Not only do you fight the PTSD, you fight the stigma it gives you as you watch people shake their heads at you, wishing you would just get over it.
If you know someone who has had a relationship derail and go up in flames, learn about PTSD and relationships. You can Google the two keywords and find some related articles and studies fairly quickly, though such articles are sparse, and that’s part of the problem. Awareness isn’t common in our society. That is my purpose, to raise awareness.
Become aware. Be a friend to someone in a bad relationship. You may be able to help at some point, and helping is not a bad thing. It doesn’t have to be a huge time or emotional commitment. It can simply mean awareness. I was lucky to have had a few people who were at least aware enough to not turn their backs on me despite how society generally feels about a guy in such a position. I am alive today because of those people.
The hopeless terror does not have to be a reality for those of us with PTSD. There is hope in this life. Help me pass it on.
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