They say there's a support group for everything. But Ellen searched for at least three years before she found the Spouses and Significant Others Peer Support Group for PTSD, offered through the Department of Veterans Affairs.
"There was just nothing until this group started," she says.
Really, Ellen (who didn't want her real name used because she's talking about her husband's medical condition) needed a group like this a few decades ago, when she married her first Vietnam vet. And a few years later, when she married another.
Both, she feels, had undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder.
She left the first one when he abused her infant daughter. She's still married to the second, largely thanks to this group. Ellen loves her husband, but it was hard to deal with his erratic behavior. And she always hated his temper.
"After 25 years, I said, 'You have to do something about your explosive anger; I consider it abusive and I don't want to deal with it for the rest of my life,'" she remembers.
After that talk, her husband finally got help with his PTSD, which has since been diagnosed. Four years ago, through the group, Ellen also got help. She learned that she wasn't doing her husband any favors by allowing him to treat her badly. She learned how to recognize PTSD symptoms and how to deal with them constructively. She also learned when to put her foot down.
"The question you might ask is, 'Why would you stay with someone like that for 30 years?'" she says. "And I have to say, at the bottom of it all, I see my husband as a person of great courage, and in his heart he's a good man, and those are hard to find. ... I mean, in spite of all the PTSD, it's been very worthwhile, and we're happier then we've ever been. It's probably the happiest period of my life."
Disease and depression
PTSD and traumatic brain injury have become grim signatures of America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The treatment — or lack thereof — of soldiers returning with brains scrambled by war has generated headlines for years, and the military has responded by publicizing programs intended to screen for and treat the problems.
But while the military and the nation have debated treatment for soldiers, and bemoaned the accompanying high suicide rate among combat veterans, little attention has been paid to the spouses of soldiers who often find themselves acting as the most important advocates and caregivers.
Says Dawn Corbelli, volunteer coordinator and office manager of the Colorado Springs branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and a PTSD sufferer: "It's not just the person's disease, it's the entire family's."
Corbelli says that taking care of someone with a mental illness is high-stress, and spouses often develop anxiety and depression themselves. She knows first-hand that learning more about a mental illness, and how to cope with it in a constructive way, can ease tension in a household. So can sharing with others who understand what you're going through.
"Hiding things that are so scary — that's what puts people into depression more," she says.
The VA group in the Springs, which was started four years ago by a staff member, is a rarity, Ellen says. And what's worse is that a lot of women who hear about the group don't come to a meeting because they fear their husbands' reaction. Ellen hopes military spouses will be reassured to know that the group is completely anonymous, and the VA doesn't keep a record of who attends. Male or female spouses of PTSD veterans of any war, as well as spouses of active-duty soldiers, are welcome. About six to 10 people attend an average meeting, but over the years, about 75 different people have participated, including a few men.
Gathered around a table, Ellen and three others say the group has changed their lives.
"LeAnn" says that after decades of marriage to a Vietnam vet with PTSD, she finally feels like she's "not alone." Lorie Jackson, 60, who co-leads the group with Ellen, chimes in, "And you're not insane." They all laugh.
'The poster boy'
Lorie has loved the same man since she was 6 years old. But she didn't dare marry him.
Suffice it to say she was scared off after he stood her up for a date to impulsively marry someone else. Of course, she had already been concerned when he refused to sit on the furniture, instead insisting on squatting on the floor.
Back in the 'Nam days, they didn't know what seems pretty obvious now: He had PTSD.
Thirty-nine years after their ill-fated date, the childhood sweethearts gave it another try. They've been together for years now. He's finally getting help. And she's better at dealing with his illness with the advice and knowledge she gets from the other women in her group.
"He is the poster boy for PTSD in this world; he has every classic symptom there is, tenfold," she says, sharing a knowing grin with the other women. "He fought in seven campaigns; he was in [Vietnam] four years."
Linsey Lewis understands. Now 32, she grew up with a dad who had undiagnosed PTSD from serving in Vietnam. Now she's marrying a man with the same illness.
After suffering the death of a soldier boyfriend in Iraq in 2007, Linsey befriended his squad leader. The two fell in love, and now they have a 15-month-old daughter together. And after three tours in Iraq, Alex has PTSD and TBI. The problems are so severe that he has been labeled a disabled veteran and discharged.
At first, Linsey says the relationship wasn't what she was hoping for.
"When we got together he was still drinking, he had had another girlfriend, and there had been some domestic violence with them. And we got into an argument, and he picked up a chair," she remembers. "And I said, 'No, you will not treat me that way. And if you do, you will deal with my brother and my father; you will not even deal with me.' And I set my boundaries — I told him this is what you have to do if you want to stay together. And he did. But I set that boundary from the get-go."
Nowadays, Linsey says her relationship has transformed, and her fiancé is getting the help he needs.
"He is a recovering alcoholic, but he has over two years sober, so that's hope for some women out there," she says. "... And, he's the best father, he really is."
In fact, today (Sept. 16), Linsey will put on a hot pink dress and leopard-print pumps and head down to the courthouse with Alex to seal the deal.
"Even after all this," she says, "I still love him enough to marry him."
Don't take it personal
Imagine being married to a man who thrashes violently in bed at night while he's sound asleep. A man who hates to be in crowds. Who always must sit in the corner of a restaurant, so that he has the best view of what's going on. A husband who comes home with lemon pie when you send him out to pick up a lemon. A man who constantly ducks serious conversations with you, and who can become completely destabilized by the sight of a trash bag near the road.
"They're thinking it's a roadside bomb," Lorie says matter-of-factly, "where the rest of us would look at it as a garbage bag."
What initially seems odd and irrational behavior is just plain typical for PTSD sufferers. And their spouses say it's good to talk to others who have walked in their shoes, so that they can better understand their men.
For instance, the women here learned that something as simple as a smell can trigger a mental breakdown. They learned that sufferers of PTSD need more time to process things, like household decisions.
They've also learned ways of coping with those behaviors. When Linsey wants to talk with Alex about something important, she schedules an appointment, giving him the time he needs to gather his thoughts. Lorie has helped her man get better sleep by insisting that the bed be used for nothing but sleep and sex. It's called "sleep hygiene," and apparently it works. And all the women say they've learned to be more understanding and patient.
"You have to learn not to take things personal; that it's not your fault they're behaving that way, it's the fact that they've been to combat," Linsey says. "They've seen war; they've seen things we will never understand, and it's supportive in its own way to not take it personal.... Because fighting with them over it — you will never win that battle."
That said, these women certainly shouldn't put up with everything.
"We've had women whose husbands are seriously into self-medication with drugs and/or alcohol, wives whose husbands have cheated on them their entire marriage, wives whose husbands have beaten them," Ellen says.
The group has a message for those women: Don't put up with that.
"Having PTSD," Linsey says, "is not a ticket to treat your wife like shit."