Censorship and The Great Divide in the PTSD Relationship
As I write this, it has been 22 days since I planned my escape to the West. 21 days since I said good-bye and boarded the train. Tuesday, March 29th. How did it end for you? With frustration? Tears? Anger? This is the whirlwind love story of a sweet, romantic Marine and a passionate, tenacious redhead. This is the story of war and heartache. Of post-traumatic stress disorder. This is the side of war you hope you never see. This is our story.
Kyle and I started dating in May, 2007. We met while I was on vacation in North Carolina, where he was stationed. We hit it off immediately and spent the vast majority of the rest of my trip together. He did his Marine thing during the day, and we hung out every evening. We went clamming, toured the USS North Carolina, and went walking along the beach. He drove me to the airport on my last day and said he was going to miss me. The next day, we decided to make things official: Long Distance Relationship. It sounded pretty ominous. Could we make it work with 5,000 miles between us?
You never know until you try, and so we did. Ten days later, he told me he loved me. Three months after we met, I flew out to meet his parents. Another four months passed, and I spent Christmas with his family as if they were my own. In May of 2008, Kyle flew up to Alaska to meet my parents. In August of the same year, we moved down to Phoenix together.
Shortly thereafter, it happened. I was publicly embarrassed by the man I loved. We had gone grocery shopping, and Kyle wanted a bottle of wine. He really hadn't had wine before, so I did the choosing, and it didn't occur to me when we went to check out that since I was under 21, they wouldn't sell to us. Kyle was notably angry at the check-out stand, but I was able to calm him down enough to check out with everything else and head back to the car. When we got to the car, he decided he wasn't leaving without wine, so he told me to stay there while he went back inside. He grabbed an identical bottle and went to check out in another lane. Apparently the checker we had a few minutes prior saw him checking out at another lane, and called that checker to let him know there was a minor waiting outside, and not to sell Kyle alcohol.
I wasn't even inside, and I have rarely been more embarrassed by a situation. He pulled the “I fought for this country,” card, and while I wasn't there to witness the rest of his outburst, I have seen plenty since then and am sure it was quite the sight to behold. That is the only time he has pulled the car over and asked me to drive. He was afraid of his own driving abilities at the time, and pulled over so I could take the wheel. The next day, I was there to witness his call to the customer service desk at Safeway regarding the incident, and I heard it all over again. “I fought for this country, and you won't allow me to buy a bottle of wine to enjoy with dinner?!” I can only imagine that he was even worse in person. That was ridiculous PTSD outburst #1.
December 4, 2008, I was coming home from school. I walked past the apartment leasing office to go upstairs to our home, and was stopped by the manager. Kyle had a package from FedEx in the office that had been shipped Next Day Air and stamped “Urgent.”
I grabbed the package, and called him at work. He had me open it, and what I found was devastating. He was being recalled by the United States Marine Corps. He would need to report in April for one year of active duty, and would be deploying to Iraq in August. We hadn't even been living together four months! They were going to steal him away for longer than I'd lived with him? How unfair!
He decided he was going to try to get out of the orders, and I wholeheartedly supported him. He joined the Active Reserve component in Phoenix. He went to the VA Hospital to seek a PTSD diagnosis for his violent sleep outbursts. He had returned from his Iraq deployment in 2004 with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and he was generally okay during the day – there was the occasional overreaction that I learned quickly not to call a temper tantrum (throwing his phone across the room/car and smashing it into a million pieces, or breaking his computer keyboard), and major road rage, but that had been there when we started dating. It wasn't a big shock to me. When we moved in together, however, I got to experience his night terrors first-hand. He had a dream that he was back in the desert, kicking in a door. Only this time, he was laying in bed and the “door” was my back. He had a dream that we had gone out on a date, something had gone terribly wrong, and I was being held at gunpoint. I woke up with his hands around my neck, choking me. At various other points in that few month period, I was also woken up to being punched in the gut, in the back, and while I never thought he would deliberately hurt me, visions kept flashing through my head of the Marlboro Marine who came back from Iraq and nearly killed his wife during a flashback.
The VA Hospital told him sorry, but that since he wasn't depressed, they didn't believe he had PTSD. They said he was just having re-adjustment issues and invited him to attend a group session for veterans with re-adjustment/re-integration issues. I was incredibly frustrated. Five years after he comes home from Iraq and they're still telling him it's only re-adjustment? How could they not see what I saw? Why did they think it was okay to send him off with the suggestion of group sessions when my life was in danger every night?
Two weeks later, it was besting 95 degrees outside. Kyle was working at a halfway house for federal convicts, and to say the place was well-maintained would be a lie. The fuse for their A/C had blown the year prior, and hadn't been fixed yet. Kyle let the office know he would be fixing it the next day, and went to the store to purchase fuses on his own. When he returned to work a day later, there had been a padlock placed on the fuse box. Kyle, in a fit of anger, cut the lock and replaced the fuses. When he showed up to work the next day, he was confronted by the office manager and told he had been placed on a mandatory leave of absence for a week for his indiscretion.
There it was. PTSD outburst #2. This time, it wasn't just an issue of public embarrassment. He had vandalized property at his workplace, and ended up losing his job a week later because of it. Still, the VA system refused to recognize that his outbursts might be more than just an adult temper tantrum, and they offered no resources for PTSD.
Kyle elected to go along with the recall, since he was now out of a job. He left in mid-April to make the drive to North Carolina, where he would be stationed for the next year. I slowly but surely watched his alcohol intake climb – yet another sign of PTSD. As his deployment loomed, the drinks flowed more freely – sometimes until four in the morning, and he would show up to work at 8 still too drunk to stand. I was certainly thankful as the deployment reared its nasty head and he prepared to leave, as alcohol is still widely available overseas, but outrageously expensive and hugely punishable.
Tuesday, August 25th, 2009, Kyle left for Afghanistan. His orders had changed at the last minute, and we had less than a week's notice to prepare for the change. He called me on his layover in Germany, and he must have really wanted to hear my voice, considering he paid $10/min to do so. He was delayed in Kyrgyzstan for several days, and finally moved to Afghanistan on September 1st. For the first several days in Afghanistan, he was unsure where he was going to be placed, and even what he would be doing. Since everything had happened so quickly in the week before he deployed, even his job was up in the air.
He ended up at Camp Dwyer for a few months searching vehicles, and then was transferred to Camp Leatherneck after the unit he was stationed with left to go back to the states. He did the same thing there as well. At Camp Dwyer, there was pretty minimal traffic. It was a much smaller base and while it was being built-up, there were minimal safety concerns. In fact, Kyle didn't even have to wear his flak jacket every day.
The day of the Fort Hood shooting, he was transferred to Leatherneck. There, things got a little more exciting. Camp Leatherneck is the largest Marine base in Afghanistan. It is located in Helmand province (as is Dwyer), where all the action is. The province has long been considered a key area for the Taliban, and it borders Pakistan. I work with a guy originally from Afghanistan, and when I mentioned Kyle was in Helmand province, Mohammed's eyes widened and he said he was afraid for me. I certainly didn't need any more convincing.
Kyle's job was still searching vehicles, checking for explosives. However, a much larger base means much, much more traffic and therefore a much higher chance of something going terribly wrong. All trucks arriving to the base would drive into a “soak lot” where they would sit for an indefinite amount of time – generally at least 45 minutes, in an effort to minimize any explosive devices set to detonate at a certain time. The Brits would search the Afghani drivers while the Marines searched the vehicles. The ceilings in the trucks were very low, so Kyle couldn't wear his kevlar helmet while searching vehicles. Nothing like knowing if you're going to be blown up, there's no chance of surviving it.
Needless to say, things weren't always perfect. With both drivers and trucks being searched, along with bomb dogs being used on occasion, most “contraband” was caught at some point. However, that point wasn't always before it was too late, and sometimes there were multiple “too late” incidents in a day.
Dealing with the stress of knowing there is imminent danger, watching others experience that, and knowing you might be next can't be easy. It was there that I first started noticing Kyle pulling away. Instead of phone calls once or twice a week, they started dropping off in frequency. I even went three and a half weeks without a phone call at one point, because he was spending his evenings with his British coworkers. Something about bonding with the people whose lives depend on you, and whom you are entrusting your life to. I get it. There was definitely some distancing when it came to time allocation, but I didn't notice any emotional distancing, so I sucked it up and dealt with it. He still talked about how much he missed me, how he wanted to come home and sweep me off my feet and down the aisle, and how excited he was to be saving up for our future. He was still the man I wanted to welcome home and rush off to the nearest church to exchange vows with. I could deal with a few less phone calls.
The military likes to yank you around and rip apart your dreams, so in Kyle's last two and a half months there, he again switched jobs, switched units, and was told several times to pack his things – that he would be leaving that evening – only for it to not materialize. March 8th, he finally landed back in the states. It was a Monday night, and I wasn't able to miss school that week in order to be there, so he flew out here on March 13th and I had a photographer ready and waiting at the gate to capture those special moments. He was here for nine days – one for each month we had spent apart.
The first few days were perfect. We went out to dinner at all our favorite places, rented all the good movies that had come out while Kyle was gone, and got caught up on the tv shows we liked to watch together. We spent most of our time inside, snuggled up together, making up for lost time. I had moved into a new apartment when Kyle was gone, and he had never seen it, so we spent some time sprucing things up, rearranging them in the way he wanted, and going shopping for more things to stuff in our little one-bedroom apartment.
A few days in, the boundary started to form around East Germany, and some small bickering started. I had only shared my space with him for four days of the last 11 months, and wasn't used to having someone around 24/7. He hadn't come home to the house looking the way he wanted it to, so he was frustrated that he had to do all kinds of work around the house. Nothing major – we were just getting used to being around each other again – until the day he left.
Even now, I don't remember what the argument was about. It was probably something silly. But it ended in both of us raising our voices, and Kyle demanding that I take him to the airport several hours early – that he was tired of being here. That should have been my first indication that we were going to have difficulties fighting fairly from then on. I did not end up taking him to the airport early and we resolved whatever the issue was before his flight out, but that argument was so vastly different than our communication style when he was in Afghanistan, and it set the tone for what was to come.
Kyle returned to Camp Lejeune, where he did nothing for the next month. He had gotten home on a Monday night. He had a few days of powerpoint slides on readjustment and warning signs for PTSD, and transitioned into the EAS (End of Active Service) unit on Friday. Great job with that reintegration and readjustment counseling, Marine Corps!
With the EAS unit, there wasn't much to do. He went around getting his out-processing paperwork completed, started a claim through the VA for disability compensation for his shoulder, and played video games all day. He didn't have enough excitement in his life, I guess, so we both ended up picking banal fights several times a week. There was enough bickering that we decided to set up a counseling appointment for the week Kyle got home.
He got home April 21st, and we started counseling the next week. We talked a lot about communicating in a more positive, constructive way, and I thought things were going really well, until one day when I came home from work on my lunch break. I used to work at the same place where we lived, and I had asked Kyle to heat up some leftovers from dinner the night before so I could just run up and grab them. We ended up chatting in the kitchen for a few minutes, which turned into an argument quickly. The next thing I knew, he had overturned my plate of food onto the kitchen floor. That's something I would expect from a child, not a 25-year-old adult. To avoid bursting into tears and returning from my lunch looking unprofessional, I bit my tongue and walked back out the door. That was the first major instance of implicit censorship since he had returned home.
A few weeks later, we had another blow-out. Again, I have no idea what it was about, but Kyle told me repeatedly to stop talking and shut up. Being stubborn and not liking being told what to do, I ignored him and kept talking. Our kitchen wall soon ended up with a hole the size of a large fist. That shocked me to the core. In more than three years, Kyle had never taken his “tantrums” past a cell phone or computer keyboard. Watching that exchange – an act of both explicit and implicit censorship - really opened my eyes to the changes we were about to experience.
Sadly, that was only the beginning. Over the next four months, I replaced two bathroom doors and patched another hole in the wall. I quickly learned that when Kyle tried to exercise explicit censorship by telling me to “Shut up,” I should listen. I also recognized that I needed to tread carefully around him, as it seemed his fuse got shorter every day, so I would censor myself in order to minimize conflict. I found myself avoiding confrontation entirely – bottling up issues rather than taking the chance of an explosive conversation. Some quick research told me that 100% of Vietnam veterans diagnosed with PTSD had been “psychologically aggressive” toward their spouse, so I knew that I could get through this. Watch my mouth and power through. The same research, though, told me that 42% of those same veterans had also been physically abusive. If that didn't shock me into being much more aware of what I was saying, I don't think anything would have worked. Letting me know I'm in danger of becoming a statistic – that there is nearly a 50% chance that I'm going to be subject to domestic violence – was eye-opening.
It was soon after taking the role of a meek, passive, much more quiet woman that I started recognizing in myself some of the things I was starting to hate about our relationship. A little more exploration led me to information on Secondary PTSD – essentially the same as Combat PTSD, but without the combat. I dealt with many of the same anger issues, but my trauma was being around someone with PTSD and not experiencing a similar trauma to what Kyle had endured.
Paraphrasing from the site I learned from (and now volunteer for/with!), Secondary PTSD has many faces and facets, just like combat PTSD. Living with a veteran and becoming his caretaker, I had been looking out for him – sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously – for situations, circumstances, conversations, etc. that might set him off. I felt it was my responsibility to make sure everything was in line, and yet I was still the one yelled at at the end of the day.
Someone who is mentally ill can't be there for you when you need them, so I was forced to not only care for Kyle, but to care for my own emotional needs and find others to meet those when he had done so in the past. Sometimes I found girlfriends to vent to, but often times they didn't understand which led to feeling unloved, unappreciated, and ignored. My response to that was to lash out and treat others the way I felt treated. Kyle certainly received the brunt of that, as I was the most devastated by his behavior.
On top of that, I was doing most everything around the house. In addition to my 18 credit hours and working weekends, I was expected to cook, clean, manage the bills, do the laundry, and make sure everything was in line. Obviously I'm not perfect and that much responsibility starts to really wear on a person – especially when you feel like you consistently fail at what you should be doing, but your partner is only there to kick you when you're down. The house was never clean enough. There were too many dishes in the sink.
I became very angry and resentful. I was overwhelmed and unhappy, and counseling wasn't helping. At that time, we were operating under the assumption that PTSD was not in the picture, as the VA had tried several times to convince us of that fact. I felt defeated in everything but I didn't understand why. Counseling didn't seem to help. Our communication was deteriorating. I was getting more and more angry, and my attempts at self-censorship weren't always working.
Things came to a head in the beginning of August that planted us firmly in East Germany. We were arguing. There was a small physical altercation, and I left the house. While I was sitting in the parking lot of my church, bawling my eyes out and staring at my bruised and swollen thumb, I got a text message from Kyle. He was moving out, and if I wanted to discuss things with him, it was time for me to come home. When I got home, however, he was already gone.
I was devastated. In the two years we'd lived together, he had never left and stayed the night anywhere else. I told my parents the next day that I would likely need their help in the future, making rent payments. Our lease was up on August 21st, and if our relationship was unstable enough that Kyle moved out or slept elsewhere, I wasn't about to enter into another lease with him.
Sure enough, he came home the next night and asked me to ask him to stay. The combative side of me warred with the side that encouraged censorship, and the censored side won out. I did as he had asked and requested that he stay in the home we had made together. We discussed the incident in counseling the next week, and tried to mutually censor ourselves when things got tough.
Well, the going got tougher and I asked him to move out on September 7th. He had censored himself around me, but failed to censor himself in conversation with a friend, and I learned that he was going through a period where he no longer had feelings for me (again, a symptom of PTSD), but that he was certainly interested in a female coworker. Because he had censored himself around me, I was unable to know what he was feeling, and therefore unable to work to combat that.
For the next several months, we continued to live apart and work on things. Kyle started seeing a therapist so he could learn to better control his anger and censor himself when necessary. He sought medication that would help him not be so quick to anger. Neither lasted long, but both were temporary methods of censorship. Some days were better than others, and some months really stood out as being noteworthy.
December was one of those months, and I suppose you could tack on the end of November as well. My parents ended up purchasing a condo for me to live in so I wouldn't be saddled with the responsibility of making rent by myself when I was only working two days per week. I moved on Thanksgiving Day, with Kyle's help. Early that morning, we transported all the dishes we thought we would need, as well as groceries. I manned the stove all day, while Kyle drove back and forth between the condo and the old apartment, grabbing things we had missed or hadn't thought of. We had an amazing Thanksgiving experience. It was our first year cooking dinner for just the two of us. We ate on a card table that the previous owners had left behind, and giggled at our silly mistakes – censoring ourselves and making the most of the day rather than allowing the small things to ruin us. In December, my mom decided to come down and visit over Christmas break. Kyle was wonderful. During my finals week, he came over and helped me clean and organize the house, helped unpack boxes, and moved furniture around for me to take some of that stress off my shoulders. It was amazing. He was helping out in a house he didn't even live in!
The rest of December went just as well. He spent time with my mom and I nearly every day she was here. We drove up to Sedona together (or rather, I did all the driving since my mom didn't need to be exposed to his crazy road rage yet!). Each day was an exercise in censorship. We elected more often than not to censor ourselves and let the small things go rather than blowing up at each other. Until New Year's Eve, that is, when we got in another silly fight – this time about chocolate. We went from eating homemade heart-shaped pizza to Kyle storming off and choosing to ring in the new year with his roommates.
January was a struggle for us. I was so hurt that he had chosen not to spend my favorite holiday with me, and had left just before midnight. In four years together, we hadn't managed to ring in a new year together, with vacations and deployments. This was our first opportunity and we fouled it up. The entire month, I kept dwelling on what went wrong. Before Kyle came home, he talked endlessly about how excited he was to ring in the new year with me. How excited he was for us to finally make those memories. How much he was looking forward to our future. Then he got home from Afghanistan and things started snowballing. We started with a small piece of ice at the top of the hill, and it just kept rolling, with more and more problems piling on. Sometimes it would hit a rock or a branch and have some snow knocked off. Sometimes it would take a rest there. But the small piece of ice that we would have taken an ice pick to when he was in Afghanistan was now well on its way to being the base of the largest snowman in existence. Similarly to Germany's split, our relationship was drastically different after our experience with the war. I could peek over the wall at the West every once in a while, and sometimes even get a pass to vacation there for a few days or even a week, but the reality was we were stuck in the East. We were stuck in the grey and gloomy East with no sugar to sweeten our day, and no coffee to pick us up. We were riding together in an ugly, unreliable little car, just waiting for it to give out on us. Stasi censors surrounded us, waiting to pit us against each other if we said the wrong thing. We sat on the East together looking longingly toward what we had before, watching all the negative changes around us, but unwilling to make a run for it. Unwilling to take the chance of running back toward happiness, because it might involve pain. It might involve counseling. It might involve airing hurt feelings and getting everything out once and for all.
And then it hit me. The final straw. Disrespect in a way I hadn't thought possible, and so I fled. Rather than sending off my red strings of hope, I took the chance and stowed away on a train leaving for the West.
I'm here now. Kyle elected not to come. For him, the route would have meant counseling. Hospitals. Psychiatrists. Medication. There he sits, in the East, surrounded by his doom and gloom. Waiting for his PTSD to magically go away and the walls to come down. He has taken one step forward. He has an appointment through the Veteran's Administration with a psychiatrist in June. So here I am, hopeful that after his one step forward, he will continue that forward momentum. I am not foolish enough to believe that reunification of East and West was seamless, or even that things were the same after reunification, but I do believe it is a better place here. All I hope for is that he ends up here, one way or the other. And until then, I will continue to censor myself, for you have to be careful what you send to the East. Not everything will be received in the way you want it to.