real life

'It took my husband 7 years to tell me about his severe PTSD. Now I understand why.'

I will never forget the moment I was told my husband had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

I was sitting beside him in the doctor’s office, tears silently streaming down my face and his, as he explained how he had been hiding severe depression and anxiety for the past seven years, since an incident he had been involved in as part of his role as a first responder.

He explained how confused he had been at the kinds of thoughts he had experienced, the despair he had been feeling for so long. How he would hide in the shower and break down crying, wondering what the hell was wrong with him. How he didn’t know why he got so frustrated at the smallest things or why he was angry all the time. How he never spoke about the way he was feeling for fear of losing his job. How he felt weak and exhausted and powerless and ashamed.

Dr Debra Swain shares her advice for partners of PTSD sufferers. Post continues below.

Video by MMC

As I sat there gripping my husband’s hand tightly, my stomach twisted into a tense knot, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t known. Why hadn’t I seen what he had been going through? Had I been so preoccupied caring for our three children that I had failed to notice the signs?

The doctor asked if we had heard of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. He said the feelings and experiences my husband had described fitted the description of PTSD, and offered him medication to help settle things down, to relieve some of the symptoms. I remember being surprised by that. Medication without a formal diagnosis? It seemed like things were moving too fast towards an outcome I wasn’t ready to accept.

I didn’t know a lot about PTSD but I knew it was a serious condition, one that was often a life-long battle. I was struck with fear about what our future was going to look like. The doctor suggested we contact my husband’s workplace to request leave then make an appointment with a psychiatrist for a formal assessment.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder can occur after a traumatic, often life-threatening event, leaving behind an emotional wound that is painful and difficult to heal. Estimates put the number of people in Australia who live with PTSD – including those who are effected directly and their immediate families – as high as 3-4 million.

Living with PTSD can be truly debilitating, not only for those who have been diagnosed but also for those closest to them.

PTSD symptoms partner
"I couldn’t understand why my husband had never confided in me about how he had been feeling over the seven years since he had been a part of traumatic events in the course of his work. Of course, I now understand there were many reasons." Image: Supplied.
ADVERTISEMENT

Annie Gurton, Relationship Therapist and Individual Psychotherapist agrees that the effects can be far reaching.

"PTSD can affect a whole family. PTSD sufferers often display anxiety, depression, addiction and obsessive behaviours. It can be extremely hard to live with. When a couple first meets, these symptoms are often hidden and only become evident after some time. As a therapist, when I am working with PTSD I will often do sessions with partners...and children who are struggling to understand."

I couldn’t understand why my husband had never confided in me about how he had been feeling over the seven years since he had been a part of traumatic events in the course of his work.

Of course, I now understand there were many reasons. The feelings of shame, guilt and confusion rendered him unable even to put into words what he was experiencing, much less reach out for help. My husband was trained to be strong, tough, ready to leap into action at a moment’s notice, to be a leader and make decisions in situations where the consequences could be life or death.

He was a protector - someone to be relied upon for help in dangerous situations. He was asked to respond to horrors that go beyond our comprehension and continue to do so time and time again.

I know my husband questioned whether coming forward with the truth about his mental state would cost him his career. Whether we like it or not, there is a stigma around mental health that sometimes prevents people from speaking out.

Living with PTSD, or I’m sure any kind of psychological injury or mental health illness is, without doubt, unbelievably challenging and difficult for the person afflicted and I don’t, for one moment, want to take away from that.

However it also places incredible strain on the partners, children, family and friends of that person. When we began walking the uncertain, perilous and sometimes devastating path towards recovery just over two years ago, the one thing that would have helped me immensely would have been to know that support was available - that I wasn’t alone.

We have learned, through our experience, that we’re not alone, and there is hope. We have connected with people living a similar experience and have found sharing our own story and hearing theirs to be helpful and hopeful. We have discovered that with time and the right support, it is possible to grow through trauma and thrive despite adversity.

If this story has raised issues for you, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Kristin Cosgrove is a writer and educator. She lives with her husband and three children on the Surf Coast, Australia. You can follow her on Instagram @kristinjcosgrove.

00:00 / ???