Thursday, June 4, 2009

Meandering Michele's Mind: Doing the PTSD Romance Dance

I’m still thinking about partners and PTSD. I’ll tell you why. In the past two weeks, I’ve received more than one email from men wanting advice about how to stand by, support, help and love women struggling with PTSD. The traumas range from domestic violence to rape, but the words of the men are all the same: “I love a woman with PTSD. How can I help her recover?”

In times when we’re so depressed and despondent, struggling and healing that we don’t imagine anyone can love us, these men prove there are partners out there who do, like John did, see who we are beyond the PTSD symptoms we seem to become. This has got me thinking today about how we can support them while they support us. OK, true, at first it doesn’t seem we should have a job to do outside of healing. But here’s the thing: If we want them to stay with and support us, we have to do something that makes our partners feel there’s someone worth doing that for.

An example: in our emotional numbness and isolation, we still, if we choose to engage in a relationship, have to find a way to connect with our partner. We have to find some time we set aside symptoms and make an effort to engage in the present moment. One of the men who emailed me has been completely cutoff by his fiance; she wants to stay engaged, but she doesn’t want to see or speak to him while she breaks down and attempts to heal. “How long does healing take?” he wrote, hoping I’d be able to give him a specific time frame. “Is three to six months enough?” He sounded so hopeful. I hated to disappoint him.

It doesn’t seem fair that this man, who so purely loves his woman, is left feeling so bereft and without any kind of connection. It seems amazing that he continues to vow his love for her even while he’s feeling isolated, doubtful, hurt and unsure. A few days later she emailed him and he wrote me excitedly that while she doesn’t want to see him she is reaching out. What a big result from such a little gesture.

If we want our partners to stay with us they can’t be the only ones making the effort. We need to make an effort, too, even if it’s only 1/10 of the effort they’re making. We need to reach out to them, engage them in our thoughts, explain our struggles, invite them to therapy and then, give them who they’re waiting for: the man or woman they love, at least once every now and then, at least for an hour or two. We can’t become so lost in our struggle that we forget our partners exist. We can’t, that is, if we want them to stay; if we want to have some semblance of a relationship when we’re healed we have to tend the relationship along the way.

Since John supported me during my final phase of healing, I asked him what his tip would be for a partner wanting to help someone during recovery. Two interesting things in his reply.

First, he said, “I didn’t think you were that bad.” Partly, this is the beauty of John. You can wake him up in the middle of the night with a nightmare, you can not let him go to sleep because you can’t sleep, and he’s not annoyed. But there’s also this: John’s right. While I felt like hell, I worked very hard to make sure he didn’t have to experience every single bad moment. I didn’t break down every 5 minutes or let the shadow I felt fall all over him.

Instead, I made a great effort to connect with him when we were together. I was very aware that if I wanted to be in a relationship I had to be in the relationship. This meant present in the relationship on some sort of basis so that John felt and knew I was reaching out. I made an effort to show him who I was as much as he looked to see beyond what I was.

Second, when I asked John what a partner could do to help someone with PTSD, he immediately answered, “Find something that brings comfort, and then do that a lot.” What simple advice. What complex impact. When someone does something that makes us feel comfort, we feel safe, we feel loved, we feel worthwhile; we feel a measure of peace, plus (even if it’s small) the desire to connect and reach out to that source.

What’s the takeaway here? I didn’t think about any of this when I had PTSD, I just managed as best I could. But looking at things now I realize we have to routinely break out of our PTSD self-absorption. If we want to remain partnered up, we have to do some work on our end. Being in a relationship means proactively connecting with a partner in moments that foster closeness, bonds and connection. If we’re going to say we expect partners to support us and understand our bad days, we have to do the same for them. That is, on our bad days we have to support, understand and comfort them – and even occasionally thank them for sticking with us while we muddle through.

(Photo: Bob Murray)


John Folk-Williams said...

Michele -

Thanks for this helpful and sensitive post. My problem has been major depression over decades. I've also shared many of the symptoms of PTSD but have never had a diagnosis for that. The hardest thing was learning how to push out of isolation and emptiness simply to regain awareness of the love of my partner. Then I had to regain the presence to be responsive and from there try to save the relationship as the precious thing it has always been. It took a lot of rebuilding, but we were able to do that.

Your advice is excellent - there are no shortcuts.


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