*originally posted on Justin’s blog on
14 September 2013 – Dealing with PTSD, Depression, and Suicide as a Friend or Family Member*
This post is going to deviate slightly from the basic premise of this blog. If you’ve read any of the previous posts you’re aware that this blog was started to discuss my day to day life as the now husband and caretaker of a disabled veteran. While some of the subjects I’ll discuss today are relevant to that, the overall theme today is more about what we can do as friends and family to help returning veterans as they make the tough transition to civilian life. Being that I’m also writing this on the 12th anniversary of 9/11, I’m also going to include our first responders in this as well since many of them also see the kind of hell on a daily basis that over time can bring about issues.
Before I begin, for anyone new to this blog, I myself am not a veteran. I’m also not a firefighter, EMT, or LEO. I’m married to a vet, friends with cops, and two of my best friends are vets. I’m also not one of those people who hangs on in an attempt to distract attention away from their accomplishments and service or garner something for myself. I met Marilyn on-line knowing nothing of her past, my cop friends are people I’ve been hanging out with since high school or earlier, and the two vets (who also stood with me at my wedding) ironically became friends through an ex-girlfriend (one is her brother-in-law.) In actuality, I try to distance myself from all of them if the topic of service, be it military or public, comes up because the idea of stealing someone’s valor, intentionally or unintentionally makes me sick to my stomach. I’m just a regular guy who’s met some great people along the way in life and like everyone, they have a back story.
So where am I going with today’s post? Being friends with people who’ve seen and been through so much has given me a unique perspective into dealing with PTSD and depression as a friend and family member. This does not, by an means, mean that I know everything. It doesn’t even mean I know a little about the subject to be quite honest. But one thing I do know is that it’s real. I’ve seen the breakdowns. I’ve seen the tears. I’ve heard the stories. I’ve seen the stares off into space. And I seen the quick subject changes that come when a topic is brought up and is a little too close to home. Today’s post is just a mix of what’s worked for me and what may help you as a friend and loved one. Some, are perhaps things you’ve heard before but I’ve also included some you may not have thought of. I also leave this open to comments from people with far more knowledge than I; including those who are or have dealt PTSD, Depression, and thoughts of Suicide.
1.) If you weren’t there, don’t attempt to correlate what they went through to an experience you had or something you went through:
Your high school sports team is not the same as being in a military unit. I know this and many others know this. However, from what I’ve heard and read from those who’ve been in the military, apparently many people don’t. You’re comparing apples to oranges. Just because you were part of a team doesn’t mean equality unless, while you were on the field playing, you were dodging mortars instead of tacklers, defenders, ect.. Similarly, dealing with death is also different. While your grandma’s passing was a tough time I’m sure, having your friend die in battle right in front of you is going to play much more traumatically in your mind. Take a second, close your eyes and imagine someone you really love: a best friend, child, spouse. Now think about them dying in some gruesome way. Does it still feel the same as getting a phone call that your great aunt died? If it does, there’s something seriously fucking wrong with you. If someone feels close enough to open up to you about something terrible, keep your ears open and your mouth shut and let them get it out. Perhaps ask a few questions if you feel comfortable enough doing so. But remember, it’s their time. Don’t steal those needed moments from them.
2.) Don’t ask stupid questions:
I think the famous one that idiots ask is, “Did you kill anyone other there.” This can be followed with, “How many people did you kill” and “what’s it like to kill someone”. I mean really? Is our culture really that fucking dense that we still think it’s ok to ask these questions? I’ve seen children ask these questions and while it’s not acceptable obviously, they simply don’t understand. They’re most likely associating war, shootings, death, ect with things they’ve seen on TV. And I think that’s ok to a point. It’s an opportunity to teach them something and most vets I’ve talked to, while uncomfortable about it obviously, have understanding when it comes to questions children ask. However, if you’re an adult and being that insensitive and ignorant you deserve the fist that you may receive in the mouth. Sorry, but you’re supposed to be a grown up. There are more than enough reference materials floating around now that you should be well aware of what’s acceptable.
3.) Don’t be in a hurry:
Chances are if someone is comfortable enough to begin talking to you about their experience or experiences it’s not all going to come out at once. As a matter or fact, most people don’t reveal everything about too many topics all at once. It will come out over time and you have to realize that. It may take months or years to find out everything that happened. You may never get all the information. But you need to exercise patience. Let them talk at their own pace. What they may not trust revealing now they may over time once they work it out in their own mind. Perhaps you haven’t built up enough trust with them for them to get into too much detail. That’s ok, it really is. There’s no need to poke and prod to try and satisfy your own curiosity and there’s no guarantee that the faster they talk about something the faster they’ll get over it and move on. Respect and work with the process. It’ll go much better for the both of you.
4.) You’re going to be uncomfortable:
It’s just a reality that if you’ve never experienced something like that, if someone is attempting to open up to you about it, you’re going to be somewhat uncomfortable about it. I know the first few times it happened I sure as hell was. I think sometimes it’s where issue where number one arises. You’re uncomfortable and rather than feel that way you attempt to fill in the blank space. Do yourself and your loved one a favor: Don’t. Again, it’s their time so let them have it. There will be times later to discuss other things but now is not it.
5.) Reach out…and don’t stop:
I believe it’s important for these people to know that A.) You care, B.) You’re available, and C.) That you have their back. If you’ve called your buddy and invited him over or out for a beer 5 times and he’s declined, make the call a 6th, 7th, 100th time. Remember, it’s not about you and your pride. Perhaps they’ll stop answering your calls for awhile but there’s a lot to be said for looking at your missed call list and seeing a friend or families number on there repeatedly when you’re going through a tough time. Stop by and see how they’re doing. Make them dinner and drop it off from time to time. Offer to take them on a hiking trip or to a ball game or something that interests or interested them previously. Just make sure they know you’re there if they need you.
6.) Do your own research:
By doing your own research I’m not talking about clinical research; I’m talking about research that may help you gain an understanding of what it is they went and are going through. I have pages on facebook that I follow for this simple reasons. It’s from one of them that I actually had the idea for this article. It’s a veteran owned and operated site and this week they’ve been publishing blog posts about PTSD and suicide among returning vets. You can learn a lot from people who’ve been there and are now willing to discuss it. You can get some insight as to what’s going on in their mind and by having that insight it may help you react if the time ever comes when someone close to you is going through it. Another valuable resource for me has been the works of Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, author of ‘On Killing‘ and ‘On Combat‘. These two works are great in my opinion not only for Leo’s and soldiers, but also for those who see the indirect results of combat on a consistent basis.
7.) Talk to them in a way that allows them to talk back:
If they’re someone you care about talk to them. And don’t talk at them, talk to them. And yes, there’s a difference. Don’t attempt to tell someone how they should feel or try to put a time line on when they may begin feeling better or moving past what’s bothering them. It doesn’t work like that no matter how much you want it too. It all goes back to number 2. Just because it makes you uncomfortable doesn’t give you the right to be a selfish asshole. You don’t and can’t know what’s going on in their mind. Again, what you can do is be there for them. I’ve heard a lot of stories that I won’t repeat here or anywhere else because it would violate a trust I hold dear but needless to say I’ve heard some pretty horrible accounts of things. However, here’s where it gets tricky for most people. I listened rather than talked through most of it. Let me say that again…I L.I.S.T.E.N.E.D! I was shown an unimaginable amount of trust and in that moment you have to realize that it’s not about you; it’s about them. I tend to ask some questions but that all comes down to the relationship you have with that person and your own insight into who they are. It also comes down to your own general intelligence and whether or not you think you can ask questions that are appropriate. Not everyone has that insight into themselves and if you don’t think your questions will be helpful, just listen and let them talk until their ready to move on to something else.
8.) Don’t make fun of, bully, or patronize, ect.
My wife actually led me to this one from a story that happened that I’ll share. We hadn’t been together for only a few months when one night while lying on the couch we heard this very loud “bang” that I actually thought was a shotgun going off. Living as close as we did to my family, it was not unheard of to hear something like that for me as rodents have been dispatched from time to time that way while growing up. However, Marilyn was shaking and flush colored from being startled so suddenly. I went outside to search out the source but could find no sign of anyone and was left shaking my head. Awhile later I went to the fridge and found out that a can of biscuits had built up enough pressure inside to explode open. It was funny then but what she appreciated was that I laughed (along with her) about it later. I didn’t judge her or make fun; I had enough understanding from talking to her previously to know that loud, unexpected noises were troublesome. Fireworks are another trigger for her and many, many other veterans as are heavily populated areas. Not every trigger can be avoided, but using someone else’s emotional breaks for your own amusement can be. Do what you can to bring them back closer to their comfort zone and perhaps later on, when the time is right you can both have a laugh at it.
9.) Seek your own help:
I have no experience in the mental health field. I have an interest in psychology and human behavior so I read and study it somewhat as a hobby but a professional I am not. That being said, it can be helpful to have someone to talk to yourself. Not only can you get out what’s going on in a place that won’t judge you or your friend/loved one, but they can potentially give you tools and advice for dealing with it. I know there can be a stigma for getting mental health help but the reality is that there’s nothing wrong with it. Seeking advice from someone who’s made it their life’s work to study, analyze, and understand the human mind is no different than going to a mechanic to have work done on your car. It’s what they do and they have a much better understanding than anyone else on the subject. Use the tools and information available to you. It’ll help you and your loved one.
I’m not going to lie, it’s not always easy. Our vets and public servants are not only dealing with the trauma; they also get to deal with the current stigma associated with PTSD as well as the knowledge that they’re not the same person and the strain it can put on those around them. What we can do as friends and family is let them know that we can handle the strain. That it’s ok for them to let it out if they need too and that we love them and are there for them when and if they need it. That we’re not going to run from them in their time of need like they didn’t run when we needed them. Do things change overnight? Nope. It’s a long haul thing and there’s no guarantee things will go back to the way they were previously. However, it’s rewarding. It’s rewarding like nothing else that can be imagined. To let someone know that you’re going to have their back through thick and thin, through good times and bad; that you’re not going to leave their side just because things are hard…that’s not a little thing. That’s one of the big ones.