This is hard. Talking about marriage, PTSD, pain, mental illness, and my real true life, is really hard. The events of the last few months have been transformational for me as I’ve come to learn that my story is, unfortunately, not unique. I have heard from friends and acquaintances and women I have never met, that witnessing my experience has helped them to take steps for themselves, for their spouses, and for their families. If any good comes out of this, that’s it.
Those steps can be so many things. Helping their wounded Veteran seek help, teaching kids about mental health and mental illness in age appropriate ways, or seeking therapy for themselves. But sometimes the pain is too great, the hurt is too deep, or it is simply not safe. We are left with painstaking decisions to make about these soldiers we love, our children, our future, and our reputation and theirs.
James did the best the he could with the shitty hand he was dealt. He loved his family the best way he knew how, while the ever-present war raged in his mind day in and day out. When I feel anger rising up inside of me, I remember his pain. It was pain that I had glimpses of, but I never knew its power until I held it in my arms on my bedroom floor.
James’ pain was a force. It lashed out in moments of fear and insecurity and then went dormant when he sang twinkle twinkle little star to Josie as he tucked her into bed.
He needed help that he never received, which is the case for most of us. We don’t like asking for help, or admitting we need therapy, or sharing the terrifying thoughts crossing our minds, or telling the truth when its scary or unflattering. But I think it could have saved his life.
No one person is all one thing. We ebb and flow. We have good days and bad days. Days when we put our pain and fear in its place, and days when we let our pain and fear control our minds and actions.
For me, this day was one when I harnessed my courage and pain and forged through my fear, and took a step towards healing.
For James, this day was one where his pain and fear became too much.
I am trusting you, my community, to read this with love and grace. I am trusting you with my story because I know that it matters. I am trusting the world with this moment because I am not the only woman who has been in this moment, and James is not the only wounded soldier who has fallen to his pain. We are in this together.
For months, I agonized over how unknown and unseen I felt, how lonely I was, how lost I was in the deep end of being a faithful and loyal wife to a man living in pain. I felt frustrated, then guilty for feeling frustrated, then mad at myself for being mad at James, and repeat.
I wanted so badly to stay married, to keep my family together, to keep my kids and their Dad under the same roof. My kids don’t understand war and pain and grief and PTSD, I couldn’t explain to them that mommy was drowning. They were so small and fresh and innocent and untouched by the darkness of grown up life.
I cannot be selfish enough to subject my kids to this just because I’m not happy.
So I played the part, I tip toed, I squeezed myself into places I was never supposed to fit and gave up my autonomy and opinions and desires so I could keep James happy and calm. My full time job was “emotional and psychological manager.” I knew what to keep to myself, as to not stoke the flames. I knew what needed to be done by the time he got home from work to avoid accusations of my laziness. I knew what would happen if his laundry wasn’t, or if all of the forks were in the dishwasher when he was trying to eat something. I knew what music and tv shows to not turn on. I became a professional tip-toer. A professional walker-of-the-egg shells.
I knew what to do to keep my ship running smoothly, and I did it fairly successfully for a long time, until I was bending over backwards so far that I just about snapped.
It worked until I realized that I wasn’t keeping my kids safe from a broken family. My family was broken.
In my attempt to normalize our home life and not raise any red flags for my kids, I normalized an unhealthy relationship.
In my attempt to normalize our marriage so my son wouldn’t feel the need to stand his little body between me and my husband, I normalized abuse.
When I look back at myself, in the middle of that mess, I feel so much compassion for the twenty something year old who was barely hanging on. There was no room for introspection, or curiosity, or finding herself, or learning about healthy relationships.
There was only what was in front of her. A bunch of kids who needed her to survive, and a husband who was hanging on by a thread. That girl made lemonade out of lemons the only way she knew how.
Earlier in the day, before the night James took his life, I met with a therapist for the first time. I scheduled the appointment hesitantly a week or so earlier, knowing that I needed to talk with someone before my head exploded. After settling in on the blue loveseat in her office, about thirty seconds of small talk, I dove in head first and unloaded years of pain and shame and fear and guilt around my marriage.
She affirmed everything I had been feeling, the absolute mess in my head and my heart.
My home was not healthy or safe, and seeking help was wise. Despite the guilt and inner conflict and feeling that I was betraying my husband by even being there, she thought I was doing the right thing. That meant a lot to me.
It was a lot for me to process in one day, and we agreed that we wouldn’t even start talking about next steps until I had another two weeks to think and read and reflect. I left the office feeling empowered and terrified at the same time. I had been honest and vulnerable and told the truth out loud, and it was exhilarating.
When I got home, James wanted to know what we talked about. I told him that I was still dealing with Postpartum Depression and hoped that would put the subject to rest.
“That can’t be all you talked about for a whole hour.”
He must have sensed my uneasiness, because he began to push harder.
“Was it about us? Was it about me?”
I was silent, I felt exposed, I was safe only a moment ago. I kept my eyes down.
“Should I just expect divorce papers from you then? You’re going to take everything from me just like that?”
I took a deep breath and tried not to panic. I knew that trying to explain myself would only escalate the situation, but I also knew that he was not going to leave without an explanation.
This conversation was about to happen, and I couldn’t stop it. I wasn’t ready. I had only barely cracked open this Pandora’s Box. There was so much more I needed to think about and process through and I was being asked to rush the whole thing and put my cards on the table right in that moment. This was supposed to belong to me, for just a little while, until I had done all the work and talked to my therapist for months and weighed every angle and option, but there we were. He demanded answers, then and there, something I knew he would not back down from.
I broke down. I spilled it all. I didn’t feel loved, I didn’t feel safe, I didn’t feel comfortable in my own home, I didn’t want to live the rest of my life diffusing bombs. I talked to a therapist because I knew something wasn’t right, and that thing was our relationship.
It spiraled so quickly. The only thing he could see was the seemingly insurmountable moment before him.
He slammed his head into the counter, blood was running down his face.
“Dad, why are you bleeding.”
I turned and saw Charlie, all of four years old, standing there concerned. I did what I always had, I assured him that everything was ok, Dad just has an owie on his head but he would be fine.
Somewhere in that haze, we managed to get all the kids to sleep. On any other night, this was my favorite time. But tonight, bed time meant that it was just me and him, and there would be no escaping the rising conflict and thick tension between us.
Trying to downplay the severity of the situation, maybe for him and maybe for myself, I went into the kitchen to make lunches for our kids, who despite everything, still had school the next day. He followed me.
Yelling. Pleading. Apologizing. Blaming. Wall punching. Accusations. It was a dizzying blur.
This is what happens when I stand up for myself.
He stood on one side of the kitchen, boring holes into me with his eyes. I stood on the other side, making PB&J’s and desperately trying hold myself together.
And then, he turned and stormed away, shaking the kitchen table with his steps as he stomped down the hall past our sleeping kids.
Their bedrooms were right across from our room. I kept glancing their way, praying I wouldn’t see a little blonde head poking out, wondering what the yelling was about.
As he walked into our room, I let out a sharp breath and started sobbing. I hunched over onto the counter, heaving and scared to death of what the aftermath of all of this might be.
I looked up again and peered down the dark hallway to make sure my kids were still in bed, just in time to hear a BANG from our bedroom down the hall.