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"I don’t know who, or what, I’m married to anymore": PTSD brings the war home

With a husband who was angry all the time, I had a frightful vision of a future hell where nothing ever changed


Stacy Bannerman
October 4, 2015 5:00PM (UTC)
Excerpted from "Homefront 911: How Families of Veterans Are Wounded by Our Wars"

The VA Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center & Clinics (SORCC) was on the left at the last of three stoplights that move traffic along through White City on Crater Lake Highway 62, heading from Medford, Oregon, to Shady Cove. White City began as Camp White, established in 1941 as an Army training facility for the 91st Infantry Division during World War II.

The military commandeered over seventy-seven square miles for the base, which briefly served as a German POW camp, and provided training for more than 110,000 troops. Dozens of bunkers were built to stage exercises for machine gun crews, and the gray cement pillboxes squatting in the pastures provided a stark structural backdrop for the cattle grazing peacefully around them. When the war ended, the military hospital and barracks were turned over to the Veterans Administration and reopened as the only free-standing domiciliary in the country. We lived about eleven miles away, as the crow flies, on what was once the old artillery training field, and the hardpan pasture and old white oak trees still spit out the occasional casing or bullet.

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We were at the SORCC to meet with Chris Petrone, the OIF/ OEF/OND program coordinator, and have him make a referral that would place Lorin on a waiting list for an inpatient PTSD treatment program. After vowing never to set foot in a VA hospital again, I was a little pissed off and somewhat mystified to be doing so nearly every week for the past several years. I would tell Lorin that, too, about every fourth time we went, but this was not that day.

Four years earlier, we had walked down these same hallways to meet Dr. Tiffany, a VA psychiatrist who had prescribed PTSD meds for Lorin. We got to Tiffany’s small, clean but cluttered office, with sunlight seeping through barely open blinds. We took seats in opposing corners and I scanned the medical journals and degrees hanging in cheap frames on the wall.

Dr. Tiffany handed Lorin the PTSD symptom card, a brief questionnaire designed to provide a snapshot of the patient’s state of mind that week. While Lorin was completing that, the doctor pecked away for a few more minutes on his keyboard, and then turned toward us.

“How are you doing?” he asked Lorin, glancing at me, as tears slowly leaked out of my eyes.

“Okay,” replied Lorin.

“Okay?”

“Yeah, okay. Nothing’s changed.”

“Well, are you taking the medication?” the doctor asked.

“No.”

“Why not?”

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“Because I don’t like taking pills. Especially not the horse pills you prescribed.”

“Have you tried cutting them in half? Maybe that would help.”

“Maybe, but there’s so many of them that I feel like I’m going to choke,” said Lorin sullenly.

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“Then don’t take them all at once. But they aren’t going to work if you don’t take them,” replied the doctor, glancing at the paperwork Lorin had handed him. “It looks like you’re still having difficulty concentrating, is that right?”

“Yeah. I think I must have ADD or something, because I just can’t focus on anything. I get totally distracted every time I see a shiny new object.”

“For some guys, wearing sunglasses helps with that, you might want to try it.”

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Then he went through the checklist, asking Lorin how he was sleeping (not much, not well), if he was having trouble managing his anger (yes), if he was doing things he enjoyed (no), until he got to the bottom of the list of classic PTSD symptoms. Then he put the card aside and asked how I was doing.

Nobody ever asked how I was doing.

Tell the truth or don’t? This was Lorin’s show, not mine. I didn’t want to say something that would inadvertently get him in trouble—I had no idea what that could possibly be, but still. I was also worried about saying something that would get me a shitty long ride home with Lorin at the wheel, spewing on me as he drifted across the center line of the narrow old two-lane HWY 234, going about seventy-three miles an hour while I stomped on the nonexistent passenger-side brake. In the future, I would drive my own car to VA appointments. Since this was the first time I’d been asked, there was a chance it would be the last time, too, and so I tightened my resolve and spoke:

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“Not great. Sometimes I don’t even know who he is anymore. I don’t know who, or what, I’m married to. He’s angry all the time, it seems like, and when I try to help him, he gets even angrier. I got one of those little day-of-the-week pill boxes and put his meds in that, but he won’t take them.”

I glanced at Lorin, who was sitting in his chair like he was waiting for his number to be called at the DMV. I wanted to get up and walk away, but I swallowed back tears and went on.

“I found him a counselor that he won’t go to. I want to do things with him, have fun, go places, but he won’t. He doesn’t want to spend any time with me at all. He won’t have sex with me, and I am tired of begging him to touch me.”

Humiliated, I dropped my head. Dark spots appeared as tears fell on my shirt. Clearing my throat, I continued. “I can only try so many times and get rejected before I’m going to quit. Even the things he says he wants to do, like yoga, or acupuncture, I’ve found those things for him, for free, and still he won’t go.”

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I was embarrassed to be saying this to a stranger, and a little dismayed it sounded like I was pleading, or whining, probably both, but I lacked the energy to keep pretending everything was fine.

“He said he would see a Native American shaman if they were also a veteran, because he’s part American Indian, and I spent weeks scouring the Internet, doing research, sending emails, and getting referrals, but I finally found him. I met with the guy, and paid him to come out to our place. So he drove all the way up from California, and Lorin refused to meet with him. I find everything he asks for, everything he says he wants, and then he doesn’t do it. And I’ve wasted my time, and my energy, and I still have to deal with the fallout.”

“What do you mean fallout?” asked the doctor.

“He yells, he just yells all the time, for the stupidest things. The other night, I was going to pick up Chinese food in town, but when I called, he never answered his phone, so I just gave up and came home. I got home, and he’s in the kitchen, and he asked me where dinner was. I told him I didn’t get it, because I didn’t know what he wanted, and he went off on me. Bad. I mean, really bad,” I said. “He was shouting, and swearing, and calling me names. Just really, really angry, to the point I was starting to get scared. And for what? Because he didn’t get General Tso’s chicken?”

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Dr. Tiffany took a slow, measured breath, shifting in his chair to more fully face Lorin, who appeared to be on the verge of nodding off.

“I’m going to tell you what I see here. I’ve been at this for a long time, and I’ve probably seen thousands of veterans and their wives come through that door, and it usually goes one of two ways,” he said. “At some point, and I’ve seen this especially with the older veteran’s wives, the wife basically accepts that this is as good as it’s going to get, and she decides to stay. Those women get tired, and they get worn out, but they stay, kind of agreeing to half a life.”

The good doctor’s projection of a future hell sent a spear of apprehension through me. It was a vision so goddamn painful, and such a fear, and so taboo, that even within the military spouse community, where we talk about almost anything, we rarely speak of it. I got a call, though, one night, from a friend of mine, married with children to an Army vet with severe PTSD and a TBI. All I could do for the first few minutes was listen to her softly weeping, and when she was finally able to string together some words, she told me she’d been to the VA that day with her husband, and had seen her future in the defeated faces and slumped shoulders of the wives of Vietnam War veterans.

“The worst of it,” she had said, “was that those women weren’t even married when their husband deployed. I talked to them. They have only had to deal with the aftermath. Most of them didn’t even know him before.”

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She paused, and then whispered, “Sometimes I wish I didn’t, either.”

“I know. I feel the same way. I know he’s gone,” I had replied, voice cracking. “But I will miss him for the rest of my life. The man I married died over there, and my family doesn’t begin to understand what that’s like. Nobody does.”

“My family? Hah! My parents are divorced, and frankly couldn’t give a fuck about what I’m dealing with,” she had snapped. “I don’t even bother going to family events—he won’t go with me anyway—because for them, it’s like the war never happened. They don’t want to hear what’s going on. I’ve been carrying our whole household through four tours, and taking care of our three kids, and working part-time, and I am already tired. But those women today, they seemed so hopeless, like they were just waiting to die. I don’t want that to be my life.”

I didn’t either, but I didn’t have a single word to give her to make it better.

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I was hoping Dr. Tiffany did have something to say to make me feel better. What he said, though, was, “Or, the other thing that happens is that after several years of this, if the vet refuses to get treatment, the wife decides that she’s had enough, and she leaves.”

Tiffany glanced at Lorin, sitting stoically, and went on.

“Lorin, you’ve got a good woman here, and she loves you, but let’s say that your life is a car. You’re heading down a particular road right now, and if you keep going in that direction, if you don’t change course, what’s going to happen one of these days, and it could be a year from now, a few years from now, maybe ten years from now, I don’t know, but the wheels are going to start coming off. And the most important wheel that you’ve got is sitting in the chair over there.”

Tiffany paused, and then said, “If you lose her, if you lose that wheel, you’re going to crash, and crash hard. So, what I’d recommend is that you get into an inpatient PTSD treatment program right now, and you need to plan on being there for at least six weeks.”

Turning toward me, he said, “I know that you’re trying to help him, but he’s got to figure it out, so you need to back off a little.”

“There’s no way I can go to treatment for six weeks. No way. Not going to happen,” Lorin said.

“Why don’t you at least think about it?” asked Dr. Tiffany as he opened the office door. “Let me know what you decide.”

I never saw Tiffany again, and neither did Lorin. But I did, finally, back off.

Now he’s in the ditch, and I got dragged down there with him. If we were going to have any chance of getting out of it, Lorin had to get treatment for his PTSD, and for that, he needed a referral.

Chris Petrone’s office was pretty much like Dr. Tiffany’s, minus the clutter that accumulates after decades on the job. Chris, a social worker, had been the program coordinator for post-9/11 veterans coming to the White City VA SORCC since about 2008. Lorin rarely dealt with Chris, since he wasn’t a vet, and Lorin didn’t trust him. As Lorin’s caregiver, I’d tried to run interference between them for years, but only Lorin could choose when, where, or if he wanted to go to treatment.

Right before we got to Chris’s door, I whispered, “Please, Lorin, be nice.”

“What the fuck do I have to be nice for?”

Oh my god. It’s 8:30 in the morning, and I just wanted to go home and crawl into bed.

“You be nice because Chris is still a human being. And granted, he’s made mistakes, but in case you haven’t noticed, he ain’t the one who just finished treatment for meth. So it’s possible that he might, just might, know a little more about some things than you do. And how you treat VA staff makes a difference in how you get treated.”

Lorin had applied for the PTSD program at the Walla Walla, Washington, VA, hoping he could stay there after the substance abuse portion was completed. It would have meant optimal continuity of care, but they wouldn’t take him because they said he was “too irritable” and needed a much more intensive treatment program than they could offer. Irritability is a classic PTSD symptom, and maybe he wouldn’t be so irritable if he could get treatment (or take his meds), but when I tried to point out that clearly there’s a problem if you’re too cantankerous for the professionals trained to treat cantankerousness, Lorin got mad.

We took seats next to each other, and Chris introduced us to the social work intern we’d agreed to let sit in on the meeting. Within minutes, Lorin was off to the races, going around and around with Chris about travel reimbursement. The VA policy is to reimburse travel costs, but only for the nearest facility, if that was provided as a first option to the patient. The Roseburg, Oregon, VA had a substance abuse program and was just ninety miles from where we lived, but I had told Chris I didn’t think Lorin would be interested.

Without consulting Lorin, Chris had put in the referral for Walla Walla, claiming Lorin had refused Roseburg. Lorin hadn’t ever actually been asked, and Chris copped to that and said he would correct the notes so Lorin could get his travel reimbursed.

But Lorin wouldn’t let it go and kept badgering Chris about it, saying, “Look, you’re costing me money here. You don’t even know the policy, and you’re putting things into the system that aren’t true.”

Chris said, “Well, Lorin, I told you I made a mistake, I misunderstood. I also said I would correct it. Can we move on?”

“I never said I wouldn’t go to Roseburg, because I was never asked!” he yelled. “Now I have to spend my time going around trying to fix your mistakes.”

Lorin continued ranting as Chris looked at me, raising his eyebrows as if to ask, “Really? This is what you deal with?”

Finally, Chris broke in and said, “Look, Lorin, I got it. I got it. I think we’ve all had a taste of your anger.”

“Come to my house for the buffet,” I said under my breath, before turning to the intern and asking, “So, what other majors were you looking at?”

She burst into laughter and the rest of us followed, and I sank back into the chair.

Excerpted from "Homefront 911: How Families of Veterans Are Wounded by Our Wars" by Stacy Bannerman, published by Arcade Publishing, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

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