Wednesday, February 24, 2021

On Post Traumatic Stress, marriages, and two truly awesome books

I was sitting in the living room with my Calmer Half*, enjoying a cup of coffee and the mutual exhausted silence, when he opened his eyes, looked around, and focused on Jen Satterly's book lying blamelessly on the coffee table. It's Arsenal of Hope: Tactics for Taking on PTSD, Together, and it's the... well, last year her husband, retired Delta CSM Tom Satterly wrote All Secure: A Special Operations Soldier's Fight to Survive on the Battlefield and the Homefront, in which he details the effect that training and operational tempo, combat and losing friends and the resulting PTSD had not only on him, but on his marriages, on his kid, and on his ability to adapt to civilian life. And how he's fought his way back from the blackest depths to healthy and happy, and is trying to show others the trail he's blazed, and that it's possible and there's hope.

Jen's book is the other half, on what living with someone with PTSD is like, and the toll it takes from the dependent's view. It's also exactly what is says - an arsenal of many different treatments, therapies, approaches, and the cheerful, rueful note that none of them are a silver bullet. Some don't work at any given time but work well later, some work and then lose their effectiveness, some will never work for any particular case. It's an honest, raw look at all the ways that things get messed up between spouses, and that there's been a lot of pain, and depression on her end, as living with rampant PTSD is depressing! About how to treat yourself, and the importance of putting your own oxygen mask on first, and helping yourself so you can be a help to your partner.

If I had to distill them down to quips, Tom's book is "This shit hits even the toughest of us. You're not weak, you're injured, and there's hope to heal." And Jen's? "Here's how, for both of you."

Calmer Half has shown less than zero interest in reading the books. On the other hand, he's willing to talk to me when I want to chew over things they've brought up aloud. Sometimes his responses were practically cryptic, like when I mentioned Tom's description of Mogadishu (which Calmer Half said with a dryness that could mummify at ten paces "Yes, that is a very understated description of urban combat all over Africa." He was quiet for a moment, then added, "You never forget that smell.") 

... yeah, not asking him to clarify that.

Sometimes the responses were quite eloquent. And sometimes they were a revelation to both of us, because he thought I already understood.

Let me explain here that Calmer Half is not an American combat vet. He's British South African, so his military was different, his wars were ones our media didn't talk about, and even more importantly, his country did not have a military dependent culture, not like the USA does. When he got back from his first combat against the Angolans, Cubans, East Germans, and Soviets, his dad finally started to tell him some of what he'd seen in WWII. He finished it with "don't say anything to your mum or your sisters. They wouldn't understand, and it would only upset the ladies."

And he kept that stiff upper lip for years, through round after round of combat, on through the struggle to end apartheid, through the fights with communist tsostis and jihadis fresh back from fighting Russians in Afghanistan and each trying to take over the townships and destabilize the country so they could be in control... all the way through 18 years of undeclared civil war. Any tentative attempt to explain to the ladies there was met with incomprehension to outright hostility, so he just bottled it up.

I, meanwhile, grew up with a dad in the military, in a family that is full of expats, engineers, and career military. My family's been army so long we use the working saber with the nicks from vertebrae still in the edge to cut our wedding cakes, because we lost the dress saber generations ago. My brother went career military. Me, when I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I folded my arms and spat defiantly at the teacher, "a civilian!" (Apparently I was the only one who didn't see marriage to a combat vet coming from years off. Dad was highly amused, and their first phone call promptly veered into words like "Vela Incident" and "mustang" and "The second lieutenant had A Bright Idea" and "sweating cordite." They get along great, even if their acronyms and uniforms don't match.)

This also means I've grown up with a great many coping mechanisms for 'battle fatigue' built in, and an understanding that "Oh, that's just my soldier. You don't have to understand why or what set that off, you just have to know it will and love 'em anyway." Some of which I didn't even understand were coping mechanisms, because they're just the way you do things. Military and their dependents are a culture, and like any culture, it adapts to the stresses and needs of its particular people.

We didn't call it PTSD when I was growing up. That was a foreign term, that it seemed civilian shrinks who proudly dodged the draft and a press that hated the military tried to slap on any and all soldiers in order to mark them as unfit, dangerous, and untrustworthy scum. Nobody I knew would ever apply it to themselves. I certainly never, not in all the things that ever happened to me, thought once to apply that term to myself.

I once asked dad what PTSD was, because of all the people tossing around that loaded term, I trusted him. He paused for a long moment, and finally said, "It's the right set of responses to the wrong environment."

That was a perfectly workable definition for going on with, and it meant in my world, it was perfectly normal and fine when the prof broke out his ultra-new techie toy, and waved his "laser pointer" at the overhead projector, and the ceiling, and the lecture hall... and my study buddy on the GI Bill was suddenly underneath the tiny, cramped desk, while papers were still fluttering down to the ground. When he came out from under the desk fighting mad, and walked out with fists curled into white knuckles, I just kept taking notes.

After class, I tracked him down where he and a couple other vets from class were standing at their favorite smoking redoubt, chain smoking one cigarette after another, and dumped their assorted backpacks and stacks of books and notes on the nearby bench. "Right responses, wrong environment. But next time, can you come back for your backpacks? These are heavy, guys!" (Look, I was 98 pounds at the time. They added up to a significant fraction of my body weight.)

The response was a long, silent crushing hug, followed by a quick sorting of everyone's stuff, checks that certain items were still stowed in their backpacks (and few snugged back into their belts), and "C'mon kid. Let's go get lunch. No, I'm paying." And off we went, so they could copy my notes, and horse around, blowing off steam. Of course, I knew exactly which seat I'd get: it'd be the one with the back to the door - because that's just how soldiers are, right? They never sit where they can't see the exits, and there's no need to think about it, because it's as natural as breathing...

Right responses, wrong environment was great definition... right up until I married a combat vet. Right up until I found that there were things we had to work through, and work around, that seemed utterly inexplicable. And Peter was keeping a stiff upper lip, completely silent as to why he would get so upset about something, and we both had to learn an entire set of routines and responses just to avoid having yet another pointless fight.

Weirdly enough, what really helped? The movie Act of Valor. I wanted to go see it, because I'd heard it was seals playing actors playing seals, which seemed so hilariously meta and awful that I figured it would be as campy as Rocky Horror. And since I didn't want to go alone, I talked my Calmer Half into going with me. This violated one of my mother's primary rules on movies, by the way. "Never watch a war movie with soldiers, and never watch a flying movie with pilots!" I figured it would make him wince and groan and shout at the screen about everything they were getting technically wrong, and be hilarious.

I was utterly wrong. Oh, the seals were awkward, especially in that way of: "We are now showing the cameramen a conversation written by scriptwriters like we say this normally, when you and I both know we said this ten years ago and now have it down to a lift of an eyebrow and a faint nod." The effects were disturbing where they didn't mean to be, because they did too many things too right, or too close to real instead of to the stylized Hollywood tropes. And at the end, when one seal throws himself on a grenade to save the others, and you see the blood pooling and the dust drifting down in front of his open, lifeless eyes... the credits rolled on that image, and I looked over at the big guy who'd been squeezing the blood out of my hand, even when I wasn't wincing or jumping. And in the flickering light, I saw him staring at the dead man staring back from the movie screen, tears rolling down his face.

Look, I don't think men can't cry. I just think women cry at the drop of a hat, and men don't cry unless it's extremely important. Calmer Half comes from an even more reserved culture than me, so how it hit him... I just hugged him and sat there as the theater emptied, until he was ready to move. When he finally shuddered, and came back to the here and now, and started half-clumsily reaching for his handkerchief and trying to apologize with extreme embarrassment, I just hugged him harder. "It's okay to cry. It really is. Soldiers do that, sometimes, at war movies. It's normal."

He looked at me like I'd grown a second head, but wiped his face, blew his nose, and we headed out into the drizzling rain to walk back to the car. Having taken so long to get out of the movie, the parking lot was fairly well deserted, and we went at a gentle amble, holding hands. He finally said, a little brokenly, "I hope that maybe... that seeing that, you might start to understand... That some of that was what it was like, downrange."

I squeezed his hand, and said, "Honey, I'm a military brat. I was raised to understand that I don't have to understand what you saw and what you did out there, I just have to love you. You're perfectly normal, for a soldier."

The look this time was less like I was spouting something totally alien... no, this time, it was something so profoundly grateful and amazed, like a starving man who wished for a crust of bread and was handed a banquet, that I was the one starting to feel uncomfortable and embarrassed now.  And then he opened his mouth, and years of pain started to pour out.

It didn't immediately make everything fine, but at least now, when something upsets him, we can talk about it, and work it out. And that's made all the difference in the world, as we rub along together over the years. Sometimes bits of shrapnel come out of his skin, sometimes painful memories come out of the whatever depths of his mind they were shoved into.

(Sometimes these are completely random. You know, when you're married to a guy for 10 years, and then in the course of mentioning I'd just learned from a podcast that when a guy took an IED to the face and was blinded, he actually was "seeing" vividly intense interpretations by his brain, as though he was still in the 'stans. He'd hear a nurse talk, and look over and "see" a village elder talking, standing there among the mud brick huts, even as he could smell and hear that he was in the hospital. This continued until they gave him a drug that made everything go black.

I had never heard of that before, so I mentioned it to Calmer Half. I did not expect him to get very quiet, and then start feeling up in his hair, and say "Yeah. This dent, here. Can you feel that? God, I wish they'd had that drug back then."

Ah, yes, combat vets. Sometimes a surprising amount of WTFery is in store, when you marry one, and never from the direction you expect!)

This is where we come back to his responses to Jen Satterly's book.

So, coming up on 11 years of marriage, and he's cooking dinner, the roomba is running along underfoot, and I'm putting dishes away and talking about Jen's book, and I say, "...So she says it's not just right responses, wrong environment, it's also that the limbic system which is primed for combat gets switched on in the middle of everyday, and so you're viewing everything as threatening chaos that needs to be controlled or eliminated on the fight or flight level, whether you want to or not."

Calmer Half put the spatula down with a precision that said he's distinctly annoyed, and turned and gave me a look that left no doubt. "Well, of course!" He snapped, and then stopped, and visibly calmed himself down, and added, "Didn't you know that?"

"No?" I stopped what I was doing, turned to him, and held out my hands.

He took a deep breath, let it out, and said, "I'm trying to focus on a task. You're walking behind me repeatedly. That," and he glared at the roomba which was now bumping his right foot like it wanted to mate with him, "is underfoot and annoying, and there are too many things moving I can't see and control while focused on this."

"Oh!" I picked up the roomba and turned it off. "Okay, then I can put the rest of the dishes away later, and this can cease annoying both of us right now."

He blinked. "You really didn't know that?"

"Well, I do now, and we can work on that."

Yeah, I wish I'd had both books years ago. Tom's book is great for giving you the view from inside your soldier, and Jen's book is great for the view from inside the spouse, and together... together, they are more than the sum of their parts, because you get to see the same incidents described from two different viewpoints, and it completes the picture of their relationship, and how they've struggled with and worked together to achieve the health and happiness and great marriage they have.

But if you're only going to read one, Jen's has more strategies for making life better, and even with all Peter and I have achieved, it's still had a new piece or two that's been helpful.

And this brings us back to this morning, when we were sitting there enjoying the silence together, my Calmer Half opened his eyes, looked at Jen's book, and said, "You should write a blog article reviewing that book. Both books on PTSD. Together."

"Um.." I looked at him. Because I really started my blog only so he could see what I was doing when I was 4,000 miles away, and so people who worried could keep track when I was flying my plane down. It's fairly defunct, and mostly a way to store recipes. "What?"

He locked eyes with me, and said in that utterly calm, and utterly sincere way, "You should write about it."

"But..." I had already lost, I knew. I don't write reviews (well, the occasional review on Amazon, but rarely books even then), but I was going to write this. And now I have.

*for those of you who wonder, the term Calmer Half is something of an old joke between us, going back to the day that two old vets, friends, fellow pilots, and mentors of mine looked at me over their coffee and informed me that they approved of Peter, and he was good enough to marry "Our Dot." As one put it, "We always knew you'd marry a combat vet! You're too high strung!" The fact that he tends to respond to my having domestic disasters with "Calm down, love! It's a good day! No one's shooting at you!"**... or, when looking at his dead truck with a shrug, "Well, at least you didn't hit a landmine"... yeah, he got grumpily tagged Calmer Half instead of Better Half.

**No, it doesn't work. Never in the history of ever has telling a highly upset woman with a fresh adrenal dump in her bloodstream to calm down worked. He keeps trying anyway, the eternal optimist.


  1. That limbic thing is one of those "Duh! Moments"... it feels like it should be insanely obvious... but isn't UNTIL explained.

    I maintain one of the most dangerous concepts around is that of 'obviousness'.

  2. Thank you for this post, I will recommend these books to my son who suffers from PTSD and his wife, who suffers with him.

  3. Thank you. Ever so much. Thank you.

  4. After reading this post (and just sitting and thinking about it for many minutes after), along with a recent guest post on ATH, I've become disturbingly aware of just how sheltered my life has been. Thank you for writing it. May you share an ever-growing level of support and understanding for many more years.

  5. This is an awesome blog post. A great review that humanizes the problem. I'm guilty of approaching these things with my professional hat on – you take the nurse out of nursing, but not the nursing out of the nurse – in my case nurse and cognitive behavioural therapist.

    I'm so going to recommend this post and the books to all my former serving military friends.

  6. Great post. I had some idea about some of the issues. My dad was a Vietnam vet. When Full Metal Jacket came out I asked him if he had any desire to go see it. His response was, "No, why would I? It was only 25 years ago that I was there." At the time the "only 25 years" struck me as odd, but that was Dad. Later, as an adult with more experience I understood why he had no desire to revisit any of that.

  7. WOW! That's why military vets (and cops) don't talk much about their experiences.

    BTW -- 6 generations of military on your Dad's side, all the way back to the Spanish-American War with your great-great grandfather.

  8. This....hit home in a way I was not expecting.

  9. Late to the show here. I found your site from Calmer Half's site. I discovered his site recently, so don't know much about him. I'm Viet Nam era vet. Fortune smiled on me and I didn't have to be in combat. Your posting here is very important for those in need. I hope it gets out there. Bless you and your noble combat vet gentleman. Mustangs are special.

  10. It's not just vets, though. PTSD describes my responses, even though I've never served or had family who did. But I've survived trauma I did not expect to. I don't know if self-help books do anything for me, except that they give me better terms to explain it, to myself and others.