Veterans and Domestic Violence (This is not what you think it is.)

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I was working with a Viet Nam vet today and it got me thinking about a few things.
He has PTSD. You wouldn’t know it. People think they would. He’s just another professional like me that appears “normal.” I only know he has PTSD because I had to confirm his service related disability for workshop discounts. I don’t think anyone else in the workshop “knew.” And I’m pretty sure neither he nor anyone else in the workshop “knew” I have PTSD.
But I digress. The idea that people with PTSD and other mental illnesses or developmental/processing differences don’t appear as raving maniacs and actually just look and act like everyone else is a running theme through this blog, but only makes a cameo appearance in this post.
What this is really about, is how this guy got me thinking about the vets I got my first PTSD treatment with and how that got me thinking about some beliefs in -dare I say it? -PTSD culture.
See, first of all there is a real popular debate going on among people with PTSD, those who work with people with PTSD, and I guess anyone else who feels like they have a few cents to add. The question is whether or not it takes someone with PTSD to effectively counsel someone with PTSD. I guess the idea is a little like the idea that someone who has overcome addiction issues themselves is equipped to better help people who are struggling to overcome addiction. And I’m just going to stop right there. Because this post isn’t about that debate. You just need to know it exists, because I need to point out to you something I’ve noticed has become a running theme in these discussions. Whether someone is doing it subconsciously or consciously when the say “others with PTSD,” more and more people seem to really be meaning, “others with PTSD from the same source.” Veterans for veterans. Domestic violence victims for domestic violence victims. Sudden trauma (car accident, terrorism, etc) victims for other sudden trauma victims. I am going to voice an opinion here, because I think any time we start to polarize things into black or white, us and them, we lose a lot. And here’s and example of what we are missing when we separate veterans with PTSD from domestic violence victims with PTSD:

When I was first diagnosed with PTSD, that was a pretty new diagnosis for domestic violence victims. Quite frankly, they didn’t know what to do with me. The psychologist that I’d been seeing gave an address on piece of paper and told me to “go here” for further treatment. I thought there had been a mistake when I pulled into the VA. I went inside, more for directions than anything else. There had to be a civilian counseling office nearby? Imagine my surprise, when I spoke to the woman in the receptionist window, to find that they’d been expecting me. And that’s how I found myself sitting in a waiting room at the VA, surrounded by Viet Nam veterans with PTSD.
“They aren’t going to want me here.” I thought. “I don’t fit in. What I went to is nothing like what they went through.” I was both right and wrong. I thought they would dismiss me because my PTSD wasn’t as valid as theirs. Turns out I can reduce a roomful of tough old vets to tears. Because of the differences, for one thing–something that hadn’t occurred to me before as being strikingly horrific was both the length of time my kids and I were subjected to some pretty intense torture (most Viet Nam tours were relatively short compared with 10, 15, 20 or more years of trauma domestic violence victims suffer. I have wondered if, now that the US has spent so much time fighting in the middle east, that has added a new component to the PTSD we are seeing in our vets.), and the idea that the source of my pain wasn’t an enemy, but someone who was supposed to love and care for me. But also, there are similarities: the abruptness, the violence, the knowledge that you have been changed into someone who did things you never imagined you could do, and of course the symptoms. These things are a bridge, and the differences can be a balm.
What does that mean? I can’t speak too personally for the vets, because somehow we never managed to have a conversation specifically about this. But I do know from things vets have said to me, that some of them found it helpful to find a sort of gateway into civilian life. To them I was standing with one foot in either side of the line. I really understand what some of this is like. Things like what a freaking scum you feel like to hurt someone close to you just because they startle you, or you have a flashback, and how you feel about the people who made you into that and how you feel about yourself-if you had just done this-or this differently… OK, don’t get me started down that path right now–that’s probably enough for you to get the idea. But where that other foot stood: I was not military. Not military. That’s got a number of significances to it that one of those guys could explain better to you. This actually comes out as one of the reasons for segregating veterans from others with PTSD. Because those other PTSDers–they aren’t military. Only someone military can understand. Only someone military can help. I’m telling you from being the real life guinea pigs, getting understanding from someone nonmilitary with PTSD has value. And vice versa. And they can help each other. And this is where I get to tell you what those vets did for me.
My ex-husband destroyed any sort of positive role or image a male could have for me. Think back now to me in a room full of Viet Nam vets and try to imagine what kind if shape I was in that first day! Maybe my therapist thought it was some kind of immersion therapy! I couldn’t have a normal relationship in any context with a man. I felt terrified just sitting on the bus near a man, having to talk to a male checker in a grocery store. When I had a student-teacher conference with my son’s male principal I consternated him by insisting that his office door remain open and I don’t know how much I really took in out of what he was saying, because my mind was totally occupied with planning my route of escape should he suddenly attack.
My Dad was awesome by the way. He also had some great male friends that served as additional “uncles” as I was growing up. But Dad got sick just as I entered my teen years and my ex-husband took advantage of that to whisk me away while Dad was down, and isolate me. I know that this haunted Dad later. I know he had those “if I had just done this or this differently” thoughts. He’d have probably sent an armed posse after me if he had known what was really going on.
My ex-husband unmade that all. Every good male role model in my life was unmade. Luckily, I was about to get twenty-something additional Dads. It took some time, but a therapeutic environment is a great place for establishing trust relationships. My veteran friends retaught me about what a trusted male role model could be. They demonstrated for me that there is such thing as good men is this world. Because of them I can interact with men at the grocery store, at work, just like normal people. Because of them I can have romantic relationships again. Because of them, I was able to raise my sons through their teen years and into adulthood. I really, really do not know if I could have faced their voices deepening, and them looking more and more like their father–what would I have done if they had gotten angry and yelled as teens if my friends had not helped me see men as individuals again?
So all I am saying, is before you start segregating groups of people with PTSD, is to consider the value in the differences.

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To Do No Harm

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“Like any other view, non-harming may be a terrific principle, but its the living of it that counts.You can start practicing ahimsa’s gentleness on yourself and in your life with others in any moment. Do you sometimes find that you are hard on yourself and put yourself down? Remember ahimsa in that moment. See it and let it go. Do you talk about others behind their back? Ahimsa. Do you push yourself beyond your limits with no regard for your body and your well-being? Ahimsa. Do you cause other people pain or grief. Ahimsa. It is easy to relate with ahimsa to someone who doesn’t threaten you. The test is in how you will relate to the person or situation when you do feel threatened. The willingness to harm or hurt comes ultimately out of fear.Non-harming requires that you see your own fears and that you understand them and OWN them. Owning them means taking responsibility for them. Taking responsibility means not letting fear completely dictate your vision or your view.” –Jon Kabat-Zinn

And today we had a meltdown

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“And who are we today?”

If you’ve read my “about” page, you know I have the best relationship I can manage with a bipolar man who refuses any treatment.  Recently that’s taken the form of him living apart from us. Although I see him almost daily -we work in the same area and usually have lunch together, and he’s managed to visit our daughter about once per week, with someone helping him -he’s stated that we might as well continue this undefined and constantly changing relationship because,  “it’s the path requiring the least effort. Trying to separate all our stuff is too hard right now.” I do not take this personally.  I’ve known him long enough to know when it is the monster riding on his back that’s taken the pilot’s seat for a while. It hurts. It leaves me sad and grieving.  It’s totally crazy-making: you might be asking why someone who feels that way about another person would seek them out for lunch everyday (yes, the lunches were his idea). The answer is: “Welcome to bipolarism!” But anyways,  I don’t take it personally:  I write that down: “I shouldn’t take it personally. ” I have it in my phone, repeatedly in my CBT journal and in a note in Evernote that I open and stare at and read over and over. I recite it in my head. You can see, I’m trying really, really hard to remember to not to take it personally.
But today we had a meltdown. He’d taken our daughter out for the morning, with his parents chaperoning which was nice for me -got some things done around the house. I’m pretty much the 24/7 single parent these days. I dropped them off at his parent’s, because he’d lent his truck to a friend that was moving and arranged to meet the friend at my house later, to get his truck back. Reportedly the morning went well with them. I was feeling pretty good myself, because I’d gotten some errands and things done, and it feels nice to let the parent guard down for a while. To, just for a few hours, not be solely responsible for everything in another human being’s life, you know? As arranged, I picked them both up.  Things were going pretty good and he suggested we stop by our favorite game store on the way back. And then it happened. He got a message from his roommate that upset him. It was stupid.  An acquaintance known for gossiping has apparently been gossiping about him. Big surprise.  Well, to him, it was. (Bipolarism doesn’t go hand in hand with great social skills, it seems. Some of the people he picks up are part of the reason a chaperone is a good idea when he’s spending time with our daughter. )
So what happens normally in a situation like this? You get mad at the person that gossiped about you, maybe. You complain about it to the friend you’re with (that would be me), and grouch and cuss a little, maybe.  You decide that gossiper isn’t going to be your friend any more. You come to the conclusion that there’s really nothing else you can do and you try to move on with the rest of your day. Right? Or something very similar to that.
But if you’re bipolar, something like that is enough to flip the switch. And that’s just what it’s like -so quick, with no warning, just like if someone was standing behind you and unexpectedly switched off the light switch.
Since I was the closest person in the vicinity, I was the one he attacked. His whole posture changed and got tense, aggressive. His voice changed. His voice actually changes. It’s not a coincidence that bipolarism gets confused with multiple personality disorder.  And you would think that someone that angry would be ranting and railing about the person that set off the anger? Nope. She was never mentioned. But suddenly I was being informed in a cold angry voice that everything about me, everything I’ve ever done and was doing,  was wrong. Rapid fire, one thing after another: “You know, I don’t like *this* about you.” “The one thing that really bothers me is when you did *that*” “You know what I hate about you?”
Don’t take it personally.
Don’t take it personally.
Don’t take it personally
And you can’t say anything *reasonable * about it. You can’t say, “Hey, I understand that this incident upset you, but you must be able to see that it’s unfair to take your anger out on me like this.” Because he just ignores you. You might as well be speaking ancient Phoenician.  Nothing gets through. Or worse: the crazy-making talk. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I never said [the thing I just said, verbatim,  3 seconds ago].”
Even though I’m so miserable without him, at times like this, I’m so glad he doesn’t live with us right now. The constant barrage of this, the walking on eggshells so you don’t set him off, or get in his cross hairs if he’s already been set off. It wears me down, so much. And as she’s gotten older, it’s gotten harder and harder to shield our daughter from this.
She’s getting fussy herself now. Even with her communication disorder,  at four years old, she can absorb that her dad just turned into Mr. Hyde. It’s confusing and scary. He says, “I don’t get it. She was good all morning.” I can’t tell him, “She’s getting upset from the way you are acting.” I’ve tried that before. It doesn’t go well.  Not for the first time, I wonder if any of this is somehow responsible for her autism issues. Wouldn’t you withdraw and have trouble communicating and interacting with people if one of your parents didn’t make sense? And when I think these things, I immediately feel so bad. I love this man and I know he’s sick.
We get to the store and he seems to have calmed down a little, but then our daughter is still fussy. And when I said ‘calms down a little’, I didn’t mean all better, because at one point he says something really shitty to me, right when it seems like we’re getting along. And I realize that my blood pressure is through the roof. That I’m frantically reciting all my mantras under my breath (“don’t take it personally” ), but I’m not absorbing it; not believing it. Baby Girl is still fussy and getting more demanding and I’m recognizing the physical signs of an adrenaline rush coming (I know I’ve mentioned my PTSD before.  Maybe, I’ll have to post more on the physiology of PTSD some time).
The store is crowded, we have friends that are working there today, and aside from the nasty pot shot at me, he’s actually remaining pretty calm. So I let him know I’m going to go outside for a few minutes for some air. He’s agreeable, so I go out front and pull my CBT journal up on my phone and try to get some focus. I don’t get very far though, before he comes out to find me, our daughter trailing behind.  He’s put our pending purchases back on the shelf. We’re leaving, he says, because our daughter is being too fussy. He actually comes and sits next to me. His body is relaxed again, and makes some friendly overtures. It’s enough to to even signal things that things are better to our daughter, who operates more on this sort of 6th sense level because of her communication issues, and she comes over and is hugging and kissing both of us. He starts having a two way conversation again, and I fall for it. Even though I know enough time hasn’t passed. I know that he doesn’t get better again this fast. I should know this, damn it. But I get sucked in again. And the monster is back. He knows how to lure me in close again, where I’m vulnerable, so that he can properly attack me. He wants to keep me agitated and on edge and off balance. If I manage, to withdraw, then he doesn’t have a victim.

He storms off to the car, but them comes back and picks up our daughter and carries her because we are moving too slow for him. He’s not rough at all, but that rigidness is back, he emanates anger, and she starts crying again. All the way back he barks out orders on how and where to drive to me. As you’ve probably guessed, I do know how to get to my own house. But this, this is the kind of shit I just take from him. Because when he gets like this, there’s no rationalizing with him. I consider pulling over and telling him to get out of the car. To just walk home, and that I will ensure that the friend and I get his truck dropped off at his house later. But I feel like this might be even more upsetting to our daughter, than watching his behavior. then both parents are acting cagey. And what do I do if he just sits there and refuses to get out of the car? I start to make small mistakes while I’m driving–like hesitating as a light turns yellow, because I’m under this constant barrage. I’m under attack–how do you focus? He yells at me when this happens. I really can’t explain to you what it’s like. For some reason, people think that people in a manic state are happy, or at least harmless to others. They never imagine an aggressive manic state. I think they use these methods to interrogate prisoners of war, to break them. I can’t even respond to one complaint before he’s cut me off with another, unrelated. And he acts like I’m crazy when I try to get him to pause and back up, and let me finish with the first. “What are you talking about? We aren’t talking about that. What does anything you’re saying have to do with what we’re talking about? ” As far as I can understand, he doesn’t perceive these episodes that same way everyone else does. I think he sees everything happening more slowly, and as not being disjointed. Later, he says he doesn’t remember times like this. If he does at all, he calls them “arguments.” He says, lately, all we do is argue. It doesn’t feel like an argument, because aren’t there supposed to be two sides to an argument? Recently a friend witnessed a less severe episode. A little while after it happened, he referred to it as an “argument” and the friend called him on it –said, “What are you talking about? That didn’t look like an argument to me. That just looked like you complaining about something that didn’t make sense.” That friend has no idea how much they did for my sanity right there. But He, my poor bipolar heart, he was genuinely confused, and maybe a little hurt that his friend was “siding against him”. He has really been convinced that these are normal two-way arguments. He really doesn’t perceive things the way everyone else does. I remind myself of this. Don’t take it personally.

I keep telling myself that it’s going to be OK, because as soon as we get to my house, the friend with the truck will be there and he will go home. I feel terrible because this is the man I love and right now I just want him away from us. I just need some peace. God, please, just a few hours to regroup. And every time I think these things I feel so bad, too, for so many reasons. what kind of partner am I? So much for better or for worse, in sickness and in health.

It’s not to be though. The friend is running late. The barrage continues. In my own home, in my sanctuary. I consider taking our little girl and leaving him there alone to wait for his truck. But I am afraid of what he will do to my house, to himself. Mostly, I realize he will just follow us. His Monster won’t let his victims get away so easily. He completely rearranges and moves my audio video collection. He ranges through the house, collecting things that he feels are “his” into a pile in the middle of the living room floor. He shakes his fist threateningly at me when I offer to fix him something to eat. All while the complaints about me and anything to do with me or anything else in the world–all which he finds some way or another to make my fault just keep coming. I finally calm him a little by putting stupid 80s comedies on the television. It doesn’t exactly make it better, but he is easily distracted. When he starts up again, I laugh and point something out from the show and he gets lost again for a little while. I get him to eat by fixing something for our daughter that she doesn’t want. I fix her something she does want, and oh-do-you-want-this? Otherwise-I’m-just-going-to-have-to-throw-it-out. Eating does help a bit. When this first started happening, I even got him in to have his blood sugar checked, because the food factor made me suspect diabetes. I guess everyone’s just grouchier with an empty stomach?

Finally his truck gets here. He scoops everything up that he’s piled in the living room and throws it in his truck. I help him. I God-damned help him because it’s just stuff and I need him to leave. And I feel so God-damned bad. Because this is, really is, still the love of my life, and I’ve given up. I want him to leave more than I want to help him any more. At least for tonight.

Love.

One of the things I explain to people when they are trying to understand why someone would stay in an abusive relationship is that your experiences and environment growing up can be a factor.  I would quip, “I listened to the little pope in my head!”
Now I have Deepak Chopra in my pocket:
“Love doesn’t need a reason. It speaks from the irrational wisdom of the heart.”