It's been a very long two months. I didn't trust myself to blog about what I was going through, so I haven't blogged about what has transpired. I know I've always been very open about what I am going through, but sometimes you just need to take the time for yourself.
So here's the short of it: My wife and I are getting divorced. I know we said in earlier posts that neither one of us would take that precipitous step until we had been separated for six months, but things were just not working.
We didn't come to this decision lightly. We committed to everything that we said we were going to commit to. We have been giving every consideration to the impact this has on our daughter, went to marriage counseling, everything.
We attended multiple counseling sessions, together and individually. What became very evident to both of us is that too much water had passed under the bridge. I can't be to her what she needs and she can't be to me what I need. Our life paths had diverged too much and there was no foundation of trust or communication for coming back from the precipice.
So...we talked. A lot. About a month ago, we mutually agreed to move forward with divorce. It happened on a Thursday. That Friday, Saturday and Sunday that followed were the most emotionally intense days I have gone through since returning home from Iraq. I completely imploded that weekend. Emotions overwhelmed me. The grief was intense. I talked about it with a friend who has gone through divorce and when I told her that it felt like I was grieving for a death in the family, she told me something that I'll never forget.
To me divorce was more emotionally intense than losing a loved one. When a loved one dies, there's closure - it's final. With divorce, you don't get that luxury. You don't get closure ever - especially if you still deeply love your partner. Especially when there's a child involved.
Well, how about that. It definitely put what I was feeling into perspective. While it helped, I still had to confront what was happening to me and I had to do it quickly. I didn't have a lot of time and I had to be functional for work. Somehow I managed to pick myself up and dust myself off by the end of the weekend.
And then something amazing happened.
I found hope in a blunt assessment of my recovery from that weekend: That was the most intense emotional episode I have gone through since I came home from Iraq and I'm still standing...I didn't disappear down the rabbit hole again. I didn't let the depression consume me.
Don't get me wrong, I feel the depression and anxiety 'banging on the windows' trying to get in but I have held onto everything that I have learned, and held on fiercely. I have now, at the core of me, a steely resolve - to do right by myself, my family, and my daughter. The inner fire is burning bright.
Just for clarification, no I don't like that I'm getting divorced. It's had quite the impact on my self-confidence and my focus. I think about my soon-to-be ex every day. I worry about the long-term impact this is going to have on my daughter, despite our collective best efforts to soften the blow. It's impacted my ability to focus on work and has caused me to question my ability to perform the tasks I have to do at work every day.
I continue to struggle every day with this whole mess, but every day is another day I prove to myself that I have the strength to endure this and come out the other side, still capable of loving and laughing.
So, what now? Where do I go from here? That's the trick. I don't know. But I'm looking forward to the journey. I want to turn the page and start a new chapter in my life, but I really have no idea where to start. One thing I know for certain is that I will be sharing that journey with all of you.
Yes, my PTSD has taken its toll on my life but life didn't end when we decided on divorce. All I know for certain is that I don't want to take this journey alone. I just need to figure out what the hell that means for me and what I want to do about it.
It's been a long month. I have had to get used to things I never wanted to have to get used to again. The house is empty for at least half the week. I never realized how much it scares me to be alone and the nights when I don't have my daughter have been the hardest. I can count on one hand how many times I have seen my wife since she moved out and every time I see her, I feel like I have lead in my stomach. It hurts my heart to see her so distant, and closed off from me. Yes, we're on the same page when it comes to parenting, but I fear that the hurt I caused her when I was depressed is too much to overcome.
I wish that there was something that I could do to help her see that I love her beyond words and that I have stayed strong through all of this. I haven't disappeared back down the rabbit hole. I'm still working out and still going to MMA. Work continues to be a revelation.
So, what to do? Where do I go from here? The only thing I can think to do is just stay steady and continue to do what I have been doing - Living my life as best I can for me so that I can find fulfillment. So I'm going to keep on making the most of my workouts, MMA, and work. The biggest thing is keeping busy, especially as the major holidays approach. There's always the temptation to stay in and not go out at all. I swore that I would never go down that road again. It's the first time in my life where I have been thankful for hypervigilance. I've been able to repurpose it to help me keep from going down that road ever again.
I have been afraid to sit down at the computer to write any of this because is makes it real...Does that make sense? Acknowledging my new reality is one of the hardest things that I have ever had to do. It's one of the reasons that I haven't been blogging that past few weeks. I had to come to terms with how things are and fight my fear and the anger.
It took a while...
But I'm getting there. Bit. By. Bit.
And I'll keep on fighting to make the most of my life for as long as it takes and as long as I live. I never really thought that Post Traumatic Growth was really a thing. When I was in the throes of my PTSD, it seemed unattainable. I don't think that it's the bright, shiny future that they make it out to be in the press, but I do believe it's real. So, no matter how things turn out, I'm going to learn to be happy - with someone or by myself.
But that's a subject for another post...and one I'm working on writing as we speak.
So, I disappeared off the radar, again - this time for good reason. All of my spare time has been dedicated to contending with family issues at home. The end result: My wife and I are entering into a trial separation, as of today. Before anyone overreacts to this, I need to make this clear - it was a mutual decision. We have taken this step BECAUSE we love each other and want to save our marriage.
Seems counter-intuitive, right?
It really isn't and I'm going to explain why so that maybe the lessons we've learned from all of this will help other couples in distress for the same reasons. I wasn't sure whether I really wanted to write about this, but I felt I needed to articulate in writing our thought process - that and blogging always helps me process through my emotions, so...Here we go.
If you've been reading my blog for a while, you know that I've been struggling with PTSD and depression for years now. Back on November 8th, 2010, my amazing and wonderful daughter, Caley, was born. When I held her for the first time, I was overwhelmed with the profundity of my love for her. It was at that moment that I had the insidious and destructive thought: "If anything ever happened to her..."
My PTSD headed very quickly into a downward spiral and the depression followed, gleefully riding the coattails of my PTSD on the way down. I withdrew completely from my wife and from my daughter over the course of the next year, leaving my wife to contend with caring for two kids on her own: Our beautiful newborn, and me.
I hit rock bottom in early 2012 when my wife confronted me with my withdrawal and gave me the ultimatum: Get help or we are leaving. This sounds really blunt but my wife had tried every other way of getting my attention and nothing had worked. I was so deeply in the throes of my own despair that I needed the emotional slap in the face to be able to see through the fog of my depression. When I did, I was horrified. I had emotionally abandoned my family. The guilt I felt was crushing - so crushing that I seriously considered committing suicide so that I wouldn't be able to hurt them anymore. That's how insidious depression can be. I couldn't see the forest for the trees and almost deprived my daughter of a father and my wife of a husband - Not because I wanted to selfishly end it all, but because I couldn't see any way of preventing my family from getting hurt again.
To this day, I still don't know what, exactly, pulled me back from the ledge but I'm grateful that I found a way. Just thinking about how close I came still horrifies me and always will. Over the course of the next few days, I started to gain a bit of clarity and was able to make a compact with myself - that I would never, EVER, let things get this bad ever again. I knew that the road ahead of me was going to be long and painful, but I needed desperately to be the Father and Husband I know I can be when the PTSD and the depression haven't taken me hostage.
Over the course of the next two and a half years, I have put in the work. I've gone to therapy, learned how to effectively cope with my PTSD and depression, learned how to watch for warning signs that I may be headed in the wrong direction and also learned that I needed to remove as much unnecessary stress from my life as I possible could.
The end result:
Up until a few months ago, I thought that the whole concept of Post Traumatic Growth was a load of crap. I found myself, all of a sudden, full of drive and energy and motivation to live life and live up to the ideals I had always striven for. I finally felt I was WORTH fighting for.
What happened next completely blindsided both my wife and I. It sucks and it hurts, but I think you will see clearly how we got to this point.
I Need Some Time Apart to Clear My Head
Over the course of the past few months, I noticed that my wife was getting angrier and angrier with me over the smallest of transgressions. I started talking to her about it and expressed a desire to get help and get therapy, for both of us, if necessary. Nothing ever came of it and I thought, after some very serious heart to hearts, that we were moving past the anger and emotional distance (things have deteriorated so far for my wife that she's completely emotionally closed off and unable to show affection or appreciation - we've been living like roommates for the better part of the past year).
Over the course of the past few weeks, things had gotten progressively worse between us and it seemed like the hurt feelings and emotional distance were gaining momentum, regardless of how I tried to reconcile with my wife. The end result: I told my wife that I couldn't live like this anymore - that I felt like I was walking on eggshells because the was angry all of the time and was either unable or unwilling to be intimate or reciprocate my affection.
That's when she said those fateful words: "I think I need some time apart to clear my head". I felt the bottom fall out from under me and I clung desperately to the edge of my sanity.
Over the course of the past week and a half, I've climbed out and things have settled down. Yes, my wife and I are separating but it's a mutual decision and I'm going to take the time to explain why this doesn't mean the end of our marriage.
The Five Stages of Grief
It was only after I had finally accepted what needed to happen that I just gone through the five stages of grief for the state of our relationship. It's analogous to the stages of grief that a person would go through when the doctor had told them that their loved one being kept alive by life support was going to be taken off of it according to wishes presented in their living will - the machines would be turned off and the person would either breathe on their own or they'd die. For our marriage, things were very much the same. My wife needed to get the space she needed (turning off the machines) so that she could process through the intensity of her emotions and figure out whether she was able to move past them and recommit to trusting me and loving me the way she knows I need (finding out whether our marriage will breathe on its own). Here's how the five stages of grief play into this:
However, rather than a means to an end, separation can be a helpful tool to stay together. This seems counterintuitive when a marriage is troubled and relations are fragile. Most of us believe that when we feel our spouse slipping away from us, we should merge together more, get as close as we can, and do more to "make the marriage work".
After reading that excerpt, things started to make a whole lot more sense. Our lives were financially stable, our work was stable, and most importantly, I wasn't only stable, I was ME again - the guy with the inner fire and the sense of purpose. It was finally safe for my wife to not be in survival mode anymore and when she let down the walls she had put up to survive, she was completely overwhelmed with how angry she was. She fully recognizes that I never meant to hurt her, but the end result was the same: She felt like she had been betrayed and abandoned by me for the better part of the past almost four years, since our daughter was born. As anyone will tell you, the more deeply you love someone, the more deeply you hurt when you feel abandoned and betrayed by him.
All of a sudden, I understood completely why she needed separation. The emotions she was feeling were so intense that any time she saw me, it triggered her emotions and none of them were particularly happy ones. The only way she could possibly start to work through all of this is by removing the source of the pain: Me. So, a few nights ago, I explained to my wife that I accepted her need for separation and why. Believe it or not, it was a huge relief for both of us. Up until that point, my wife was concerned that I wouldn't be able to find a way to accept her need for space and that the marriage would end before we even had a chance to work on it - not because we wanted it to, but because of irreconcilable differences.
Over the past few days, we've spent a lot of time getting on the same page and laying out the groundwork for separation and what it means for us and for our daughter. By loving my wife and supporting her in her need for space, we have already started down the right road. It may sound weird, but working together to coordinate the separation has been the closest my wife and I have been in years - because we are working together to save our marriage and working together hasn't been in the cards for a while now. In the next blog post, I will detail our Separation Contract, what it entails, and why. I could continue on and make this all one massive blog post, but this seems like a logical place to split it up. I know that there are readers out there that are probably in the same position we are in and can't seem to find a way forward. I hope that the struggle that I've gone through, both with the PTSD and Depression and with coming to terms with my wife's need for separation can help those of you out there that find yourselves facing a similar scenario.
Thank you all for your constant support and continued readership.
The Best TV Episode You've Probably Never Seen About Combat-Related PTSD, Suicide, and the Long Road Home.
Have you ever heard of the TV Show, 'Hack'? I hadn't either, but it was available in Netflix and its premise sounded interesting. I cop that made a mistake, lost his badge, and started over as a cabbie or hack in Philadelphia. The show starts Andre Braugher and David Morse so I figured I'd like it.
I'm glad I gave it a chance. The show ran for two seasons in 2003 and 2004. It has excellent lessons in morality and it's massive scale of grey, love, hope, and family. Then I started watching Season 2, Episode 14, named "Fog of War". The main character's godson came home from Iraq after being wounded and they depicted PTSD, raw and unfiltered. They showed how he tried to numb his mind with pain killers and alcohol. They showed how corrosive the effects of survivor's guilt can be on the soul. They illustrated the particular way in which our anger can flare - by raging against inanimate objects and scaring the crap out of our loved ones. It illustrates moral injury and the cost of war upon the human condition. What gave me chills was the manner in which the actor playing the soldier depicted intrusive recollections. The unconscious twitch of the body, the quasi-nauseous shudder and the thousand yard stare.
It also shows how quickly dependency and depression, combined with survivor's guilt, can lead to suicidal ideation.
One thought kept on popping into my head: "This Could've Been Me."
PTSD didn't really reach mainstream awareness and acceptance as the signature wound of this conflict until 2006 and 2007. What really gave me goosebumps was the date that this episode aired: Feburary 7, 2004. Just five days after I returned home from overseas - I was one of the vanguard. One of the first to return home from Iraq. They didn't even have support services in place for the conflict in Iraq. My support group was comprised of veterans of previous conflicts, predominantly Vietnam.
I watched the episode four times in a row, with tears in my eyes every time. Every time I watched it, the more poignant I realized it was - and just how aware the writing team was of the enduring costs of war. I would warn against watching this episode if you are still learning to cope with triggers, but if you are in the right frame of mind - take the time to watch this episode. It will be particularly educational for family members. The show demonstrates just how important fidelity, unconditional support and love are to our returning veterans.
The veteran depicted in the show had a father who was a hard-nosed cop. Old-school. The show no weakness type of man who thought his son should just forget what happened and 'just move on' in his life. The main character, who over the course of one and a half seasons has found his compassion and his own code of morality, lights the way to a positive solution to the show - not with his virtues but with acceptance of his flaws. It is masterfully done and in such a way as to give hope to those who watch it that their loved ones with PTSD can learn to cope and live with their experiences.
I really didn't see this episode coming at all. It even depicted the politics of the time from both sides of the aisle in a way that showed the validity of both standpoints without being argumentative.
Take the time to watch this show if you have Netflix. You won't regret it. It is truly an episode for the ages.
I know I haven't blogged in a while. I haven't kept up on a lot of the things that I need to be. I have been feeling really burned out and have been struggling in a lot of ways that have not been easy on me or my family. This is really raw and emotional for me, so bear with me...
I have been working in a high tempo, high stress, retail environment for four years now. When I first started working there, I was a rising star. It took two years for me to implode and end up on short-term disability. When my daughter had been born a few months before I went out on disability, it sent me into a tailspin. I obsessed about being a supernatural provider and withdrew emotionally at home, cutting off my wife and daughter from love and companionship. Thus, I went out on disability.
When I returned to work after fighting through my PTSD and learning to cope, I swore that I would always be prescient at home from now on. My goal was come home from work with the energy and emotional awareness to be a good father and attentive husband. What ended up happening is that my reliability at work and my availability suffered greatly. It was made clear by my employer that they needed a level of reliability that I have not been providing over the past few months.
This raised my stress level at work, making work a 'non-permissive' environment - a place where I was at risk of losing my job or benefits or both if I couldn't sort this out. It made me realize, regress my performance to a mean over time and it is readily apparent that retail work is grinding me down and taking a long-term cumulative toll on my performance at work. That toll has sped up since I swore to always put my family first.
So now I have some hard decisions to make. The only work I find fulfilling is being of service to others. I have to balance what is best for me long-term with the welfare of my family. It's not a fun place to be, but one I am confident I will work through.
I know I haven't been active recently in the community I created. I know I haven't blogged as much. For that I am sorry. I needed to set myself in motion and resolve this issue with employment. Now that I have the short-term leeway to figure it out while ensuring the welfare of my family is giving me the time and space I need to figure all of this out.
I want to thank all of those people who have reached out to me via email to express concern over not hearing from me and from my readers who reached out to ask how I was doing. I truly value your compassion and understanding!
On September 27th, my wife and I celebrated seven years of love and commitment to each other. I need to share with the world just how amazing that milestone is. It is a testament to my wife's love, commitment, patience, compassion, and intestinal fortitude. Let's recount the wonderful years of marriage that my wife has endured as my PTSD hijacked my life and our marriage:
THREE: The number of years I didn't take my meds because I was 'fine'.
TWO: The number of years that financial and employment instability undermined our financial well-being.
FIVE: The number of years that I wasn't getting quality therapy to help me learn to cope with my PTSD.
ONE: The number of years I completely withdrew from my wife and newborn daughter completely.
SEVEN: The number of years my wife stayed by my side and did what was necessary to get us through.
You do the math, there was substantial overlap on these 'blissful' years of marriage. I never stopped loving my wife. Ever. Now, more than ever, I don't take her or my daughter for granted. I have a lot to live up to in order honor my wife and the sacrifices she has made to stay by my side and to keep our family in one piece.
For me it starts by dedicating myself and my efforts to being an equal partner by helping around the house (I've been dedicated to this for about a month and it's been wonderful for our relationship). Also, getting myself trimmed down and healthy. No more half measures. Time to go all the way and tear it up.
It's going to take consistency to earn her trust back. I lost that and all of my credibility with her years ago.
There is nothing I want more is for her to be able to trust me and have faith in me again. I am not striving to be the man I was - the man she met. I am striving to be her partner, her equal. Whatever it takes.
So here's to seven years of commitment and love and compassion, given freely by an amazing woman I am lucky to have in my life.
Happy Anniversary, Baby. I love you will all of the pieces of my shattered soul.
In the future, you will see blogs entries from guest bloggers who have a message or mission that I think is relevant and worth supporting. First Up: Natalie Cramer of the Blue Star Family Platoon!
Max, thank you so much for offering me this great opportunity to guest blog for you today! I'm much appreciative for the chance to share my project with your readers and followers and friends.
The day started off so well. My wife and I took my daughter down to a local mall and we walked outside and enjoyed the weather, ate at Red Robin, and my daughter played with the other kids in the fountain next to the Starbucks. No really, she did:
I feel relaxed. I am enjoying the day. In the mid-afternoon, we get in the car and head home. When we get there, I very quickly fall asleep in my recliner...and wake up choking on my own bile from a nightmare. I bolt out of my seat and start gagging and puking up bile into the sink in the kitchen. My daughter saw the whole thing happen and it's a first I could have done without. She is scared out of her wits and very worried about her daddy. I stay as calm as I can since I am still gagging and trying to clear my wind pipe and my wife is a champ, explaining that daddy's ok. I did my best to reassure her that I was ok, but she wasn't satisfied until my gag reflex receded and I was able to pick her up.
Caley: "Daddy, you cried."
Me: "Yes I did, bear bear."
Caley: "It's OK, Daddy, It's OK" (hugs me fiercly)
Me: "I'll be OK, Caley. Daddy just had a bad dream."
Caley: "I love you, Daddy."
After that exchange, my heart melted into my figurative boots. Caley asked to be put down and went back to playing in the living room and I was left to reflect on my nightmare. It was about the death of an Iraqi translator that was killed for working with the US. He knew it was dangerous but worked hard to ensure the safety of our troops wherever he was. He wasn't the only Iraqi to die protecting us. The Kurdish Peshmerga (Special Forces) guarded our safehouse in Khanaqin. Many were murdered after they returned home to the Kurdish North for disobeying orders and staying to protect us while we got set up in town. These are not isolated incidents. These men were believers in what the United States stands for and died to protect our troops. They paid the ultimate sacrifice too, but you will never see a monument to their courage and selflessness. The men and women have always been there in any war - the forgotten heroes. The locals who believe so strongly in us that they protect our troops and sacrifice themselves for our cause.
I don't know why I had that nightmare in the middle of a wonderful day. I think I may actually be grateful for it. All of us are mourning the loss of those we served with who didn't make it home. All I ask is that you take a moment to reflect on the nameless ones who never expected to be remembered. Take a minute to praise and give thanks for those who have selflessly sacrificed themselves to ensure our troop's safety in a hostile environment and paid the ultimate price for their efforts.
Because, In My Eyes, They Were All American Service Members, Too
This past week has been a whirlwind as I worked to get everything ready for the fundraising campaign to go live. It has been an amazing experience and I have found myself looking at the world from a different perspective. I never realized how fulfilled I would feel as I pushed the envelope to advocate for veterans. I have felt energized and happy, better able to attend to my family, better able to attend to my own needs. I have felt so good this past week that I started to think something must be wrong. Being this happy was alien to me.
And then it hit me. And it hit me HARD. When I was telling my parents about my venture, they were 100% supportive but my mother asked me a very pointed question: "Max, you are overweight. If you are going to be the public face of this organization, you need to look the part." Something so simple. She thought I was going to get upset or feel hurt by her comments.
Nope. Not at all. As a matter of fact, she really made me think. If I am going to fight the stereotype and stigma associated with PTSD, I can't look like a 'sorry-ass dough-boy'. When I sat down and thought about it, I made another realization and it wasn't one I liked. I still hated the guy in the mirror. Despite all of the good I wanted to do, I was still striving to live vicariously through the successes of others.
For the first time, that realization didn't paralyze me. It didn't make me feel less than. It made me disgusted with myself - determined to DO something about it. It was time to Walk the Walk. I have been talking the talk for two years, shying away from holding myself accountable for my inability to take care of myself. I found it was easy to ignore my own deficiencies if I helped other veterans and their loved ones learn to live with PTSD. I can't delude myself anymore. If I am going to be taken seriously, I need to take care of myself and not look like a sloppy 'mess'.
So here's the skinny (pardon the term): I weigh 278.1 pounds. My 'fighting weight' in the army was 234. Today I started living by example. While I have done much to learn to cope with my PTSD, I wasn't able to overcome the feelings of inadequacy to take better care of myself. So no big promises. No grandiose plans. I am going to get in the best shape of my life and I'm going to show you all what grit and determination can do for a veteran with PTSD. Here's how I look now:
Yeah. Doesn't exactly scream "Support My Cause!"
This is the only promise I will make: I will do everything I can to look the part and earn the self-respect I so dearly desire. I WILL WALK THE WALK>>>No update pictures, no stories, no excuses. Just action. I will show you all what I am capable of and take a picture again on April 10th (A few days before the end of my fundraising campaign). All I ask is that you ask yourself. Do I just 'like' comments and say I support a cause or am I willing to walk the walk? Are you willing to spread the word? Are you willing to speak out against the stigmatization our combat veterans with PTSD face? Do you have the ability to donate to worthy causes but don't? What will you do to walk with me?
It's amazing how quickly medical problems can add up to turn coping with PTSD into trying to walk through a minefield. I'm struggling to understand why all of these random health problems seem to keep happening to me, but it's getting old and particularly challenging to deal with. While I am not out of the woods yet, I am starting to feel a little better. That being said, the stress of this past week has taken an incredible toll on my wife and I. I am physically exhausted as my body continues its struggle to heal. My wife is beyond emotionally exhausted after having to resume the role of full-time caregiver of our daughter (and me). What makes that even worse is that these were physical issues on my part that were not (as far as we know) related to my PTSD.
Here's the synopsis:
As you can see, it's been a long week. While I am proud that I have been able to keep a lid on the anger (barely), it has been substantially more difficult to keep the catastrophic thinking and anxiety at bay over the course of this week - especially when I thought about my job security. At some point a company is going to decide they've had enough and I live in an at-will employment state. I kept on thinking, with how unreliable I have been because of health issues over the past year, they would be justified in letting me go. While that outcome is improbable, the catastrophic thinking was pushing to convince me that I was going to lose my job.
Sooo,,,Now that I have turned the corner with my health issues and finally feel like I am on the road to recovery, I now have to contend with the emotional/PTSD fallout from everything I went through this past week. The anxiety and adrenalin are still going strong and it is hard to keep a lid on them and not freak out. But I am still here, somehow.
I can't even imagine how hard this past week has been on my wife, She just can't seem to catch a break and enjoy a little bit of stability, what with the PTSD and the random health issues. It makes me feel incredibly guilty. While I know that the physical issues are completely out of my control, it doesn't change how guilty I feel that she had to experience that emotional distress, take care of me and our two year old, and work to bring in money to keep us financially stable. Seeing her that distraught and still fighting made my heart clench in my chest. She just never gives up. She fights until she literally can't stand up anymore. It's disturbing to think of where I might be right now if it wasn't for the amazing fortitude of my wife and the strength of her love for me. It's why I will always be dedicated to her, working as hard as I can to see her happy and fulfilled, despite my problems.
Tomorrow is Superbowl Sunday. All I keep thinking about is how we need tomorrow to be uneventful and restful, for both our sakes. So, here's to hoping.
As I continue my life with PTSD, I will share my challenges and discoveries on this blog.