by Welby O’Brien
Affecting millions in the U.S. alone, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is rampant and escalating at an alarming rate. For the sufferer facing this disorder, life is fraught with stress, anxiety, difficulties and heartache. However, for every one person struggling with PTSD, there are many more friends and family members who are also deeply and profoundly impacted. Author Welby O’Brien offers help and hope to families of PTSD sufferers in her book Love Our Vets.
Q: We hear a lot about post-traumatic stress disorder (or PTSD) but may not really understand what it is and how it affects those who have it. Can you help us grasp a basic understanding of what PTSD is?
A: Post-traumatic stress disorder can affect anyone, and it results from exposure to an experience that is horrific or life-threatening. They become locked into emergency mode (fight, flight or freeze survival) and will stay permanently programmed in that emergency mode at some level for the rest of their lives. They live 24/7 as if the trauma or an impending crisis could reoccur at any moment. It totally overwhelms their ability to cope, so when something triggers them back into survival mode, they have no reserve with which to handle it
.Q: How many people suffer from PTSD? What percentage of veterans have some form of PTSD?
A: According to the National Center for PTSD, about eight million adults in the U.S. alone struggle with PTSD. Most people do not realize it also profoundly impacts all of those around them as well. Researchers have a hard time pinning down the actual numbers of just who and how many have PTSD because anyone can experience trauma and also because, sadly, only about half of those who need help actually reach out for it. Chances are that if your loved one has seen war, he or she has PTSD at some level.
Q: In Love Our Vets, you explain that PTSD can affect anyone, not just veterans. Who is at risk for it?
A: Since PTSD is a result of exposure to a horrific or traumatic experience, anyone who has been — or will ever be — exposed to trauma is at risk. The trauma could be a single event or continue over a long period of time. It could be abuse, a tragic loss, an accident, a serious illness, a terrorist attack, a severe storm, an earthquake or anything where your life feels threatened.
Q:Love Our Vets is a book written for families of veterans with PTSD. Explain what you mean by, “You may not have PTSD, but if you are living with someone who does, you are suffering from it as well”?
A: PTSD not only affects the individuals who battle it firsthand, but it also deeply and profoundly impacts all those around them who love them and live with them. They call it vicarious trauma or secondary PTSD.
My guess is that for every one person battling PTSD, there are probably at least 3-5 others close to him or her who also struggle 24/7 at some level with the fallout of the trauma. As I write in the book, “It takes an exceptional person to love a Warrior, especially a Warrior whose war will never cease.” The war has come home for so many and is here to stay. Those of us who love our Warrior Vets are now part of the ongoing conflict. We too will see symptoms of PTSD in ourselves. We will get triggered. We will lose sleep and find ourselves on full alert along with them. We may have doubts or fears about our commitment to them, and we will struggle to try to help friends and family members understand.
Q: Did your background in counseling prepare you for life with your husband, who suffers from PTSD?
A: Honestly, I felt like I was blindsided . . . completely unprepared. I did not realize the magnitude of PTSD’s effect on the individual, nor how deeply it impacts all those close to him or her.
However, what I have learned throughout the years about feeling the feelings, having healthy boundaries, communicating clearly and lovingly and taking care of me have really helped.
For me, a key to success is willingness to learn and grow. I have benefited greatly from getting counseling for myself and with my husband as a couple, combined with lots of prayer and connection with others who are years ahead of me on this road.
Q: Although you are a Christian and wrote the book from that perspective, readers will not find scripture references in Love Our Vets.Can you share more about why you approached the book that way?
A: Many veterans and others with PTSD often avoid things that are clearly “religious.” Although I do talk about faith and love and include a “Prayer a Day” for those who would like to use that section, Love Our Vets was not meant to be an obviously Christian book; rather it is meant to serve as a doorway, inviting people to connect with others and to explore our website, which offers a wealth of faith-based resources.
We want Love Our Vets to be received by anyone, regardless of their faith, so it is purposely intended to be a crossover book. As a result, it is able to be used by Veterans Affairs groups and other non-religious organizations.
Love Our Vets offers plenty of wisdom and practical help for those who may go no further and an invitation to explore more for those who are open.
Q:What faith-based resources will readers be able to find on your website, www.LoveOurVets.org?
A: Some of the things we offer are a short gospel video for veterans and loved ones and tips on how to minister to those with PTSD. There are also links to organizations offering retreats or in-patient PTSD treatment, support groups for veterans and for loved ones and local military-friendly churches. We also have an awesome evangelical veteran Chaplain and his wife available by phone or e-mail 24/7.
Q: If others are concerned their friend or family member may have PTSD, what symptoms should they watch for? How should they approach their loved one in order to help him or her?
A: The good news is that not everyone has all of these. Some typical symptoms include anxiety, avoidance, depression, easily startled, fear, flashbacks, hyper-vigilance, intrusive thoughts of the trauma, irritability, difficulty holding a job, memory blocks, nightmares, numbing, outbursts of anger or other emotions, substance abuse and other addictive behaviors, relationship problems, sleep problems, putting up walls, withdrawing and suicidal thoughts. They are people who are reacting normally to an abnormal experience.
Usually those affected will not get help unless they are first aware of their need, feel assured of being accepted and supported and then are encouraged to explore options, whether peer support, the VA, local Vet Center or others. We have a very thorough list of helpful resource links on our website, www.LoveOurVets.org. The good news is that they can learn to thrive again!
Q: Your book, Love Our Vets, is divided into three parts: reaffirm, replenish and reflect. Can you tell us more about how the book is set up?
A: I wanted Love Our Vetsto be user-friendly in that it is not necessary to read from cover to cover because some areas may not be applicable to every reader.
The first section, Reaffirm: Our Questions, includes more than 60 questions and answers that are unique to loved ones of those with PTSD. Readers can glance at the Table of Contents and go right to the page that addresses their concern.
The second section, Replenish: Our Needs, is all about self-care. It is set up in a checklist format so readers can see how they are doing in twenty-one specific areas and find ways to grow personally.
The third section is Reflect: Our Wisdom. This is a treasure chest of advice, helpful quotes, encouraging words and testimonials from many others who also love their vets.
And the last part of the book is a collection of various appendices offering more help and hope for PTSD warriors and their loved ones, including “A Prayer a Day,” which are short prayers for each day of the month.
Q: How do patriotic holidays such as Fourth of July and Veterans’ Day affect those with PTSD?
A: Anything taking them back to the original trauma can stir things up. What may be a trigger for some might not bother others. Some typical triggers are crowds, parades, loud noises, bright lights and fireworks especially. The unexpected loud booms send most of them right back into the battlefield.
There was a local patriotic event here recently honoring Vietnam veterans, and unfortunately some of them were severely triggered by the surprise Huey helicopter that landed in the stadium.
It is good for veterans and their loved ones to be aware ahead of time about what might be a problem for them and to take special steps to avoid it or not be affected by it if possible. And always have that lifeline of good peer support around you.
Q: You’ve said that many of the people who share their stories in Love Our Vets have grown stronger because of PTSD rather than in spite of it. In what ways have they experienced growth?
A: Greater compassion, for one. Those of us who are willing to learn and grow (which is usually not fun) over time have learned from our own lives, from our PTSD survivors and from others who are overcoming similar challenges. Many of us have received good counseling and continue to work on our own issues such as staying grounded when things get crazy, or not needing them to always be okay in order for us to be OK. We’re learning to tune in to our needs and communicate them before we have a meltdown.
We try to keep our sense of humor and be able to laugh at ourselves (plenty of material there). Knowing we will have ups and downs, we’re getting better at enjoying and treasuring the good moments as well as not getting all bent out of shape over minor things. Instead we keep perspective on what is really important in the long run. Ultimately for all of us, whatever our challenge, we try to remember growth and its benefits don’t happen overnight, and eventually all our efforts will be worth it.
Q: Why did you dedicate a third of Love Our Vets to self-care for the caregiver?
A: Those of us who love someone with PTSD are especially susceptible to burn-out or compassion fatigue. Sometimes it is the loved ones who become the lonely, undecorated casualties of war. If we give out more than we take in — and do not replenish — we will burn out.
And like secondhand smoke, secondary PTSD or vicarious trauma can take its toll on the loved ones. We too will see symptoms of PTSD in ourselves. We will get triggered. We will struggle not to go up and down in their ups and downs. We find ourselves walking on eggshells to avoid triggering them. Too often we ignore our own bodies’ warning signals to us to take care of ourselves until it is too late.
There are three things we have to remember: It isn’t me, I can’t fix it, and take care of me.
Q: In what ways has the faith of both you and your husband made a difference in how you’ve handled, or been able to handle, living with PTSD?
A: I say in the book faith and love are key, faith bringing connection with God and love bringing connection with others. God never promised to take away pain, to navigate us away from all hard times or to erase trauma, but from my experience having a personal relationship with the LORD does make a difference. He offers much-needed presence in the pain, peace, power in the struggles, promises, perspective and purpose. It’s even more of a blessing when you can share that same faith and pray together with the one you love.
Since trauma and its aftermath can make a person feel so alone, healing begins when we realize we are not alone. Jesus knew all about trauma. Walking with Him through the challenges has truly been a lifeline for me and for many I know. As believers we can rest on His promise that He causes all things to work together for our good and His glory, even the hard times.
Q: If you could only give one piece of advice to someone with PTSD, what would it be? What advice would you give his or her loved ones?
A: I would offer the same advice for all; there are two parts. First I encourage you to learn all you can.
Go to our website, www.LoveOurVets.org, learn about PTSD and how it affects us and discover what resources are available.
Second reach out for help and connect with others for support. You are worth it and so are those you love. Remember that with PTSD, every day is a victory!
Q: You have started a national support group for the loved ones of those with PTSD. Tell us about the PTSD Family Support Network and how families can get connected?
A: Most loved ones feel alone and overwhelmed, not only those who are new to the world of PTSD, but those who have been dealing with it for decades. Connecting with others who are thriving is a real lifeline.
Love Our Vets – PTSD Family Support helps people connect via our Facebook page (Love Our Vets – PTSD Family Support). We also offer local support and online support. See www.LoveOurVets.org for more info.
We all need to know we are not alone, and there is hope!
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Learn more about more about Love Our Vets and Welby O’Brien at www.LoveOurVets.org