Love and Vulnerability

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It’s been an interesting week.  I’ve been busy promoting my newest book, My Life with a Wounded Warrior.  This little collection of essays is about living with and loving Jack, who in ’64 stepped on a landmine and got sent home early from his high school trip to the Marble Mountains outside Danang.  The book is proof positive, all printed up pretty, that I love and understand the stubborn old former-Marine to whom I have been married for going on twenty-five years.

And THAT scares the holy crap out of Jack.

Being loved makes him vulnerable.  Being vulnerable means losing control.  Which sends him running for the emotional woods.  So, here’s how my week has gone.

Jack puts down the book and wipes his eyes.  “I never knew you understood me this well.”

“Honey,” I say, “why on earth do you think I’ve hung around all these years?”

“I figured it was for the money,” he says, straight-faced. 

“You don’t HAVE any money.” I point out.

“I know,” he cries, “that’s what keeps confusing me.”

So, this little shared moment melts my heart a bit, reminds me of why I love the big lug.

Five minutes later he gets up without saying a word, and goes to bed.  For the next two days he says not one word to me that doesn’t involve what it is I’m planning on fixing him to eat.  At the grocery store he makes a crude remark about a woman one third his age, grins at me when he says it, dares me to love him.  I pat his hand, tell him, “Bless your heart.  Go wait for me on the bench out in front.”

On day three, he tells me he loves me and he’s sorry he’s been acting like a jackass and he doesn’t know why I stick around.  Then he doesn’t speak for the next two days.   Followed by, you guessed it, a remark so cutting it stops me in my tracks. 

It’s difficult, very, very difficult, to love a man with PTSD.  None of this behavior has one single thing in the world to do with me.  Or how much he loves me.  Or even what he wants from me.  It’s about him.  Period.  He’s adjusting to the knowledge that he is lovable. 

And it’s going to take a long, long time.

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Honest Love

Pam's front cover 2

September 1st My Life with a Wounded Warrior will be released out into the world, available with the click of a button at the great Amazon supermarket of books.  Now’s a good time to answer the question I have heard at least once a week since beginning this blog.

“What does Jack think about you sharing your personal lives with strangers and friends alike?  Putting the struggles and frustrations and joys of life with his PTSD right out there, for everyone to see?”

When I started this blog, this written exploration into my marriage, I had reached the point where, for better or worse, things had to change, or they had to end.  Now, because I’m as wonderfully flawed as anyone on this good earth, my assumption was that the changing was going to be done by Jack. Right?  He’s the guy with the raging PTSD.  Come on!  Of course, he’s the one who needed to change.

But a funny thing happened on my journey, the actual writing of My Life with a Wounded Warrior.

Gut-wrenching-bleed-all-over-the-page honesty very often left me remembering the love, the joy, the shared laughter that had once been the base of our marriage.  So, what started out as a kind of internet gripe session about the challenges of living with PTSD, quickly became a love song.  I did not mean for that to happen. 

My original goal for starting this blog was to give hope and understanding to other women who love men wounded emotionally by war.  Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  That’s the label for what our warriors experience. 

Of course, it’s not a disorder at all.  PTSD is the natural reaction to going to war.  The body shuts down, concentrates on survival, and there is so much adrenaline flowing that the survival instinct becomes embedded in the brains and chemistry and bodies of the men and women who enter into battle.  Besides, like Jack, these veterans have seen and experienced images and events that we civilians can’t, in our worst nightmares, comprehend.

So, my goal in writing the book, in writing this blog, was to, through utter honesty, share my experiences with Jack and his PTSD in the hope of helping other women to better understand their warriors. 

And, judging by the comments, that connection with other wives of veterans did absolutely occur.  Which brings me great joy. But something completely unexpected happened also.

My arrangement with Jack is that he read every blog post before it’s published.  Over time, through week after week of posts, for the first time in our twenty-five years together, Jack began to comprehend that I know who he is.  He came to understand that I accept him.   He, finally, GOT that I love HIM, not the man he wants to be, not the man I sometimes wish he was, but HIM.

And, here’s the kicker, I finally GOT it, too.  Accepted that right here, day-to-day, with this big, stubborn, complicated, old Marine is where I need to be.  Where I choose to be. 

I love him.  It’s really, after all these words, as simple as that.

Sometimes a Cigar is just a Cigar

chimps fighting

 

We’re having an issue at our house right now with what I call inappropriate behavior toward women and what the old Marine calls, the entire world picking on Jack when he means no harm and is such a lovable character no one could possibly take offense at his off-color remarks and too tight, too long hugs.

It’s a very old battle, prone to stalemates and standoffs.  Like every battle ever, there are lots of losers and never any winners.

But the issue popping its head up again this week does give me a reason to look at another point about living with PTSD.  Here it is.  Big, huge, shocking revelation.

Not everything in every freaking day is about war trauma. 

Jack was a misogynist before he ever pulled on those snazzy dress blues with the sexy red stripe down the outside of the leg. Though, in fairness, most all seventeen year old boys are mesmerized by boobs and the possibility, no matter how remote, of getting between some girl’s legs. Did participating in a war that blew him apart, physically and emotionally, end his emotional growth and freeze him in that seventeen year old mindset?   Does he now use offensive behavior as a blockade against emotional intimacy.  I don’t know.  It’s possible. 

But I suspect the man is simply un-trainable when it comes to women.

I tell him (here read shout, rant, rave) it is NOT acceptable to call my friends or the wives of his friends and breathe into the phone, “What are ya wearin’, you sexy thang?”

“What?” he blinks.  “Sure it is.  They know I’m kidding around.”

“No!” You’re right, I’m shouting and my face is almost certainly the same color as a baboon’s ass.  “It’s predatory behavior.  Don’t do it.  Ever.  Again.  Not.  Ever.”

“Huh.”  He shakes his head.  “Well, that may be how you feel, but most women enjoy that kind of witty banter.”

“No woman.  Ever.  In the history of the world.   Likes answering the phone, safe in her own home, to some jackass asking her what she’s wearing.  Not ever.  Everevereverever!”

“Well,” my jarhead says, “that’s your opinion.”

Or, how about this conversation. . .

“Full body hugs complete with running your hands along women’s backs and sticking your tongue in their ears is NOT appropriate.”

He glares, tries intimidation. 

“A lot of women like it.”

“NO WOMEN EVEREVEREVEREVER LIKED IT.  Except maybe on Patpong in Bangkok and even then, those women GET PAID TO LIKE IT.”

“Well,” he says, “you’re entitled to your opinion, I guess.”

Which leads to this conversation:

He scratches his beard, eyes like a puppy after a bully has aimed a boot at his ribs.

“What do you mean I can’t go to Jane’s birthday party?”

“Last week you called when I was over at her house.  I had left already but you did your stalker thing.  That whispering nonsense that so many women just adore?”

He glares and I admit it, I own it.  I’m a sarcastic shrew.  I exhale, draw a deep breath, unclench my fists and drop my shoulders.

“Well, I love you,” I say through gritted teeth, “and there are consequences for behavior. Jane is now uncomfortable around you and therefore you are not going with me to her party.”

Or

“How come I’m not allowed to stay alone in the house with your sister?”

 Or friend, daughter-in-law, niece, or any women, really, between 18 and 80.  And I’m being very conservative here with those ages.  There are exceptions on both ends of that scale. 

I shake my head. 

“Because last time she was here you made her uncomfortable, consequentially, you now have to put on your shirt and ride to the Wal-Mart with me.”

“Hey!  The second she told me to knock it off, I backed away.  And now, because you have hang-ups about affection, I’m to be punished?”

“Yep, that’s right.  Marriage is a bitch of a compromise, ain’t it?”

The Little Mermaid. Sorry, The Big Tough Marine Mermaid

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This last weekend I left Jack and Chesty home and drove to St. Louis with another writer, my good friend, Ruth.  I spoke at a great group called Saturday Writers, who just as an aside have a core collection of writers with a hands-on familiarity with combat.  If you’re a vet and looking for a writing group in the St. Louis area, this organization is well worth checking out. 

So, while I played all weekend, Jack stayed home and cleaned house for the arrival of our good friends from California who will be visiting for a week.  I’ve mentioned in earlier blog posts that each time I leave the house, Jack assumes I’m never coming back.  Oh, I don’t mean he THINKS I’ll not return.  But in his gut, he doesn’t expect to see me again.  Ever.  Combat can do that to a person.  Teach them to never,  not ever, rely on the return of anyone.  The absence of expectation is valuable in war.  It’s less so in civilian life.

And thinking about that lesson, it occurred to me that while I refer to Jack and other warriors with PTSD as wounded, they are not.  They are like fish out of water, struggling to figure out how to suck oxygen from air when they’ve just invested years learning, and learning damn quick, to develop gills.  If you throw them back in the waters of war, they’ll swim off good as new. 

They’ve been taught lessons that allow them to survive in an environment that no longer exists for them.  They’re hyper vigilant, obsessive about control, prickly with authority figures who resemble the REMFs that got buddies killed, nervous in a crowd, and extremely protective of those in their care.  All these traits kept them alive in war, made them good warriors.  Now, they’re civilians and these imprinted lessons are less useful, sometimes downright detrimental.

In a way, and I just KNOW this analogy is going to THRILL my Marine husband, they’re like The Little Mermaid in the Hans Christian Anderson tale, dragging themselves out of their true environment and limping along on bloody feet in order to be with those they love.