Love and Vulnerability

PamJack2

 

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.

9e696_OldPeopleHoldingHands1

 

 

Death, Destruction, Pestilance, and Famine. Seriously?

four horsemen of the apocolypse

Nicknames fascinate me.  Each one is a mini-story, a tiny peek into the life of its owner.  I asked my Facebook buddies to share their nicknames and received a plethora of funny, apt, and some downright peculiar offerings. 

Fred (for a girl)

Peanut

Spanky (I raised three boys.  I’m not going anywhere near an explanation for that one)

Morningstar

Olive Oyl

Grub

The only time I’ve ever had a nickname was during the five years I was diving twice a day in Paamul, Mexico.  I was younger then.  Oh so much younger.  And thin.  And adored French cut one-piece bathing suits.  The boat captains called me Pan Dulce.  Surreptitiously.  And, as everyone knows, the best way to make anything public is to whisper in secret.  So, I was Pan Dulce for a few years. Twenty-years later, I fear a more appropriate name would be Big Buns. 

A few months ago, when Jack started hanging out with a group of three other guys from the local Vetcenter, I was happy he had the company of men who understood and supported him. But, my husband always, still, surprises me, catches me off-guard, and leaves me with my mouth just slightly ajar and my mind spinning.  Soon, I began to overhear phone conversations that went something like this:

“Hey, Death!  How’s it going with you?”

“Morning, Pestilence, are we still on for coffee at Ricks?”

“How’s it hanging, Destruction?”

After one of these conversations, I gentled up to Jack and asked the obvious question.

  “What the hell is going on?”

“Jim, Marty, Leo and I are the four veterans of the Apocalypse raining doom onto the heads of those who mean harm.”

I was sorry I’d asked.

And, it occurred to me that, in so many ways, both small and big, Jack’s world view is still different from my own.  Or, more accurately, my world view remains different from his.  Because, after twenty-five years, I’ve gone far further over to the dark side than Jack has swung into the light.  Still there’s a gap there. 

I call my friends Gypsy Jan, and Sweet Linda, and Witchy Woman Ruthie and The Gorgeous Patty. 

Jack hangs out with Death, and, Destruction, and Pestilence.

 

 

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.

Hold on to Your Ass.

PamJack2

I’ve been thinking lately about the rewards of being married to a man who has survived battle and fought his way through the trauma of returning to civilian life.  I’m not sure all combat vets are stubborn, but Jack is.  I suspect if he wasn’t, he’d have died when he stepped on the land mine in ’64.  Jack is loud and claims his place in the world.  I have vet friends who are just the opposite – quiet and stoic and self-contained.  I’m pretty sure both responses come from the understanding that not much in the world really makes all that much difference once you’ve seen the worst and the best of what man is capable. 

“It don’t mean nothin’.”  Jack says.

So, as the wife of a man who’s struggled with PTSD for fifty years, a man with the beginnings of dementia and the after effects of a stroke, I am often frustrated with Jack’s emotional numbing and his obsessive behavior and his paranoia and his depression. I cuss and moan and complain.  That’s not a secret to anyone who follows this blog.

But I also remain in awe of Jack’s ability to grab life by the balls and demand to be recognized.   Two years ago a stroke robbed him of strength in his hands, his left hand in particular, and slurred his speech. The VA said he wasn’t a kid anymore, he should age more gracefully and accept his limitation.  

That response pissed Jack right the fuck off.     

He bought an acoustic guitar and enrolled in a music class at the university.  Walked right into a college classroom, just a few weeks after the stroke, and demanded a place with those kids.  Day after day for a full semester, he struggled to position his numb hand on the neck of the guitar and keep the pick between his fingers.  He’s Jack, so he made inappropriate remarks to the college girls and pushed his way into the blooming love lives of the kids.   And, he gained almost full use of his hands and had a lot of fun in the class, too.

He also bought a karaoke machine.  At the time, I was convinced he did this just to see if he really could drive me completely insane.  And I’m still not convinced that may not have been part of his motivation, but singing country and western songs (very, very, oh god so badly) four hours a day, improved the hell out of his speech.  The next semester he took an acting class and the elocution helped his speech even more.  The memorization of his lines jump-started his memory.

The other day a friend asked me, “If a young woman came to you and said they’d fallen in love with a combat veteran, what advice would you give them?”

I’ve thought about that for a while and here’s what I’ve come up with:

“Hold on to your ass.  If you survive you’re going to be stronger, braver, and closer to God then you’d have been married to anyone else.  You’re in for a wild, wonderful, painful, heart-wrenching, and unbelievably joyous ride.”

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?”

Jaws

shark-sam-7

This week that toothy shark spiraled up from the black, sunless depths and took a good-sized chunk out of my ass.  This week I remember why I have such a difficult time floating in the good moments of my marriage.  This week, I’m tempted to exhale and sink into the dreamless release of surrender.  This week, I’ve lost my sense of humor.

Jack has begun his journey through this year’s Vietnam Anniversary dates.  He’s doing his best, using his good-mental-health-tools to fight against it.  But he’s increasingly negative, his mind filled with conspiracy theories and the same old paranoia and distrust of the government he’s battled since crawling ashore at Red Beach near Danang.  He’s a little more irritable, talks about selling the house, is becoming increasingly obsessed with buying a couch or a rug or a car. 

We’re less than a week into the season and already I’m desperate to break the cycle.  I have a clear, visceral memory of why, in our younger days, I’d agree to anything to stop the downward spiral.  Slip on backpacks and travel around Asia.  Done that.  Move to Mexico and become scuba instructors?  Been there.  Sell everything and move to Panama?  Bought the T-shirt.   

Because you see the very worst thing about this time of year is that my husband hates me.  He really does.  Because, I’m the mirror.  Oh, I’m not saying he doesn’t love me.  But, right now, he mostly hates me.  And, here’s the very hardest part, after all these years, I hate him too.  The mirror of marriage is, after all, double-sided.

I’m bone tired of dealing with his PTSD.  Sick unto death of the financial messes, and the negativity and the physical pain and psychic wounds.  And, he’s just as tired of dealing with a wife he can never please, who has suddenly, after twenty-five years, decided she wants more in life than being his cheerleader. Right now, today, the two of us cannot say two words to each to each other without starting a fight.

So, how are we going to get through the next six months?

The same way we always do. 

Stack minutes into hours, and hours into days, and days into weeks into months until we look at each again and remember why we’re together. 

Recite what I call the marriage prayer.  “Lord help me in my unbelief.”

And, if all else fails, we’ll sell everything and fly to Thailand, or Tasmania, or Timbuktu.

But, guaranteed, come December 14th, the anniversary of the day Jack stepped on the landmine, the day he left Vietnam, we’ll still be right here, glaring or gazing, either way, we’ll be side-by-freaking-side.   

Floating.

bull-shark

Right now, Jack and I are floating in a warm, salty sea of emotional calm.  But, even as I feel the metaphorical sun on my face, my bare shoulder brushing his, I know, I KNOW, tiny biting fish and enormous dark shadows with sharp teeth wait just below the surface of everyday life.  This knowledge has been reinforced so many times in my marriage that it is almost impossible to arch my back, throw my arms to the sides and just. . .float.

Last week, author Jan Morrill(The Red Kimono) interviewed Jack and me for a piece she’s writing for submission to the next Wounded Warrior Project Anthology.  When Jack revealed that his other marriages lasted, on average, less than four years each, Jan asked why he and I are still together after twenty-five years. 

Good question. 

Here’s Jack’s answer:

“I can’t get rid of her.  I keep messing up and doing my best to run her off, but she sticks like glue and won’t leave.”

I believe he was only half-kidding.

Here’s my answer:

“Because I’m still learning life lessons from Jack.  This marriage is where I need to be.  Still.  After all this time, through all the messes and all the glorious times.  Right now, my marriage is teaching me to float.  To take life one moment at a time and luxuriate in that moment.  To know that there is nothing I can do about what is, undoubtedly, already swimming up from the deep, ready to bite me on the ass.”

Jack laughed at my answer.

“That’s sort of like beating your head against the wall because it feels so good when you stop, isn’t it?”

Then he reached across the table and took my hand.