PTSD and Anxiety Nearly Destroyed My Life: My Recovery Journey
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) often co-occurs with other mental illnesses like anxiety disorder. Traumatic events along with a lack of healthy coping strategies and professional treatment can worsen anxiety, making PTSD more complicated and difficult to manage. Both are treatable and must be addressed at the same time for the best outcomes.
As a combat veteran I saw some terrible things. I never expected that they would ruin my life. I thought that when I got home, everything would be fine, that life would go back to normal. I expected to fall into an old routine with my wife and to forget what happened overseas.
Instead, I developed PTSD, struggled with anxiety, nearly drove my wife away, and even considered suicide. Recovery from PTSD, I learned, is a journey. Treatment isn’t a cure, and when I accepted that and put in the work anyway, my life turned around.
Returning Home to PTSD
When I came back home from my final tour, I knew almost immediately that something wasn’t right. I felt paranoid and anxious. I blamed my wife at first and accused her of having been unfaithful while I was away. After other tours, I’d had a period of getting used to being home and out of the war zone, but this was different.
My anxiety went through the roof the more my wife insisted that she had never cheated on me. I couldn’t relax around her. Then the nightmares started. I woke up nearly every night from dreams about being back overseas. It got to the point that I stayed up late to try not to sleep. Then I couldn’t function during the day.
I stopped spending time with friends and family too. I knew they would want to talk about my experiences, and I couldn’t handle it. The only place I felt reasonably comfortable was at work. No one knew me there, and I never advertised that I was a veteran.
My wife was so patient with me, but I crossed the line when I started to get aggressive. I lashed out at her, continued to accuse her of cheating, and basically took out all of my fear and anxiety on her. I felt miserable and like I had failed her and was unworthy.
Getting an Anxiety and PTSD Diagnosis
I credit my wife with getting me to treatment, eventually. First she had to convince me to see my doctor, who referred me to a psychiatrist. I almost couldn’t bring myself to go to that appointment, but I thought about how miserable I was making our home life and went.
The psychiatrist diagnosed me with anxiety disorder before mentioning PTSD. My wife and I had discussed the trauma of being in combat and assumed that was my main issue. The doctor pointed out that, yes, I had PTSD, but that the intense feelings of worry over talking to other people, going to sleep, and going out to do anything other than go to work indicated anxiety. She even thought I had panic disorders, which I put down to bad memories.
As I thought about it more, I realized I may have always had this issue with anxiety. While on tour I was often too busy to worry, but in down times I had anxiety attacks. I lost focus and couldn’t get anything done. Instead of writing to my family or hanging out with others off-duty, I felt paralyzed, trapped in my bunk and unable to do anything if I wasn’t forced to.
The doctor said PTSD and anxiety often go hand-in-hand. I probably already had a tendency toward anxiety, especially since my mother is a worrier and probably has undiagnosed anxiety disorder. The doctor said PTSD can make anxiety worse, and I may have not had a diagnosable condition until I started to show signs of PTSD. It was a lightbulb moment for me. I realized that if I was going to get any of this under control I needed professional help.
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How I Turned My Life Around
My wife and I found a mental health facility for a 30-day stay, which turned into 60 days. The trauma was so deeply ingrained, I needed more time to heal and focus. Knowing my more complicated diagnosis, the staff there made it a point to help me process the trauma while also putting an emphasis on learning to manage anxiety.
I went through intense therapy focused on remembering and reprocessing the traumatic experiences I had overseas. This was extremely difficult. Every instinct I had told me to forget it, bury it. But I had to remember to change how I respond to and think about those memories.
The supportive environment was really helpful, too. I lived in a residence with a few other people struggling with their own issues. We had some group sessions, and I learned a lot from them. They helped me practice managing my irrational reactions. I learned how to modulate my emotional responses.
For my relationship, my wife and I participated in relationship therapy. We both learned how to communicate better. My therapist guided me through ways to express my feelings and experiences to her without lashing out.
I learned and practiced strategies for managing anxiety and lowering my stress on a daily basis. The routine we had in the residence was an important takeaway. As a veteran, routine has been a big part of my life, but coming home felt like a free for all. Rebuilding a routine helped me manage my moods and feel more comfortable.
Rebuilding My Life Continues to Be a Journey
Before I went to treatment, my marriage had nearly ended in divorce. I had no friends, and my family never saw me. I didn’t enjoy anything in my life, except maybe work but mostly because it was a relief and a distraction.
I have taken all the tools and strategies learned in treatment and applied them to life back home. It’s a tough journey. Daily, I have to resist the urge to slip back into isolation, fear, and anger. I go in for outpatient therapy at least once a week and keep up with my therapist. He’s been a huge help in transitioning back to home life.
My wife has been amazing, too. Not only are we not divorced, but we both feel our relationship is stronger than ever. I’m slowly working on rebuilding friendships and relationships with family too. They have some lingering resentment because I ignored them for so long. I don’t blame them, but I’m working on explaining it.
In the meantime, I take solace in work. I enjoy some new hobbies like listening to music at night instead of playing video games. I have taken up running and signed up for a race. Having a goal and something that forces me to make healthy choices is useful.
I know that the memories of my traumatic experiences will never go away. They will never be okay. But they are no longer the focus of my life. I may still have moments where they threaten to overwhelm me, but I can cope now. I’m going to be on this journey indefinitely. I am constantly making progress, and I am so grateful.