Journalist Sean Langan provides a brave and wonderful service by sharing with readers the difficulties he faced, in particular his inability to maintain closeness or intimacy with his loved ones upon returning home from his imprisonment by the Taliban in 2008. The article is here in The Australian.
Sean’s circumstance as a prisoner, like Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl’s, is extreme and, fortunately, rare. However, many of the symptoms Sean shares in his article, are those symptoms that those of us, returning home from the wars, face in our lives, and, by extension, our families and friends suffer through as well.
I find the loss of intimacy, the distancing of oneself from others, and the general numbing of emotions and murder of relationships that many inflicted with PTSD, depression and moral injury experience, are the least spoken of and the least understood. In particular, the distancing from one’s partner, both physically and emotionally, is an affliction that ravages many of us and is one of the key reasons that professionals speak of PTSD as a relationship-killer. Tragically, but not surprisingly, the ending of a relationship is often a trigger for a veteran’s suicide.
I certainly went through those experiences and it cost me relationships and hurt people I loved. Looking back, it seems so odd, so foreign, but that was certainly me: sharing so very little about myself, letting no one know I was hurting. I was afraid to confide in someone, anyone, for fear of exposure and because I thought my peers, friends, family, strangers…would see me as weak, ill and not a leader. Never mind that I would ever apply such framing to a friend that came to me with such problems; double standards always exist for yourself.
I’m not even sure I understood that I was being distant or cold, my mind was so overwhelmed with stress, with noise, as if 1000 TVs were playing at once, (that seems such a right description to me, although I can’t remember where or from whom I heard it). The alcohol was key in all of it too. Each day was a measured exercise to get to my first drink, my first hit of medication to sooth the sadness and the guilt, and placate the fury my whole life was wrapped in, like a taut barb wire eco-skeleton stretched along my skin, never letting me move or act without some connection or thought to the wars.
And I lived like that in silence, for years, with a few exceptions. An ex-girlfriend who expressed concern at my state was told she was out of line and that SHE was the crazy one. Traveling on my own, I would sometimes get to a state in a bar where to others it was clear I was emotionally distressed, so drunk I was visibly sad, muttering to myself and drinking doubles of bourbons or Irish whiskey as fast as they could be poured. In Paris, San Jose, Louisville and so many other hotels and bars in Europe and the US, I’d be approached by a kind hearted stranger, if they persisted past my first silent responses, they would get a polite but firm request to fuck off. Sometimes I can recall the guy being a veteran himself, saying he understood and knowing he did, we’d buy each other drinks, make introductions and then drink aggressively, in silence, in mourning, in anger. Anger at what? Everything. Ourselves and the people all around us who didn’t measure up. Plus, we didn’t belong.
In Arlington, I would drink at a bar, late, right near Ft. Myer. You could get pitchers of beer there, along with your side of Jame-O or Jack. The bar would be full of soldiers and vets, just sitting there, not talking to one another. All in pain, all dying inside, but all quiet, none of us willing, wanting, able to break through the encasement we lived in. Like a womb or a cocoon, alone inside that encasement, you could revel in your anger and your isolation, and make co-misery with your guilt and your sadness.
To your friends, your family, your partner, not a word, not a god-damn sound. And to Him? Well, I was in a wasteland.
The hardest thing to share, the most humiliating, is the loss of physical intimacy. Lust and sexual desire are still possessed, but the ability to make love to your partner and achieve that special intimate connection is gone. I’m at a loss for how to describe it and this post has gone on much longer, and in a much more rambling manner, than I intended, obviously, I’m not terribly comfortable expressing it, but this is the point I am trying to make: If you are suffering from PTSD, depression, and/or moral injury, it is very likely you are not having sex with your wife/girlfriend or husband/boyfriend. That happened to me. In multiple relationships. There were many reasons for those relationships dying, but the PTSD induced loss of intimacy seems to have had the longest knife.
It is not a physical or sexual dysfunction, you can still operate and act, and it does not mean you do not find your partner attractive or that you lack feelings for her/him, but it is a mental block, something so hard to explain, so embarrassing and so, so very frustrating. For both you and her/him. Understandably, for a young woman and through no fault of her own, the loss of sexual interest in her by her husband or boyfriend is devastating.
If this is happening to you, or if it is happening to your partner, please address it. Trust me, like other symptoms of PTSD, depression and moral injury it is something that can be helped and managed. But without attention, without treatment and care, and without love, it will destroy everything you ever loved and wanted in your life.
I can be reached at matthew (@) matthewhoh.com if you’d like to talk about this.