Like the chapters beforehand explained, MSA materializes from a lack of preparedness to a new way of life, as well as a lack of identity, from guilt and a loss of friendships, or a number of other variables. These invisible scars will pinnacle in rapid succession after separation from service, causing our husbands to begin an unseen trek up the face of what I will coin as Transition Mountain.
This mountain of transition from an active to non-active member does not have just one face. Like the real physical mountains, it has a north and south face. The north face of the mountain is considered the more difficult, the side with more ice and the riskier of the two. The south face gets more sunlight, where the snow will melt and provide more accessible ground for vertical travel.
For most veterans I will estimate that through this separation anxiety they will travel both sides of the mountain. Beginning with ascending the south side—first struggling through valleys of loneliness or rockslides of guilt—their minds will push past these barriers. At least that is what they think; but what really transpires is the ice on the north side builds, a snowball of pain and pressure grows and titers on the top and waits for a single event or a buildup of events to set the snowball speeding toward the bottom, crashing into an abyss.
In the book, On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace, authors Lt. Col. Dave Grossman and Loren W. Christensen clearly explain that, “To be at risk for PTSD, you must be exposed to a traumatic incident in which two things occur. First, the incident must be a life and death event that involves actual or threatened death or serious injury to you or to others. The second element that must occur is for you to respond to the exposure with intense fear, helplessness or horror.” If your veteran has experienced a fight or flight event—predominantly in war—his brain may be responding with what would be considered a natural response to the threats in the environment. This is one way in which PTSD differs from MSA. With MSA, the vet does not need to experience a life or death situation to have symptoms of loss or loneliness. He may not feel burdened over his war choices or struggle with accepting what he has seen. He might be perfectly at peace with those events that often times affect others in the form of PTSD, and yet, he still struggles.
This transition out of the military is like his battle hike up the south face. You’ll begin to recognize changes in attitude, sleep patterns, or stress. And if you catch these things early, I believe as wives, we can wholeheartedly help our husbands back to ground-level, especially if and when more severe symptoms arise like that of ice accumulation on the north face of Transition Mountain.
MSA can be sly with its tactics and will sneak up in the most unsuspecting ways. As we are already aware, these warriors will not take lightly to these new struggles such as loss of identity, guilt, etc. He will choose to ignore them, choose to push them away, and convince himself he is completely normal and has no problem with adjustment.
Understanding is the first step to overcoming. Apply that to any area of life and you’ve begun to accept the truth of achievement. To climb a mountain, you first have to understand the path to take and the tools required to get you there. You have to understand the outside elements and look ahead for the changes you might miss if not aware. Then you can reach the summit. Climbing this south side of Transition Mountain, the side no one will admit to having, and the side no one sees, is much like taking a hike without proper directions. Few of us were prepared for the road ahead when active status became inactive. Most of us were caught unawares and fumbled for the proper way to address the struggles we’ve discussed earlier. These new obstacles weren’t there a few months ago; these new emotions weren’t present within the active time of military service. We naively think it will be a cakewalk, finally being independent from the military’s grip of control. How wrong it was to think we could just walk away from one lifestyle and enter a whole new one without growing pains.
As the wife, we need to provide the understanding our veterans will not receive anywhere else. Suggesting he look into local or specific organizations to help transitioning vets is a positive step but our empathy to a proper viewpoint is critical. So, much of understanding is simply training. Our men were trained to face war but never trained on the civilian lifestyle change.
Referring to what our men are going through as PTSD probably isn’t always the correct term but it is a familiar oneand so we automatically resort to that. In some cases, vets may have forms of PTSD along with MSA but there are situations where I believe our men are not given a fair play and are thrown into the PTSD world unnecessarily. When PTSD is broken down, it looks like this: Post, subsequent to after. Traumatic, which could be translated as shocking or distressing. Stress, or anxiety, difficulty, and pressure. Finally, Disorder, a disruption of normal, which could also be translated as unsettled. I’ve preferred to separate the two definitions (PTSD & MSA) because PTSD does not adequately represent a veteran’s transition issue when truly broken down in definition and clinically. Military Separation Anxiety, as defined in the beginning of the chapter, seems to be a better way to describe these issues in entirety when a defining traumatic event, such as the death of comrade, isn’t the contributor. Wikipedia defines anxiety as, “an emotion characterized by an unpleasant state of inner turmoil.” Anxiety related separation creates imbalance in an individuals’ life. A fear of the unknown! When that separation is from the military, then you’ve defined someone dealing with loss from his career change, and from his familiar routine and friends.
Comprehending the vastness of PTSD is hard, both how it looks alongside MSA and then truly just as PTSD. You can encompass many different levels of a veteran’s struggles inside these two terms. After all, most of us have a veteran who may feel pressured to be the primary provider, despite being completely unsettled from leaving behind his familiar self and routine. In a way, that looks like PTSD, but it is different because it is not just about an actual traumatic event, but instead, a transition where there is dismantling and reconstructing of identity, direction, and purpose.
Create the safe zone at home, become the pillar of understanding for your veteran. Recall the puzzle and the stationary piece of your relationship as his wife. In some cases, this is going to be about tough love: Tell him he needs to just get over something and ‘warrior up’ or to stop being defensive. Encourage him to understand his new emotions and let him have his moments with no judgment. Love him at times when he is unlovable. As he sees it, these obstacles will be considered a weakness and that is why he will push so hard to not identifythem. Help him know that it is normal, and that it is okay. A wife should not have to remain silent as her hero ascends this mountain, even when your assistance is thrown to the wayside. He needs his buddies. If you can reach another wife with a veteran spouse, team together and insist they call one another. Whatever steps you can take to provide reassurance to your husband, take those steps. Be the foxhole your husband can return to when he encounters a new opposition. Husbands need to know they have their wives support not contempt. I believe that with proper understanding the south face of this new battle will be what reinforces your marriage rather than what tears it down. It is through that daily grind of real marriage that commitment is shown. Bring the same perspective on how to view MSA as Grossman & Christensen offer for PTSD in their book, OnCombat: “Most cases of PTSD are like carrying 30 pounds of extra weight around: It is extra work, but you can live with it, and if you make the effort to rid yourself of the PTSD, you are going to be fine. To reiterate, some people do suffer from full-blown PTSD, but it is comparatively rare. There are also other people who have all the manifestations, but they are mild. It is important that you bring the issue into perspective and think of it more along the lines of being overweight than being stricken with cancer and all that that means. Put it in perspective and make peace with the memory.”
-Excerpt from Leaving War, Finding Love: A Veteran's Transition by Hillary Sigrist