Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Married to the Military

I cannot imagine my life
without this man.
Several months after Steve and I married, my sister-in-law asked me, "So how does it feel being married to the military?"

I don't recall exactly what I replied, but it was something along the lines of, "I didn't marry the military; I married your brother."

As a military kid herself, she knew better. The military has been the landscape of our marriage, of our family. It has shaped many of our choices, it has shaped my career. It has affected our children's education, friendships and mental health.

Indeed, what hasn't it touched?

Some of the aspects of being a military spouse are common to families who do not have a military member:
  • Moving from one location to another, including to another country. (My brother and his family have lived in as many (or more) houses, including a home in Singapore.)
  • Living apart for periods of time - and not because you're having marital difficulties.
  • One spouse giving up or modifying career options for the sake of the other.
  • Getting caught up in the social expectations to conform: to marry, to be heterosexual, to put work before family. 
The one big difference is that corporate execs or bureaucrats don't generally put their lives on the line when they go to work. But police officers, first responders, firefighters, and some defense contractors do that. As spouses, we share the worry that our best friend might never come home.

Brian, 2002
When Steve returned home after his six-month deployment to Sarajevo, our five-year-old greeted him excitedly with the words,

"Daddy! I thought you were dead!"

My heart broke that he had been worried about that for the whole time his dad was gone.
So, yes, being a military wife has certainly had an impact on our life.
I'm thinking about all this today for two reasons: (1) this Thursday will be our 27th wedding anniversary (yes, I was a teenaged bride, why do you ask?), and (2) a friend shared a heart-wrenching blog about a military spouse who was on the brink of suicide and is now in residential care, in part because of the effect military life had on her husband, her marriage and her own mental health.

In the first case, the years have flown by, and we will celebrate them.

In the second case, I don't think it's hyperbole to say that the lack of support from the military for this woman was tragic. Thank God she survived.

But I have a few thoughts on the matter. (I'm an opinionated gal. I have thoughts on EVERYTHING.) For one thing, I think we underestimate how emotionally difficult it is to live with someone who is depressed. "I felt very helpless" she writes of coping with her husband's depression and heavy drinking. "I knew my husband needed some sort of counseling, but I also knew it wasn’t something you could force someone into. I started to feel very overwhelmed."

And because her husband's mental health was not treated comprehensively, but was simply medicated, his behaviour had an increasingly negative impact on her and eventually the marriage broke down. In fact, if you tot up all the stressors in her life, you get a picture of someone who is at serious risk for stress-related illness. 

So, being a military spouse certainly didn't help her, but the same thing could happen to anyone who finds herself (or himself) without support, especially from her or his partner. As this compassionate website puts it, suicidal thinking "happens when pain exceeds resources for coping with pain."

My point - and I do have one - is that we shouldn't assume that being a military family is worse or better than any other lifestyle, but that we should all be aware of people who are at risk of being overwhelmed and do what we can to help anyone cope with the pain of excessive stress and depression.

Shame on the military network for letting her - and her husband - down.

Shame on us if we don't reach out to those around us who need someone to help shoulder their pain.

Now go give someone a hug or say a prayer or light a candle or send someone a note to let them know you're thinking about them.

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