Dear Patrick: You have often discussed trauma survivors and how difficult it can be for them to have a sex life. There is one aspect of this topic that is important to me, which I don’t see mentioned very often. My husband is a veteran. It is difficult for us to even sleep together, without sex, because of his flashbacks. He wakes up screaming and he has even briefly attacked me because of a nightmare. As soon as he wakes up, he realizes what he is doing, and he feels terrible—and so do I.
Some of the things he has told me about acting out sexually during his tour of duty have really upset me. I encouraged him to tell me everything about his time in the service because I thought I could take it, and I wanted to help him. Now I wonder if I can really stand the terrible images that I have in my head. I want my husband back, but I often feel that the man I married no longer exists. I want to have sex with him again, and we often try to make love, but it is not easy for me to trust him and relax. Can you help us?
Dear Haunted: As a society, we have this strange idea that we can take ordinary men out of their normal context, train them to kill other men, put their lives in danger, and then send them back to their civilian lives without any help making that transition. It’s no wonder so many of them suffer from PTSD and do not do well on their own, trying to become something other than soldiers once the uniforms come off.
You and your husband can’t do this alone either. Your desire to help him is very praise-worthy. I understand why you asked him to tell you what had happened. You had no idea what you were letting yourself in for. But it is a lot to handle, being the container for someone else’s fear and rage. The fact is that your husband probably did not do anything that most men would not do, under the same stress—in fact, he probably didn’t experience anything most women in dangerous military service wouldn’t go through.
I recommend that you get in touch with one of the government-sponsored or non-government organizations that serve veterans. It may take many phone calls to locate services for your husband. You will need to be persistent and patient. He needs counseling, and so do you. Even though he was the one who was in the military, please remember that it is traumatic to watch someone you love go through so much suffering. It sounds to me as if you are also grieving the loss of the person you married. Whether you can still love the man you have now is an open question, but I hope you will give counseling a chance before you decide to leave.
In the meantime, you have a right to be safe. If you don’t think you can relax in bed with him, sleep separately. He may sleep better as well knowing that he can’t wake up in a disassociated state and do harm to somebody he loves. Eventually, with appropriate therapy, he won’t be so triggered. His nightmares will ease up. EMDR is a type of therapy that has been shown to be quite effective at helping people with PTSD, and there are many anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications that help as well. You may start to recognize your husband again, if he gets the right kind of help.
I am assuming, of course, that he is willing to go to therapy and explore the use of medications to help him to sleep and cope with his emotions. If he isn’t willing to do so, then your choices are far harder. Counseling of your own will help you to stay centered and figure out what is best for you.