Seventeen percent of service members who fought in the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan have reported having symptoms of major depression, generalized anxiety, or PTSD according to the New England Journal of Medicine. Many of those men and women have families who are expected to care for them, be the rational thinkers, and keep their families and households in working order. The problem is that when PTSD is brought home, the family is directly affected. Over time the families often begin emulating the service member’s actions as if becoming a mirror image of them. They too begin having PTSD symptoms. This effect is commonly referred to as Secondary PTSD.
Many people may not be aware of Secondary PTSD as it is not something commonly talked about. Still, it is affecting more and more families of those coming back wounded from war. Below I’ll discuss my personal experience with Secondary PTSD as well as the experiences of two other caregivers.
It had been nearly two years since my husband came home from Ramadi, Iraq severely injured. That night I found him next to me in bed, in the middle of the night, overdosing from his prescribed medications. I called 911, picked his 6’ 3”, 250 lbs body off of our tall bed and all but dropped him onto the ground in an attempt to help him breath. While on the phone with an operator, I attempted CPR through his vomit. He lived after a shot of adrenalin from the paramedics and a few days in the hospital, but my memory of him dying in front of me remained. The nightmares and flashbacks began.
A month after the overdose I miscarried. A month after that, my husband began showing signs of a potential second overdose. I flushed his pills in fear of him not being as lucky this time. We ended up in a fight. A gun was pulled out, the police were called, and the night ended with his arrest for domestic violence. I didn’t sleep that night. I began experiencing multiple panic attacks so severe that I thought I was dying. I peeled my shirt off and laid on the floor, arms spread at each side – gasping, crying, begging god to make it all stop.
Hours later I was able to pick my husband up from the police station. I took him straight to Bethesda hospital to report his complications with his medication and his seemingly worse PTSD, and to get both of us a counseling appointment. While at the hospital we bumped into our case nurse. She pulled me aside and asked me what was going on. I explained to her everything that had happened in the last few months. I told her I had been feeling crazy after everything; that I had been having panic attacks, crying fits, nightmares, irrational feelings of impending doom, no urge to do anything outside of the home, and general loss of interest in anything. I told her that I had been having many of these symptoms since as early as months after he was injured, but some of them were new. She looked me in my mascara smudged, terrified eyes and told me, “Sweetie, you’re not crazy, I guarantee you have secondary PTSD.”
I had never heard of Secondary PTSD before. I was confused because my husband was the one that went to war; he was the sick one and the one with PTSD. We eventually made it to a counselor. She told me the same thing. I thought, “Now what?” I ended up being prescribed depression, anxiety, and sleeping medication. I never received counseling for just myself. I did, however, do my own research and did what I could to cope with my issues on my own.Today, now a widow from those pills I feared so much, I feel that a lot of time and the fact that my life is more calm has made many of my symptoms fade away. Still, as they say, hindsight is 20/20 and looking back I now realize I had been affected by my husband’s injuries much more than I was willing to accept back then. The stress was eating away at my very being and as a result, I was not a very good caregiver. I believe we could have prevented a lot of our issues if I had been paid more attention to and treated properly.
Mallory Boreland’s husband was wounded in 2006. Mallory has been her husband’s caregiver since. Though not diagnosed, she strongly believes she has Secondary PTSD after caring for her husband who has PTSD, a TBI, and other various injuries. “The first years were HELL”, she told me. “He was mentally abusive and violent. I’ve dealt with his drug abuse, lying, and just about everything else that goes along with PTSD. Things have calmed down for now with him, but now I am very unstable!” She continued to explain that she has been having nightmares about Iraq, though she’s never actually been there. She believes this is due to the stories she has been told by her husband about his deployment. She’s also noticed she has become abnormally panicky. “I now have triggers that make me panic. The triggers all have to do with my husband. If he raises his voice at all I panic”, she said. Mallory is currently taking medication for anxiety and depression.
Heather Hummert, the wife of a war wounded Army Veteran and the Vice President of Familyofavet.com, a website dedicated to providing information about PTSD, was diagnosed with Secondary PTSD by her primary care doctor in 2009. “I was a wreck”, she said. She had begun having nightmares and problems sleeping. In her case, the nightmares were about her husband’s trauma and how it had affected their family. “Nothing is normal anymore”, she told me. Heather noticed her temper had been abnormal and had gone “off the charts”. She admitted to occasionally having suicidal thoughts, though she says it’s far better now than it used to be. Luckily, when Heather started noticing that something wasn’t right, she was proactive about getting the help she needed. She did some research online and printed off documents about Secondary PTSD. She brought them to her primary care doctor who immediately gave her a prescription to help with the symptoms she had been experiencing and sent her to a counselor. These days she copes by writing for Familyofavet.com: “I make Secondary PTSD work for me rather than against me. Various symptoms have become a vehicle to help me write articles to help others”, she said.
Secondary PTSD is becoming a more widely known term in the Military community as more family members are showing symptoms and being diagnosed. It is something that should probably be paid more attention to as it hinders a caregiver’s abilities to take care of their wounded service member. Doctors are so acutely focused on the injured service member’s aches and pains that the rest of the family ends up on the back burner until, finally, they burn out. Though it is extremely important that the service member get proper care, it is also important that the family receive proper care – for their own health as well as the health of the service member and the rest of the family.
Heather was lucky that she stumbled upon the information online that she was looking for, and she was smart to print it off and take it into her doctor. Not everyone is that lucky and many are left undiagnosed and therefore untreated. The results of Secondary PTSD are varying, but across the board they seem to have the capability of being detrimental to a family’s well-being as a whole. It’s simple really – two sick people do not make a healthy person.
If you think you have Secondary PTSD, you must be proactive for you and for your family. Chances are no one is going to come to you and try to fix you. It may seem embarrassing because the caregiver is supposed to be the one to “keep it all together”, but remember that in order to do so, you must keep yourself healthy. Below I have listed Secondary PTSD symptoms and resources from various places around the web.
A few Secondary PTSD Symptoms (some of the same symptoms as PTSD)
- Excessive anger
- Unable to sleep
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Avoiding activities
- Hopelessness about the future
- Trouble concentrating
- Memory problems
- Self-destructive behavior
- Emotional numbness
Because the symptoms of PTSD and Secondary PTSD can be so varied, if you have any of these symptoms or any others be sure to see your doctor to get a solid diagnosis and be properly treated.
Secondary PTSD Resources