In this second episode of Mind Beyond the Mission, Brian and Laryssa are joined by Polly Maher, Lived Experience Lead – Families at the Atlas Institute, to discuss how Veteran Family members are impacted by mental health and operational stress injuries.

The spouse of a Veteran living with PTSD, Polly shares personal experiences of balancing motherhood, work life, her own well-being, and her spouse’s diagnosis. Polly, Brian and Laryssa reflect on their experiences and struggles with compassion fatigue, communication self-care, living in “survival mode” and managing expectations. They’ll share resources and strategies that have helped them in their journeys.

This podcast was recorded in English. French transcripts are available for each episode.

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MIND BEYOND THE MISSION EPISODE 2: “AND THEIR FAMILIES”

 

Brian

Welcome to Mind Beyond the Mission, a podcast for and by Veterans and Veteran Family members. I’m one of your hosts, Brian McKenna, and I’m a strategic advisor at the Atlas Institute and a retired Canadian soldier.

Laryssa

And I’m Laryssa Lamrock, strategic advisor at the Atlas Institute and a proud military Family member. In this podcast, we’ll be diving into the real issues experienced by Veterans, former RCMP members, and their Families.

Brian

We won’t promise you that we’ll do everything perfectly, but we can assure you that we’ll be getting real about the experiences that so many of us have in common but don’t always talk about, or don’t necessarily know where or how to talk about it.

Laryssa

We hope you find solidarity in our words and experiences, and more importantly, that you find a sense of hope that things can truly get better, and that you can live present in the moment and live life authentically.

Brian

 Let’s get into it.

Yeah, it’s interesting. You know, I’ve worked here for 23 months, and I met you for the first time, what. three nights ago. And we’re not alone, we’re joined by Polliann Maher, and so she’s joining us here today. One of the things that we’re going to be talking about today, certainly in regards to Families, it’s still the saying of, “and their Families,” and we’re finding throughout the Veteran world, we are getting some more traction, but we’re still having to remind people, you know, there’s this group of people that come with me, they are part of what I experience, and actually, they’re part of what I used to experience, because when I re-experience it with nightmares, I’m sleeping next to someone. When I’m having a brutal day, unfortunately, that spreads around to other people. And we’re all in this together, but we’re still kind of on the “and of their Families” thing. And there was always the saying of, “if the military wanted you to have a family, they’d have issued you one,” and it gets a little snicker, but that’s not a completely made up point. That was kind of the way things were done. And I can remember going to briefings where our spouses would all go into this room, because they were getting the family briefing, and we would get the operational briefing over here, and that was progress. Right? At the time it was, so, “and their Families.” That’s kind of where we’re at.

Laryssa:

Right. So I mean, we know that Veteran Families are core sources of support for Veterans who have physical injuries, but also mental health injuries. So Polly and I are going have a little bit of a chat today about how Families are impacted supporting a Veteran with mental health injuries. So Polly, why don’t you tell us a little bit more about you?

Polly:

Yeah, so it’s great to be here in Ottawa and meet you guys. I got to meet Brian in Vancouver, so I got to meet him before you. I am the spouse of a retired Veteran with PTSD, and he’s been diagnosed since 1999. I have well over 20 years of experience of going through this roller coaster with him, and we have two sons. I used to say kids, they’re not kids anymore. They’re 29 and 27, so they’re young men, and they’ve been along this ride with us. So I’m happy to be here with you guys today.

Laryssa:

So we really want to talk about how Families are impacted. So much of the education that’s available or conversations are about Veterans. So today, let’s really kind of focus on Family impacts. And we want to keep in mind, and something Brian reminded us of, is there has been a separation between Veteran and Family. And Brian’s reminding us that the Veteran is part of the Family unit, we shouldn’t be separating them. They are not mutually exclusive. The health of the Veteran impacts the health of the family unit, the health of the family unit impacts the Veteran, so we’ll explore some of that as well. So let’s just get into it. How and why are Families impacted by operational stress injuries, like PTSD, anxiety, other mental health conditions?

Polly:

How are they not? The person goes through this enormous change in their mental health. And I know for us it crept up somewhat slowly after he released, but it was about six months and the nightmares started and the smell triggers. You know, “Do you smell this?” And I knew nothing. It was the 90’s. I was totally in the dark. We wrote letters back and forth. There was no Internet, right. So I really never clued in that they were connected. He was out of the military, right?

So the unhealthy coping skills came into play with drugs and alcohol and avoidance and isolation, and so that made me feel like a single parent. I mean, that was probably one of the first sort of impacts on us as a couple, right? There was me and the kids, and then there was him. And I didn’t know who was getting out of bed, Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde, right? So that impacts you, you live in this survival mode, you become hypervigilant for your kids. So as a spouse, again, I couldn’t put my finger on all that back then. I was just doing the best I could with what I had. So when he got diagnosed, it was like it was a sigh of relief.

Laryssa:

You and I have talked about this before, Polly. I mean, I think it’s getting much better but it used to be not uncommon for there to be like a 10 year period before military members are diagnosed or post-release diagnosed. So not understanding what’s happening in your family for 10 years. And I think not only the military member of the Veteran can come up with negative coping strategies, but families very much as well.

And just as you’re talking, I remember my experiences and not knowing anything about mental health. We weren’t educated as family members on what to look for, what to expect, what might be coming. I really thought it was about me, the isolation, that withdrawal. I explored what rationally would have made sense to me in the moment, which meant it must be me. So what were your experiences when you were seeing those things happening? How were you processing it?

Polly:

I wasn’t processing them. And like you said, you take everything personally. So it was like, “What can I do better? How can I keep the kids quiet? Or how can I not put the pressure financially on him? What other tasks can I take on?” So it was just trying to do more and more and more, until there was a point where I crashed and burned, and that smacked me in the face. That wasn’t… it was gradual, but when it happened, I realized that the only person that could help me was me.

Laryssa:

So tell me more about that crash and tell me where you went from there.

Polly:

So the crash itself was, it was just little things that had piled up. He had been diagnosed, so I had those rose-coloured glasses that the psychologists were going to fix him.

Brian:

Like with physical injuries.

Polly:

Yeah, exactly. Totally. It was like, “Yeah, I’m good to go.” You go to therapy every week, and you talk it out, and you come home, and you’re going to be “normal,” whatever that looks like, right. So, but yeah, that didn’t happen. And as I took more on and I was trying to work and raise two kids, and the silence, the infighting, the arguments that we were having and stuff, and me taking everything on, so it was my fault. I wasn’t doing a good job. I wasn’t being a good spouse. I wasn’t being a good mom. And one day, I took a bottle of pills. And for me, that was my call for help. It was a bit drastic. My sister met us at the hospital. I mean, it wasn’t… I didn’t take pills that would kill me. So obviously, it was a call for help. But it was out of desperation. Because I think it was about, “what about me?”

Brian:

Yeah, so you’re a patient too, right? Do you feel people get that?

Polly:

No, no, because on the outside, I present really well. I put that mask on every day.

Brian:

Well, it seems pretty apparent to me that what happens is a lot of people approach the spouses, the children, the caregivers, as “What’s your capacity to help this person?” So the Veteran looks after the Veteran situation, the spouse looks after the Veteran situation. The kids are, “What’s Dad up to?” All this stuff is somewhat geared towards how you can help your spouse and somewhere in that we’ve got to figure out that you’re human, you’re a patient. And I think that’s where we need to go. Yeah, you know, that’s the blue sky of this, like, let’s walk there. How do we start looking at people like they are?

Polly:

I was the advocate wife back then with Veterans Affairs. The office in our city knew us quite well. I wrote to many ministers over the years. I did get letters back, so I feel like I hopefully paved the way for other Families. I was always trying to be proactive with getting my kids help and stuff. But actually, the first counselor that really sort of got the situation and helped was through an EAP program through the company that my husband was working for at the time. You know, it wasn’t VAC at the time, and for me, she talked about grief and loss.

And so we went down that road a little bit, but she really talked to me about self care and how am I going to manage my depression? When things get overwhelming, what do I need to do? What do I need to create around me? So it was really sort of an awareness. And I really dove into self help books and books on trauma and stuff. So it was, it was me educating me at the time, with a little bit of help from a social worker, to sort of help me process those feelings. Because to be honest with you, you know, I didn’t get admitted to the hospital. Basically, I went in, felt humiliated, and basically, the doctors said, “Oh, well, you guys have a psychologist that you’re seeing,” because I was, at the time sort of going in sporadically with my spouse to his psychologist visits. So it was a checkbox, right.

Brian:

Was there any feeling for you there that you had to hide your problem? Because we’re busy with this other one?

Polly:

Totally. I’ll be honest, I was in charge of finances. And I’m not a financier. I’m not great at it, but I was doing the best I could. But again, how much did I want to put on my hubby, right?

Brian:

So I want to ask you both, then, actually, Laryssa, maybe take a stab at this one. I’ve explained to people, the difference, as I see it, between capability and capacity. And where that becomes apparent to me is, there’s been a lot of forms put in front of me that I’ve had to fill out, I’m sure you know exactly what I’m talking about. In fact, even the site of the government envelope, that brown that looks like someone spilled coffee on it, I hate watching those letters. It doesn’t even matter where it comes from. It could be a tax form. But I see that and I think, oh God, here, I’m back filling out more of these things. And as you’re filling them out, one of the things that asks you is, can you shop? Can you prepare meals?

Yes, I can. I am capable of that. But if I’m being honest with you, my wife does 80% of that stuff. I can drive the kids to school, I actually do more of that. Because that’s in our house, kind of how we do our little rebalancing. But that was always apparent is you’re asking me the wrong question. If you’re asking how my house works, yeah, I can do every single thing in there. But I probably don’t. And then if it’s outside the house, especially when you’re suffering, the weight is all on that other person. So what’s your sense of that is like, where do you figure that person is capable? But can they actually do this? And do they actually do this?

Laryssa:

There’s so many layers to that. I think in many cases, the Veteran wants to contribute and participate and be part of the family unit. So they might do their best and soldier on to contribute and participate in grocery shopping or getting errands done, or whatever the case may be, taking the kids here and there. But that in itself, if the Veteran is taking every ounce of everything they have to get through that task, the Family members, often it’s hard on us, it’s hard on us. And it puts extra requirements on us to kind of manage that task as well and make sure the kids are ready to go in the car. But then try and manage the symptoms of the Veteran. And so we often end up taking those things on just on our own, because it’s just easier.

Brian:

And so we’re in the spot where you know, I can do the shopping, but I go do it, you also know I’m going to come back from there having smelled what it smells like in the butcher section, the noise, the aggravation, and I’m probably going to come back in such an aggravated state, that it would just be easier if you just do it, right. And then you do it.

 Polly:

Exactly. And it just becomes second nature, you don’t even realize that you’re taking over that sort of control piece. Because that’s the environment as a spouse that you’re able to control. So you’re keeping the symptoms at a minimum, the triggers that aggravate the symptoms to a minimum. So it’s like, no, no, I’ll just run there. I’ll do this. I’ll do that. Right, even though you’ve got six other things that you have to do and get the kids where they need to go.

And I think, Brian, you brought up a really great point. When I look back on my life, there were times where I was doing 100% of the stuff, and then it was a 90/10 scenario. I like to say now we’re in it over 20 years and it’s usually a 60/40. Very few times is it a 50/50 and he’ll agree with you, I’m not telling you anything that he doesn’t recognize as well. But if the Veteran’s working, like in our case when my spouse was working, he was putting all his energy into soldiering on and going to work. And then we took the brunt of it when he came home, because there were consequences at work if he acted out, or didn’t do his job properly.

Brian:

Direct and bold consequences.

Polly:

Exactly, right. And so when he came home, all of that came off, and he was angry, or, he didn’t want to be around people. So he isolated and went into bunker mode, and then his psychologist basically said “it’s your job or your family.” And we did separate a couple times. I mean, I look at myself as one of the lucky ones, that we were able to work through things. But we were basically signing a Separation Agreement. And we decided to give it one more try. And I’m happy to say that we did that. Sometimes I look at my kids and say, was it the best decision? I don’t know. But I made it at the time with the information that I had, and the heart that I had, because it was never about love. It was about the behaviour. I always loved him. And I had to separate that. Once I separated that it was easier to say he’s not a bad person. His behavior is unruly today, or his behavior is not nice, you know?

Laryssa:

And so you could kind of tie the behaviour to the fact that he had a diagnosis, that okay, there’s that behavior again, that’s related to the symptoms of PTSD. Your husband has PTSD, so you were able to kind of identify that. We talked about watching the Veteran become triggered or symptomatic doing errands. You talked about your husband coming home from work and having anger and he was isolating. What’s the impact on the family member? I think we, as family members, often get to pick up on real subtleties and in our own sense, develop hypervigilance, develop some of those other things that kind of sometimes almost look like PTSD itself. But so all of those things at that time, what’s the impact on you? What are you experiencing?

Polly:

So I think, again, just becoming hypervigilant and losing my sense of self a little bit too, right? Because work was my social piece, right? So I liked when I could keep a job. I left quite a few jobs, depending on where he was in his mental health. So I would have to go on stress leave, or I would quit the job altogether, so that was an impact because you have a lot of different job things on your resume, right? Why can’t you keep a job, right? It’s not really about me, it’s about my situation, my home life, right? And you take a job that works, that has flexibility, maybe that might not be the career that you wanted, or what you were able to do.

I think, with the isolation and stuff, it became sort of the boys and I… and him. So there was a little bit of that divide, even though that’s not what we wanted, the kids always came to me for everything, because they didn’t know how he was going to react. Like still to this day. I mean, my kids are in their 20s, and they won’t wake their dad up when he’s sleeping. That’s only because when they were little when they tried to do that, and he woke up and grabbed them, or was aggressive. He’s not like that anymore. But that’s their memory. Right?

Laryssa:

Tell me more about that. We’ve talked about impact on the spouse, we’ve talked a little bit about the dynamic in the relationship as the couple. Let’s talk more about impact on kids.

Brian:

I wanted to mention something there. In that regard, my kids had to learn how to wake me up properly. And they had to learn that you can wake someone else up by poking their shoulder, or just coming up to the bed and like, “Hey!” and start talking really loud. They learned real quickly that that doesn’t work with Dad. You know, I’ve never kicked a person, but you might get kicked if you’re in the wrong spot and you wake me up at the wrong time. And what’s your sense with that of like, how the kids have to learn things that kids really shouldn’t have to learn?

Polly:

Yeah, yeah. It’s a great point, Brian. I think that’s true. I mean, I know I had to learn how to wake my husband up, whether it was out of a nightmare, or whether it was, you know, in the morning to get up to go to an appointment or whatever. And I got it down pretty good. It would be like, I would put my hand gently on maybe his shoulder or his chest or depending on how he was sleeping and say, “Hey, Sean, it’s Polly. We’re in bed. You’re safe.” Nobody taught me to do that. There was no guide, there was no doctor, no nothing. I just figured that out, that it worked.

Brian:

Yeah. But interestingly enough, I’ve been in doctor’s offices, where they’re getting paid quite a significant amount of money to do what you just did. They’ve sat with me and said, “You need to see the colours in the room and actually pay attention.” You know, like, that’s a red clock there. And there’s that yellow wifi sign across the room. And those, like you’re doing grounding techniques.

Polly:

Totally, but maybe Sean was learning those, but I wasn’t learning those with him, right. And I have to say, I was lucky in that I kind of pushed my way into a lot of his treatment. And he willingly allowed me to participate and I feel blessed. And I think that’s made more success with our relationship and our life, and how we’ve had to trudge through things because he’s been open to, hey, I read about a different treatment, or, hey, maybe we should try this modality, or different things. So, that’s been really successful for us, it just depends where the Veteran is and how open they are to those things, right. So looking at it as a team rather than individual, right.

But back when you talk about impacts on the kids and that’s a big one. I mean, I think we could do a whole episode on guilt. Because I, I’ve been, in the last few years, my therapy sessions are all about guilt. And the guilt is about my kids. And I love them to death. And they’ve grown into great young men. But I have a lot of guilt of what they went through. And I know in my heart that I did the best I could with the tools that I had at the time. You can’t shield your kids. I think my kids are more aware of mental health. And our house ended up being a gathering house, which to me was a success. If friends had mental health issues, they could talk to us, like we talked openly about it more in their teen years. And to be honest, I mean, I don’t know what the boys think. We’ve never had really in-depth conversations, because I think at some point, I don’t know if I want to hear it.

Brian:

Yeah, one thing that comes to mind as you’re speaking here is, I remember when I had a four and a two year old, and I was going overseas again. For them, it was their first experience of me going away, but for me, it was the third time. As we’re getting dropped off at the airport in Vancouver, that first trip away, my kids had no concept of what I was explaining to them. So I was telling them the truth. You’ve been used to dad being gone for a bit. Now Dad’s going for a long time. And you tell them the truth, but they have no concept of it. The next tour after that, my five year old – a year has passed – said to me as I was getting my stuff out of the car, “Don’t let the Taliban kill you, Dad.” And I still have those words carved into my mind. Because five year olds shouldn’t know that Dad could die. They certainly shouldn’t know how to name terrorist groups in the world. And the fact that my career choices put them at a level of understanding that, let’s be fair, that’s too much. That’s too high of an understanding.

But that I had a group of about 1000 people that were doing the same thing. So we had this kind of idea like, yeah, this is hard on our families, but we’re all in this together. But when you come back and you have a problem, and these four guys don’t, you’re not in it together anymore. And now I’m the patient and I’m putting this additional pain on the family. Man, is there ever a lot of inspiration there to just hide it, bury it, yell it away. Because anger is better than pain, you know? Well, it certainly feels like it is. And we know we’re the source of the problem a lot of times. We’re not missing that. But we don’t know what the heck to do about it.

Laryssa:

There is no handbook, there is no guidebook. We do the best we can at the time and kind of in retrospect looking back, there’s some things I would change. There’s things we can’t undo. I do think sometimes there’s opportunity too and I guess it’s about having some insight somehow. You know, my oldest son’s a paramedic now and he’s at risk for moral injury, for mental health injury, and having lived the life before I’m very aware of the risk. So we have the conversations and his response often is, “Mom, we’ve talked about mental health in the house, I’ve seen it, I’ve lived it, I’ve supported someone through it. Maybe I’m better prepared than some others.”

So it’s really hard because that tenacity and awareness comes through that adversity. It’s hard sometimes that we’ve seen our kids go through those difficult times. I guess I’m an optimist, that I try to take some of those opportunities as teaching points. Talk to my kids that anger is normal. How you handle that anger is what makes the difference. You know, I would kind of joke around and say, oh, even the cats are fighting. So, that happens. So I tried to look at that, like I said, as teaching opportunities. But it is really hard, because there isn’t a lot of guidance, we have to kind of figure it out on our own.

Brian:

Polly, you mentioned something to me the other day when you said it’s different when the kids become adults or something to that effect. And I thought about that for a while, as I’m not there yet. My kids are still teenagers, they’re still developing how their thoughts work. So what does that actually look like? And what do I need to be scared about here?

Polly:

Well, it happens overnight, let me tell you. You blink, and all of a sudden, they’re taller than you.

Brian:

They’re there. We’re there. (laughs)

Polly:

(laughs) And they’re on their way, doing their thing. And I would say, my oldest son struggles with depression and anxiety. And it’s difficult to not do that push-pull constantly, you want to fix them. You think you know what’s best for them. But they’re adults, and they have to make their own choices. So, one of my lines that I think he’s sick of hearing right now is, “It’s all about choices.” So you can make healthy choices, you can make not healthy choices, you can make bad decisions, good decisions, but they’re yours. So you do have to play your cards, right? How you choose to do that is yours. Dad and I are here to support you no matter what, right?

Because I think sometimes pushing them too much just pushes them away, and then they shut down. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been the mom that if my son doesn’t answer me for a couple of days, I’ll drive to wherever he’s living to make sure that he’s okay, and to tell him that I love him. And I’m here to support them. And what does he need from me? Because I don’t know, right? And I can say what worked for me, but I don’t know what worked for him. Like they grew up in a totally different era. I think a lot of how I handled things goes back to my family of origin and how things were handled, right. Like, we don’t think about those things. But what I’ve learned going through PTSD is a lot of times with the Veterans, how they handle stress, how they handle their symptoms, sometimes is from family of origin stuff. If their family never talked about feelings, they’re certainly not going to talk about feelings with PTSD, right?

Brian:

Yeah.

Polly:

And I want to say we were a little bit more of a touchy-feely family, hugging and that, and I think I had rose-coloured glasses on. I was the last of four kids. So in my life, everything was blissful. And then I got married at 21 and moved to Germany. And that was a culture shock and the whole thing, right, I was in a military family then. But I think that plays a part. So my awareness of that has really helped, actually. And then my husband’s awareness of that has helped. So he feels like he’s kind of broken a little bit of a cycle. It’s nothing for him to tell the kids he loves them at the end of a phone call, to give them a hug when he sees them and stuff. Not something he grew up with, so I’m really proud of that piece. Like, I think Laryssa, we talk a lot about it, it’s about, let’s be optimistic. There’s some really good things that have come out of this. I’m not saying we have the greatest family relationship all the time. But we can have some great moments to hang on to, so that I can outweigh now all the shit that we went through in the past, right?

Brian:

Yeah, and one of the things we look at as we’re producing stuff that’s going out to the public and Veteran family community is let’s have the truth, let’s have it bold, but there’s got to be some hope in there too, right? And we don’t want to be faking it. We don’t want to be pretending it’s there. But where it is there, we want to be looking at it and going, okay, there’s a moment there that we can work with.

Polly:

I think, Laryssa, you asked me a question before about what I did, what helps and stuff and I think another big piece for me was managing my expectations. So what was Sean capable of doing today based on where he was at in his journey, right?

Brian:

And what if that doesn’t match what you need today? Like, he can’t do Home Depot today but you really need a Home Depot run?

Polly:

]You adapt. Or does Home Depot really need to be done today?

Brian:

Yeah.

Polly:

Because I think as a society, we’ve got this quick fix, everything’s got to be done now everything, whatever. And so, I describe myself as a super gray person, I’m not black and white, although my husband’s a black and white thinker. And so I’m a little bit more easygoing, he’s coming along, but if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. And for a while, yeah, it’s a hard thing and you’ve got to always weigh those pros and cons. Because if you give in too much, and I’m not – give in might not be the right word, but if you accommodate too much, then there’s that codependency that comes in. And again, we could do a whole thing about codependency, right – ah, planting the seeds for further podcasts (laughs). But if you always accommodate having a bad day, instead of now, what will happen is…

I can think of just a couple months ago, we woke up, it was a Saturday morning, I’m throwing some laundry in and tidying up the house or whatever, and he gets up, and he’s not in a good mood. And he starts ranting and raving about, we got to get rid of this, and we got to take this to the dump, because my son didn’t do what he wanted him to do. And so it’s no good anymore because it’s not put together properly. And so this whole catastrophizing thing goes on. And I just looked at him, and I said, “So we’re going to have one of these days?” and I walked away. Now, 10 years ago, I would have never done that. But I was like, I don’t want to have that kind of day. So I’m going to go and do my own thing. And he went and did his own thing. And he meditates a lot now, and does a lot of grounding things. And he came back to me about an hour later, and he goes, “Babe, I’m sorry, it’s, it’s me. It’s not you.” And he goes, “I don’t want to have one of those days.”

Laryssa:

There’s a few things I just want to pull out that you’ve talked about that I wonder if would be helpful to other Families and other couples. It sounds like communication is a huge part of what has brought you guys to this point of having a fulfilling and happy and fun relationship that sometimes has bumps and bruises along the way. It sounds like through that communication, you and Sean have both kind of agreed to be honest. Sometimes we need to be honest and humble and just put shit out there, even when we’re not proud of what it looks like. It sounds like through that you guys have developed different strategies. And through that have kind of created a sense of trust. You’ve done a hell of a lot of work. Both of you have had to do that to get to a point where you can say to him, “Oh, we’re having one of those days” and walking away. So all of that, I just wanted to identify that it’s a work in progress. It sounds like you guys have done a lot of work and steps to get to this point. And yeah, just didn’t know if you had anything you wanted to add to that.

Polly:

Well, thank you for that! (laughs) That perspective, it sounds pretty positive.

Brian:

The smile on my face when you’re talking about that is I’m thinking back to, the Army does teach you communication. And it teaches you to throw in the garbage every single syllable that is not absolutely necessary to explain date and time and what and when and what are we doing? And the rest of it is gone. And I do wonder sometimes, are we setting ourselves up for a really, really good piece of brief communication over a radio, and a really terrible way of like, talking to your kids?

I look at it, like, we have this thing they teach people, whether you’re in the military or policing, where they look at the use of force continuum, right. And it’s this onion, basically. And there’s the outside layers and whatnot. But suffice it to say, when you’re dealing with a problem, what you’re trained to do is come in just one level above that, right? Someone someone’s being loud and boisterous, well, you just show up with presence, and you one by one ratchet your way up. But the theme of how you handle that is that you always come in one level above what’s being put in your face. Really, really good for handling a riot. What happens if all I know to do in communicating with you is to always come in one level above, right? I’ve literally been trained to have a really bad home. But pretty effective for work, gets stuff done.

Polly:

Right? Makes total sense, Brian, makes total sense.

Brian:

Well, yeah. And then we come home and we deal with you like that, because it worked at work. And then it’s about to not work anymore. But we learned that the hard way. You’re laughing.

Polly:

(laughs) Oh, yeah. Yeah, I mean, anger was a big piece in our household, right? My husband has a nice deep voice, he has a radio voice. So it can be all calm and zen and all that kind of stuff. But it can be pretty friggin’ loud and can be pretty friggin’ scary. And that’s the voice we got for many, many years when the kids were young, because anger was his go-to emotion. Like, there was no other emotion. I think if he was sad, it came through in anger, because that’s where he felt he had control, right, and that’s his stuff. And he dealt with it and I’m glad about it. But Laryssa, getting back to you and talking about the communication and all that and it does take work and one of the things we have in our house is progress not perfection, because it is constantly progressing, we’re never done on this journey.

There’s always another level that you can accomplish for yourself first and then for the family as well because when I when I realized that I needed to take care of myself first, so put that oxygen mask on first, we’re told that all the friggin’ time but we never do it other than when the plane’s going down. So, not that I want to say that my life was constantly going down. But I needed to focus on Polly. Who was Polly? I don’t even sometimes know. I look at it and I’m 52 years old now and I’m like, “What do I want my life to look like?” I’ve got all these opportunities, and again, the positive for me is I was able to take a not-so-great part of my life and help others with that in a career, and I feel super grateful for that. And I want to make that road less bumpy for others. But you’ve got to walk that road. We can walk it alongside you.

There’s so many more programs out there than there was 22 years ago. So many more. So, Brian, it still is “and Families.” However, the plus is there are programs out there, and when you talk about communication, one of the programs that helped us, I mean, we tried couples counseling, my hubby did not like couples counseling, I could go into a lot of stories about couples counseling, but he walked out of couples counseling, like it just didn’t work. And his therapist was like, “He’s not ready.” My question was, “When is he going to be ready?” I’m ready, right, because this is not working at home. I’m glad you see him once a week for an hour, but I have him the other how many hours a week, right? So what do I need? What do we need to better communicate?

And in 2013, we were given the opportunity to go to Can Praxis, which was equine. My husband does not like horses, he’s scared of horses, he got kicked off a horse apparently when he was younger. But you know what, he went and we had a couple moments. But we came home from that with some really great foundation pieces. One for him was, model the behaviour you wish to see in others. And he’s like, “I’m not modeling good behaviour for the boys. But I’m expecting good behavior from the boys.” Right? Because that’s the military. That’s the respect piece, right? And so he came back, and even though the boys didn’t go on that with us, there was a real success with the relationship with the boys. So I think it was good timing. When I think about it, their relationship that they have with their dad now is better, because he was able to sort of take that step back and look through a different lens, about what his expectations were of the boys and how he had set this standard of being an asshole. Sorry, I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say that. But you know, and that it was okay. We were always going to forgive him, because we loved him. Right? We loved him. So yeah, we might be upset with him, but we’re always going to – we have that unconditional love, we’re always going to take him back in the fold. And the other piece was learning how horses, when you drive them away, they’ve got to come back on their own. And so that analogy of when you drive your family away, just because you come and say, “Sorry, sorry, babe. I was an asshole” doesn’t mean that I’m going to – I might say thank you.

Brian:

Yeah, I’m better now. So we’re good, right?

Polly:

I’m not good, right? I’ve still got that splatter all over me. You vomited on me or whatever, right? Even though it wasn’t physical or anything. I’m feeling the residual effect. And so now, years later, I can say, you scared away the horse and the horse wasn’t ready to come back. Or he’ll say it to me, because he knows that I’m quieter, or I’m puttering or I’m whatever. And then I can go and take a bath or I can call a girlfriend or go for a walk or whatever. And he doesn’t take it personally, like before it was like if I tried to do any of that and I didn’t accept that apology, then it was another fight, right? Or it was, “You don’t love me.” You know, he was catastrophizing things, like “You’re gonna leave me,” and all of these things, right? And so it’s just it really helped us. It wasn’t the golden ticket. It’s a piece of the puzzle that we needed at the time.

Brian:

Right. So without giving me a doctor’s answer, what’s compassion fatigue like within a relationship?

Laryssa:

I think because we love our spouses – we love them, we’re proud of them, we see them suffer – and whether it’s a mom thing or a parent thing or a spouse thing, we want to fix them. And so for me, it was almost gradual, I was willing to give pieces of me to try and help him be better, and over time, that chipping away and not replenishing those pieces wears at you, and I found for me, I also relinquished my boundaries a bit by a bit by bit because I loved him and because I wanted to help. So not taking care of myself, not being at that point that I potentially could be impacted by this as well, I ended up with compassion fatigue, and because I didn’t address that either, actually ended up with my own diagnosis of depression, which is another way that family members can be impacted. So Polly, just wonder if you can relate to any of that, and if you’ve had experiences with compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma, any of your own impacts.

Brian:

I guess, like, the other way of saying it is when do you get sick and tired of us?

 Polly:

Well, I mean, I did get sick and tired of my husband and that was earlier on. You know, in the early 2000s, he had gone, he was in therapy. He had a lot of unhealthy coping skills still. He went to Bellwood for the inpatient program, I did the family program, I was always involved in any family program that I could be involved in, when he was in a facility. And, you know, that was a tough time for us because prior to him going to Bellwood, he was in the psychiatric ward for six weeks for a suicide attempt. So there were so many things swirling and stuff like that. And so for about a year after Bellwood, things were – our Friday night was, he went down one hallway of the church to AA and I went down the other hallway to Al Anon. And that was our Friday night date night, and it worked. But then some unhealthy coping skills started to rear its head. Financially, we weren’t, you know, in a great place. But I think behaviour wise, I just wasn’t willing to go back down that road again.

And so I was like, this is, this is a boundary, I’m going to draw a line in the sand. It was very literal. And it was super hard. Thankfully, we were somewhat amicable. I know he hated me during that time. And I moved somewhere with the boys and he moved back in with his parents. He went back to Bellwood again, I did the family program again, even though we weren’t technically together, but I was still supporting him, we had to co-parent, right, so we had to have some kind of relationship. And it was weird for our family, because I would still like, I think we split in November, and in December, I still went to his family’s Christmas, like at his aunt and uncle’s, because we wanted to keep it normal for the kids. And I mean, it might have been awkward for everybody. We thought we were doing the best we could, but so that was one time where that was a real boundary in the sand. People that know me know I elasticize boundaries. So I try to keep them, but I, again, manage my expectations of where he’s at today, is he capable? Can I keep that boundary? Or do I need to sort of lessen my expectation of that boundary today?

Brian:

When I started this job,I went to talk to a local police chief in my community, they’re pretty advanced in the way they handle mental health. Well, that’s my take on it. And we’re having a chat, and I wanted to talk about a completely different issue. And he said, you know, if you want to talk about policing, we need to talk about compassion fatigue. And so he explained it to me what his sense of it was, and he had a unique insight, which was, he starts to get concerned about a person when he sees loss of empathy. And to him, that’s the start point. Does that make any sense? Is there a family version of that?

Polly:

I would say so. You kind of get to the point where you’re like, what the F, right? Like, if this happens, okay, if that happens, I don’t really care. You know what I mean? I think for me, I was the family planner of everything for my extended family, and I just was like, yeah, that can go by the wayside. But when I look back, I think we lost sort of some closeness there. And I think, you know, for me, it was resentment. For me, it was a lot of resentment. And I was carrying, not necessarily vicious anger, but I was just really resentful that it was always about him and it was never about me or the kids. And everything revolved around him and every benefit that we could get for me and the kids revolved around him. So then you’re resentful not only to him, but to the system. So I think for me, yeah, probably burnout, compassion fatigue was somewhat like that.

I think the other thing that we have to look at is, you’re slowly building your resiliency or you’re slowly building your cup up again with self care stuff, and then something totally unrelated to PTSD happens, because life happens, right? Could be loss of a parent, loss of a family member. For me, it was just an event that happened. I’m not, you know, I don’t feel comfortable talking about that piece, but it was an event in 2018 that really threw me for a loop. And I think I hit a wall again, right? And I was like, okay, I don’t want to go through that unhealthy piece. I already had been on medication in the past for depression over the years, but wasn’t on it, and so the first thing I did was, I have to walk the walk that I tell everybody to walk, right, which is hard to do. And I went to my doctor’s and I talked to her and she’s like, well, I can put you off work. And I was like, no, no, work is my saving grace. I need purpose. Plus, I don’t want to be at home with my husband 24/7, right, let’s be honest. So we came to a compromise of working four days a week, and going back on medication, and seeking a new counselor. So it was like putting those building blocks back in place. And it was a whole year before I went back to work full time again. If you would’ve asked me 10 years ago, I would have just boom, gone back to work, right?

Brian:

Well, I look at this and I think there’s an operational side of this, and we’re not going to talk about military operations too much, but in a deployment, you can go over to a place with an idea of, here’s how it is. This is the aggressor, this is the group of people dealing with aggression, and soldiers, we’re here to help the little guy. By the end of that tour, though, it’s really easy for you to look at it and go, you’re the maker of your own misery to some degree. You’re contributing to part of this problem. I went through that when I watched the withdrawal from Afghanistan last year. You know, there’s this huge part of me thinking, I’m fighting for your country. Could you get on board with that? And that’s related to compassion fatigue. You know, to some degree, I can get there in a six month tour. Well, if I compare that to what my kids have been through dealing with me, can they get compassion fatigue after 11 years of dealing with this? Well, if I can get there in six months, do the math. But that’s only a recent thought that I’ve had, as in the last two years.

Polly:

I’m glad you’re having the thoughts, Brian.

Laryssa:

I’d say that it’s important for Families to consider this part of the conversation. To me, if you’ve come to the part where you have no empathy, that’s too late.

Brian:

Yeah, but how do you know you’re there?

Laryssa:

I think there are signs. I think the resentment is part of building up to that, I think the physical exhaustion, I think you need to just be real and have a look at yourself. And it is hard supporting someone with PTSD. But man, I love my husband, he’s a great guy, and he’s not the PTSD. So every day, I have to get up and say, am I in or am I out? And if I choose to be in, then there’s certain things I have to accept. I have to accept that I need to take care of myself. I have to accept that I need to teach my children how to set their own boundaries. It means I have to accept that I’m not going to fireworks with my spouse. Those are choices that you said, Polly, life is about choices. So those are choices I have to make as a family member.

Brian:

See, we’ve talked before about the five minutes I need, right? So if you look at it this way, say I come home from work, stress. Every little bit of driving, trust me, stress. I’m the kind of guy sometimes, like, if it’s a song I like, or I’m stressed, I’ll just sit in the driveway for a little bit and just find myself a couple of minutes. You know, because I know if I walk through that door, as soon as the kids see me, they’re going to come and do what kids do. “Dad, here’s what’s going on in my life” and I’ve got to this place of one way or the other, finding that I need that five minutes and I’m gonna steal it in the driveway, I’m gonna go talk to my neighbor, even if we don’t have anything to talk about. It took me years to realize the simplest of concepts of, I need that five minutes, and then I can hear about what’s going on in your life. But if I walk in that door, and am like “Yeah, honey, how’s your day going?” I may have said those words, but I’m not listening to a damn thing, because I’m not there yet. Yeah, I’m not ready.

Polly:

You bring up such a great point for me, Brian. It was probably around 2007. Sean had gone to Homewood. The kids were in counseling while he was in Homewood. And so when he got out, we did family counseling. And so one day, the counselor looked at me and he said, “So Polly, what do you need?” and I looked at him, “What do you mean, ‘What do I need’?” And he goes, “What do you need? You’re talking about this stress, so what can Sean and the boys do to help you out with that?” And I was like a deer in the headlights. I was like, “No one ever asked me that.” Right? And he’s like, “How about 20 to 30 minutes when you walk through that door?” So like you said, you need that. And I was already probably giving that to Sean, because I could read his thing. But nobody was reading mom. Right?

So at first, it was really foreign, right? And the kids would be like… I would walk in the door, and everybody would want to, like, kind of come to me, and then I would see them walk away. Oh, you know, I’ll give you your 20 minutes or whatever. And so then, maybe I’d change or whatever. Because it was just like, you walk in, it’s like, “What’s for dinner? Oh, I’ve got hockey practice tonight, I got to finish homework.” And then my spouse wasn’t working, so he was alone all day, and he just wanted to give me a hug and a kiss, which is lovely, but I just needed to like, wash off my day kind of thing before I got bombarded being mom, right. And so now to this day, my family will walk in and they will read me now, which is so lovely. And they’ll be like “Mom, do you need your 20 minutes?” Alright, so I don’t need it all the time now, because I’m much better at keeping my cup half full, instead of totally empty.

Brian:

But if they’ve got the question, they’ve given you the space to say yes.

Polly:

Yes, exactly. And they’re okay with it. Right? Because it was a conversation we had together. It was explained to them why I needed it. And then I can say that to them now. Like I can read them and instead of bombarding them, like how was your day and whatever, because it’s a normal thing, right? Maybe they’re not ready to tell me how their day was. So let’s talk about it later.

Brian:

A big thing in our house is, you wind up doing the caregiver role. It’s just how it is. Going back to what I’m saying about errands and jobs around the house, like it is not 50/50. I can’t even lie and say it’s 60/40, it’s not. She does the vast majority of those things. And that puts them in the caregiver role, puts them in the ‘making it all work’ role. And does that drag you out of the wife role? Is it hard to be the wife, when you’re the caregiver?

Laryssa:

We can have a whole conversation about caregiver, because for me, even using the term ‘caregiver’ puts an expectation on the family, right? So I am a huge advocate for using the term ‘supporter’ and it is actually a conversation I had with my spouse when I first met him knowing that PTSD saying, “I’m not going to be your caregiver, I can’t do it.” But even so, you slip into that. And absolutely, of course it does, because and the reason I don’t like using the term ‘caregiver’ is that there’s a power differential, like, a caregiver to me is an early childhood educator who is taking care of a child, or it’s a nursing assistant taking care of an elderly frail person, there’s this differential, and so how can you be in an intimate relationship with someone who’s supposed to be an equal when there’s this power differential?

Brian:

Yeah, and you know what a lot of us don’t like about it is, I don’t want my house to be like a doctor’s office. And I don’t want you to try to be my doctor. And I don’t want to feel like I’m being pathologized at the kitchen table and stuff like that, it’s frustrating. But I look at it like, I’ve left the doctor’s office a number of times, and I’ve come straight home. And the first thing that happens is, “What’d you talk about? How’d it go?” And what’s going on in my mind is, I just did an hour of hell. And I don’t want to talk about the talking. I just did. I’m done talking. But here’s this person that loves you, and they’re also there sniff testing the rest of the day. They’re doing what you did, right? They’re trying to figure out, “Is this the kind of day we’re going to have?” They’re just doing the basics, but to us sometimes they can feel like, yeah, okay, you’re you’re trying to be my doctor, and it’s like, no, I have a doctor. Be my wife. But is that possible?

Polly:

I think the lines get blurred, definitely. I mean, for a while there, we were having good communication, but my spouse was looking to me for advice or just feedback on things that now I’ve been able to say, you need to take that one to your psychologist, right. So that’s me again setting a boundary and being more in that wife/partner role, right? And less in that fix-it, caregiver role. But again, it took a lot of education, knowledge, understanding, and just some self-awareness to know that I was even doing it and to know now, because I slip into it sometimes, right? It’s normal, I love him, and I want him to have the best quality of life he can. But I want to have a good quality of life too. And I think, Laryssa, I just wanted to go back to a point that you were talking about. Because I think what I’ve learned along the years with it was in peer support for 10 years, prior to coming to Atlas. And one of the things that I find with spouses is we take on the mood that our loved one is in for the day, right? So now I can say, and I can sort of have that, that individual boundary, what kind of day are we going to have?

Brian:

And are you snowplowing? For me here, like, when you’re doing that, are you trying to get the problems out of the way?

Laryssa:

For sure, for sure. That’s where the hypervigilance comes in. We are so attuned to our loved one, like, really, you walk in the house, we can’t even see you, and we know what kind of –

Polly:

We can feel you.

Laryssa:

And so we’re anticipating your triggers, we’re trying to minimize your triggers so you don’t walk into the kitchen and get triggered. We are trying to remove all the things that could set you off. So it puts us into this state of hypervigilance or hyperarousal and that’s what we kind of touched on before, that sometimes as a result of that, we also experience isolation, we shut down sometimes. So it’s really interesting. But absolutely, we’re snowplowing to try and make your day better.

Brian:

So this is the thing is like, when you’re snow plowing – I like to use that term of trying to make the problem go away before we walk through it – that can make us feel like we’re one of the kids.

Polly:

Very true. Very true. I think it depends on how you do it. Eventually you get to a point where you can kind of communicate it. So I’ll just give you an example. The other day, we were making – it was Monday before we came here – and we were making steak and baked potatoes and stuff, but don’t have my barbecue ready yet, so we were doing it on the stove and the oven. And the potatoes, I had put garlic butter on, and it leaked on the oven. Well, my husband has smell triggers. And they were pretty good, but I’d say the stuff with the Ukraine has heightened some of his symptoms lately, and so we’re all aware of that. So he was on his way home, and so I called him and I said, “Hey babe, the house is a bit smokey. Stuff was on the bottom of the oven. There’s a smell, I got the fan on, I got the windows open. But I just wanted to let you know before you walked in the house,” and he said, “Thanks, I really appreciate that.” Because then he could set himself up, right? Because what happens to him with smell triggers is he would get triggered, he would get the smell and he would get angry. And then he would get a headache. And then he would be miserable. And it’s just a downward thing. But because I was able to sort of give him that heads-up, the smell still bothered him, but it was gone as best as we could. But then we could all mitigate and we sat down and had dinner, and I mean, so it works for us. I’m not saying it works for everybody. But that works for us.

But getting back to sort of that detachment piece. It’s really – I mean again, we probably could have a whole podcast on how to do that, but it’s really about, you know, how do you detach? How do you not take on that mood? And I think it’s almost harder for – like Brian, you said the people that don’t maybe get diagnosed until years and years and years later, right? And it’s just so difficult because you love your spouse so much and you want them to have a good quality of life and you’re just anticipating all of those negative things that have happened in the past. What’s worked for me is not going so far back in the past. And understanding that this is a blip, we call them blips now. And so what we say is he still has blips, but we all bounce back. We all bounce back much quicker. So what used to take place, when he had a bad day, it would go into a bad week, it would go into a bad month, right. And now, we could have a bad 10 minutes.

Laryssa:

And you have the skills to recover.

Polly:

And then we have a great rest of the day.

Laryssa:

I know we’re coming close to the end of our time. You talked, Polly, about sometimes you need 20 minutes, and you have mentioned that you have a lot of experience providing peer support to other Families. I know you were great at what you did, and had your heart fully in it. So I kind of want to ask about the broader picture from that experience, from your own experience. What do Families need?

Polly:

Like I said earlier, the resources have improved. Navigating those resources is difficult. So unless you have someone and that was one of the roles I loved about peer support, was I really helped people navigate the big system, the bigger systems, whether it was the Department of National Defence if they were still in, or it was Veterans Affairs, you know, what are the benefits available? Or it was the community resources. That was my job, right? I needed to know those things to help them. You know, resources in Windsor would be different than resources in Niagara, right. I think the virtual world has opened up broader resources in the fact that you don’t have to live in your area, maybe you could take certain workshops and stuff.

For me, the biggest piece is really planting seeds. And that psychoeducation that awareness of, you know, I think when we first talked about psychoeducation, and stuff, it really was always focused on how can you best support your Veteran, right? And now I think it’s really about, how can you put that oxygen mask on yourself first? Because if you don’t do that, you’re going to be no good to your Veteran. And you might fake it for a long time. And it might feel like it’s good. But really focusing on what can you do for yourself, learning about boundaries, learning about expectations, and learning about the signs and symptoms of PTSD? And what needs to be clinically worked on? And how can you help your spouse navigate that world? But how can you take care of yourself while you’re doing that? I would say that’s one of the biggest things for me,

 Laryssa:

 So I’m not sure if you can answer this, maybe you partially answered this question already. But you disclosed that you’re in your 50s, now your boys are more grown, you and Sean are in a great place and have great strategies for when you’re not in such a great place. But some of the listeners might be younger Families, couples, and I just want to put out there that Families doesn’t have to be a spouse and kids, it could be parents, we haven’t even touched on parents, could be siblings, could be – maybe it was your fireteam partner, then that’s who you’re leaning on now as a Veteran. But if you could go back and talk to 25 year old Polly, what would you tell her?

Polly:

Are you trying to make me cry? Um, I, wow.

Brian:

You didn’t prepare for that question? You don’t have that one all ready to go?

Polly:

(laughs) I did not! No, no, no, no, no. I think I would just say, put yourself first. Take care of you. And use any and all resources that are given to you. Even if you don’t think that it’s going to be a good fit, make that call, try that. And don’t be discouraged when the first or the second or the third are not what you thought they’d be, you know, it’s really about managing your expectations, because there’s no quick fix to PTSD. It’s not going to be fixed. You’re going to live with symptoms for the rest of your life. The Veteran is, and you are as their family member.

So how can you have the best quality of life? And how can you put the best tools in your toolbox that work for you? And those tools are going to change over the years. Because I’m assuming that as we age, and Sean’s memory gets worse, we’re going to have to get some more memory aids in here, right, that aren’t part of our support package now, but they might be later, right. So I don’t know if I answered your question totally, but I really think I would tell myself that I matter. Not to lose myself in the situation. And that I’m doing the best I can with what I have.

Laryssa:

Thank you very much.

Polly:

Thank you.