His outbursts were starting to come out of nowhere. His anger was getting unbearable. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had begun walking on eggshells, every single day. So when we discovered that my husband’s changing behavior had a rational reason, it was something of a relief.
Post traumatic stress disorder. PTSD. I was under no illusion, it was going to be a long road for both of us. But together we would handle this. He would take extended leave from work, he would see the psychologists and the psychiatrists, he would take the right combinations of medication, he would keep his energy up and his anxiety down with regular exercise, and he would recharge with daily mindfulness practice.
But how long was it before I saw that he was slipping backwards? The checklist was right there, the answers to how we could move out from this dark fog of PTSD, but he wasn’t doing even half of it.
Not to worry. What he needed most was a supportive wife, I decided. I could do that. I was determined that no-one would ever have seen such a supportive wife as me. I would let him have time when he needed it, and space when he wanted it. I would take over all the responsibilities of our home and children to keep his stress at a minimum. I would delay my return to work so I could be there for him as much as possible. I would let him sleep. I would let him drink. And I wouldn’t ask anything of him so he could dedicate every last ounce of his dwindling energy into getting better.
I was absolutely sure that not only would we beat this demon, but that we could become the perfect example of how to overcome a psychological injury. With these naive blinkers on, it took me a long time to admit that my husband still wasn’t getting any better. And despite the fact that I was supporting the hell out of him, he was gradually becoming entirely dysfunctional.
Who was it that first mentioned enabling to me?
Surely that’s a term for people dealing with chronic alcoholics and drug addicts, I told myself. I was a loving wife. And I was the most supportive wife anyone had seen. There was absolutely no way I could be enabling my husband. I just wanted him to get better. I just wanted our old life back.
ENABLE (verb) 1. to give someone the authority or means to do something 2. make possible or easy
Enabling means not setting clear boundaries, or not enforcing those boundaries. It means that by preventing the person from experiencing the consequences of their own actions, they will never have the chance to reach their full potential.
Okay, but I still had no idea what that looked like in my house. In our life.
With years of hindsight, I now realize that enabling looks very much like love.
It took all my courage to finally acknowledge that I was petrified of him falling any further than he already had. And I didn’t agree with the choices he was making about his recovery. I thought he could be doing so much more. I thought he should be trying so much harder.
I had unwittingly been enabling my husband for years. Over time, my love had turned into fear. My support had turned into control. And it was ruining us both.
So, over the years, how have I enabled my husband? What does enabling truly look like in a family living with PTSD?
What was I doing for him, in the name of helping, that he should have done himself? In the name of support, what responsibilities had I unnecessarily stripped from him? And how had I absorbed the consequences of his actions, in the name of love?
I would automatically take charge of all the home duties. The cooking, the cleaning, the shopping, the washing. I was obsessive in making sure my house always appeared perfectly normal, despite the havoc his PTSD would wreak. But he was still my husband. He was still capable of pulling his weight, and he needed to feel needed.
I would allow him to constantly withdraw and shut down. Those endless hours staring at whatever screen he had at hand were not a form of relaxation or mindfulness. Each hour was just another hour of distracting himself from the demons he couldn’t bear to fight. Just another hour of our marriage that was being wasted away.
I would let him back out of plans. Was I protecting him from the unknown that might increase his anxiety or trigger an episode? Or was I protecting myself from dealing with the consequences of what PTSD might throw at my husband? Because it always seemed to be me who had to pick up the pieces.
I would buffer him from difficult and stressful situations. When some of his nearest and dearest were triggering him, I would begin to screen their every word. And when the stressful demands from his employer’s insurance company began to overwhelm him, I took over all the communications. I thought he needed help, but what he actually needed was the motivation to find better ways to manage.
I would take care of our three young children on my own. The children were my rocks. They kept me grounded amidst the wildest storms. And in return, I gave them my absolute all. They didn’t deserve to be overshadowed by his PTSD, and I made it my priority to protect them. But they still needed their father just as much as my husband still needed to be their father.
I would blame every set-back on his PTSD. Triggers would overwhelm and stress levels would overflow. I was so caught up in the reality of PTSD being a life-long journey, that I never once stopped to question that my husband might be content with where he was. Set-backs could be managed, but only if he was willing to try.
I would make excuses for his aggressive behaviour. His PTSD makes him so angry, I would convince myself. He can’t control his anxiety or aggression. He doesn’t know what he’s saying. He’s not choosing to yell at me, it’s just his PTSD. But no. He has a choice to let PTSD be his puppeteer. And PTSD is never an excuse for bad behaviour.
I would take responsibility for his recovery. Was he getting up at a reasonable time? Was he getting to bed early enough? He needed to clean up his diet. He needed to be doing regular exercise. And he really needed to stop drinking. What about EMDR? And daily mindfulness sessions? I had the perfect recipe for the best recovery. But he wasn’t listening to a word of it. He was already where he wanted to be.
I would walk on eggshells in a desperate attempt to keep him calm. Triggers were everywhere, and I couldn’t protect him from them all. But I believed a supportive wife should do whatever she could to keep her husband calm. Even if that meant pushing down my own emotions, and reigning in the natural noisy delights of our young children.
I would struggle to hold him accountable for his destructive behaviour. A cold shoulder isn’t a consequence. Silent treatment doesn’t teach accountability. His behaviour was damaging me, but time after time I was letting him cross the line I had never really drawn.
I would put up wall after wall to shield myself. Even the most supportive wife is not immune to the anger and the rages. The unpredictable nature of my husband’s PTSD kept me on guard. And his drinking just made everything worse. Surely it didn’t matter if the inside was crumbling if nothing could rattle my hardened exterior.
I would resort to ultimatums. The impulsive spending had to stop or we might lose the house. The drinking needed to stop or he might lose his licence. The lying had to stop or he might lose me. Ultimatums are born out of desperation. And more than anything else, I desperately wanted my husband back.
I was shocked to finally see that he was content to remain at a level of PTSD dysfunction. And I was angered by how blatantly he was abusing my support by flaunting his self-destructive behaviour. The more time and space I gave him to heal, the more I was enabling his bad choices.
The fear of losing the battle had paralyzed me, and I was trapped in a never-ending cycle of enabling. The constant worry about the consequences of letting go had begun to control my behaviour. While my resentment was steadily growing, I had become completely oblivious to how my wasted efforts had broken me inside.
I was no longer standing on the edge of the hole, trying to help him out. I was right there in the hole with him. And if I’m honest with myself, I think I always had been.
I had to make a change. And this time it would be about me, and for me.
After living alongside PTSD for six years, I slowly began to learn how to stop enabling my husband and start supporting him.
To support means to take a huge step back, drop all my expectations and hold my own judgements about what my husband’s PTSD recovery should look like.
To support means to recognize when I am enabling him, and gently push the responsibility and accountability back into his court.
To support means to encourage him when he makes healthy choices and is motivated to explore healthy actions.
To support means to draw very clear boundaries about his destructive and hurtful behaviour, and to hold him accountable each time they are crossed.
To support means to recognize what I need each day to keep myself strong and happy, instead of putting my needs last and my life on hold.
To support means to continue loving him whilst committing - every single day - to the decision of not enabling him any longer.
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