By Jenna Malone
If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health, suicide or substance use crisis or emotional distress, reach out 24/7 to the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline (formerly known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) by dialing or texting 988 or using chat services at suicidepreventionlifeline.org to connect to a trained crisis counselor. You can also get crisis text support via the Crisis Text Line by texting NAMI to 741741.
“What if it changes you?” I said, holding back tears. The next day, my husband Isaac would be going on his first deployment to Iraq. It was 2009. We had been married for over two years and had a 12-month-old daughter. Losing the man I married — my rock and best friend — was one of my biggest fears.
Those fears were realized when he returned home early from Afghanistan in 2013. He was injured; physically, mentally and emotionally. To make matters even more challenging, I developed secondary PTSD — when the loved one of someone dealing with PTSD starts to exhibit those same symptoms, including hypervigilance, anxiety, avoidance, nightmares, trouble sleeping, impatience, etc.
It took years of therapy and support from other veterans and caregivers we met through Wounded Warrior Project to find ourselves — and each other — again.
Injuries and trauma sustained during training and combat can change a person. Gone was the driven, reliable, caring and stable husband I married. Instead, he was angry, exhausted, moody and distant. I felt like I was living with a stranger.
Neither of us understood the signs and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI). In my husband’s small military community, invisible wounds carried a stigma. He worried he would be ostracized from his command and forced to medically retire from the career he loved. Shame, guilt and depression overcame him. It crushed him.
I stopped him from two suicide attempts — something I never thought my strong husband would even contemplate, let alone try.
Both times he attempted suicide, my husband was afraid of what his command would think — and how they would respond to his mental struggles. By this time, he erupted in angry outbursts over the smallest things. He started punching doors and walls when we would have disagreements. I became fearful of these fits of rage.
We decided to live separately for a short time. Isaac focused on his treatments, and I focused on getting back into my fitness career, so I could financially support our family.
Years of walking on eggshells and trying to keep the peace in the war that came home to us started taking a toll on my health. In 2016, I started having severe panic attacks. I worked 50-plus hours a week, managing a fitness department while also taking care of my husband’s medical needs and caring for our three children. The burden was overwhelming.
I felt all alone.
I was cracking, but who could take care of me? No one understood the struggles I was facing. I started to isolate myself, which only made me feel worse and depressed. I found myself in the emergency room several times.
What I didn’t realize was these were similar to the struggles my husband had been plagued with for years. For the first time, I got a glimpse of his daily challenges. It fueled me to get help for both of us.
This led me to Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP). I learned that I was not alone.
I started to attend family support events. In May 2017, I attended a dinner with others who understood what I was going through.
It was through WWP that I learned about secondary PTSD. Finally, I had a name for the symptoms I was experiencing. I realized we both needed treatment to heal ourselves, our marriage and our family.
At that same dinner, I learned we could get a year’s worth of therapy in a three-week intensive outpatient program called Warrior Care Network. The program helps wounded warriors and their family support members heal from the invisible wounds of PTSD and TBI.
At first, my husband was not comfortable doing more treatments. He had already been through other options with little to no improvement. However, he saw my progress as I dealt with secondary PTSD. It inspired him to fully commit to his recovery and healing. So, in April 2019, we embarked on our three-week treatment, which was a turning point for us.
In this treatment program, we grew together, navigating this new normal in our lives. We were given tools and skills for when our symptoms flared. We also learned to communicate again through our changing roles. We even had our first experience with equine therapy. It sparked a dream in us.
In April of this year, that dream became a reality.
We purchased a 15-acre property and farmhouse. One day, we hope to help other veterans and caregivers overcome invisible wounds through equine therapy. I am getting my master’s degree in social work and becoming an equine therapist. We adopted two handsome horses. They are our best counselors.
Now, when my husband has a difficult day, I’ll find him grooming his horse, Dempsey. I smile because we are moving forward with our lives. No, the symptoms of our mental health struggles aren’t gone. Yes, we still work at it daily, but it makes all the sacrifices of this life together worth it.
As we navigated this difficult journey, I chose to not take his PTSD and traumatic brain injury outbursts personally. I continue to be joyful. I chose to fight for his quality of life, our marriage and our family with everything I had. I am so blessed that it has brought us here. My husband may never be the exact man I married again. I have learned it's ok because I have the best gift of falling in love with him every day.
Jenna Malone lives in Florida with her three children and husband, Navy veteran Isaac Malone. Jenna and Isaac received treatment at UCLA’s Operation Mend through Warrior Care Network, a partnership between Wounded Warrior Project® and four academic medical centers to increase access and innovation for treating post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury. Learn more at www.woundedwarriorproject.org.
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