What to consider if your husband stresses out while you are away from home

Have you ever left the house by yourself, even for a short time, only to come home to find your PTSD/TBI husband having a tizzy, or in a bad mood, and neither of you really know why?

Photo credit: Dosomething.org

Photo credit: Dosomething.org

I didn’t know it at the time, but in 2008 the clues were staring right at me, smack-dab in the face, and I still couldn’t see it to understand it. Even with four years of practice with this ongoing issue, it took a few more years to fully understand the depth of this problem, let alone learn how to handle it.

Because I wasn’t able to see it, it only made things worse before it would get better.

I wish someone had told me what to look for and how to deal with it. We could have saved tons of stress, resentment, fights and misunderstandings.

I am going to share the insight we’ve had through that discovery process of understanding WHY this happens so hopefully you can learn from it too.

Our history of this problem:

The first year that my husband was home from being a patient in a hospital environment was incredibly hard. The transition out of the military presented many obstacles. He wasn’t the independent person he used to be. He needed help with a lot of things, but sometimes I wasn’t there to assist.

Back then, I ran a business that kept me outside of the home on a full time basis. I found it harder and harder to run my business because my husband needed me more and more, and part of me resented the fact that he couldn’t do simple things.

End result: I closed down my business and became his fulltime caregiver. Once I did that, things became so much smoother for him and for everyone around him. However, I noticed that any time I left the house I would come home to a fully-agitated husband who couldn’t articulate exactly what it was that got him riled up in the first place. In one particular incident, I was gone for less than an hour and came home to the worst PTSD episode I had seen to date.

How I reacted:

At first I resented the fact that I couldn’t leave for a coffee date with a friend for an hour. At times I took his agitation personally. Then I started to wonder if he was showing a side that I had never seen before, a possessive side.

Did he not trust me? Did I somehow give him reason not to trust me? I started to question whether a lack of trust was the reason for it all. (more on that later…)

Deep down inside I knew him better than that, but I was the only one who wasn’t willing to point fingers with blame or accusations. Even friends and family thought he was just a controlling and selfish asshole. All I knew was he was forever changed, and I still didn’t know who this man was that I was married to. I had to learn about him all over again.

I decided to listen to my gut in this situation. I started getting curious and watching his patterns closely. I decided not to take his outbursts personally. I had to set aside my indignation at the mere thought that he was trying to control me, and step outside myself to see the bigger picture.

It seemed logical to me that while I was gone, he was forced to manage things that were too overwhelming. If something required more than three steps to complete, or required fast thinking on his part…he would fall apart even if I was there. The pressure to be responsible for himself with no assistance on my part was just too much on any given day. Imagine the pressure I was placing on him if I was not there in the first place?

It didn’t help matters that in one case, while I went to town to get milk, our son had to use the fire extinguisher to put out a fire in our stove. Why? Because A) My husband forgot about the food he tried to make after the kids asked for a snack, and B) he has no sense of smell to notice the smoke billowing from the next room.

The irony is, that situation DID help us in the end. That day was the turning point of discovery for us to really understand the years of episodes that occurred if I ever left the house.

He was terrified that his inability to prevent or respond to the danger he created would have killed his family in a matter of minutes, and was able to SAY it and UNDERSTAND it for the first time in five years!

Fast forward to today: As a rule of thumb, I am with him 24/7. However, there are times I have to leave the house without him and there is no other way around it. I engineer my grocery shopping to be done just once a month, and our 16-year-old son is in charge while I am away. Even giving my husband reassurance that he wasn’t going to get a chance to accidentally burn down the house, he was still having episodes of stress and agitation, which came in the form of bad moods and lashing out at me later.

After a lot of observation and {gently!} coaxing him to talk about what triggers him while I am gone {which I must emphasize should be done when he is calm again}, we figured out one of the reasons why he got so upset in the first place.

It wasn’t because he was a controlling man, nor was it because he resented me if I took time out for myself. It also wasn’t because he still thought he would burn down the house by accident.

It was because he felt he couldn’t protect me and keep me safe.

Let me be very clear here: Dan is the bravest man I know. He’s also the most tenacious and independent man I know.  The only control he expects of anyone is the control of himself. He is not, nor ever was, a controlling person when it comes to me or the things I do or say. As a highly-trained sniper in the Army, it was his job to protect the innocent and make hard choices about life and death.

That background and military experience will leave an imprint that will last for the rest of his life.

We discovered that while I was gone, he was afraid that something terrible would happen to me and he wouldn’t be there to protect me. The thing he loved the most, his family, was something he felt he couldn’t keep safe if we were out of his sight. It’s one thing to have another adult in charge while I am away, or to have a fire extinguisher in every room, but being completely out of his sight and protection zone was too much for him to contemplate, process and handle.

The key to our discovery is that I had to remember a brain injury will tend to do that to a person.

It was the visions of me being stuck in a ditch, or — God forbid — me ending up in a fiery car crash that set him off. He couldn’t shake those fears of the possibility, even if the logical side of the brain knew better. He intellectually knew I was a safe driver and had a good head on my shoulders if there ever was an emergency, but logic is not part of the equation when you add PTSD or a brain injury to the mix.

Once we were able to narrow down the underlying and subconscious issue, we figured out a way to manage it.

Now when I am on a rare opportunity to be alone on my own, I call him with predetermined times or checkpoints so he knows I am safe. For instance, when I go ‘down the mountain’ to get our shopping done in the Springs (90 miles with only one stoplight in between) I call when I reach the gas station on the way. I call when I arrive at the store. I tell him where my next stop is and call when that errand is over. Then I call again when I am ready to head back home again. Then, right before I pass the last stoplight before getting to my house (which is 45 miles away) I call to say “I’ll be home in an hour.” Each time I call, I can hear the relief in his voice. I can also take that moment to mitigate his fears and say “I love you” before I hang up.

He doesn’t breathe easy until I walk back in the door, but this does help him manage his anxiety while I am away. He knows and I know that he can’t prevent an accident from happening, but knowing I am making progress along my journey means the world to him.

Now, some people will reel at the thought of having to ‘check in’ for simple things like going to a grocery store, getting your hair done, or taking a one-hour coffee break with a friend. I’d venture to say that some would resent it, or feel that it is too controlling on their husband’s part. But I am here to tell you that I do not mind it at all. It’s actually nice to feel loved enough that my absence is noted, or that my presence is appreciated all the more while I am by his side.

He worries because he is afraid. And, that’s pretty normal. We ALL do it every day!

Worry vs. fear

People worry for many reasons. We believe that if we chew on a problem long enough, eventually we will figure out a solution. Worry gives us illusions of control over the future. We dream up worst-case scenarios, thinking we can prevent bad things from happening. Sometimes worrying helps us get things done. For example, we worry about exams, thinking it will help us study. We worry about our appearance, hoping it will encourage us to work out or stick to a diet.

But most of all, and this is a hard concept to grasp…we worry because it makes us less afraid.

Worry is basically a body’s way of trying to suppress fear. However, there is a difference between the two: Fear is an emotional response, much like PTSD. It manifests physically in the form of tension, muscle aches, rapid heartbeat, sweating, etc. Worry suppresses that arousal. It’s the mind’s defense mechanism! It temporarily makes us feel better so we keep doing it.

Unfortunately, it sometimes backfires, because too much worry can take a toll on a person. It adds stress, mental fatigue and exhaustion.

And what does stress, mental fatigue and exhaustion do to someone with a brain injury or PTSD?

It puts them in a bad mood and exacerbates the issue like a big, vicious cycle.

His doctors know about these issues. Luckily they don’t find it to be a cause for concern right now to insist on treating him with more medicine {in a world of the VA over-medicating our veterans, this is huge!}. Yes, too much worry can be addictive, but there is good to be appreciated in this case. It’s considered growth on his part to not only identify and articulate his fears and anxiety, but they congratulate us because we found a mutual ground to manage the situation in my absence that we can both live with. They also understand that my calls inject a level of mindfulness into the equation.

Mindful… what?

Mindfulness. It teaches us to distance ourselves from our worries and stop engaging with them.

In short, mindfulness is the ability to take thoughts that enter our consciousness and ultimately let them go. You acknowledge those thoughts but you do not react or attach emotions to it.

Mindfulness. A topic worthy of another post entirely. (I really hope you click that link) The point I need to make is it’s another key to unlocking this mystery of how to handle my husband’s stress while I am away, both for him and for me.

So in summary, the more regularly I call him to check in, the more I break the cycle of worry and the more he can focus on letting it go. The more mindful I am, the more mindful he will be, and the better the both of us are overall.

We reduced his worry based on natural fears. That’s the best anyone can do!

But what if it really is a trust issue?

Well, let’s go back to my own initial reaction. I figured he didn’t trust me. I had to step outside myself and look at the bigger picture and not take it personally.

Could you blame him if he felt he would lose you to another man? Even if he doesn’t come right out and say it, it’s there.

He’s not the same man he used to be. There are others out there that are not broken. He probably feels like a burden in some way, and how easy would it be for you to just find someone else when he is not looking?

It’s not because you’ve given him a reason not to trust you. It’s not even because he doesn’t trust you.

It’s because he knows you deserve the very best, and he’s not feeling like he’s meeting that criteria to begin with.

If you are dealing with this issue, I encourage you to do as I did and really think about what may be going on that you might not see. Please don’t jump to the conclusion that your husband is just being an asshole, or controlling, or that he is just being a big old baby. Go easy on him.

I’ll be the first to tell you that it is annoying. It’s even frustrating to the point of wanting to scream sometimes. How can one simple thing like leaving the house be. so. HARD?

Ironically enough, he needs time away from you as much as you need time away for your own needs. Think about that. You have to find a way to make that time apart workable for the both of you.

Here is my advice:

Don’t take it personally. Breathe deep and put it into perspective. It’s likely not a matter of anything negative at all. It could be that he loves you so much that the very thought of living a life without you is too much to think about in the first place.

And that, my fellow caregivers, makes you the luckiest woman in the world.

If you are having trust issues or feeling resentful, if my advice doesn’t help resolve the issue soon, I encourage you to seek couple’s counseling so that you can find a better way to get to a happier place. We had to learn this through trial and error and it was damn hard, but fortunately for us this obstacle was fueled by a kind heart and an open mind to get us to the other side.

I am hoping I helped you find yours… but I know you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t have both of those things in the first place. <3

Sound off! Do you have this issue with your spouse? Did you find ways to cope with it, or are you still trying to understand is in a bad mood for no reason at all? Share your experiences and questions here. If it is something we have worked through, I’d love to share ways on how we dealt with the same issues too.

About The Author

Torrey Shannon

My name is Torrey Shannon and I am a writer, author, blogger, movie consultant, speaker, veteran's advocate and Blue Star Mom. I am also a full-time caregiver and spouse of a wounded warrior. My husband survived a gunshot wound to the head in a gunfight in Iraq in 2004 after serving in the Army for more than 23 years. We spent three years of his recovery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He has severe PTSD and suffered a traumatic brain injury. Dealing with the invisible wounds of war first-hand allows me to bring a human element to the problems our military communities face. Blogging gives me the chance to do what I love the most: write about life after combat and help create awareness and solutions for military members and their families. When I am not writing here, I freelance for a variety of publications and media outlets and am currently writing a book.