Lately, I’ve been re-reading Vietnam Wives- Facing the Challenges of Life with Veterans Suffering from Pos-Traumatic Stress. (Second Edition, revised, 1996). Aphrodite Matsakis, Ph.D. is like a touchstone for me when it comes to trying to make sense of my own PTSD experience.
For our veterans and their families of today, I’m sure it’s impossible to think of a time when there was no public discourse about PTSD, no internet, few books or literature to turn to when one was suffering in silence.
Back in 1987, when I reached out for help from the Veterans Outreach Center, they handed me a pamphlet which gave me information about combat-related PTSD, as it affected the veteran. There was no literature focused on a spouse’s reaction or the effects on the family of living in proximity to a veteran afflicted with PTSD.
But sometime later, I came across Vietnam Wives (First Edition, 1987) while browsing in a bookstore. It felt like a miracle; a life-preserver. Here was a book written for me and all the other Vietnam veteran wives. My reaction was sheer joy and I felt like shouting out “Hallelujah!” At last, someone had recognized my plight.
Matsakis writes (pg. 39)
“Denial is a central feature of PTSD. Like alcoholism, drug addiction, and compulsive overeating, PTSD is a condition that tells its victims that they don’t really have a problem.” ‘That’s what I told myself for years’, explains one vet. ‘I thought if I’d ignore it, it would go away.’
Matsakis also notes that some vets even pretended that the war “didn’t really happen.” This denial serves as a major defense against feeling the extremely uncomfortable feelings that often went along with the Vietnam experience—specifically, fear, guilt, and rage, as well as moral confusion.
Isn’t it amazing how the mind can play tricks on itself, in self-preservation? It took me years to come out of my own denial of how dysfunctional my life had become. And it’s been comforting to learn from an expert such as Dr. Matsakis, that denial is a normal part of having PTSD.
Yet denial helps us stay stuck in our own misery. We cannot make changes if we don’t acknowledge that there is a huge problem. It often takes a major crisis to shake us out of our denial. That’s what happened with me, and it turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
It’s something to think about…as they say in Al-Anon, If nothing changes, nothing changes.