Original Article found at: http://www.goodhousekeeping.com/health/a33968/female-veteran-ptsd/
PTSD Makes It Impossible for Me to Be a Mother
After combat in Iraq, Melissa Thurber fights a battle at home.
Each night, Melissa Thurber turns on a window air conditioner and the television in her bedroom, desperately hoping to block out the sounds of training missions from Hurlburt Field, an Air Force installation, near her home. C-130 jets roar over her neighborhood; training ordinance explodes on the range 10 miles away. The Florida-based photographer clutches her Chihuahua while her two bigger dogs lay nearby. Sometimes, she imagines she can smell the dust and smoke — and it snaps her back to Baghdad.
“Loud noises trigger my PTSD,” explains Thurber, who served as a medic on an 18-month Operation Iraqi Freedom deployment in 2003. “If I hear anything, then I know I’ll have nightmares that night. It can even be as simple as walking outside and the light reminding me of Iraq. I remember things very vividly.”
Those memories have haunted her for a decade. Over time, Thurber, one of the 20% of female veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, has figured out her other triggers: new situations, loneliness, people yelling at her, and certain smells. Scenes swim before her eyes, from fellow soldiers lost in the flash of a mortar attack to holding others’ hands while they died. She blacks out, goes into an uncontrollable rage, or is overwhelmed by crippling terror and depression. The disorder has destroyed her five-year marriage, spurred her to attempt suicide, and has her considering placing her daughter Delanie, 13, and son Blake, 7, in her family’s care.
She’s never violently lashed out at her kids, but Thurber admits that her lack of awareness during episodes makes her keep her distance. “I’ve never felt like a good mother,” she says through tears. “I just can’t connect with my children, as much as I’d love to. Every time I look at them, I always think very bad s*** is going to happen to them.”
The Call of Duty
Life wasn’t always this way. Thurber, an easygoing, artistic teen, joined the Army in 1998 before her senior year of high school in Massachusetts. After graduation, she worked as a medic with an aviation unit.
When she was called for active duty, Thurber was already raising an 18 month-old daughter. She’d started the process of trying to leave the Army — not because she didn’t want to be in the military but so she could live in Florida, near her parents. As a single mother, she had the option to defer her deployment, but Thurber felt that if she was going to ship out eventually, leaving sooner would be easier. “My daughter was so young at the time, I thought it was better to leave her with my parents when she’s not going to remember me being gone.” She shipped out in December 2003 — the same month Saddam Hussein was captured.
Combat in Iraq
Though initially bound for an aviation unit clinic, Thurber was reassigned twice and ended up in Baghdad on a “mobile collection team” (MCT). As part of the Iraq Survey Group, MCTs were tasked with finding weapons of mass destruction and serving as security detail, often in the heart of danger. One of them, MCT-9 was comprised of elite soldiers including the British Royal Marines, Army Rangers, and Navy Seals, and they needed medics, so Thurber was assigned to support the unit. “We went outside the wire almost every single day,” she recalls. “We saw combat. Our friends died in front of us.”
In 2004 Baghdad, the insurgency was raging. Car bombings were frequent; U.S. military and civilians were targets of kidnappings and beheadings. Thurber often went on missions in uniform and in civilian disguises to the Green Zone, Baghdad’s central area — without the protection of armored vehicles.
Thurber also served rotations with the 31st Combat Support Hospital’s casualty team. “I remember sitting with a soldier who’d been brought in and being the one to shut the machine off,” she says. “Then having to put him into a body bag, bring him to the morgue, and move on to the next one. You don’t have time to process what’s going on.”
Mortar attacks at the base were a common occurrence. “One of my greatest fears was having to go and use the Porta-John at the end of our area. What if a shell came then and I died going to the bathroom?” she says. “You were always thinking, Am I coming home today? Am I going to be able to call my daughter tonight?”
Finally, after 18 months, Thurber returned home in the spring of 2005.
Back to a New Reality
The adjustment — to parenting and civilian life — was daunting. After a few months living with her parents, Thurber and her daughter, then 3, moved into their own Florida apartment. “That’s when my life changed.”
She started having insomnia and nightmares — both common among PTSD sufferers — and a prescription sleep-aid from her doctor didn’t help. Thurber would stay awake all night and finally collapse from exhaustion around 6 a.m., right when her toddler would wake.
“I would put breakfast foods low in the pantry and taught her how to get them herself,” Thurber says regretfully. “I’d be sleeping and not watching my kid. Or if I was awake, I’d be sitting there not able to participate or feel joy.”
Thurber wasn’t officially diagnosed by Veterans’ Health Administration doctors until 2008, though she says she took her concerns to them within months of returning home. Out of options, she sent Delanie back to live with her grandparents while she dealt with what she was beginning to think might be PTSD. “I never wanted to abandon my daughter, but I was trying to learn how to live with something that I didn’t understand.”
Soon after, she met her husband. He provided safety and a boost to her depression, she says. Sleep finally came. On rare bad days, he helped with Delanie, who had returned to live with them again. Thurber says he never really acknowledged her PTSD, though, even when she would violently punch or kick her new husband in her sleep.
Dark Days Return
Life was relatively stable for two years. But when she went off medication for her second pregnancy and then had a series of shoulder surgeries, her routine was disrupted — and the uncontrollable anger surged back with a vengeance. “Many times, I would get outraged and black out,” Thurber says. “Once, I broke my hand punching a metal box and don’t remember it.”
Between the PTSD and the shoulder pain, she took a litany of medications: Trazodone, Seroquel, Clonipin, Prozac, and Xanax, as well as Lortab 10 (a kind of hydrocodone) and Tramadol. “I have no idea how I was able to walk around and function,” she says. “I was driving my kids to school and activities, but I don’t remember half of it.”
During that period, Thurber had a months-long affair. She says it began from a lack of control in the haze of her medication, though she admits she also enjoyed getting attention from someone during a time when her husband was gone frequently for work. But Thurber knew she was spinning out of control: “By the end,” she says, “I was practically begging my husband to find out. I did everything in my power to make him suspicious — because I felt like I was going off the deep end.”
The day after he learned the truth in January 2010, they were arguing in the living room when her latest round of medication arrived at the door. As she signed for it, Thurber decided she’d had enough — that she was tired of combatting her disorder and trying to rebuild her life. “I thought, F*** this,” she recalls. She grabbed the Seroquel, an antipsychotic, and downed the entire bottle. (Suicide attempts are also prevalent among female veterans with PTSD — and 22 American military veterans commit suicide each day.) Her husband called 911. After being stabilized in the hospital, she spent three days in a mental health facility.
Getting back on her feet — and off her medication — became even more complicated as her marriage grew increasingly volatile. Her husband, who she says still didn’t really believe in her PTSD, was extremely angry with her. “The whole time instead of thinking, This is his problem,” she says, “I felt like I messed up and deserved what was happening.”
One day, the bottom dropped out. Thurber worked as a technician at a dialysis clinic and had become friends with a patient, a woman in her early 20s. As Thurber pushed her out after a session, she coded in her wheelchair. “There was nothing we could do. We couldn’t save her.”
It was horrifyingly similar to her experiences in Iraq. Thurber stayed in bed for a week, not even calling her boss to explain her absence. “I didn’t move, do anything. Nobody really understood.”
Thurber, who’d studied photography in high school, found an outlet in pursuing a new career. “I had an escape,” she says. “I didn’t always have to be at home, dwelling on this stuff. I could go out, feel good, and have fun. For a while it was great.”
But after her husband lost his job, went back to school and switched jobs, Thurber became the sole caregiver for the kids. “I’ve never considered myself to be a good mom, but I would do everything by myself that I can: Give them their baths, feed them, cuddle with them and watch a movie, put them to bed,” she says. The pressures on her mounted.
Her marriage continued to struggle. They separated in June 2014 but reunited that fall. While her husband was decorating the house with Christmas lights after Thanksgiving, Thurber just snapped. “I don’t know what triggered it, but I was irate when he came inside,” she says, explaining she hadn’t refilled her prescription for six days.
During the screaming match that ensued, she ran to the bathroom. He followed, blocking her in. The fight escalated. She recalls punching him in the back to get him to move. Then he called the police and had her arrested in front of her children. “It was mortifying.”
Thurber stayed in jail for three days because her family refused to pick her up. Her husband was also awarded a temporary restraining order. Fortunately, she says, the court looked at her PTSD and decided she needed help, not prison. She’s been attending court-ordered counseling ever since.
“I feel like I’ve never been given the opportunity to show that I am a good person,” she says, “because this monster that I can’t control likes to come out a lot.”
Motherhood with Mental Illness
For now, her son lives with his father. And she believes living elsewhere might be a better choice for her daughter, too. “I want to be a mom. I want to be their mom,” she says. “But I’m not good at it, even though I love them and I try.”
“PTSD is a hole that I can’t get out of,” Thurber says, adding that years of medication, counseling programs and other treatments haven’t stopped her anger or panic attacks. Plus, some prescriptions make her unable to drive to activities like school and nightly soccer practice. “I’d rather not be around my kids if they can be with somebody who can do more for them than I can,” she says. “That might be best because I don’t have full control over it. I want to, but I don’t.”
Her children know she has the disorder, but don’t really understand why it affects her relationship with them. “They don’t get why I won’t take them to the water park or why if we go to the 4th of July Fireworks, I have to park away from everybody else and hold my little dog,” she says. “If I’m in my dark bedroom sitting by myself, they know Mom is done for the day and to leave me alone. They shouldn’t have to deal with that.”
Still, she hopes to eventually find herself on the other side — and able to be a healthy parent to both her children. In addition to counseling and medication, she leans on a close group of former soldiers, many of whom also have PTSD. She’s working on a book of photographs and interviews with other veterans with the disorder. And she’s planning on moving away from the base.
“I have good days and bad days,” Thurber says. “I wish people understood PTSD more: We didn’t sign up for it, we signed up to serve our country. And while it’s not something I’ll ever be able to ‘cure,’ I desperately want to be able to live with it without fearing what I might do.”
About 8% of the U.S. population will have PTSD at some point in their lives (around 8 million adults during a given year). For veterans of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, those numbers climb to about 20%. Symptoms of PTSD for anyone who has experienced a trauma include nightmares and flashbacks to trauma, anger, jumpiness, depression, and alcohol or substance abuse. If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms that last for three months or more, visit the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs or the National Alliance on Mental Illness for help.