By Colleen Saffron

When I started this article a couple weeks before Thanksgiving, I thought, “Ok, we are leveled out, things are pretty much settled and we have adjusted to life.” Not! Two days after I wrote the initial draft we started dealing with a recurrence of PTSD. It has taken the past few weeks to find level ground once again, but the theme of my article resonates more with me as I hear so many of my fellow caregivers talk about this subject.

Caregiver Colleen Saffron

When my husband was wounded, we had been married for nearly 15 years. We felt we had reached a point in our life where we were doing quite well. Our children were growing and we were comfortable in the life we created for ourselves. As a couple, we had gone through the early years with money struggles, personal adjustments, arguments over childrearing, and all those ridiculous things we fight over in marriage. Then, on May 5, 2004, the IED exploded and within seconds everything changed.

It’s amazing how much you learn about yourself and your relationship when your world is turned upside down. After all, we always say the explosion included our whole family and way of life, not just my husband in Iraq. But that bomb went off in the lives of many families all over the nation by taking the lives of loved ones, forever challenging everything they ever believed or felt. Those other families, who were also impacted by that very same blast, have walked out feeling grief, hurt, anger, and confusion. They also had to accept the terrible consequences of that explosion in their lives.

It took years for my husband to actually be diagnosed with a TBI and PTSD, but that doesn’t mean we were not living with it every day. We just didn’t have a name for it yet. When you live with someone who is changed that much and that swiftly, you learn a lot about yourself, too. 

Many people do not know that I am legally deaf. I wear hearing aids, use assistive devices, and had a hearing service dog. Often, I cannot hear what is being said to me and depend on reading lips to fully understand others. My husband’s treatment in the hospital for severe jaw and tongue injuries created quite a communication barrier in our lives. The challenge we faced was that my husband’s nerve controlling half of his mouth was gone, that half of his mouth drooped and did not move, which impacted the other half. When he tried to talk to me I could see his frustration as he struggled to speak and felt my own as I strained to follow what he said.

Brain injuries and PTSD can change the way people process information and how they communicate. This dramatically changes the dynamics of a relationship. Because of this, I feel I have had to adapt and learn some new communication skills as well. I have learned I don’t have to be able to hear to be able to listen. I am learning that listening isn’t about sounds as much as it is about respect and feelings. Listening means we take the time to concentrate on what someone is trying to communicate to us and the emotions that go with that. 

Sometimes I think I am lucky because in order to actually hear what someone is saying I have to be very attentive to them. I have to look at them and pay close attention to not only what they say but also their body language and facial expressions. This has taught me to observe them and pay attention to their words. When dealing with someone that has PTSD or TBI, this is a valuable tool in understanding what their needs may be and better help meet those needs. Learning to be a better listener has been a benefit in all of my relationships both professionally and personally, not just my marriage.

I seldom say, “I know how you feel” to anyone anymore. I really do not know how others feel, even if I myself have gone through a similar experience in my life. I realize how I deal with a situation and processing the emotions is not necessarily how another will deal with that same scenario. I cannot know how other people feel but what I can say instead is, “I don’t know how you feel, but I do understand you are in a difficult situation, so what can I do to help?”

I have learned that I could always speak, but now I am learning to truly communicate. When dealing with someone who has injuries that so greatly influence a person’s ability to understand emotional cues, body language, and inference, you have to be sure what you are saying is simple enough and clear enough that they will comprehend it. This is not something most of us do in our day to day communication. It is a skill that must be practiced, but one that will enrich your relationships with everyone around you.

It is too easy as a caregiver to fall into the pit of despair every time our warrior faces a difficult time. Using the skills and tools I have learned through professionals, books, caregiver training programs and workshops, and trial and error, has made it so we do not both go into that mode at the same time. Then, I can better sit back and assess what is really going on and then create a plan to address it and bring things back to our normal.

I encourage you to seek out ways to see the lessons you learn through the tough times and how they can positively impact your life and benefit your relationships. I have a solid faith in the divine process of character being developed. I believe that every time one overcomes an obstacle they become equipped to reach out to others who come behind them and struggle with similar things. The effects of Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are sometimes up, sometimes down, sometimes steady and middle ground, but they never disappear. The communication and relationship skills I am learning while living this out are some of the hidden gifts of caregiving. I am better able, each day, to not allow stress to eat away at my confidence and hope in the future.