Military Spouse: Anxiety and Isolation

Being a military spouse can be isolating. Having anxiety can be isolating. Being a military spouse with anxiety is kind of the perfect storm of isolation. Making new and lasting friendships is difficult when you are hard wired to keep everyone from getting close to you.

Having a spouse with a demanding operations job is also isolating. To do the job well they often feel they have to compartmentalize family and work, which means when the job gets intense you’re without any support from your spouse as well.

Having anxiety makes it so that it’s hard to advocate for your own needs. It’s hard to ask people for help. It’s hard to put yourself out there. It’s hard to trust new people and let people see the real you. It’s extremely hard to let people see your struggles.

I want to encourage every single one of you to do it anyways.  Feel the fear and the self doubt and do it anyways. Let people see you. Build genuine relationships. You never know when you will need a support system and if you let your mental illness keep you from building one you will feel more isolated than you can imagine.

So isolated and alone that after experiencing a pregnancy loss the only person who gives you a hug is the person you pay to support you. Don’t get me wrong, therapists are amazing and helpful and mine has helped me make amazing progress. But when things get hard in life you will wish you had built a real support system.

Feel the fear. Do it anyways. Let people in. Don’t be me.

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Military Spouse Anxiety: Deployments and Separations

In roughly the last three years my husband and I have gone from dating, to living together, to married, to our first child, to a cross country move. In that same space of time he has been deployed three times, had two long training TDY’s, and various other separations and TDY’s. Added up we have spent nearly 1.5 of the last 3 years apart. Such is the life of a military family, especially one in which the active duty member has an operations job. My husband loves his job, and he’s good at it, and it never even crosses my mind to ask him to do something else. That doesn’t mean that this life isn’t difficult. And like everything else, the separations this life demands are made more difficult by anxiety.

My anxiety during separations stems from one of two places. The first is fear. Fear of the dangers of his job. Fear of not knowing if something were to go wrong. Fear of what he has to do and see and how it might affect him later in life.

The second is my personal self worth. If other spouses are hearing from their husbands and I’m not hearing from mine I question my worth. If he says he’ll call and doesn’t it makes me question my worth. If he sounds even the slightest bit frustrated with me I question my worth. If he questions my parenting decisions I question my worth. I should be more clear, when I say question my worth what I mean is that in each of these instances he is verifying my deeply held irrational belief that I am not worth time, energy, or love.

The number of panic attacks I had in my sons first year of life (my husband was gone for months 2-10 give or take) is too many to count. The above sources of my anxiety may not seem to intertwine much, but in my mind they go hand in hand. Here’s how a basic spiral to a panic attack looked at the peak of my anxiety.

I haven’t heard from him in 3 days. I hope he’s okay. I haven’t heard any news reports for the area so I’m sure he’s fine. If something had happened someone would have called me. Unless something is happening now. Maybe I’m anxious because I can sense that something is wrong with him. That’s silly, nothing is wrong, he’s probably just super busy, or maybe the internet is down. Or maybe his helicopter came down. Remember that one time he almost crashed and the pilot didn’t recover until they were 3 feet from the ground? Remember how unsafe those damn machines are? They come down literally all the time. *looks up crash statistics* Okay maybe not all the time. I’m sure he’s fine. He’s just busy or the internet is out. *distract myself with social media* Well Janes husband just Skyped with her so the internet is working fine. Well that sucks. Does he not want to talk to us? Did I do something to upset him? Why doesn’t he want to be a part of our lives while he’s away? Well I wouldn’t want to talk to me like this either. I’m not exactly a joy right now. Look at me finding fault with him while he’s there doing what he’s doing. I’m a terrible person. I’m not worth talking to. If he does call I should be super happy and only talk about happy things. But he won’t call. He doesn’t want to see me. I look a mess anyways. I should put on some makeup in case he does call. I’m too tired to put on makeup. Not like this baby will let me put him down long enough to do it anyways. He could do so much better than me. He could get a spouse that’s gorgeous and takes care of their appearance every day. I wonder if he’s talking to any other women while he’s gone. Maybe he’s talking to other women instead of me. Not like I could blame him. I wouldn’t want to talk to me either. I’m just not worth it. He couldn’t possibly love me. I’m not worth the love. We’re probably not going to make it. He’s probably going to trade up. He deserves better anyways. *uncontrollable crying* *starts shaking, heart racing* *finds a corner and hugs my knees* *tries to focus on breathing*

See how that devolves from normal fears to irrational beliefs that my family was over? Here’s a kicker for you, I was actually in therapy for a few months of this separation but my therapist never asked about anxiety symptoms and I had experienced these sorts of melt downs for so many years that I thought it was normal, or rather, I thought it was just a personal failing not an actual condition.

To be clear, again, my self worth is no ones job but my own. My spouse is not responsible for my self worth. I do not want him to compensate for my beliefs on the subject, I want to progress to the point that I no longer hold these irrational beliefs. His actions in no way cause my panic attack, my own irrational thought processes do that. Would it have happened if we had more regular communications during separation, I honestly don’t know, but I’ll touch more on how my anxiety affects my spouse in another blog.

On the reverse side of this, our most recent separation was after I had began therapy using a cognitive behavioral therapy approach. We went the first full month of his deployment without speaking because of technical issues and I didn’t have a single panic attack. I had typical fear about where he was, the dangers of his job, the lack of reporting from the immediate area to keep me informed, etc, but no panic about his safety or my self worth. I missed him. I still cried a couple times, I still wore his sweatpants, I still ate too much pizza, but not once did I have to hug my knees and breathe it out from the safety of a corner.

Anxiety is a bitch. It has a way of telling you that your worst fears are eminent. When your spouse is away from you, and especially when they are in a war zone those fears are even more real. It’s not as much of a mental leap to believe those fears could come to fruition when there are statistics that prove the danger.

If any of you suffer from panic attacks, have past trauma that affects your current thought processes, or find yourself making irrational leaps in your stream of consciousness please realize it is not typical and it can be treated. The right therapist and approach can make all the difference in the world, and can make living this military family life much more bearable.

Anxiety and Military Spouse Life

Being a military spouse is not easy. It is not the romantic, love letter, absence makes the heart grow fonder life that many believe it to be. It is love and fear, grief and appreciation, and a constant count down until the next time you’ll be saying goodbye or hello. Being a milspouse with anxiety is just plain hard sometimes. As much progress as we have made as a society regarding mental illness it’s still something that’s just not talked about in the military spouse community. I’m going to be as honest and frank as possible about what it was like at the peak of my anxiety because I believe there are others who need to know they aren’t alone in this struggle.

How does my anxiety affect milspouse life?

First, it makes it hard to reach out and make friends. Before I began therapy I would force myself to attend social functions every so often but I would have such anxiety before, and full on panic attacks after. I remember going to one function when my son was under a year. I was barely keeping it together and my husband was away at a training for a couple months. I told myself I would go and smile and be honest and maybe someone there would see that I was struggling and reach out in friendship. I went. I smiled. I talked. I tried to hide my fidgeting. I focused on my son when my anxiety started telling me I didn’t fit in there and my heart started racing. I was asked politely how I was doing by multiple people and I responded honestly like I told myself I would, “I’m holding it together”, “I’m staying above water”, “I kinda feel like I’m barely keeping from drowning”. All was met with the same “yeah, it’s hard when the kids are little”, “I know this is hard, let me know if you need anything”, “Oh he’ll be back soon and it’ll get better”. I wanted to say “I’m really struggling and I need help”, but I couldn’t. Just admitting that I was near drowning brought tears to my eyes and I had to pretend my son needed something so I could calm myself down before I spoke to an adult again. I used my son as an excuse and left early, crying on the way home because I felt so very alone.

The clique-ish nature of every military spouse group I have met puts my anxiety on high alert just entering a social event. By high alert I mean that just entering the room makes my heart race, makes me fidget-y, and makes me have to focus on keeping my breathing even. Every conversation started with a stranger is forced, every word said is thought about three times before it’s said and ten times after. I analyze each conversation I had after I leave and think about how I should have said something different, how maybe I offended this person, how I probably appeared awkward and unlikable. Don’t get me wrong, I totally understand that people want to talk with their friends at social events. I want every milspouse to realize, though, that there are always new people in the group and some of us can’t just slide right in to a group conversation and feel at home. It hurts no one and could help many for those of you who do feel at home to reach out and intentionally include the new person, or the quiet person, or the person who doesn’t come out often.

Secondly, my anxiety affects my daily life as a military spouse. Since my husband does an operations job he is often in high risk situations. Helicopters crash, people are injured, and people die during normal training operations at home. I would kiss him goodbye in the morning for a normal day of work, but it’s a normal flying day of work so I know he’s going to be in a death trap in the air, his life in the hands of other fallible men and fickle mother nature. At the height of my anxiety that simple thought process could spur on a panic attack. As mentioned above, I didn’t have any friends in similar situations to talk it out with, so I was left with my mind running down the rabbit hole of what ifs. Before I know it I’m having a panic attack. Pre-baby I would let my panic attack run it’s course and then actively distract myself the rest of the day. Post-baby that wasn’t an option because I have anxiety about my anxiety bleeding over onto him. I would choke back my anxiety and distract myself until he went to sleep, then experience a greater panic attack because I didn’t process it fully when it came on.

As morbid as it sounds the only thing that helped me in these moments of panic was making a plan for the worst case scenario. What would we do? Where would we live? How would I pay our bills? Sitting and writing out a plan each time I went into panic mode helped me panic less. It helped me to take the emotion out of it and think about it rationally. From there I could think about his job rationally, think about the statistics of negative outcomes, and think about how very good he is at his job and the good that it provides others in need. Since starting therapy I am able to see the first irrational “what if” and squash the entire rabbit hole before it begins. This seemingly simple step has lessened my day to day anxiety a great deal. I cannot recommend seeking therapy for your anxiety enough, it has literally changed my world.

Having anxiety as a milspouse affects many other things, from how I handle deployments, to how I process news reports, to how it affects my spouse. There is just too much to write it all in one post. If you suffer from a mental illness and are in the military community I want you to know that you are not alone. Please don’t be afraid to talk about your struggles. Don’t be afraid to seek help from a professional. It gets better and you will not suffer forever. It is not a personal failing or any reason to feel shame. It can be treated and you can begin to breathe again.

To all other milspouses, be kind, be empathetic, be supportive. You never know who is suffering or who needs extra support. We all have busy lives and most can’t do a lot as individuals, but as a group we can provide the supportive safety net that is needed.