Wow, great comments from yesterday. Here's a question I've been sitting on for a few weeks, not knowing how to answer, because I'm afraid my answer would be too informed by my own experience. But yesterday's post and comments made me realize I should just put it out there, biases and all.
Commenter Jan writes:
"Many years ago, when we were first married, my husband was in a special forced arm of the military. Not Navy SEALs, but along those lines. He saw and did some things that have haunted him (I first typed 'me' there -- freudian slip much?) for ages, but have, in the last few years (since we had kids, probably no coincidence) caused him to experience some pretty serious PTSD.
He occasionally experiences flashbacks (he experiences them as nightmares, which makes him avoid sleep), periods of depression, irritability and periods of altered mental state (picture an angry -- but never violent -- drunk). Stress, physical or emotional, exacerbates these problems.
I coped very poorly with all this at first, having my own little meltdown each and every time. I'm getting better. And the older my kids get, the more I know that I have to keep it together for them.
And there's the tricky part. Our daughter will be 4 soon; she is old enough to be freaked out when Daddy isn't behaving right. Our son is just past 2 and he's still pretty oblivious.
Up until recently, we've been sort of operating under the agreement that if I think he's Having An Episode, he will respect that (he isn't always aware of it, and usually denies it) and go into another part of the house. This works for the kids. I tell them Daddy isn't feeling good and has gone to bed and they seem to accept that.
He is in counseling and just lately things seems to be coming to the front more often. A lot of his troubles seem to stem from being really afraid that if I knew all of what he did, I would reject him. I think in order for him to get better, he needs to not be 'sent away' every time he gets into what is a really raw emotional state.
Last night was really awful. I got home with the kids and he was just a basket case. I did the back and forth as best I could (dinner for the kids: nuts and a banana on the couch in front of a Tivo'd episodes of Sesame Street), but my daughter woke up crying in the night and had a very difficult time at drop-off this morning at daycare. She told me that she doesn't want Daddy to come home for dinner tonight, that she likes it when he has a meeting and doesn't come home until after she's in bed. He didn't do anything 'scary' (as I said, he's never violent) but he did sob uncontrollably and that's not something any of us are used to seeing and there's definitely anger in his voice when he's talking.
How do I balance his need for me, as his wife, against their need for harmony? (I realize this leaves out completely what I need, which I generally try not to do, but isn't what I'm struggling with right now). I sort of think that for him there's no way but through this sort of hurt and he just doesn't have it in him to go there without me. And these kind of breakthroughs aren't exactly something that can be scheduled. But I can't stand to see my daughter being afraid of her daddy, either.
We've just moved to a new neighborhood, so I don't know any neighbors well enough to show up on their doorstep at 6 p.m. with my kids, especially not without background information that is really private for my husband.
So what now? The only thing completely off the table for me is leaving him, temporarily or permanently. I'm not going to do that, for a billion reasons that I won't defend; suffice it to say I've thought it through and made my decision."
Wow is there a lot to deal with in this email! I just want to express my sympathies to you and your husband and your kids. That he had to do that stuff, and that it's continuing to haunt him."(Also, I'm imagining your husband as completely hot--a cross between the heroes of all those ex-mercenary romance novels and Sayid from Lost.)
As soon as I read the email I shot back a recommendation to Jan for EMDR, which is a kind of therapy used for victims of violence or stress and anything that causes PTSD. EMDR uses specific eye movements to unlock and get the stress out of your body. I'm not sure exactly how it works, but an extremely down-to-earth and scientific friend of mine used it to get past some incest issues and ended up training to be an EMDR therapist herself, and that's how I heard about it initially. And it makes complete sense to me that trauma stays in the body (talk to any New Yorker or DC-ite in mid-September), so releasing it physically will help you release it completely. The best link explaining it that I could find was here, but I have no knowledge of this particular EMDR therapist and am not specifically recommending her: http://www.emdr-therapy.com/
Now, here's the part that's hard for me to separate out from my own experience: The role you should take in protecting your kids. You say that your husband isn't violent, but is scary. I grew up in a house with a seriously clinically depressed father, and he had episodes in which he acted strange and scary.
My mom always tried to defend us (he usually didn't target us, unless we just happened to be in the way of whatever it was he was doing at the time, and then it was just more of a "get out of my way" thing). But my mom, who had no experience with mood disorders and is a real tiger mama, made her priority protecting us.
I think that in the long run, she ended up short-changing her relationship with my dad, and the protection she offered us didn't matter a whole lot. Let me explain the back end of that first. My dad, despite having a serious mood disorder, is one of the sweetest, most loving, funniest, nerdiest, most curmudgeonly, interesting people I know. And it was obvious to my brother (3 years younger) and me that he loved us. A lot. And most of the time he was really interested in us (we were programming BASIC by age 4) and sweet and caring.
So his episodes were just these strange episodes. Not a regular, usual thing that really seemed like part of him, if you can understand that. I sometimes talk about the parenting relationship as a long conversation with your kids, and to me, that conversation with my dad has always been a really funny, safe conversation. Just sometimes he had these outbursts, and then you knew to just leave the room for an hour. (By the time I was 12, we'd just say "Did you take your meds this morning?" when he was scary.)
I think that my mom trying to protect us made her too responsible for our mental states and decreased the connection she felt with my dad. What's happened is that I've ended up being the translator between them (because I've had depression so I understand my dad's thought patterns--I'm "fluent" in mood disorders, I guess), which is not a problem for me but I think is a problem for them.
So that's my bias. I think you need to sit and look at this situation critically, from your kids' point of view, and figure out if, to them, it feels like an abusive situation (and I know there are plenty of commenters who could describe what that feels like, and I'm so sorry about that) or like a loving situation with some scary episodes. If it's the latter, then you probably should talk to them about what happens when Daddy has a daymare (or whatever you want to call it) and teach them that it has nothing to do with them, and they should just go to another room if things are scary.
Also, it might be worth a few sessions with a therapist for the two of you together to really talk about the fact that you love him as he is, and that you're not leaving. But that you need him to make a commitment to going to a certain place in the house when he's having an episode, so that he can have his raging place and the kids can have their safe space.
I'm thinking that by having you lay out the boundaries while this is in process, you aren't responsible for everyone's feelings, but are helping everyone be able to be safe.
What does anyone else think? I don't read the situation as abuse, but if you do, please say so. And since Jan's kids are so young, do you have any suggestions to help her make them feel safe while not having to run interference. I wish the EMDR would work in one session and this whole problem would go away for them!