PTSD and Holidays
Susan Barrera

Some combat vets don’t deal well with holidays… any holidays.  At least that has been my experience…and that of most of the ladies in my support group. We couldn’t seem to get a grip on why. Why Christmas had to be such a hassle…and Thanksgiving…and Easter...and  the 4th of July. Why everything always went sour at holidays. Why the depression, why the anger, why we couldn’t just once have a peaceful holiday for the kids without all that stuff to deal with. One lady observed that her husband had spent only one Christmas in Vietnam and he had spent fifty others that weren’t bad. She wanted to know why that one had to affect all the others for him and his family for the rest of his life? 

My husband served two tours in Vietnam. There are vets who served more than that. A trauma that occurs during a holiday will forever change that holiday, because the trauma will forever be linked in the memory with that holiday…one will not come up without the other. For instance, I lost my father just before Christmas and my sister just before Thanksgiving. Those holidays will always make me think of them. But what if those deaths had occurred violently?  What if I had been in a combat situation while those at home were merrily celebrating the holiday? What if I had been alone and lonely on a battlefield, wet and hungry and not knowing if I would survive that day, or the next? What if a friend had been killed by a grenade meant for me? What if I had to kill others on Christmas day? How do events like that NOT affect a person? 

We look at fireworks on the fourth of July and think “oh, how pretty.” But a combat vet sees incoming fire…feels like they should be firing back…feels like they are back in combat. They hear the canons and the firecrackers and the television helicopters and are instantly transported. Normal everyday things that are forever changed for them.

What can a combat veteran do to make it through the holidays without making them miserable for their families? How does his wife straddle the line between being sensitive to her husband’s issues and still providing holidays and as normal a life as possible for their children? Not being a “professional”, all I can share is what has been helpful for us. With some thought and planning, I think you will be able to discuss ways that will take some of the stress out of  holidays.

In the early years of our marriage, I didn’t expect, much less understand what was happening to create all the problems that occurred at the holidays. I expected that he would act “normal”. He didn’t. He was grouchy and angry over everything. He didn’t want to have anything to do with the holidays. He didn’t want to have a Thanksgiving dinner…or Christmas dinner or Easter dinner, for that matter. He didn’t want to be around our extended families.  He didn’t want Christmas decorations or even gifts. When I tried to get him to participate, it resulted in rages and more depression, and horrible holidays. I eventually learned to stop trying to include him in holiday preparations. Our son and I went to family gatherings without him. I always invite him to join us at family parties, and occasionally he feels up to it, and he is always welcome, and when he does, he usually has a good time.  

I was so hurt at not receiving gifts from him that I eventually started buying and wrapping my own presents and presents from him to our son, and putting them under the tree. This actually worked out very well for us, since he wouldn’t in a million years have gotten what I chose for myself anyway. After a while he would joke about it and say, “What did I get you for Christmas? Is it something nice?” And then he started buying a gift for himself from me, which I also would not have thought to get him in a million years. It may be a funny way to deal with it, but it works for us.

Another thing we do is to let him know when we will be putting the Christmas tree up and decorating the house.  That way he can leave and do whatever keeps him calm, and he deals with it because we want it. I know that he can’t handle crowds and shopping and so I don’t expect him to accompany me when I shop. It just causes more stress that we can avoid. 

We have occasionally taken a turn at hosting a family dinner at our home, but it was so stressful for him and us, that my family understands and I help to prepare the food with whoever is having the dinner at their house. I also ask if the Christmas music is bothering him and if it does, I play it when he is out of the house. 

We also discovered that if he mentally prepares himself for the stress of the holidays, he does better than if he just puts it out of his mind and is “broadsided” by it, so to speak.  Another thing he does that helps is to increase his medication a bit to help him get through the stress of the holidays and then he backs off again afterward.

I hope some of these ideas will be helpful to you in coming up with ways to deal with holidays that will work for you and your families in the future.

If you would like to ask questions of Sue and the members of their PTSD Support Group located in Albuquerque, NM who have been, or are in a relationship with PTSD husbands, please join our online forum here

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