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Illustration by Brittany England

Health and wellness touch each of us differently. This is one person’s story.

When Wayne and I first met, we were kids with carefree lives and childhood crushes. I’d go over to his house to play a board game with his friends; he’d come over to mine to watch a movie. Inhaling smoothies at Jamba Juice together was our definition of “getting serious.”

We didn’t go to the same school, so talking to each other on the phone for a couple hours at a time was the highlight of my day. I think we mostly talked about the latest fantasy novels we had read or the ones he wanted to write.

He could imagine amazing, fantastical lands with words and drawings, and I knew I wanted to live in the worlds of his creation.

We were certain the biggest challenge we’d ever face was being torn apart when Wayne’s family moved 3,000 miles east of California.

Fast-forward seven years, and we reconnected when I received a phone call from him while he was aboard an aircraft carrier 3,000 miles to the west in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Despite years of silence between us, I figured our friendship would pick up right where it left off.

In those early days of dating, we didn’t sit down and have a formal conversation about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But it soon became apparent that the challenges of our childhood were about to be outdone.

Feeling more helpless as time went on

A couple months into dating, I started noticing the hallmark symptoms of PTSD in Wayne.

We’d run into someone he served with while deployed. As soon as we were alone again, Wayne would be unable to focus on our conversation, become visibly rattled, and wouldn’t want to talk about what was making him emotional.

I started to grasp that certain topics were just off limits, and that hurt a lot. Sometimes I noticed that he had nightmares, and other times he’d talk in his sleep and sound distressed. These things jolted me awake. I’d snap into comforting partner mode, but I couldn’t seem to help. He didn’t want to talk about it, no matter how much I expressed a desire to listen. He didn’t want hugs or attention or sympathy.

I couldn’t even coax him to play a video game (one of his favorite things to do) at these times. All of a sudden, everything I had learned about leaning on your partner seemed to be wrong. Why wasn’t my shoulder sturdy enough to cry on?

I also struggled to understand Wayne’s reactions to touch and sounds. Sneaking up behind him to give him a hug (or even just take his hand) was a huge no-no. He’d jerk around violently, fists up and ready to swing into action and take down any physical threat he’d find. (Fortunately, he’d realize quickly that it was just his 4’11” girlfriend.)

The first time I was with him when we heard the sounds of fireworks exploding — but couldn’t see the source of the noise — I thought he would never recover. Again, I felt defeated — and like a failure as a partner — when I couldn’t soothe the pain away.

What helped me when dating someone with PTSD

To get through that year of dating and keep our relationship intact, I had to learn a lot of lessons.

Let go of expectations

For a long time, I held on to unfair expectations that had been set by seeing tropes play out a million times in movies: A single person is hurting. They find the perfect partner who takes their hurt away. The prince finds the owner of the glass slipper, and his life is complete. Happily ever after, the end.

I let my fairy-tale expectations cause hurt and misunderstanding. I kept waiting for Wayne to emotionally open up about the trauma he had lived through. I made accusations about his lack of love when he didn’t. I held tight to assumptions that after just a little more time together, the nightmares would go away.

When these things didn’t happen, I felt the problem was with me.

It was also important to remind myself that in the case of PTSD, time doesn’t heal all wounds.

Because PTSD is associated with specific trauma or traumatic events, it was easy for me to fall into the trap of believing that the further removed from the trauma Wayne got, the more the condition would fade. After all, this has been my experience in light of painful events. But I don’t have PTSD.

In some cases, time doesn’t fix things. But it does give us the opportunity to grow and change the way we cope — this goes for the person with PTSD as well as their partner. Now, I know that there are times when I just need to let Wayne deal however he needs to.

When I see distress rising in his face, I can reach for his hand, but I remind myself not to feel offended if he stays silent.

Learn the triggers

Some triggers you’ll learn through direct communication, but others you may need to experience first-hand.

That first time we heard fireworks while inside a souvenir shop, our carefree time quickly turned anxious. It was then that I learned the importance of connecting loud noises with a visual of what’s causing them. Once we were outside and able to see the source of the noise, we could enjoy the display together.

With Wayne, no amount of comforting conversation was going to replace the comforting sight of a harmless fireworks display. But everyone with PTSD is different. Some may need more human interaction, such as a hand squeeze or simple words of assurance, when they’re triggered.

My friend Kaitlyn also deals with PTSD. She told me that when her PTSD is triggered, she can experience an “anxiety loop” and continuously dwell on thoughts that are hurting her.

In these times, physical touch from her partner can be comforting: “If… I can’t leave a topic I find triggering because it brought up pain from childhood abuse trauma, it’s best to squeeze my hand and let me hear you say ‘I love you.’”

Ask for help

When you’re dating someone with PTSD, one of the most important things you can do is communicate. While this means communicating with each other, it can often include talking to someone else as well.

On more than one occasion, Wayne and I went to counseling. Looking back on it, I realize that maybe the counseling itself didn’t always help. But both of us showing a willingness to try spoke volumes about our commitment to each other.

Even if you don’t see a counselor, it helps to speak with others when you need help.

It’s important that the people you invite in are people that you trust. Kaitlyn shared with me how her relationship went downhill after a third party got involved, because that person turned out to be someone Kaitlyn later learned she couldn’t trust.

So where are we now?

I don’t always understand how Wayne and I got through our time dating, but somehow, we did.

My perspective on PTSD (and other mental health conditions) has changed significantly as a result of our relationship. There are huge challenges, but there are also threads that come together to create a silver lining.

PTSD can build strength

Wayne remains one of the strongest people I know.

As much as I wish I could say his military deployments were the only traumatic events in his life, this isn’t true. As I’ve seen how he’s handled other trauma since, I’ve realized how prepared he’s become to cope with unthinkable tragedies.

Wayne’s told me that he feels people may see him as lacking emotion when he deals with life’s challenges in a way that’s most natural for him. Regardless of what he says, I think others find him reassuring. I know I do.

PTSD can create empathy

It’s pretty well established that we have the most empathy for people like us. What PTSD has given Wayne is a huge amount of empathy for others going through it.

In fact, when I was writing this piece, he sent me a list of resources he wanted me to be sure to include and posted on social media a reminder to anyone reading that he was available should they need to talk.

PTSD can teach us about relationship expectations

Regardless of who you date, you’re going to have problems if you go in with a preconceived notion of what loves looks like. To be honest, this is a lifelong struggle for me, even still.

But my experience dating Wayne helps me remember that love doesn’t always look the way you think it should.

PTSD can break down stereotypes

I used to have a lot of stereotypes in mind when I heard PTSD mentioned. I’m not alone in this.

My friend Anna has PTSD. When I asked her for advice on dating someone with PTSD, she shared that it’s important to know that every person with PTSD is different, has different triggers, and reacts to triggers differently.

Along those lines, I’ve talked to people with PTSD who feel that they haven’t “earned” their diagnosis because they haven’t been off at war. In truth, PTSD is less about the nature of the trauma than it is about the size of its impact.

Yes, the DSM-5 does give specific criteria when it comes to the trauma itself, but the definition is much broader than most of us imagine. People with PTSD are of all genders, ages, races, professions, and relationship statuses.

Resources for help

Dating someone with PTSD won’t be the easiest thing you’ll do, but with some communication and teamwork it can be incredibly rewarding.

If your partner has PTSD, here are some things to remember.

Talk to your health provider or a counselor about support groups in your area. If possible, go together. If you partner doesn’t want to attend a support group, it may still be helpful for you to attend alone.

It’s not your job to “fix” your partner. Frustrations at being unable to do this will likely only get in the way. Instead, come alongside them and learn how you can best support them.

There are resources available. Don’t brush aside worrisome signs, thinking time will heal everything.

There are specific hotlines or anonymous chats for veterans, people who have experienced sexual assault or rape, those who were subjected to child abuse, witnesses to violent crimes, and more.

Some of these resources include:

Suicide prevention

  • If you think someone is at immediate risk of self-harm or hurting another person:
  • •  Call 911 or your local emergency number.
  • •  Stay with the person until help arrives.
  • •  Remove any guns, knives, medications, or other things that may cause harm.
  • •  Listen, but don’t judge, argue, threaten, or yell.
  • If you or someone you know is considering suicide, get help from a crisis or suicide prevention hotline. Try the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

Jessica is a San Francisco-based writer, editor, and rare-disease patient advocate. When she’s not at her day job, she enjoys exploring and photographing the Sierra Nevada mountain range with her husband and Australian shepherd, Yama.