***Warning Graphic Content. Dealing with the subject of suicide and PTSD from war trauma****
There’s no way to say this lightly. Trust me, I’ve tried to write about this 16 times in a creative flowery way, but nothing I’ve written has gotten my emotions across. About a month ago, I woke up in a cold sweat from a nightmare that had me on edge for the rest of the day.
In the dream, I was watching my husband. He was sitting in a nearly empty dining room, drunk, with a half-empty bottle of brown alcohol on the table. There was something placed next to the bottle that I couldn’t make out. His face was barely illuminated from his cell phone, but as he laid it on the table, I was able to see what the bottle was hiding; a large, black pistol. With shaking hands, he picked up the pistol and shoved the barrel in his mouth. I screamed, but my mouth was snapped shut. I was silenced. His hands steadied as he put his finger on the trigger and pulled. I watched him eat a bullet before the sound of the gunshot shocked me out of my sleep.
I was completely shaken and disoriented.
Turning over, I poked Tyler waiting for him to show any sign he was alive. Fortunately, he answered with a loud snore. After I shoved him, I went back to sleep. When we woke up that morning, I gave him the biggest hug I could possibly manage just to double and triple-check he was really there.
For anyone, waking up from a nightmare about their spouse committing suicide would be unnerving. For me, the nightmare was once very, very close to becoming a reality.
It had been 13 years since we last spoke or saw one another, and in my mind, we were basically strangers. To make a very long story short, Tyler was my first real kiss and the first guy I fell in love with. We never made anything official when he was still at home, I hadn’t expected that to change, but apparently, he did. As he was leaving for basic training, he called me and asked me if I wanted to be his girlfriend, but being silly and young, I didn’t give him the answer right away. Though I didn’t answer him, I didn’t tell him no or expect him to take it as a no. So I wrote him every day thinking he would get my answer and everything was fine. Which would, should have, smoothed things out. However, because of some unfortunate mishap, 90% of my letters never made it to him. He misunderstood my lack of response and thought I wanted nothing to do with him. So by the time he received any of my letters, he was already talking to his future ex-wife. Both of us had too much pride and worried about a negative response from the other to ever correct the mistake.
Nearly a lifetime had passed, and even though he had become a ghost, his life wasn’t entirely unknown to me. Thanks to Facebook always suggesting you to be friends with people who have disappeared from your life, I was aware of a few things.
He didn’t share much, and most of his posts were old, so I wasn’t sure how much of it was correct, but I didn’t need or want to know any more than that. A few times throughout college, his name and a picture popped up on Facebook, but I was living my own life. I was in college and traveling. I was enjoying the path my life was taking me on, and he looked to be enjoying his. Tyler was in the Army, had gotten married, and had a young child. Social media has the ability to give a false narrative. Maybe each time his face popped up, the universe was trying to tell me something, and I ignored it. When he finally did reach out, it made sure I heard him.
In January of 2015, a few days after I married my now ex-husband, Tyler sent me a friend request. What was really weird was that I actually heard the notification. That shouldn’t have happened. Not only do I usually have my phone on silent, but I was walking through Disney World and passing Cinderella’s castle right as the 3 pm parade was starting. So when I heard this out-of-place beep come from my back pocket, I stopped. I expected to see an Amber alert or some kind of emergency warning. Instead, it was a Facebook friend request notification from Ty Jenkins.
Are you fucking kidding me?
Was the very first thought that I had before quickly taking a screenshot and sending out a slew of text messages to friends who knew our history.
“Is this real life?” I asked them.
After a short internal battle, I accepted his friend request, shoved my phone back into my pocket, and chased after my future ex-husband, who, as usual, hadn’t noticed that I had fallen behind. I had no clue that while I waited in line for over an hour to ride Space Mountain, surrounded by people speaking nearly all of the romantic languages with far too many tour groups bursting out into song, making anyone in earshot hate being trapped inside, Tyler was at home, trapped in his own way. He was sitting alone, in his empty house, finishing off a bottle of bourbon and holding a loaded gun.
He wasn’t sure how I would respond to his friend request. A half a year later, he told me that he had expected me to ignore it or reply with a nasty message, but either way, he wanted to say his piece before making an early exit from his young life. But I hadn’t said anything. I just accepted the friend request, and luckily that was enough for him to put the gun down. Eventually, he would finish packing what was left in his house before moving back to our hometown. I didn’t know anything about his return home until a post from his mother showed up on my Facebook wall. I was terrified of running into him, even though the chances of doing so were unlikely. While I was stressed out preparing for my imminent, life-changing move to Brazil, Tyler was also stressed. He was a prisoner in his own home, shackled by the ravages of PTSD.
It’s amazing how much trauma changes a person. The Tyler I had known was happy and strong. Someone who always smiled and goofed around. Who was this suicidal, agoraphobic person who had re-entered my life?
Six months had passed since I accepted his friend request, and we still hadn’t talked.
I was living in Brazil and had lost control of my life. Part of this had to do with the language barrier, but the other part was my living situation. My now ex-husband was calling all the shots; what we did, who we saw, where we could go to eat. I didn’t have a driver’s license, and the idea of driving in the mountains gave me panic attacks. As silly as it sounds, the only thing I did have control over was my social media. After a giant fight with my now ex, I retreated into the only area of my life that was still mine, my phone. I hated everyone at the moment and just wanted to get rid of everyone who annoyed me. It was time for a Facebook purge.
It took a while to get down to the T’s, and when I reached him, I stared at his name. “Ty,” I thought. “What grown man goes by Ty?” I wanted to delete him. I considered deleting him for going by such a stupid name and even more so for probably being a lurker. I looked at his page and saw he hadn’t posted anything in months. If he didn’t use Facebook to share his own life, why should I let him creep on mine?
I hovered my finger over the delete button a moment longer before curiosity got the best of me. It took 6 months to ask myself this, but I wanted to know why after 13 years, he finally decided to reach out.
I think I wrote twenty-seven hundred different messages before settling on a simple, “Hi.”
“Hi,” he answered. I stared down at my phone, and I could feel my cheeks burn. I hadn’t expected him to answer, and I definitely didn’t expect him to respond so quickly. My heart was racing as I wondered who would say what before I finally just asked him, “How are you?” After a few minutes of catching up and mostly talking about nothing, Tyler stopped typing. I watched the flashing dots jump a few times, stop, start up again, back and forth, almost as if he was pacing, trying to figure out what to say next. I think I held my breath when the dots remained on screen longer and longer, waiting for him to hit send.
“I always wanted to say sorry for how things ended with us. I just wanted you to worry about school and not me fighting overseas. I will say I never forgot about you. I always wondered how you were doing. I never thought I would make it home from my first tour in Iraq. It was bad, but I got lucky.”
Looking back at that text, I can notice things that should have been red flags, like when he said he got lucky. I should have paid more attention to a battle-worn man, making amends and repeating how lucky he was to be alive. We ended up talking again later that week, and this time I could sense that he was hiding something seriously dark and painful. Time and time again, he brought up how lucky he was to be here, how bad the deployment was, and the friends he had lost.
I tried to lighten things up. I would ask him about his day and how it felt to be back in our hometown. You never know how much you would miss home until you leave it. I wished I was back, retired, and close to the beach. Instead, I was stuck in the mountains in South America, five-plus hours away from the closest ocean, and I wasn’t adjusting well, but Tyler was home. He was near Jupiter, minutes away from my favorite beaches and sushi restaurant where they served my favorite yellow tail kimchi roll, and through him, I could at least get a glimpse back at my former life.
But once his pattern of “I don’t go anywhere” became apparent, I started to tease him. I wasn’t trying to be mean. God knows he didn’t need that, but I would’ve given anything to be back where he was, and he was squandering it. I teased him in an effort to snap him out of his gloom, but also because I was jealous.
Eventually, our conversations led to how Tyler was handling his PTSD, which was, he wasn’t. Loud noises like a balloon popping would render him numb and nearly nonfunctional. He told me about when he was driving to Florida, a semi-truck’s tire blew next to him, and he had to pull over. Even though he was home, in the United States of America, driving on a highway, he thought the sound was a bomb going off. He thought it had killed him.
There were nights where he would say he wasn’t sure why he survived and his friends didn’t. Tyler told me about his son, Mark Daniel, and where his name came from. Mark after his battle buddy, who is very much alive and living in California, and Daniel, after his friend who died in an IED explosion. He’d repeatedly talk about how it wasn’t fair that so many were dead. Tyler didn’t believe that he deserved to live because of the things he had done over there. When he got in one of these states, I would remind him that he had a lot to live for and two people who were very glad he was home. I should’ve told him I was the third. Often times our conversations were morbid, and Tyler would drag me with him to some dark places, but I would always take that over reading his obituary.
Survivors’ guilt consumed him. I thought I was helping him to realize it was good he made it home alive. I figured bringing up his wife and son would be positive things to reflect on, but little did I know she was also a part of the problem. Neither of us ever brought up our failing marriages, and without ever discussing it, we both came to an unspoken, mutual agreement to leave that subject alone.
As Tyler became more comfortable talking to me, he gave me more details about what he did during his deployments and how it affected him. I thought growing up with my grandfathers, who fought in the Korean and Vietnam war, would have prepared me for Tyler’s stories.
No one is ever ready to hear a friend’s first-hand account about the mental wounds of war. I took a day or two to digest everything that he told me. It wasn’t easy, but I knew I wasn’t going to let him waste away in the darkness of his mind. There were signs he wanted help. Him reaching out and talking to me was a giant one. Because of my family, I knew about the PTSD treatment offered at the V.A., and I knew it could work, so I suggested he look into one of the Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) programs they had recently created.
We really didn’t talk about it after that, so I thought he had brushed it off. A few days later, I got a message from him, “I’m the only young guy here. Everyone else is old.”
There was no context to that message, and I remember staring at my phone, wondering what he was talking about. And then it clicked. Tyler had gone to a support group. I was probably more elated than I was entitled to be at the time, but I didn’t care. He was getting help. From then on, I hoped that he would be able to adjust back into society between his regular sessions with his psychologist and these newfound support groups.
In November, six months after that initial text with Tyler, I left Brazil.
My visa expired, and I had to return home. Initially, my now ex-husband was supposed to fly back with me, but he decided to stay at the last minute. Now I was going alone. When I handed the security woman my ticket and waved goodbye to my now ex and our friends, I was overcome with an odd feeling that I wasn’t coming back. It left me uneasy, but I couldn’t shake it. It wasn’t until I got home and decompressed that I realized how much my marriage had fallen apart. I thought the distance would act as a restart for us, but being home, free to choose where to go and what to do, and not feeling trapped, I couldn’t imagine returning to my life in Brazil. I knew that my marriage was over.
I never told Tyler any of this since I figured he had enough on his plate and could sort out my life independently.
I remember our first lunch together after I got back. We went to Yard House in the middle of the week after the lunch rush. He seemed to be in good spirits while we were outside, but he was no longer relaxed once we were inside. The hostess had sat us by a door, and every time a server would walk out onto the patio, he would tense up.
A part of Tyler’s therapy was to go to restaurants, malls, and stores while they were busy. If we sat down to eat, he would always sit with his back to the wall. In stores, his eyes were shifty, and he would be on edge until we would get back to the car, where he could finally take a deep breath and relax.
As he became more successful at going places, his therapist began searching for the root of his PTSD. Some people can point to a single traumatic moment that triggers their symptoms. Tyler’s therapist believed she found his trigger and put forth a plan to help him heal.
Part of the healing process she created was to have him retell multiple times and record each retelling without pausing, and after he was finished, he had to listen to the recording in full. That meant he had to listen to how it affected each time. At one point, he asked me if I wanted to know what had happened.
Of course, I did.
When I originally wrote this post, I had information about that day, but my husband asked if I could refrain from putting too many details out of respect for those who died and their family.
But just to give you an idea of how big the explosion was, he was on the rifle range on his combat outpost, and it was so large that they felt it and thought it was near them, not outside the walls. The total mind fuck from that day was hearing his name called out over the radio because one of the soldiers who died had the same first initial and last name. When they came back after the scene was cleared, he was confronted by those who were very surprised he was alive because they thought he was the one who had just lost his life.
Tyler wouldn’t tell me until our first New Year’s that he had given himself an expiration date. He said that if I hadn’t said anything to him by the end of June, he would send me what he wanted to get off his chest and then end things. It’s a bit scary how the smallest gesture could have such an immense impact.
Recovering from trauma-induced PTSD is not impossible, but it is hard work, and it can feel impossible. I can’t imagine how hard it was for him to repeat the incident every day for a month. The therapist’s goal was to have him discuss it without having a breakdown. I would sit with him and listen to this. He spoke slowly and methodically. You didn’t have to be next to him, like I was, to know he was experiencing the event. After he finished the exercise, he would nap. I’m not sure if it was because he was exhausted or just needed to escape what he had gone through. It was probably a mixture of both.
Not that long ago, he would have misconstrued the exhaustion as failure instead of the progress it was. The idea of being unable to adjust to the civilian world is one of the hardest things for a soldier. Tyler said that the failure he felt after being medically retired out, knowing his marriage was over but not knowing how to get out, and being unable to survive outside the structured world of the Army were some of the major driving forces as to why he nearly took his own life. After falling for three years deeper into the darkness, he felt there was no other way out.
Thankfully this time, things were different, and he wasn’t sinking into the darkness. He gives me a lot of credit for his hard work, but I don’t see myself doing anything else other than supporting him. He’s that one who had to push through the mental torture. All I did was remind him that he COULD do it.
It’s been three years (June 3, 2015) since I sent him that simple message of “Hi,” and it’s crazy how different of a person he has become. No one who meets him would know that he still has lingering issues from war. In fact, he is now able to do things that he thought would never be possible. We’re able to go to Disney and even sometimes stay for the fireworks. Going out to eat is not a problem. He can sit anywhere in the restaurant, and if it is just too loud, we don’t go. No one wants to spend a night out repeating everything they say or texting the person they are sitting across the table from. He’s actually progressed so much that now concerts and music festivals are now very doable. Most of the time, we get seats because we’re old, and sitting out on the lawn with a ten-dollar drink possibly getting knocked over isn’t my idea of fun, but we also get them to give him some space from the other concert-goers.
All of this growth does not mean he doesn’t have moments where he is caught off guard. An unexpected balloon popping can really throw him off his game, but instead of shutting down, he’s able to talk to me and explain what is going on with him.
It’s incredible how much his outlook on life has changed now that he’s able to go out in the world without having a breakdown. He’s been given a chance to focus on other parts of his life, like what he wants to do for a career. Tyler never really about what he wanted to do outside the Army since he expected to be a lifer. He struggled to figure out what he could do with that no longer being a reality. He was quick to find out there wasn’t much need for someone who is used to kicking down doors for a living. His first attempt was as an auto mechanic. The second was armed security for an extremely wealthy neighborhood before finally transitioning into I.T. This last try seems to be what he likes best. It’s challenging for the mind, but he is still able to do things with his hands.
It’s has been incredible to watch the transformation my husband has gone through in such a short time. I know to him it must feel like a lifetime. I have never been more proud of someone for how hard they have worked to improve their lives, and everything that Tyler has done has been extraordinary. It’s a terrifying thought that he could have been a statistic, but I am so glad every single day that he sent me that stupid friend request. I thank whatever power in the universe pushed him to do it because I absolutely love the life we have together.