Being deployed is hard enough, but coming home and trying to find the courage to date again might be the next hardest thing.
When you suffer from post-war PTSD dating can be challenging. It’s not something you want to advertise on dating sites, or when you see a beautiful woman in a bar. But how can you find connection when you’re caught in this place of emotional paralysis?
Perhaps George’s story will help you or someone you know.
George* sat in his room, sipping a beer and pondering what it would be like to have a date again. It was early evening, the street was quiet, but George’s mind wasn’t. It had been a long time since he had the guts to approach a woman and ask her out.
Before he was deployed, he had no problem asking a female classmate to go to a movie. He was a handsome guy, well built, an average student with a great smile. When he returned from battle-torn Iraq seven months later, the picture was different. Very different. His desire to be with others, men or women, was diminished. All he wanted was to be left alone, not to have to put up with too much nonsense, not to be questioned about his motives, not to have to deal with a lot of chicken shit, and certainly not to have to deal with the “dance” that is part of dating.
Even his sexual desire had diminished to a level that was both surprising and disappointing to him. He clearly remembered how much fun it used to be, but right now, it was of remarkably little interest. Puzzling. Yet, the loneliness of being by himself, for months now, bothered him. From time to time his mother threw him a sideways glance, as if to say, “So, are you seeing anyone?” without saying it. His father once slapped him on the back, “George, so what’s with the girls. You’re always by yourself, didn’t used to be like that.” George cringed. Not that his father’s observation was wrong, but saying what he did, was like a slap. Bad enough he was feeling lonely, but to have his father rub it in his face – that was too much. It also bothered him that others were noticing the change in him, and both his mother’s furtive glances and father’s “manly” slap, confirmed for George that something was amiss. It hurt. It was scary.
Most men who suffer from PTSD dislike being alone, but feel unable to do anything about it. To get a date, one has to show initiative; make a phone call, start a superficial chat with a woman, go to a location where single women could be found, call an old friend. No matter which avenue, it requires action. George just didn’t have it in him. He felt detached from others, he’d even lost some of the pleasure he used to get from things like a good steak, a ball game, hanging out with the guys, going places – and most of all, being in a romantic relationship.
He kept hoping that things would change, but didn’t know how, or when.
After much hesitation he called his contact at the VA and asked to be referred to a support group. He attended a few sessions, and discovered that he was not alone with his dilemma. Other guys had the same difficulties and had tried different ways to overcome it.
One way was to connect with male friends, and frankly say something like, “I want to meet someone, but not sure how.” Almost any guy knows some women, and many would be happy to make an introduction. Such an introduction would go smoother if the introducer would alert the woman to the fact that his friend just returned from deployment and was a little shy about making connections. While that might scare some off, others might be interested in dating a soldier who’d seen combat.
Another way is to start a light, brief chat with a woman you see often, such as a supermarket cashier, a bank employee, a nurse, a neighbor, a co-worker, or any other location that you go to sort of regularly. George did that with the woman in the supermarket, Maria. At first he made sure to wait in line so that he always ended up at her station. Once he made a little joke, and next time, a comment on how nice she looked.
George finally had the courage to ask Maria for a date to the local pizzeria. She reported to her girlfriends, that although he seemed interested in her, he was very hesitant. She was hoping for a kiss, but it took a long time before he moved on that. When they eventually spent time alone in his apartment, he experienced erectile dysfunction. She was patient and loving, reassuring him that it wasn’t all that important to her, and that the time they spent together was more important.
She was startled out of her sleep when he would suddenly sit up straight in the bed and yell: “Incoming fire!” She asked him to explain, but he refused. He was shaking, and so was she. It took many repetitions of that event, before he opened up, just a little, and told her of one incident – out of many – when he was scared to death of mortar fire raining down on his platoon.
It took months of patience and counseling, both for George as an individual and in a group, and for them as a couple, before he was comfortable enough to do those things he used to do before his deployment. It was the love that developed between them, and the trust he had in her to protect him, that allowed George to slowly, almost, return to himself.
The woman in the relationship experiences the effects of PTSD as well. It’s important to be aware of her experience and show compassion for her as she does for you. One area that presents a potential difficulty is that the woman may not understand some of your reactions, because she doesn’t know what you lived through. People with PTSD often don’t talk about what happened, which leaves their partner in the dark, guessing. For example, a sudden loud noise, such as a door slamming from a wind gust, could startle you and cause you to duck. A short, simple statement such as, ”I know it’s just a door, but it brings up a scary moment for me,” may be enough to acknowledge what happened, without having to go into gory detail.
The nightmares still occur sometimes, but both Maria and George know how to deal with them. They worked out between them that she would wake him up, and reassure him that he is home, in the US, with her, and that all’s well.
Maria liked to dance and party, and that usually happens in loud places, which made him uncomfortable. To make her happy, he gradually agreed to go to such places, but to stay for just 15-30 minutes. Eventually, that time was extended.
Over a period of time, he told her more snippets of what he had experienced. She learned to listen and acknowledge, but not to pry or push.
It is possible to date and find love and connection with post-war PTSD being part of your life.
Making the first move may be difficult, scary. You might have been there before, and moved on.
You may date different women until you find one who you can trust, which isn’t so different from life before PTSD. Allowing yourself to move slowly and experience pleasant moments, will lead to more such experiences.
*”George” is not, of course, his real name.
Photo: Flickr/Gorjan Kulosman