As more and more civilians enter the fray of military deployments, so do their better halves find themselves thrust into a world of great unknowns. It’s taken twenty years and numerous deployments to hone my own coping skills just in time for my husband’s retirement. The following does not address the return of wounded servicemembers and instead focuses on the majority experience of departure, deployment, and safe return. For assistance above and beyond what is included here, contact your Key Volunteer, Family Service Center, or your spouse’s command.
The best way to cope with deployments is to approach life from the standpoint of a two-year old child. Two-year olds don’t necessarily like change, they throw fits over it, but they transition relatively well. For all they have to adjust to, two-year olds do a better job of it than adults. They are the perfect model for assimilating change. All of the following is relative to you and how you adapt. If it doesn’t apply, disregard. Before you disregard, think about why you’re disregarding. Just because it’s unfamiliar and uncomfortable right now doesn’t mean it isn’t just the thing for you for the long haul.
Deployment is a change, not a crisis. This is a crucial mindset. Seeing a deployment through the filter of crisis sets you up for all manner of disaster. Everything you do and say is directly affected by how you see the deployment. If two-year olds saw change as crisis, they’d never learn to talk (something those of us with teens would prefer). This is not intended to address those who experience crises during a deployment (death, debilitating injury, etc). It’s important to have a support network of people you trust so that if something like this happens, you have them to count on. Busted hot water heaters, court dates, and sick kids do not fall under the heading of “crisis”. If these things are a crisis to you, good luck with that.
Scream into a pillow over the injustice of it all. This is not to question the justification of his/her deployment or service, but hey, it hurts when someone you love heads out. By the same token, worry is natural but not a coping tool. Set the timer, worry your head off for 15 minutes, and stop at the bing. Have an activity already planned that you will throw yourself into as soon as the timer goes off. If the worrying thoughts won’t go away, say out loud and loudly “stop”. You’ll get another chance to worry tomorrow.
Maintain your routine. Brush your teeth, brush your hair, take your shower, wear your clothes (not just sweats or pj’s), wash your face, do the laundry, get the groceries, etc. This is an unfamiliar and other-than-normal time for you. That which is familiar and normal is very important. Is brushing your teeth as important a task as your loved one’s job while deployed? Yes! Do you want them to come back to some yellow-toothed bedraggled spouse?
There is the tendency to see our lives as minimal and insignificant compared to what our loved one is doing/feeling/etc. There is no comparison so stop it. If everyone with a deployed loved one quit what they were doing, think of the mess. I don’t just mean chores and stuff, I mean think of the gross national product.
Having said that, if you don’t have one, get one:
Get a hobby, a job, a volunteer position, a workout routine, a diet of fruits and vegetables, a support network, etc. Having any one or even two of these things doesn’t mean you’re set. The idea here is to add. The addition won’t fill the void of the loved ones’ absence because that’s a void that can’t be filled. Filling the void is not the point. The point is to cushion the edges of the void and this is done by adding to your own life that which will both distract you from the deployment and serve to help you grow as a person. Sound corny? It is. Sound time consuming and too much for your schedule? It isn’t and I know this because if you’re reading this then you’re looking for something to help you out. Why would you take the time to look if you don’t also have the time to do something with the information you get? Now is the time to seek out those things you previously thought you didn’t have time to seek. Have you had a hankering for scrapbooking? How about book clubs, reading to kids at the library, learning CPR, making stepping stones, getting on that treadmill or going to the gym? If you’re really rowdy, get a bunch of other people involved in your new routine/hobby. Start a walking club or book club, or get others to go to the gym with you.
Speaking of getting information, the best way to get it is to ask. Support and resources don’t fall from the sky. If you’re not the kind of person who is comfortable asking for help, remember that you are the kind of person to have a loved one deployed, and that kind of person is going to have to ask for help at some point.
Since you’ve probably already prayed for strength, here’s what to expect: one horrible day after another for a while. The kinds of events that work the muscles of our character, and the distraction of those events, are the only logical answer to the prayer “Help me get through this!” Any one who’s read other’s stories knows that deployments don’t exist in a vacuum. Things happen in 3’s unless you have a loved one deployed. Then they happen in 4’s and 10’s. Why is that? I don’t know, and I’m not asking because someone might tell me and I’m not so sure I want to know. It just is that way so let’s work with it. Other things will happen right along with the deployment that may seem like too much all at once. In reality, these things strengthen your character and will go a long ways in helping you develop coping skills you didn’t even know you had. The other events also serve to distract you from the deployment and help you get through the days that come without mail, email, and phone calls. Does all this mean life won’t stink? No. Life will stink sometimes, and maybe even quite a bit at first. And out of this compost you will make beautiful things grow, and the most beautiful thing you will grow will be yourself.
Journal, journal, journal. Write, write, write.
Journal once a day? Sure, if you can. Once a week? Absolutely! Journaling is the best way to track your own mental and emotional health. Those who journal during deployments are amazed at how much they grow and the strengths they develop. Some look back on old entries and think “Gosh, what a baby I was”. Don’t do that. The person you were gets full credit for the person you are today; after all, it was that “baby” that picked up the pen and bought the paper even though he/she sure didn’t feel like it.
Writing letters and emails is not just good for you, it’s the very air your deployed loved one breathes. You could anguish over how clever and witty you are not, or you could write what they want most to read: every insignificant detail of your daily life. Spare them the worry and frustration of busted pipes and broken down cars because there’s absolutely nothing they can do with this information but spin it up into guilt and anger. Instead, give them the number of flowers you planted, the kids’ best school work, and how you tricked your nagging mother into thinking you weren’t home.
The Serenity Prayer 101:
No, you don’t have control over this so quit wasting your time, energy, and money on it.
Yes, you do have control over that so start spending your time, energy and money on it.
What’s the difference between this and that?
This is any change you don’t like and have no control over but think you do, and all that results is a headache and an empty Tums bottle. That is anything you can do to cope with the change but don’t wanna.
The very idea of coping with undesired change is initially a tiresome prospect full of unfamiliarity and a bunch of “why me?” You’re not going to necessarily want to get up and cope with your life changes. Nonetheless, be bored, scared, lazy, disgusted, nervous, reluctant, anxious, arrogant, or even flippant — and do it anyway.
Have at the ready:
*Healthy food to snack on. Unhealthy food bogs down the digestive system, drains the brain of nutrients, and taxes your energy level and immune system. This is the last thing you need. Turn your refrigerator into a rainbow of fruits and vegetables (only buy clear storage containers) and you’ll turn snack time into fun time for you and the kids.
*Movies: whatever makes you feel good. Personally, I like “Grumpy Old Men”, “Groundhog Day”, and “The Christmas Story”. Play them in the background now and then.
*Music: whatever gets you out of bed, on your feet, and back into your routine. Personally, I like “Joe Muggs Coffee House CD Vol 1”, anything by “John McCutcheon” (bluegrass), and anything from the “Jock Jams” collection.
Sad movies and music, and war movies are the bane of anyone whose spouse is deployed. Avoid them at all costs.
*Magazine subscriptions. Don’t order stuff with the idea that you can forward it to your loved one. Get stuff for yourself!
Personally, I like “Reader’s Digest” and “National Geographic”.
*A list of phone numbers and email addresses of those you can turn to for support. Don’t just make this list, use it!
Moms with other kids/ Wives with children:
There’s always going to be initial neglect of the kids while you get yourself relatively centered again (read: functional). If this takes more than a week, pull out the following emergency stops:
*Get friends to come over. Put aside thoughts like “I don’t want to bother them”, “I don’t really need them” or “I don’t deserve that”. Call your friends. Note: Some friends aren’t really friends, and sometimes family isn’t much help either. If you don’t have the kind of people in your life that you need, go get them. Extend yourself!
*Schedule activities for the kids that involve getting you out of the house for at least an hour or two.
*If you’re not doing better in two weeks, call your doctor, your therapist, your significant church person, or any trusted friend who has consistently been there for you in the past. Ask for help. Don’t feel obligated to use every bit of advice you get and don’t turn your nose up at something that doesn’t appeal to you right away. Mull over all advice and answers before using/dismissing anything you get.
I can’t stress this enough: *Don’t get around people who bring you down no matter how long you’ve known them. Deployments change things, specifically your emotional needs. Anyone who starts out a conversation with you with a grim face and the question “How are you holding up?” is not going to do anything for you. You need people who don’t even ask about the deployment other than a sprite “How’s John?” You also don’t need political lectures. Avoid these. Do not attempt confrontation of discussion with people with so much free time on their hands and so much grinch in their hearts that they would lecture or question a loved one of the deployed.
*Don’t listen to negative stories about deployments from ANYONE. It doesn’t matter if they’re true or not, these stories serve only to bring you down to the emotional level of the storyteller. You don’t need that.
*Don’t watch the news. The same 30 minutes of news will be repeated over and over, and only one minute, if that, is relevant to you. Tune in once a week, but rely only on the information you get from your spouse’s Command.
*Don’t think you’re the only one because you’re so not the only one. You’re not even the only one thousandth.
*Don’t stay in your pajamas for longer than 2 hours after you get up (unless it’s your day off and you feel you deserve to do so).
*Don’t stay in your house for longer than 24 hours.
*Don’t “Give until it hurts”. Sure it’s good to listen to other’s problems, you know “help yourself by helping others” but there is a limit, and your stomach will tell you when your limit is approaching. Stop listening to that person and listen to your stomach. Being a good listener doesn’t mean being a chump. You’ve got your own problems. While helping others is a fine endeavor, you can’t help anyone if you aren’t up to par yourself.
In addition to the aforementioned:
*Do take advantage of every pre-deployment brief, meeting, class, and family day offered by the military for spouses. This is where you’ll get all the information you need about healthcare, benefits, expectations, and information about your spouse’s unit. You’ll also find this is where you meet those who know exactly how you feel. Remember you’re not the only one. Make new friends because these people are gold. No one, not even family or other friends, could possibly understand how “lucky” you are that your spouse is floating around in a tax-free zone and how horrible it feels to wait for word after hearing that your spouse’s unit has been bombed. If you’re near a military base, check with the Family Service Center to see what they have scheduled. While you’re there, inquire of their counseling services even if you don’t need them. If you find yourself in need down the road, that won’t be the time to be researching your options. If you already know what they are, you can step right on in. Note: No, it’s not true that confidentiality is out the window. A civilian professional would also have to report abuse, other criminal activity, and suicidal thoughts. Everything else is confidential. If you have any reservations about counseling in general, I urge you to set them aside. There is not a spouse of the deployed on this planet who has not at some point needed the objective perspective and feedback of a third party even for a brief but much needed sanity check.
*Do be aware of two things before your spouse’s departure.
One, Anger. This is every spouse’s way of dealing with the inevitable. We seasoned spouses refer to this as “pre-deployment grief.” Clever, eh? It’s easier to say goodbye to someone you think you can’t stand. Remember this mixture of anger and grief will grip your spouse as well. No matter how stable and loving your relationship was before, suddenly you are in the way of him/her getting ready to go. Seasoned spouses plan get-togethers with other spouses during this time period for the purpose of staying out of the deploying spouse’s way until the anger passes. And it will. Be sure to tell your spouse what you’re doing if you’re spending more time away from home so that he/she won’t think you’ve just up and abandoned them.
Two, Sadness. After the anger comes sadness. This usually slaps you in the face right before he/she is to leave and is often accompanied by guilt over the way the two of you have been treating each other since the order came down. Suddenly it’s no big deal that they snore or fold the kitchen towels wrong. Give yourselves a break. This too shall pass.
*Do prepare for two things upon your spouse’s return.
One, the date will change and/or the deployment will be extended at least once. Count on twice. This is no time for planning weddings or any other date-specific events unless you’re into dire amounts of disappointment. If your loved one is not standing right there in front of you, don’t plan on him/her being there.
Two, reunions are fickle things. You’ve been apart for six months to a year. Everyone and everything has changed. These changes require a great deal of patience and flexibility. It’s not uncommon for reunion-sex to take place as much as a month after his/her return. If it’s longer than that or if your spouse seems especially out of sorts (do give this 30 days before jumping to any conclusions), follow up on the counseling information you got at the Family Service Center. Keep reunion parties to a minimum (one is plenty, trust me) and expect your spouse to be scarce. There are no two experiences more polarized than combat and parties. Give your spouse time to make this transition.
Welcome Home MSgt Robert Hartman!