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26 September 2010

PTSD, College, and Dating: PDA, Dates, Holidays, Kids, and Family

College is about academics, but it's also about meeting new people and having a social life.  Sometimes, it's about romantic relationships, too.  PTSD and any other ingredient makes for a difficult mix, but PTSD, college, and dating and relationships can be quite a combination.  I'm dealing with all three right now.  This, and possibly more posts, is my attempt to hash out how to keep PTSD in its place while I'm making new friends and getting to know new people.  And hopefully, get into that "romantic relationships" arena again.

I'm not going in any particular order.  This post concerns after you've found someone (or they've found you), and you're in the beginning stages of a relationship-- getting to know each other, meeting the family, the first dinner with family at Thanksgiving or Christmas.

On public displays of affection:

In my family, public displays of affection were nonexistent.  Family members didn't go around hugging and kissing and telling each other how much they loved each other.  In the military, public displays of affection, even out of uniform in some situations, were considered unprofessional.  I actually love giving and receiving PDA, but sometimes a situation will have me a little more hyperaware than other times.  You might have to take a gentler approach if I don't respond as you expected me to... a whispered "hey..." and another try is a good option.  Give me a chance to come back to reality and remember that with you, I'm safe.

Concerning going out on dates:

I don't drink much... two beers at most in one sitting, usually.  I've never been an alcoholic, but there have been points in my life where I've used alcohol as a way to numb my feelings.   Sometimes, I will order a shot of Irish whiskey, which will appear out of character.  You most certainly should raise an eyebrow if I do something out of character, and you should ask me about it--- and let me rant or rave for a bit if necessary.

That doesn't mean you should give me free reign to be out of character.  A change in behavior means something is wrong.  While it might not be serious, it probably needs to be addressed, and this is where communication has to happen.  It's okay, if things just seem wrong, to say so.

I don't have a lot of disposable income.  Technically, I don't have much income at all.  So I tend to view prices with a frugal eye.  Again, this can cause me to be stressed if I feel I'm in a situation where I'm going to have to spend too much.  My first three rules are food, clothing, shelter, and school is right behind those.  If spending money threatens any of them, I'll feel defensive and threatened.

That's one of the reasons I tend to withdraw from some activities-- it's not so much PTSD, but that I can't afford them.

I like to sit where I can see the door, and where I can see what's going on around me.  I'm always going to go for that chair or spot in the booth first.  Let me have it, and then sit next to me.  Sometimes, in a restaurant or bar, something won't feel right (usually in a new place).  I'll try to say so, and in those cases, I'll also know it's a pain in the ass to go somewhere else, but can we please do that?

If you see I've got the thousand yard stare going on, give me a few seconds, and then gently remind me that you're here, and that I'm here.  There will be times where I will lose track of a conversation, and it will look exactly like I'm ignoring you.  It's okay to remind me that you're the one I'm supposed to be paying attention to, but do so gently.  It wasn't my choice to drift away from you for those moments.

A hand on my hand, or a hand on my shoulder (even a gentle squeeze or shake) is a good description of "gently".  If I jump or am startled, which you should expect, leave your hand where it is.  It'll be okay.

I really do want you to be "the one".  I want to be happy with you.  I want this to be a relationship that is good, and fun, and healthy, and I want it to last.  I've seen so much that was bad, and miserable, and sometimes deadly, and I have a hard time believing that this good thing will last forever. 

It's not that I'm afraid of commitment-- it's that I'm afraid of any situation I might not be able to extract myself from.  Which is the central question, and the one that will require the most communication, and the most patience from you.

On meeting the family:

I'm not good around kids.  When I see kids, I wonder if they're going through what I went through.  I worry about them.  And they can remind me of when I was a kid, and so they can be triggering.  They're also unpredictable in their innocence; jumping out from behind the edge of a building with a squirt gun and firing is certainly enough to trigger someone's PTSD.  Especially at large gatherings, a lot of kids making noise can be difficult for me.    The kids don't know and can't possibly understand, and I know it's not their fault.  Please understand if I'm not particularly pleased when someone jumps into my lap unannounced.   When I look and act unhappy, it's because my heart rate just doubled.

I was an only child, and I never had kids, so I can't speak for veterans who had siblings and/or children of their own.  If you are (dealing with) a veteran who is kid-friendly, your experience might be different.

My sense of family is probably not the same as yours.  If you came from a large family, or a very close knit family, or a family of expressive (let's just say loud) people, then gatherings with your family will be hard for me.  I'll feel trapped and threatened.  I'll want to look for escape routes.  I'll be quiet.  I'll probably try to find the eye of the hurricane, a place where I can be largely by myself.  If it's the first time with your family, I'll probably be on edge because I want to make a good impression, and I won't want the first thing your family meets to be my PTSD.  So I might seem really, really, shy-- and in large families, than can be misinterpreted as "he looks miserable, he must really hate us".

Again, if you're from a large family, this might not be such an issue for you; but I do know veterans who have come home, and found the environment of their family to feel very foreign.  It's even harder when you're consciously trying to keep PTSD from causing problems-- doing so takes a lot of effort.

You should tell them, though, that I was in the war and that I have PTSD, and that it takes me time to get used to a new situation and new people.  You should also tell them, if they ask, that I'm enrolled at the VA and that I've been getting help for my PTSD.  I'm okay if your parents, and the rest of your family, know about it.  If there's another veteran in your family, you absolutely should introduce us.  Finding another brother or sister that's been there will give me a safe place to work from in getting to know your family.

Remember the grandfather/grandmother or uncle/aunt who never mentioned they'd been in the war?  One of my uncles was in Vietnam, and I never knew until I was 35 years old and I saw him wearing a POW/MIA tshirt at a family gathering.  It's not unusual for family members not to talk about it.  But if you know someone in your family is a veteran, you don't have to know the details.  Just introduce us.

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