Hysterical women, resiliency, and military spouse suicide
Friday afternoon I was heading out to the department’s picnic, when I heard from my husband that one of the spouses in the command committed suicide. Unfortunately, this has become an all too familiar topic for military families, even as it is largely ignored by the media and military.
One of the side effects of the all-volunteer force is that there is no shared national sacrifice. A miniscule 1% of the US population has borne the entirety of two wars on their backs. We are bruised, bloodied, and some of us are broken by the strain of it. The worst part about it is we can’t even have an honest conversation about how we’re coping or not coping, because everything we say can be taken out of context, abused and used to any number of purposes that do not include an honest account of our stories. One side will trot us out as examples of resilience. Another will label all military spouses as hysterics who are seeking attention. It’s a no win game. As a result, many of us learn that silence is safety, until we break and no one even knew we were at the end of our ropes.
I don’t know why this spouse decided to end it all. We may never know why because there are no statistics kept on how military spouses are coping and why they breakdown. What we do know is that the ship changed ports recently and many of the spouses in our command have chosen to be geo-bachelors for the duration of their spouse’s tours rather than move with the ship.
Geobachelorhood confers an extra set of challenges to an already difficult set of circumstances that come with military life. It is not unlike being a Guard or Reserve spouse, where you may not live anywhere near another military spouse who may know what you’re going through or when you need help.
Recently, I wrote about the benefits of being around caring civilians, but the truth is there are challenges to being a military family of one. For example, this past month my husband took ill unexpectedly. We still don’t know what’s wrong and navigating the Navy’s medical system is a post unto itself. It was the week I was prepping to move back from my internship, when he got sick. I had a profound realization that I had not one person I could call and say, “Hey, take the dog and can you pack my apartment while I am gone? I am getting on a plane right now.” I sat on the floor of my half empty apartment and weighed my options. I could leave everything and fly out and hope everything was okay and I could get back in time to move before the end of my lease or I could finish packing, move, and hope he was okay until I could get there. Neither is a good option. And both reminded me that I am tight-rope walking without any sort of safety net.
What do you do when you fall? What do you do when there’s no backup plan and when you can’t cope but there’s no one to call? Most of us find a way to play through the pain, but what happens when it’s too much, when it’s just a bridge too far?
We make a big deal about being resilient because the military and civilians make a point of calling military spouses hysterical women (even though we aren’t all women), whenever we raise our hands and say enough. Sometimes we aren’t resilient. By pushing the resilience story, we often push those that are struggling to the fringes of the group, where they are far too easily lost. When I was sitting on my floor alone wondering how I could manage, I called my mother and told her I wasn’t coping and I needed help. Her response still rings in my ears, “Ophiolite, no one helps you because we know you are resilient. Even when no one steps up to help you, you always find a way to make it through.”**
Maybe this is our collective problem as military spouses. We’ve gotten so good at putting the brave face on for so long and managing under extreme circumstances that even when we ask for help, no one realizes it’s because we’re already at the breaking point and we simply can’t walk one more step alone. What’s worse is that we don’t even know how much rougher it is for Reservist and Guard spouses who do not have access to many of the resources Active Duty spouses take for granted. As long as military spouses don’t count, we won’t get the help we need to combat military spouse suicides. That is frankly unacceptable.
**Author’s note: At that point I hung up the phone and texted my milspouse friends near the ship who, while unable to resolve the dog/move/sick husband issue, did help me make the decisions I needed to make and line up contingency plans for my spouse and I. For their support, I am truly grateful.