How to best support a long-distance not-boyfriend who is dealing with PTSD?
April 22, 2012 8:33 AM   Subscribe

How can I be a (romantic?) long-distance friend to someone with PTSD?

A former boyfriend and I have been flirtatious and in touch off and on in the past 8 years since distance ended our dating relationship. It's been fun and carefree. We meet up occasionally, maybe once every two years, depending on if we're both single. We live a 3-hour flight/way too long drive away from each other, and we were even farther away when he was serving in the Army. We have kept in touch via phone, texting, email, and little snail mail presents.

We of course haven't been as close as an actual LTR, but we really care about each other. We had an amazing visit this summer, but communication has been sparse since then. I found out through a mutual friend that he had dropped off communication with many of his close friends too. Last time we talked on the phone, a few weeks ago, he said he was having trouble adjusting to "civillian life." His time in the Army is done, but he had a rough time over there and told me he was going to go to the VA to get diagnosed officially as PTSD.

I've seen advice given on being a partner or friend of someone dealing with PTSD, but want some advice specifically on our unusual and long-distance relationship. Should I give him space and wait for him to contact me? Should I "check in" on him more concerned-friend style rather than just reach out to say hi and flirt and do the how is your week going? (as I would usually do)

If you've been there on either side, advice and such would be great! Basically I guess what I want to know is, should I fall back into friends mode while this is pretty much taking over a lot of his life, or should I just carry on "as normal"? Want to be conscious of his vulnerabilities and be supportive. Just not sure how the romantic/sexual component fits in, or if it should fit in at all.

I know "talk to him" is the general answer, but I want to feel prepared, and on the best track, when I do that, cause this is new to me.
posted by manicure12 to Human Relations (4 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Big fat caveat: all this advice is related to my personal experience of helping people with traumatic events in their civilian life, not combat PTSD. I am definitely not a therapist, much less a VA therapist. If someone with such qualifications shows up in this thread, take their advice and ignore mine.

He says he's having a rough time adjusting to civilian life. I'd take this as meaning that you going back to "just normal" -- behaving as though you're a regular flirty couple without a big PTSD private hell sitting in the room -- would be more alienating than comforting. That it would be heard as a demand to be a person he's having a hard time being, to pretend and hide rather than confront and digest.

That said, aside from "just listening" (neither digging nor denying), my experience is that it's useful to people processing trauma if you provide gentle, persistent reminders that the world of nice things outside their private hell is not permanently off limits to them. That they can eventually re-integrate and return to enjoying the finer things in life, even with the scars of the trauma. The way forward for a trauma victim is not to forget but also not to dwell; they have to eventually get tired of actively reliving the trauma and get on with rebuilding a life containing things they actually want, accepting that there will always be things that trigger or replay it, trying to make the best of the remaining life anyways.

So it might be useful to not completely desexualize yourself. If you still have feelings for him, I think you don't have to pretend otherwise, just don't turn it into a form of pressure. Gently remind him that in the future, sometime when he's ready -- be that weeks, months, years or decades from now -- when he's learned to live and cope with his injured mind, there will still be women who love him.
posted by ead at 10:06 AM on April 22, 2012 [4 favorites]

it's useful to people processing trauma if you provide gentle, persistent reminders that the world of nice things outside their private hell is not permanently off limits to them. That they can eventually re-integrate and return to enjoying the finer things in life, even with the scars of the trauma.

Repeated for truth.

I think you're right to fall back on friend mode for now, and giving him space to work through his personal torment at the pace he needs to. I wouldn't recommend touching on the sexual/flirting/relationship aspect of your friendship, as that kind of pressure can inadvertently be quite shame-reinforcing IME (it's like saying, "come hop over Mount Everest already" when you're still working on climbing out of bed everyday). His priority is to work on being able to love himself in spite of his PTSD-driving experiences; the expectation for love from/for another person may come off as a hefty demand he's not ready to fathom. That's just my two cents though.

Checking in with upbeat updates without any pressure for him to respond is a very nice, gentle, hands-off way of nonverbally letting him know that even though he's unavailable right now, good things in life [even just friendship] are still available to him. When he's ready, hopefully, he will realize that his PTSD need not have repercussions on the availability of joyful things/feelings/experiences he can still have in his life.

And kudos to your sensitivity to his situation OP! In my own experience with dealing with intense personal sh*t I lost a lot of friends whose need to push their priorities on me only resulted in me having to cut them right out because I just didn't have the energy. It wasn't anything personal on them; I just needed them to back off. The people in my life now are those who trusted me to take care of myself, at my own pace, and let me know they were still there at the other end of it, when I was ready again.
posted by human ecologist at 12:35 PM on April 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have a few close friends that are out of the military, but I kept in touch with them through their deployments and now as they readjust to civilian life. It can be really hard for them. My one friend was in the military for 12+ years, right out of high school. The military takes care of so many things that now that he's out, it's like being dumped into adulthood without the excuse of youth for being ignorant about how things work. Sink or swim. My friend is fond of saying "sweet, horrible freedom." And even though they left the military, they still miss it. I joke that they were in an abusive relationship with their boyfriend, Uncle Sam, and they always want to go back to him even though Sam called them fat and made them run a lot.

When you're a long distance friend you just don't know the reality of how this person is being challenged, and what areas of their life are having trouble, and how severe that trouble is. You don't know if he's living off gas station food (like my one friend did for a while), or has a drinking problem and gets blackout drunk on a case of cheap beer every Friday, or smokes two packs a day and hacks up crud from his lungs every morning. You may want to help, but the reality is these big, dirty issues are probably best handled by professionals that do not have a friendship hanging in the balance.

What you can do, like human ecologist suggested, is check in with updates with no pressure for him to open up or respond. I made up really terrible jokes and puns to text my one friend for a while, when he was going through the stressful process of getting out of the military. Be a lighthearted friend, be there to listen if he needs an ear, and encourage him to use the benefits available to him to get the treatment he needs/deserves. But don't become the mommy figure and feel responsible for getting him fixed up. Maybe he will, maybe he won't. As far as romantic stuff goes, I'd leave that alone for a while until you know for sure your friend is able to handle the demands of normal, everyday life. It really is similar to someone recovering from a physically and emotionally abusive relationship.
posted by griselda at 11:05 AM on April 23, 2012

Hi! I'm a vet, and I've done this with former partners who were vets. Please feel free to memail me. Seriously.

Do not pull back. Absolutely do not pull back. He will let you, but it doesn't mean he wants you to. When he is having a bad time, he will not be able to reach out, but he will still want you.

There are areas he will not want to talk about. Let him avoid those areas.

Also: the presence of a supportive romantic partner is the single greatest factor that influences someone's ability to cope with PTSD. There's a VA study somewhere. So don't necessarily think that romance itself is going to be something that will bring him down.

That said: the feeling of responsibility can be what is too much. Actually having you as a girlfriend, where he has to accept responsibility for you, may be too much. But having a flirty friend? Totally fine. In fact, I think this is where many vets /prefer/ people to live.
posted by corb at 1:12 PM on April 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

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