February 03, 2020 | 4-minute read
Honesty, openness, and a willingness to seek help. That’s what saved Vanessa’s marriage to Robert, who served in the U.S. Navy from 1971 to 1975.
“I thought he had a Dr. Jekyll [and] Mr. Hyde personality. I didn’t know it was PTSD, because he didn’t talk about it,” Vanessa says of Robert’s posttraumatic stress disorder. “He didn’t tell me until after we were married.”
For many years, he bottled up the trauma he experienced while serving on a NATO base overseas — he was sexually assaulted in an Italian jail.
“I was raped in prison,” Robert says now. “I never dealt with it until I got back to the United States, and I hid it for a very long time.”
Decades of self-destructive behavior — including heavy drinking, using illegal drugs, and multiple arrests — followed Robert’s military sexual trauma (MST). Repeated stints in mental health and rehab facilities didn’t help him cope with his MST, although Robert did eventually get sober.
I was constantly depressed, because I held myself responsible for what had occurred, even though I found out that I was not responsible for it.Robert
“I did not want to deal with anyone,” Robert recalls. “I was constantly depressed, because I held myself responsible for what had occurred, even though I found out that I was not responsible for it.”
Then, a few years ago, Robert went to a club to watch a friend’s singing performance where he met Vanessa.
“People say they don’t believe in love at first sight,” Robert says. “Guess what? It is love. I wanted to get married the very next day. You know, she wanted to wait.”
Their wait ended seven months later when Robert and Vanessa were married. There were still challenges, though. Robert hadn’t yet dealt with his MST.
“He would yell, and he would scream, and he would just have temper tantrums,” says Vanessa. “And then all of a sudden, he’d be like, ‘Hi, you want to go have dinner?’ And I’d be like, ‘Huh? Who is this person?’”
The outbursts quickly became too much for Vanessa, who still didn’t know about Robert’s traumatic past. She was ready to walk away from the marriage.
“It was challenging for me, because I’m not used to letting people in,” Robert explains, adding that — until Vanessa — his love life had consisted of short-term relationships that fizzled out.
“That’s always been a thing of mine, not to let somebody in. But here I am — I’m married now, and so, if I want to keep this woman that I truly love, then I’m going to have to let her into some of the darker things that have gone on in my life,” Robert recalls. So, more than 40 years after his initial trauma, Robert decided to get the kind of help he always knew he needed.
“Finally, I actually asked for help, and I went to the VA medical center,” Robert says. “And that’s when I began my long journey.”
He took Vanessa to VA with him so she could learn through therapy what had happened to him in Italy and understand why he sometimes changed from his upbeat, hopeful self into “Mr. Hyde.”
Vanessa explains that he used to respond to her before she finished speaking, which felt dismissive — as if he wasn’t listening. Through therapy, Robert has learned to slow down and listen before he speaks, and he no longer has temper tantrums. Couples therapy has helped Vanessa understand Robert’s trauma and triggers, as well as his behaviors and effective ways she might handle them.
“When I do wake up with sweats or can’t sleep or something like that, she kind of understands what it’s all about,” Robert says. “The therapy was a really big, big help to us,” Vanessa adds.
Both Robert and Vanessa consider their relationship a work in progress, and they’ll have follow-up counseling when they need it.
Robert now helps other Veterans at his local VA medical center who are confronting the same kinds of issues he faced for decades. He tells them that it’s never too late to ask for help and that “there’s a way out of your situation if you choose to take it.”
Robert says the best part is this: “Somebody loves me. That makes me really feel good. Took a long time to get here.”