Recently I was talking with a friend who has a long career in close protection and I asked him for ideas for my Circuit magazine feature.
Whilst he pondered this, his wife jumped straight in and asked for “something for the families!” We got talking about how many people work so hard to build a better future for themselves and their loved ones only to find it has a negative impact on their home life. Quite apart from the long hours and time away from home, it is usually the adjustment to home life that causes most issues. Similar to returning home from an Armed Forces tour of duty, there is often a need for great adjustment.
From the family member’s perspective, it can be very difficult to know what to do for the best or even to understand what’s happened. They can feel helpless, confused and worried. Their partner may withdraw from the relationship, or be emotional or angry with them. They may have a range of post-traumatic stress symptoms and sometimes it can feel as though the “old person” is gone and life will never be the same again.
I could write a book on this subject and how to help with the transition but let’s start with understanding what exactly is happening. Knowledge and understanding are always the first steps to having control.
A good analogy is that of a deep sea diver. They have a need to resurface slowly so as to allow their bodies to adjust to the change in pressure. Without this, there would be serious issues. Psychologically there is also a need for “decompression” when somebody has been under intense duress for an extensive period of time – even if they enjoy and get a “buzz” from the work. Mentally and physically, it’s not possible to go from a situation where you always need to be on high alert to suddenly becoming relaxed and calm. You can’t flick a switch just because you take them out of that situation. It’s like going from 100mph to standing still. Expectations of everything being “back to normal” and relaxed will add to the pressure so it’s best to be prepared and accept the situation for what it is.
Everyone is unique and reacts in their own individual way but here are some of the more common difficulties. You may notice some, all or none of them!
You may feel that your partner seems like a “closed book” and avoids talking about their experiences. Although they have come home to you, they may spend more time talking with people who do similar work or be extremely secretive about their time away. When in a hostile environment, this secrecy and reliance on buddies was essential and is hard to readjust to.
They may fear that you wouldn’t understand their experience or, more usually, are trying to protect you from it. Many people compartmentalise their lives and don’t want to talk about their work for fear of “contaminating” their precious home time. The downside is that you feel shut out. However, like the deep sea diver, it takes time to acclimatise and be able to open up. This may not even happen until years afterwards. If they do open up and talk, remember your job is simply to listen. You don’t have to fix. You just have to be there and hear them.
The raging volcano
In high adrenaline work, the human survival response is to fight or run away. Targeted aggression in that setting involves making split-second decisions that may involve lethal force to remain safe. Anger may become an easily triggered response and expressed more readily or it may have been suppressed for safety reasons and is only now, once they are home and safe, leaking out. It often comes out as inappropriate aggression at home, for example, over-reacting to minor issues.
Some people will notice their partner is driving aggressively, faster than necessary, or having accidents or even road rage. At work, remaining safe may have required unpredictable and rapid lane changes, straddling the middle line and keeping other vehicles at a safe distance. This is obviously a problem on the roads at home and being stuck in queuing traffic can trigger a feeling of danger. The brain can take time to reduce the urge to remain on high alert and realise that bag of rubbish at the roadside is not an IED.
You’ve lost that loving feeling
There may be more general detachment and a failure to display emotions. Controlling your emotions is critical for mission success and this suppression can become so practised that it’s hard to switch back on. Additionally, one of the effects of the human survival response is that emotions are numbed. This is helpful within a life-threatening situation but is also protective afterwards as the brain protects the person from being overwhelmed by difficult sensations and feelings. The downside is that you can’t numb the bad feelings without also numbing the good ones. Previously enjoyed activities may feel unappealing and the person may slip into a low mood or depression. There is sometimes a loss of libido or sexual difficulties and this is a real problem just as you both hope for (and expect) emotional and physical intimacy. Both parties can feel rejected and a failure if they don’t realise that these are subconscious survival processes.
It’s important not to take their anger or withdrawal personally but accept that you too will sometimes feel frustrated and helpless. Look after your own needs and make sure you have support in place for you. Reassure your partner that you value and care for them even when their behaviour means that they can be difficult to live with. They will often be terrified of losing you.
However, if the difficulties in adjustment do not subside, or if they intensify, consider seeking further assistance. It is best if they can be gently encouraged to do this themselves but many people fear seeking psychological support. Crucially, if you ever fear they may become a danger to themselves or to someone else, you must put safety first and seek immediate professional advice and support. There is more information on our website and blog www.powertorecover.com
Your partner will be helped by you maintaining or returning to a normal routine as soon as possible but encourage inclusion. They may feel like a spare part and that life has moved on and this will add to the detachment. In an earlier article, I talked about the importance of keeping up to date with the trivial aspects of life. It can be the small changes (e.g. a child has a new best friend) that can make people feel like a stranger in their family unit.
Becoming a control freak!
Having been away for some time in an environment where control was important, settling into a shared and relaxed home can feel disordered and chaotic. Your partner may become angry when someone moves or messes with their stuff, even if insignificant. Maintaining control of a weapon and gear is necessary for survival away from home. However, the survival part of the brain can’t always differentiate between the need to keep weapons and kit under tight control and the need to relax about people moving other non-essential possessions. This can lead to conflict, especially with children. The survival system in the brain can view “missing” car keys as the loss of a means of escape from danger. Someone may have simply tidied them away only to be faced with the volcano erupting at this “threat.”
The tight discipline and control of a working environment may lead to inflexible, demanding interactions with family and friends. You may feel like you are expected to follow orders and that your partner is trying to run the house like a military unit. This can lead to resentment when you have all managed to cope very well with life up to that point!
It can help for everyone involved to recognise all this as behaviour that is being driven by an urge to keep everybody safe (through discipline and control) and simply a symptom of still “coming down.”
Life’s not safe
In a hostile environment, survival depends on being aware at all times of your surroundings and reacting immediately to sudden changes. This can result in the individual feeling constantly edgy or anxious – we describe that as hyperarousal. Carrying a weapon may have been mandatory and drummed in as necessary for safety. If your partner was used to having a weapon available, they may feel you and they are vulnerable without this.
This hyperarousal, and constant vigilance for danger can be exhausting. It can take time for the survival part of their brain to begin to calm and accept the threat is no longer present. Hyperarousal can leave people overly sensitive to loud noises, sudden movements and bright lights. If you have a busy home, this can be difficult for them to manage continually and they may need regular time out. Make sure that they have
a private, quiet space to go to when they need this.
Encourage them to do the activities that usually switch them off, particularly active ones that require focus e.g. golf, mountain biking, windsurfing. We all have a favourite one – what is your partner’s? They may not feel they would enjoy it if they are experiencing numbing of pleasurable emotions so think about whether a friend can help you to gently encourage them.
As someone who cares for them, you are an important part of their adjustment and there are things that you can do. Remember that the things that are causing difficulties now are the very things that kept them safe in a hostile environment. Take your time and accept that small steps are the quickest way to get to where you both want to be.
Do you have questions about adjustment? Send them to the Editor and I’ll do my best to answer them in future articles.
This one’s for your family
By: Dr Liz Royle, KRTS International
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