The biggest mistake and disservice we are doing to our first responders and military is putting a post traumatic stress disorder, also known as PTSD, label on any and all behaviors of someone struggling with PTSD. Not all behaviors we label as PTSD are actually PTSD. In fact, many of the behaviors we label as PTSD are beyond that diagnosis and fall under other categories of addiction, substance misuse, anxiety, depression, domestic violence, and even abuse. If we excuse or normalize behaviors based on a PTSD diagnosis, we can easily become enabling. Not all behaviors should be accepted with a PTSD diagnosis. We live in a time where so many resources are available that we should not be excusing any of it, but offering resources to those struggling. There is help available.
Examples of Enabling Someone with PTSD
I spent 15 years as a law enforcement wife. I saw the signs and symptoms of PTSD long before he accepted there were issues. Early intervention would have made all the difference. I would bring up the topic which would enrage him, so I would quickly back down. The children and I enabled his PTSD by not pressing the issue and not setting healthy boundaries for ourselves. When he had bouts of anger, we would hide in our bedrooms. When he isolated himself, we just let him isolate. We began doing all of our family activities without him. Instead of addressing the issues, we excused them. I would tell the kids, “Daddy doesn’t feel good today because he has PTSD.” I would tell the family, “His PTSD is bothering him so he didn’t come.” The problem was not addressed, it was simply excused by all of us. We felt that because PTSD was something that happened to him, we didn’t want to make him feel worse about it than he already did. Unfortunately, that enabled the PTSD instead of addressing it, and choosing to work through the diagnosis. The symptoms grew worse because he wasn’t getting the help he needed.
When Helping Turns Into Codependency
Many spouses enmesh their self worth into “helping” their spouse. It becomes a codependent relationship very quickly when one person is battling PTSD. When we marry, we take on our spouse’s burdens as our own. We strive to help them and love them. Where do we set the boundary between helping versus enabling? It is natural for a spouse to desire to help their husband or wife. Most spouses want to help each other through their struggles. The problem is that we cannot fix a spouse’s PTSD. So instead, we try to fix everything around them. We try to make it easier for them. Unfortunately, that is the worst thing we can do with someone struggling with PTSD. Making everything around them easier for them is the very definition of enabling. Making life easier by taking over their responsibilities and allowing them to isolate actually makes PTSD worse instead of better. It enables them to sit in their issues without learning how to cope or work through it. How do we help them without enabling them?
Realizing When to Get Help
I deal with wives much like myself on a daily basis. We all have one thing in common. We are enablers and codependent. One wife we tried to help whose husband was an alcoholic didn’t want to press the issue with her husband. He had her convinced he was not an alcoholic. He agreed to go to counseling with her. We advised against it because we knew he needed more than just once a week counseling. Also, the marriage problems were a direct result of his alcoholism. He needed specific treatment for that as well as the untreated PTSD which was the beginning of the drinking problem. She was very codependent and didn’t want to upset him. She was so used to enabling him and being his rescuer that she wouldn’t let us intervene. She would not even let us speak to him. A year later, things fell apart in their home. He had not received the specified help he needed. He went to treatment, but the damage was too great at that point to repair the marriage.
I had another wife whose husband was using drugs. Instead of him getting professional help, the wife put an app on his phone to track him. She was trying to help him stop using. She had become his rescuer, but also his enabler. He didn’t need to be tracked by his wife. He needed professional help. I don’t judge her for it. I, myself, used to count pills to make sure that my husband wasn’t abusing them. There is no difference between myself and this wife. I know wives, myself included, who admitted to counting the beer in the fridge to monitor their spouse’s drinking. When you reach that point in any capacity, you are not helping your spouse. You are rescuing and enabling. Professional help and intervention is needed for both people.
How to Support and Not Enable
There are so many ways to support someone with PTSD. We can support them as they navigate the process of moving into post traumatic growth. We can encourage them as they go through the process of seeking help. We can choose activities that encourage them to get the exercise they need such as hiking, biking, swimming. We can understand that there will be rough days, but not to the point of enabling isolation for weeks at a time. We can set healthy boundaries, which is a lot harder than it sounds. We can get help for ourselves to learn how to stop enabling. We can work on ourselves to make sure that we don’t become enmeshed in an unhealthy balance.