EPISODE 17: PTSD, Me and my Family
Originally Aired: June 6, 2017
IN RECOGNITION OF JUNE BEING PTSD AWARENESS MONTH, IN THIS EPISODE WE HEAR FROM A MILITARY VET ABOUT HIS EXPERIENCE OF PTSD AND HOW IT SHOWS UP IN HIS MARRIAGE AND THEIR LIFE TOGETHER.
TIM I never ever would have thought in my entire life that I would have taken my own life, never. I would say, “God, I just want this anxiety to go away. If something would happen to me, it would go away. If I was crossing an intersection and I got crushed by a truck, it’ll just all go away. The pain would end. If I just didn’t wake up, it would all go away.” Well, those are passive suicidal thoughts. Had I recognized these signs being passive suicidal thoughts years before, I would have gotten help a lot sooner.
TIM HILKE IS A SEVENTEEN-YEAR DISABLED MILITARY VETERAN. HE SERVED MULTIPLE COMBAT TOURS IN AFGHANISTAN AND IRAQ. TIM AND HIS WIFE HAVE BEEN MARRIED FOR FOURTEEN YEARS AND THEY HAVE THREE CHILDREN.
HE’S ALSO A SUICIDE SURVIVOR. TIM WAS DIAGNOSED WITH PTSD, A MOOD DISORDER CALLED CYCLOTHYMIA, AND ANXIETY.
HE HAS SPENT A GREAT DEAL OF TIME GETTING HELP, AND LEARNING COPING SKILLS TO BETTER MANAGE HIS ILLNESSES, AS WELL AS DEDICATING HIS TIME TO HELPING OTHERS LIKE HIM.
ACCORDING TO THE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS, BETWEEN ELEVEN AND TWENTY PERCENT OF VETERANS WHO SERVED IN IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN HAVE PTSD.
PTSD CAN HAPPEN TO ANYONE. IT IS NOT A SIGN OF WEAKNESS. POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER IS A MENTAL HEALTH CONDITION CAUSED BY TRAUMA. ON AVERAGE, ABOUT EIGHT PERCENT OF THE U.S. POPULATION WILL HAVE PTSD AT SOME POINT IN THEIR LIVES. THE NUMBER IS HIGHER, ABOUT TEN PERCENT, FOR WOMEN.
TIM I think that there are a lot of people that just don’t talk about it because they’re ashamed, they’re embarrassed, or they don’t want people to think differently of them. As a condition of us staying together, after I got out of the hospital, I had to make a few promises. One, that I was going to aggressively and actively seek professional help. Two, was that I was going to seriously and sincerely work on my coping skills and abilities. And then three was that I needed to explain to my entire family, my 10 and my 11-year-old sons and my wife and my daughters why I did what I did.
MY NAME IS ANDY HORNING, AND THIS IS ELEPHANT TALK. IT’S ABOUT ALL THINGS RELATIONSHIP – THE SOULFUL, THE SILLY AND THE SEXY.
HOST What do you do to manage your anxiety?
TIM I first knew that I had an issue. I wasn’t sure what that issue was in 2010 when I came back from Iraq. It increased in intensity. And so I pretty much suffered for six years in silence hiding it from pretty much everybody. A, because of the stigma in the military. I did not want to ruin my career. B, because I was afraid of what people would think of me or how they would treat me if they knew that I had a mental illness and I still didn’t really know what was going on. And then I started seeking therapy in 2015 outside of the military system.
I thought that I could handle the anxiety and the PTSD on my own with the help of medication. I thought medication was enough. I felt like I was a horrible father, a horrible husband. One day something just triggered me very hard. The next thing I know I woke up in the hospital and apparently I attempted suicide.
What I do now to manage my anxiety and any type of harmful thoughts, I wrote a journal when I was in the hospital and I listed every single traumatic event no matter how significant or insignificant it may have been, how it made me feel today, what it made me do, and what could potentially trigger it.
HOST You have a journal, you list every single traumatic event. Is that in your military career?
TIM Throughout my entire life.
TIM When you actually attempt or commit suicide and you survived, you gain a certain awareness and it’s a self-awareness as well as an awareness of life in general. And in my off time, when we had downtime, I didn’t sit in the day room and play Ping-Pong or watch TV. I sat in my room and I wrote this journal on my own because I wanted to get better and I wanted to figure out what was causing this and how I can recognize it and how I could overcome it because I didn’t ever want to feel like a horrible husband. I didn’t ever want to feel like a horrible father again. And over time, I’ve trained myself to recognize my triggers and I know the root cause of my anxiety is, and you have to forgive me this shaky voice, I’m having massive anxiety right now but it’s okay.
HOST What is it like for you talk about it?
TIM Talking about it, writing about it, it helps. It helps me to put it into a physical form, if that makes sense.
HOST It does. Yeah.
TIM And then I get to actually hear what’s going on in my head and then I get to rationalize it and it helps. I write a blog. I’ve received several responses about how I’ve helped them or I’ve helped them understand how to deal with their loved ones. I’ve had people reached out to me. I’ve had several people telling me that I’ve pulled them off the ledge and then I’ve saved their lives.
So knowing that I’m helping other people helps me. And it lets me know and it lets everybody else know that we’re not alone. We’re not the only one that’s suffering and we don’t have to go through this by ourselves.
HOST What is it that you’re doing that’s helping people?
TIM A lot of people don’t seek help because they don’t know how or they’re afraid of the stigma. Say for example the other day I saw just a random post on Twitter and it caught my attention. I knew this person right away was in crisis mode. So I sent this person just direct message and said, “Hey, I can sense that there’s something wrong. I can probably relate and I would like to talk to you.” They sent me a direct message back. We’ve exchanged phone numbers. I told her my story. And halfway through my story, she just broke down and started crying. She said, “You don’t understand. You’re the first person that’s been able to articulate what’s been going on in my head and it makes me feel better,” and then she went and got help and she called me up the next day and told me that I probably saved her life that day.
TIM A lot of people are afraid to tell their stories. A lot of people don’t want to deal with it. They’re afraid of that monster we carry around inside of us.
HOST And what’s the monster is saying?
TIM Well, for everybody it’s different. For me, it manifests itself – Physiologically, it feels like I have a million butterflies in my stomach. I get this feeling as if something bad is going to happen. Sometimes I’ll start to shiver and as you can tell, my voice is a little shaky right now. When it gets really bad, I feel like I’m having an out-of-body experience where I’m kind of looking from the outside in. And it’s kind of like you don’t know what to focus on. You can’t make a decision. You can’t articulate thought to your words.
HOST In your relationship? How does that show up?
TIM If I feel like I’m being overly criticized, if I feel like if I’m being talked down to, if I’m uncertain of somebody’s view or opinion of me and so that will trigger the effects of cyclothymic disorder, which is irrational irritability. Which then triggers the PTSD push of it which could be anger or rage or outburst. And so from a family perspective, if I felt like my wife was saying something to me that fit into one of those categories, we would argue and we argued often. It got vicious at times. I would snap my children over little stupid things. I would get irrationally irritated with them over the smallest of things. I could be sitting at my computer and my children will say, “Hey, Daddy, Daddy, come here.” And I’d say, “Wait a minute. Give me a minute.” And then they’d say it again and I’d yes, they’d give me a minute and then it turned in to me yelling at them. All they wanted was my attention. They wanted to me to see some great grandiose masterpiece they created in Minecraft, something like that and here I am ignoring them or getting irritated with them. And then over time, my wife would get frustrated because she didn’t know how to help me.
And it wasn’t that we didn’t love each other. We fit each other well. She is the perfect woman for me and my dream girl. And then when it came to my suicide, she was extremely angry, very angry with me that I would leave my wife, that I would leave my children and my friends behind by my own hands and she didn’t get it. And as a condition of us staying together, after I got out of the hospital, I had to make a few promises and one, that I was going to aggressively and actively seek professional help. Two, was that I was going to seriously and sincerely work on my coping skills and abilities. And then three was that I needed to explain to my entire family, my 10 and my 11-year-old sons and my wife and my daughters why I did what I did. And so that’s how it affected my family. My wife is an amazing, amazing woman. The fact that we’re still together surprises me. I don’t know that I could put up with what she’s put up with. She’s endured a lot. As people who suffer from mental illness, we get so focused on our illness and what’s going on. You don’t consider the innocent bystanders, your family and your friends and what they go through.
HOST Tim, you talked about how amazing your wife is and she has endured a lot. Another quality that makes her amazing is that she’s honest with you. She confronted you on what happened. There was a courageous conversation that took place as a result of your suicide attempt. Do you remember that moment?
TIM It happened in the hospital. I was going through the journal with her and she was like, “That’s great. That’s great. That’s a bunch of words. These are your plans. What about my plans? What about our plans?” So she grabbed my journal and she wrote our plans in the back of my journal. And she was like, “This is what I need from you.”
HOST Are you looking at your journal right now?
TIM I am. I carry it around when I go to my therapist, if he says something poignant that I think is going to help me, I write it down and I take notes. For example, we were talking about my wife and I arguing. And he says, “Don’t think of that as argument. When your wife comes at you, it’s because she has an emotional need that is not being fulfilled. And when you argued back, you’re being defensive. It is not your job to be defensive. It is not her job to be defensive. It is your job to be each other’s number one support channel. It is your job to listen to this emotional need no matter what tone it’s in and fulfill that need.” So I came home and my wife and I sat down and we wrote out what our emotional needs were and how we’re going to fulfill these needs.
My wife and I have a very open and honest communication about everything that goes on. We come home from work every day. We have a cocktail. We catch up on our day. We turn on music and we cook together every single night. We’re talking about the day, but we’ll talk about other things like for example she asked how my day was and I said, “Well, it was okay, but I had a bad nightmare last night.” She asked what the nightmare was about and I said, “Well, we’ve been arguing so much that my nightmare was about losing you and divorcing.” And so she said, “You know that’s funny.” She said, “Because I’ve been having the same thoughts.” She said, “Is it better if we separated for a little while or got a divorce because we’re creating a toxic environment for the household and for the children? Or is it better that we separated or got divorced because this environment is not good for you to heal, for you to get better and it’s counter to your healing process?” And so we talked about that. It’s a very calm, amicable and honest communication.
HOST I just want to put a pause button here because I’m inspired by that conversation, the level of honesty, the calmness, the courageousness with which you guys are having this conversation. It’s pretty incredible.
TIM That is the reason why we’re still together, I think.
HOST In other words, when you say that’s the reason we’re still together, is it because you have those kinds of really open and honest conversations?
TIM We haven’t forgotten that we were in love and that we fell in love and we still do things. On Fridays and Saturdays, sometimes I’ll spin records for my wife and it’ll be with candlelight and a bottle of wine. We still dance around in the living room at night after the kids go to bed, but the honest communication is huge as well. We value each other, we love each other, and what gets us through a lot of our hard times is when we said our vows we meant them and we held them closely and to do this day that we still do.
TIM Another thing that has kept us together is that we accept our faults. I admitted to her that I don’t know that I can’t discern between her tone and I get defensive and therefore, I attack back. And she admitted that sometimes her tone is attacking. If we’re mad at the other person or something like that, we’ll talk about it and then we’ll accept it. If we were to blame, we’ll accept that blame. Then we let it go. We brush it away. We let it go. We move on.
HOST Does it vary who goes first in your relationship in terms of admitting fault?
TIM It does vary and it’s situational based. If it gets too much, we’ll say, “Hey, let’s take a break. Time out.” It might be an hour. It might be a night. It could be a whole day. There’s a cooling off period so that we can speak about things rationally rather than trying to speak over each other at a high volume.
HOST There’s the old adage of don’t go to bed angry. And in your case, actually that’s not true. Sometimes it’s good to have a cooling off period and if it lasts overnight, so be it at least you come back the next day and it sounds like you’re much better.
TIM We used to try to live that mantra, but it’s not reality. That’s not reality. Real life is a lot different than those old adages.
HOST So true.
TIM Arguments are good and the reason I say that is because sometimes that’s the only way you can get your needs out there and have the other person hear you.
HOST Do you ever talk to other guys who are struggling in their marriage? Where vets have PTSD or mental illness?
TIM A large of portion of soldiers that suffered from PTSD and anxiety, their marriages don’t last and it’s for a few reasons. PTSD can get out of control. A lot of people turn to alcohol to self-medicate. Some of that rage and anger turns into a physical manifestation and I know a lot of people, spouses who are abused and ended their marriage. And a lot of times it’s also because the other person, the unaffected spouse, they don’t understand the illness and how to work with the spouse that’s suffering from the illness.
HOST Part of what you said right there is that it also helps educate the spouse on how to react and how to be with the person who’s got PTSD.
TIM There are two things. The first part of it is the person suffering from a mental illness has to A, seek help. That’s the biggest thing is you have to seek help because it doesn’t go away and it’s not going to get better. Once you seek help, you have to stick to the regimen of treatment, medication as well as therapy, but aside from that the meaning the person with the illness needs to understand the illness. So you need to research it. You need to understand what the symptoms are or what the side effects are, what the causes are even.
HOST What the triggers are.
TIM Right. And then you have to communicate it with your spouse and you have to let your spouse know what your triggers are and when you’re uncomfortable. For the longest time, I couldn’t go out in public. It was very hard for me. I would immediately have sensory overload. I would feel like I was having an out-of-body experience. I just wanted to get out of there. But now when we go out, I have to have a plan. I have to know where we’re going, what we’re going to do, and when we’re going to come back. If my wife starts noticing that I’m having trouble, she’ll put her hands on my shoulders and ask me if we need to take a break, go somewhere and sit down for a little while. So that’s what I mean about the understanding. And then the spouse should do some research on it too so that they have a textbook knowledge of what’s going on so that they can easily equate –
HOST Respond maybe.
TIM Well, so that they can adjust to real life.
HOST There’s an aspect there of really taking charge of your healing and for her, taking charge of her own learning around how to be with you.
How has the military responded to PTSD? I know it’s a fairly new diagnosis and that they haven’t always been receptive to diagnosing PTSD much less treating it.
TIM I wrote a book called I am Not Broken. I did a lot of study on the military’s approach to mental illness in general. Since 2009, the suicide rate has increased tremendously. 23.9% of a 100,000 soldiers will attempt suicide, 22 will actually commit suicide every day. So it’s broken.
TIM It’s time to wipe the board clean and start over. It needs to be a top-down approach. So I was a company commander and there were 36 other company commanders. We sat in a room doing an officer professional development session with our boss who point blank said, “Mental illness is a weakness. It just is.”
HOST Oh my God!
TIM Suicide Awareness Training you get once a quarter and it’s great. It teaches you how to recognize signs, how to stop them from committing suicide and talking to them, empathizing with them, and then getting them help, but it’s backwards.
I never ever would have thought in my entire life that I would have taken my own life, never. That thought never even came to my mind. I never researched it. I would say, “God, I just want this anxiety to go away. If something would happen to me, it would go away. If I was crossing an intersection and I got crushed by a truck, it’ll just all go away. The pain would end. If I just didn’t wake up, it would all go away.” Well, those are passive suicidal thoughts. So this suicide awareness should be more geared towards those that are having these thoughts and these issues so that they recognize the signs because had I recognized these signs being passive suicidal thoughts years before, I would have gotten help a lot sooner.
HOST Well, who is it geared towards now?
TIM It’s geared towards the people around you to recognize the signs of suicide. So when I say recognize the signs, we’re talking about outwards signs such as giving away things, such as reckless behavior.
HOST I see, as opposed to inward signs. I love that image of – I don’t love it, but that your brain is actually building a blueprint for this kind of thing and if you can recognize that, then you can stop the building of it.
TIM There are a lot of things that need to change and there’s a huge push right now for breaking the stigma. The biggest message we can send is that we are not alone. We’re not weak. We’re not broken. We have an illness. We didn’t want these illnesses, but we’re still sick.
HOST What are the top five things people say about PTSD in the military culture? One is you’re weak. What else do they say about it?
TIM Some people may say that it is not even real.
HOST Or you’re making it up?
TIM I think that there are a lot of people that just don’t talk about it because they’re ashamed, they’re embarrassed, or they don’t want people to think differently of them.
HOST I see.
TIM And they don’t want to lose their jobs. They don’t want to be kicked out in the military for mental illness.
TIM The importance of speaking out and telling my story is breaking stigma and raising awareness even one person at a time.
HOST Have you ever had negative responses to you telling your story or being more and more public face of PTSD and mental illness?
TIM The only negative response that I’ve ever had was my wife telling me one time that I’m too wrapped up in my mental illnesses and actually get another hobby.
HOST But it sounds like it’s incredibly inspiring for you. I mean it’s helping in your healing.
TIM Yeah. It’s helping me and more importantly, it’s helping other people too.
HOST What are suggestions that you might have for couples to find help or to help themselves to have the confidence to bring it up, to talk about it and to get help?
TIM The very first step is to get the courage to seek help and help is everywhere. Military especially, there are a lot of government funded organizations that will provide you with free therapy. As far as couples go, you just need to talk and not be afraid to talk about the issues. I think that’s extremely important is both of you need to know what your illness looks like, what triggers it, how to respond to it, how to communicate about it, and again, do research. It is not easy. Once a week, you got to take an hour out of your day to go talk to somebody you barely know about these deep-seeded, close-held emotional issues.
HOST There’s also the issue of being a man wrapped up in this and how men don’t talk about their feelings.
TIM It’s that and the fact that I was a senior in the army. A senior in the army coming out saying, “Hey, I got a mental illness. Also, I committed suicide and I’m getting help.” That speaks to the younger generations to say, “Okay, this guy who’s got all this experience and holds a higher position in the military can do it, then I can do it.”
THANK YOU TO TIM HILKE FOR HIS COURAGE TO SHARE HIS STORY. TO LEARN MORE OF TIM’S STORY AND HIS ADVOCACY WORK, VISIT UNSHAKEABLETHOUGHTS.BLOGSPOT.COM.
PLEASE VISIT OUR WEBSITE FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION AND RESOURCES ABOUT PTSD, SUICIDE PREVENTION, AND SUPPORT GROUPS FOR SPOUSES AND FAMILIES OF VETERANS, AND MORE.
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OUR PRODUCERS ARE LISA GRAY AND KIM POLETTI. OUR THEME MUSIC IS BY ROB BURGER. ADDITIONAL MUSIC BY REZA MANZOORI. AUDIO PRODUCTION ASSISTANCE PROVIDED BY LESLIE GASTON-BIRD AND JOSH KERN.
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THANK YOU FOR LISTENING. I’M YOUR HOST ANDY HORNING. THIS IS REAL LOVE. THIS IS ELEPHANT TALK.
 In 2013, the United States Department of Veterans Affairs released a study that covered suicides from 1999 to 2010, which showed that roughly 22 veterans were dying by suicide per day, or one every 65 minutes. Some sources suggest that this rate may be undercounting suicides. A recent analysis found a suicide rate among veterans of about 30 per 100,000 population per year, compared with the civilian rate of 14 per 100,000.