The experiences we face through life shape us as people. Only recently have I realised that my military journey, which started when I joined the army 21 years ago, makes me the Louise I am today.
The last 18 months have been really tough. This time it’s not been specifically military related, but the bruising and stress and from many war deployments is something I will never fully recover fully from and has meant recent situations have been harder to recover from too.
Looking back over the last 21 years what do I think have been the most stressful situations?
- 2003: This whole year was really stressful and I was only 20/21 years old. We were living in Germany, I was pregnant and our wedding was planned for Dec 2003. In February it came to light Iraq was brewing and we were advised to get married….3 days later we were married and a week later my husband deployed to the Iraq War and I didn’t hear from him for 3 months.
- 2003: Had a baby, husband returned to Iraq for a further 6 months and I got posted on my maternity leave and started a new unit with a 9 week old baby, no support and a husband in a war zone.
- 2007: Afghanistan but also my mum was diagnosed with breast cancer the day my husband deployed.
- 2011: Afghanistan, a brutal tour for my husband’s regiment, I REALLY struggled through this tour and it is the reason Little Troopers exists as my daughter also struggled.
- 2018: Afghanistan, a rollercoaster of a tour juggling bad communication, an unexpected posting and moving 10 days after my husband returned meaning I had to arrange everything.
These are some memorable spikes of military related stress for me and we all know these spikes didn’t last a week or even a month, I always say the cycle of a deployment lasts a year.
Before a deployment it is difficult; you are dreading what is ahead and emotions are running high at home. Managing everyone’s feelings is exhausting and I often retreat from my relationship and put my guard up to protect myself.
Deployment itself has many chapters, it is a constant whirlwind of resentment, overwhelm, sadness, tiredness and a desire for an inner strength to get through it.
Post deployment also comes with challenges of a month long leave period with your partner suddenly at home 24/7 and adjusting to co-parenting and being a family unit again. Then settling into a routine.
This means that within a 15 years period I experienced over five years of extreme stress.
At 38 years old I am now seeing this has affected me to a point that is so deep rooted, I am bruised and I am scarred. I have to find ways to deal with it and accept it rather than expecting to return to pre-stress Louise.
In a previous post I spoke about stress and how my body has reacted; how Iraq and Afghanistan and the worry of ‘will my husband survive’ lead to OCD. My brain just could not deal with the everything and it over spilled into obsessions with plugs, hob knobs and front doors. I recently shared this post and many commented saying they too had experienced this. I felt so alone when this was happening to me, so embarrassed and such a feeling of failure that I couldn’t manage a deployment while everyone else seemed to be coping with their partners away.
The truth is that probably wasn’t the case, behind closed doors many were, I imagine, suffering in silence just like me.
I did however scrape through all those stressful times, it took time but the OCD and the after affects subsided.
What I didn’t ever appreciate was that I would be forever changed by those episodes in my life.
In 2019 my daughter was really poorly. She swam at a high level and long story short had a back injury. It resulted in a whole year of lots of appointments, a five week stint in Southampton hospital which was a long way from home and I had to stay with her, many interventions, follow ups and therapies’.
It was stressful but in a different way to what I was used to, my heart hurt and I felt in a constant state of panic for a long time. Hospitals are also really heightened places to be 24/7 for long periods of time. At the time I was pretty chuffed with how I dealt with things, I managed it and got through.
It was after that it all went wrong for me. Lots of physical symptoms started to come my way all building up and went on for quite a period. The doctors were doing lots of investigations, some of which are still ongoing for me.
My body was reacting to prolonged stress.
My point is; military life over a long period with some war tours thrown in can mean extended periods of extreme stress over and over, that has an impact. An impact we need to recognise and accept. An impact that will forever change how we react to stressful situations.
Many say ‘it must get easier’. No. For me it gets harder because I get more depleted and my emotional levels never get back to where they were before all these experiences.
I’m learning after 21 years of this life to understand myself better, know my limits, recognise my boundaries, know when I need to listen to my body. It has taken me the whole of last year reading and learning, giving up lots of things, taking many vitamins and also listening to my GP when I needed medication to help me regain a level state.
I imagine deployment through a pandemic would have a similar impact as a war tour; extreme, prolonged stress. If you have been through deployment recently know you aren’t alone in what you are feeling and you haven’t failed for feeling that way. It is tough and you will come out the other side, just a slightly different person then when you started.
Lots of love,
~ ~ ~
I asked Dr Nina Smyth, military spouse and Senior Lecturer at the University of Westminster for her comments for this blog. She leads the Psychophysiology and Stress Research Group.
Stress arises when we are presented with situations that are perceived as challenging/threatening; when we have little or no control; when there is uncertainty. Louise’s timeline describes a roller coaster of stressful life-events that many people experience, such as having a baby, getting married, moving, illness within the family. But for Louise, like many military spouses, she has to manage these situations on her own and often with the added uncertainty and worry over when she will see her husband again and when her daughter will she her daddy again.
Social support is important for our wellbeing; over the past year, under the COVID-19 restrictions we will all have a better understanding of the benefits of social support for our wellbeing and mental health. For military spouses, being isolated or changing our support structures can be a common experience. What is less obvious from Louise’s timeline are the daily challenges and demands military spouses face. For example, where is the next place that’s called home, will your partner be around for your child’s birthday, will you make new friends on your next move, where is your child’s next school, will your partner make those weekend or holiday plans? The list is endless; what is key about these situations is that they are associated with uncertainty and little/no control.
When we experience such situations, our body has a physiological response to stress. For example, we secrete the stress hormone cortisol. Although needed in the short term, over a prolonged period of time it impacts our health. Repeated spikes of cortisol over time, disturbs our daily pattern of cortisol (which controls other bodily systems); the increase of cortisol in the morning can become flat and levels over the day can remain high when levels should be declining. This can result in poorer cognition, sleep, mood, and ability to fight off an infection. What is important to remember, we all deal and respond to stress in different ways. What is clear, stress sustained over prolonged periods leads to poor physical and mental health later on. Thus, it is not surprising that Louise is seeing the negative effects of stress on her health years later.
Our support structures, activities and surrounding environments can help us better manage daily challenges/demands and/or stressful life events, as well as help minimise the deleterious effects of stress on our health (such as, restore our daily patterns of cortisol, see here for more on this). Tailored support and resources, via the military community, charities and/or government policy, is key in minimising the negative effects of some of the unique stresses faced by military spouses. The initiatives provided by Little Troopers, such as the wellbeing project for schools is an example of tailored support for military children. Although there are wellbeing support packages offered for the military community tailored resources are needed to help the military community manage the everyday challenges to enhance wellbeing and sustain good health.