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When “Reintegration” Means “Help Me”

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Article by: Joy Draper

“No, I don’t need any help. I can take care of it myself,” said every Military Spouse at one point; said every mother at one point. Heck, said every woman at one point!

Why we insist so much on never needing help and handling everything ourselves is something I’ll never understand – though I’m as guilty of it as just about anyone! It’s unbelievably difficult for me to ask for help. I am a very prideful person and a fiercely independent individual and, as a result, I insist on the fact that I don’t need help from anyone. How wrong I am. This “revelation” has come to me over and over again as I deal with parenting issues, relationship peaks and valleys, living through my spouse’s nine deployments, and the general highs and lows of life. I have figuratively felt myself hit a wall when I realize that I can’t do this on my own and shouldn’t try.Thankfully, I usually get that “smack in the face” feeling before it’s too damaging, but I am also extremely sensitive to that type of thing since I’m an educationally trained psychologist and have spent the last 15 months developing a program to bolster resilience of Military Spouses. Not everyone who desperately needs help, though, comes to that realization before it’s too late. WAY too late in some cases!

If you follow the news, there’s a good chance you’ve seen several awful situations that have escalated as a result of not asking for help – not reaching out when one needed it the most. The most recent that has racked the military community has been that of Christina Booth – an Army wife – who has been accused of slashing the throats of all 3 of her children (2 years and 6 month twins). As details of this story have emerged, a very confusing and sad picture of this family has developed. It seems that her husband, a Special Forces soldier stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, recently returned from his second deployment in Afghanistan. Several sources have reported that after he returned, Christina had become more reclusive and withdrawn from her friends and social connections. Neighbors have reported that she became noticeably withdrawn after her twins were born and her husband’s return.

What happened with Christina Booth was obviously an extreme overreaction and the epitome of “the worst way to handle the situation.” I pray for that family and desperately hope that she gets the help she needs (as well as the punishment deserved for attempted murder). I pray that those kids are young enough to recover from this and don’t continue a cycle of destruction that so often occurs from situations like that. Those kids were lucky, though, because there have been several stories over the last few years of mothers who have also gone too far and children who don’t survive.

Now, that being said, this tragic situation has gotten the military spouse community buzzing on social media outlets. The outrage, shock, and horror that most people feel after hearing about this tragedy has initiated some good conversations and called into question the quality of mental health services that were available to this military spouse. This is something we need to be talking about.

Why on earth are there people saying that they noticed big changes in her but she didn’t get help? When speaking with police after the incident, she reportedly said she did this because she “knew it would keep the kids quiet.” She also complained that she didn’t get any help from her husband and that he complained about the noise. Did she tell no one this? No one!? She was reportedly on medication for Post-Partum Depression. Did the prescribing doctor see no cause for concern that she might turn violent? Worst case scenario is that she was given medication and not referred to therapy and/or was not properly informed about the hazards of drinking while on depression medication (The incident reportedly took place after 2 large glasses of wine).

Okay, so let’s talk “big picture.” Let’s all agree that what went on here was a terrible tragedy.

Now, let’s talk about how it could happen anywhere to any one of us! In my years as a military spouse, I’ve witnessed less explosive reactions to similar family situations and have seen the devastation it can cause to individuals. I’ve heard women speak about keeping themselves and multiple kids in one back bedroom to keep the house quiet “so Dad can do his schoolwork.” I’ve also watched how having to maintain this kind of behavior for months on end can slowly chip away at someone’s sanity and start to make them get overwhelmed. It’s not a pretty picture.

I’ve also lived through how difficult deployments and reintegrations can be. I was shocked to discover that reintegration is probably the worst thing my family has gone through since joining the military. I remember hearing how difficult it was after your service member returns from a deployment and being outraged over the idea that it might be difficult. My thoughts were, “Well, I LOVE my husband, and I love my family being together. There’s no way I won’t be thrilled upon his return, and then everything can go back to normal.” How wrong I was!

I’ve got a picture in my mind of how tough it must have been for this woman. How psychologically destroyed she must have been to decide this was what she should do. Then, I sit back and contemplate what it’s been like when my husband returned from a deployment.

In my situation, it wasn’t his fault – truly. I was creating self-imposed restrictions on life. I was walking around on eggshells and causing my children to do the same. I was constantly worried that we might irritate my husband and that it might set him off somehow. I told myself that we had to cater to his needs entirely because he had been away for so long and didn’t know what it was like to live with our family. What I was actually doing was alienating him, making him feel like an outsider, and confusing the heck out of my kids. I can paint a picture, though, of the struggles this woman must have gone through. Whether it was self-imposed or forced upon her by her spouse, there were some serious problems. But picture this, and try to tell me that (as a military spouse at least) you can’t relate to this.

She had a toddler at home and was pregnant with twins. Her husband had to have been deployed during most of her pregnancy because reports state that he had returned home shortly before the twins’ birth. I would almost guarantee you that she did what she could to tread water during the deployment. She struggled being pregnant with a toddler, but it sounds like she might have created her “tribe” while he was deployed. She probably reached out for help sometimes if she needed it – or at least accepted it some when it was directly offered. She also probably spent every single day of that deployment telling herself “It’s going to all be better when he comes back.” Then, shockingly enough, his return did not magically fix everything. It just added more layers to the tough situation. After giving birth and postpartum depression and 6 months of seclusion (due either to parenting twins and/or reintegration struggles). I’d bet that instead of spending her days anxiously awaiting better times while he was deployed, she was in complete and utter despair because she didn’t see it ever getting better.

I would never in a million years say that what she did is justifiable. However, I would say that – on a very basic level – I have felt some of what she has gone through. I just cannot imagine the depths of despair this woman had to be in to go as far as she did. I find myself understanding more of her struggles than I ever would have when we lived life as civilians. When my husband returns from a deployment, we close in on ourselves too. We cling together as a small family unit. I cut back on all of my social engagements and volunteering efforts. We do everything we can to work towards a solid reintegration to make our family whole again. What I do, though, is tell my friends our specific plans to do this before it starts. My friends know that I’m going to be closed off for a while, but I ask them to still check in from time to time to make sure everything is alright and to insist I answer with more than, “We’re fine.” We’ve done this nine times, so we’re a little more equipped with every new deployment and reintegration cycle.

Thousands of military spouses and families, though, are not given the proper tools to handle this. I’m going to stick my neck out there a bit and fall into the “highly offensive” category and say that the military needs to do more. NEEDS TO! One of the big topics lately has been how the military is dealing with PTSD and suicide rates. There hasn’t been one leadership staff meeting or planning session that I’ve attended that hasn’t spent time talking about service member suicide rates.

They’re missing something though. There is NOT enough emphasis placed on helping families to deal with reintegration. There is a very short reintegration briefing that our service members have to go through (that I’ve attended, too) that is nothing but fluff. “Tell someone if you need help. Don’t yell at your spouse and kids. Don’t bring the deployment home with you.” That’s not helpful. That’s not real. That’s the military covering their rear saying, “Yeah, we briefed on that.” Meanwhile, families are falling apart because we sent off spouses that come home as different people. We lived completely separate lives for x-number of months and don’t know how to live together anymore. It’s tearing apart families. It’s destroying marriages. It’s ultimately affecting the mission of the military too.

Now, there’s no way this is the only thing to blame for Christina Booth’s actions, but I’d bet my husband’s paycheck that it was one piece of that really horrible puzzle. I don’t have the solution, but someone needs to be talking about this. Someone needs to be doing something about this.Someone needs to bring about change and support both the service member and the family, because the overpowering effect that war has on military families is so unbelievably difficult for so many.

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