THE STORIES \\ Elizabeth Bates

Elizabeth Bates

Challenged Beyond My Comfort Zone

When my husband returned home from Afghanistan in 2009, he was different. He was withdrawn and it took some time for us to settle into our new norms. Previous to war, we had never had a “real argument,” but as time went on, I noticed more conflicts erupting between us. I initially noticed that he was more depressed and didn’t want to spend time with his family. I would make excuses for his anti-social behaviors, but I would insist he leave the house to attend social events with me and my son. I didn’t want people to judge him or decide they didn’t want to spend time with us because of his behavior. Besides, we were excited that he was finally home with us and we wanted to include him in all aspects of our lives. But he was disconnected and it wasn’t getting better. He was living life with my son and I, but the man I married was thousands of miles away, somewhere lost in the desert.

“He was living life with my son and I, but the man I married was thousands of miles away.”

During his time in theatre, he sustained multiple blast wave concussions from IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices). Not until sometime after did I make the connection that the residual effects of the blasts were in direct relationship to his behavior. I think back on that time and am so ashamed for having feelings of embarrassment, regret and resentment, but this was a whole new experience for me. As unbelievable as it might seem, I hadn’t really thought about PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) or TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury). I had never witnessed the effects of war on someone’s personality, and none of it ever meant that much to me until it affected the man I loved. I didn’t realize that I was slowly losing a part of the person that I had married.

I wondered how I could help him. He began contacting researchers that were testing TBI blast concussions in the military. More than searching for help for my husband, we wanted to raise awareness for military veterans as they face ongoing unexplainable neurological decline and an increase in psychological issues. We have been advocating for research on brains of living veterans in hopes of early detection of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), also known as “the football brain injury.” We began speaking with our elected officials to ensure there is funding available for further research.

As a wife, it was so difficult to watch my husband struggle daily with a progressive neurological decline. I told him to find his voice, share it boldly and never to lose it. We stand united as a team willing to speak up about the difficulties that we have experienced with the VA. What I have come to realize is that if we don’t take the initiative to step out to make our voices heard then we cannot expect others to want to do the same and real changes will not be made. I believe one of the biggest obstacles for our veteran community is the fear of retaliation and the fear of admitting they need help. But we can no longer suffer in silence.

“If we don’t take the initiative to step out to make our voices heard then we cannot expect others to it.”

We were shuffled from one doctor to another, given countless medications to “fix his symptoms,” and were treated for a disorder in which he did not have. Most of the doctors either shuffled him around or forgot about him altogether, not even contacting us to deliver pertinent test results. If our elected officials, the bureaucrats in Washington and the American public, expected these people to go overseas and fight for our country and fight for freedom then shouldn’t they be able to come home and get the care that they need? Why do I have to watch my husband fight to even get out of bed sometimes because he’s either in too much pain physically or too depressed to get up and face the day?

In all these years of watching him struggle, I have seen that God uses us all as tools for teaching and learning. I believe that Cody and I are supposed to be using our experiences to teach others about the effects of TBI. One night in the wee hours of the night, we were lying in bed and he was joking around. We were laughing hysterically, and he stopped all the sudden to say, “that’s the guy I miss.” He got very quiet. I told him that he is still that same guy, but that guy just isn’t always around. It breaks my heart to watch him notice his former self slip slowly away and witness him fixating on who he was before deployments and blast exposure. I want to see him view things in a more positive mindset and get out of the negative headspace that wears him down so much of the time. I know that he can’t stop his brain from signaling those thoughts on his own, but he can redirect them.

One of the many challenges for me dealing with his brain injury is trying to understand how to deal with him. He has moments where he seems “normal” and other days his mind is somewhere else entirely. He has a difficult time making decisions and depends on me to make them a lot of the time. Truthfully, I am the worst at making decisions because I always second guess myself. It is very easy for me to become frustrated and snap at him unintentionally not realizing until afterwards that I acted too harshly. I don’t really understand why I do that. Maybe because of the frustration I feel when he stays in that negative headspace. It very much influences my moods too. Sometimes I must remind myself that I’m not fighting that battle with him but I’m fighting that battle with his brain.

On the advice of one of his counselors, I was told that I needed to find my own identity. I have begun working with a life coach through Blue Star Families and the Rossalyn Carter Institute for military caregivers. My coach has helped me to refocus my energy on self-care. It has truly changed my whole outlook on my life. I haven’t quite realized what my true potential and purpose is, but one way I can start the process is by writing down my experiences so that other women might see they are not alone.

It took many years to come to that realization. I hope that my life can show others what passion, perseverance, persistence and determination looks like no matter how overwhelming their struggles may be. Throughout my life when things were so overwhelming, I thought there was no way that I could endure one more thing, God showed me again and again just how strong He believes I am. I have often asked Him in desperation and sometimes with a snarky attitude, “Lord, is there anything else that you would like to pile on me, because I just don’t think you have given me enough to deal with today.” He always comes through for me and challenges me beyond my comfort zone. I believe He knows my heart! He knows that no matter who stands in my way or what situation brings me to my knees, I can always turn to Him. I am slowly understanding that my life is more than me.

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