Nightmares and PTSD: A Military Spouse Relives Deployment Stress

Stacey, holding a large "Welcome Home" sign, hugs Russ, in uniform, at the airport

Last night, for the first time in a very long time, I had what I would call a deployment nightmare. We were all, as a family, in a dusty foreign land. My husband, Russ, was in full battle rattle and leading our family and friends, but he was obscured from my vision for most of the dream. We were running from “the infected” and they were getting closer and closer until one grabbed me and I threw one of our daughters into my husband’s arms. I awoke to a cold sweat and heart palpitations.

Those of us living with brain injury or PTSD know that nightmares can be a common occurrence. If you have ever experienced nightmares, then you know, there is no restful sleep afterwards. I also know that I tend to pick up nightmare cues from my husband and he has not been sleeping well these last few weeks either as he mulls over all the losses we’ve experienced and all the work he did in Afghanistan. He and his VFW buddies say, “It’s our generation’s Vietnam.” Except he volunteered to go.

My husband deployed more than 20 times during his 25-year career. I was with him for 17 of those “trips to exotic lands.” I came to expect at least one nightmare or two each trip out, usually at about the mid-point in his tour. I would dream of him in combat, or not being able to find him, or him not coming home. Sometimes I was there with him in the dream. Sometimes we were forcefully kept apart. It does not take too deep of an understanding of dream theory to sort out what I was feeling.

That said, I looked up dream meanings and, apparently, zombies or “the infected” dreams are about anxiety. I discovered many veterans and military family members also have these dreams. As I learned to expect them, I delved into calming techniques before bed. I found my triggers, watching the news or a gruesome or scary show — particularly horror — and avoided them at all costs. While he was on active duty, I got to the point where I asked my friends and colleagues not to tell me any news that I might want to hear. I wanted to hear it directly from Russ whenever we got the chance to talk. Sometimes those calls interrupted my sleep as well since there is an eight-and-a-half-hour difference in the Afghanistan time zone and Eastern time zone, a nine-and-a-half-hour difference when we lived in Central time zone. Iraq was only a seven-or eight-hour difference. I was at the mercy of his schedule because hearing his voice was more important to me than sleeping.

Some deployments were worse than others, and his very last trip, which he trained a full month for, was the worst. I was having nightmares every night while he was away for training. They were relentless and my dreams showed certainty that this would be his last deployment. I breathed a HUGE sigh of relief when that deployment got canceled at the last minute. For security reasons, he couldn’t tell me it was canceled until right before he was scheduled to leave. He told me in the most romantic way on national television during an American Military Spouses Choir performance. Talk about an emotional rollercoaster! Almost immediately, I felt guilty and terrible for being so happy he would not be going. What did that mean for the families whom he would have replaced? What other Airman would not be coming home? I came to understand his mission was canceled due to the drawdown and the job he would have been doing was no longer needed. WHEW!

Russ has been retired for more than eight years. Now these dreams are pure anxiety on my part. My brain reacting to and trying to solve the anxiety. I need to deep dive into what I am nervous about. Perhaps it is the re-emergence of health issues and other stress in our house. Maybe it’s my work projects. It could be the upcoming American Military Spouses Choir performances. (Yes, I still get stage fright before every performance … I’ve been singing professionally for more than two decades and the anxiety is always there.) Either way, I have started to taper the amount of news I ingest. I am being more mindful of stressors I may pick up from family. I am making sure I have time in my day to pause, rest, and reset.

Our daughters seem to know when we haven’t been sleeping well because that is when they get loud. I jest, of course, but when we are fatigued they are most probably not getting what they need from us and respond in kind — up to and including temper tantrums. That’s when I stop and encourage them to breathe with me. I then make certain to spend focused time. They even created my new favorite game while I feel sleepy — I lie on the sofa and they cover me in throw pillows and stuffies as if building a pillow fort. The game is to see who can cover me completely the fastest. Every once in a while, I knock a pillow or two off and they giggle to put them back up. I get to rest on the couch, they get to play with me. It’s a win-win. I know this game won’t last, but I’m hoping I get at least another year of playing while prone.