Secondary Trauma: The long-term impact of a Veteran's trauma on a partner's health - and a message of hope
It was a week before Christmas 1993 when Sam met Scott at a nightclub in Bury. Two weeks later she moved in with him. This lightning romance was the start of a twenty-two year journey that would include joy - they welcomed a baby daughter soon after - but also tragedy.
After years of trauma Sam is finally in a position to share her story, revealing how PTSD trauma can impact family members and have long-lasting, inter-generational effects.
Sam grew up in Bury, one of six children. Her childhood was rocked by her parents' divorce and when she met Scott she was already dealing with anxiety. She knew Scott had served with the British army in the Gulf - she didn't know he was suffering from PTSD.
As his mental health worsened their relationship became tumultuous and "on and off again." When baby Chelsea arrived they doubled their efforts to make things work, but it became impossible. Scott was eventually sectioned and a long period of fear and uncertainty began.
Scott would be sectioned three times in the following years. He eventually grew adept at eluding mental health services and Sam found it difficult to protect herself and her daughter. Despite being "in hiding for twenty years," she persisted in trying to help Scott in the face of his threats and volatile behaviour. For a time she was able to call friends and check in on him, she could contact his hospital to alert them when he "lost it" - but all that ended when she had to move. Moving around kept Sam and Chelsea safe, but it ultimately meant they were isolated from friends and family - with Scott increasingly angry and unstable.
Scott took his own life on New Years Day 2017. Sam got the call at 2am, "and it just hit me like a ton of bricks."
After this shocking end to these tense years, Sam's anxiety and OCD symptoms were going "through the roof." Excessive worrying and checking was making daily life "a nightmare," she says. "It was getting to the point where I was ringing school to check that my son was safe. I wouldn't let my daughter go out, even though she was 24 at the time. The kids turned round and said mum, you're driving us nuts. They were both in tears saying we can't cope with you like this much longer."
As the anniversary of Scott's death approached, Sam made the call to PTSD Resolution. Encouraged to hear that their free, prompt and local therapy was available to Veterans' family members, Sam explained her situation and was assigned a counsellor within days. "They actually got me in the day before his anniversary," she says. "Honestly, they have been amazing, I cannot recommend them enough."
Along with anxiety and depression, Sam was told she had severe PTSD herself - as a result of her experiences. After years of trying to cope she finally had a diagnosis that made sense. "Over the years I've seen about 15 to 20 counsellors, and none of them have ever been able to take away the fear, or help me cope with it." Her children noticed a difference "virtually straight away," she says, "I could let my daughter go to work. I was easier to live with because I wasn't anxious all the time."
(In a further positive step, Sam's improvement has encouraged her daughter Chelsea to started counselling with PTSD Resolution, "and it's doing her so much good.")
Today, Sam describes herself as "a million percent better, and it is purely because of my therapist." She can talk about her past without crying and can control the restlessness and frustration that was taking over her life.
Therapy has given her coping strategies which she uses to deal with a serious back injury - and with the current situation. Weeks into lockdown, Sam's resilience and new-found strength are being put to these test - although she admits she's partly enjoying it! "We're in the garden, I'm teaching them how to build things. We've got food, we've got water. I know we're safe."