How we make our relationship work: “PTSD has divided us, but now we are stronger than ever”

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Army veteran Tom Fox, 50, and recruiting manager Kate Hughes, 42, have been together for 21 years. Tom’s PTSD complex put a strain on their relationship, especially after the birth of their two children.

Tom Fox, 50 years old

When I met Kate, she was not far from the army and working for a computer company. We had been together for three years when I received an interesting phone call: Four days later I was in Iraq working for the U.S. Department of Defense, offering strict protection to government officials. When I called home, Kate asked me, “I saw what happened on the BBC and I know you’re close …” “Oh yeah, we’re in isolation because it’s too dangerous to go out.” Sure, we’d be in the middle, but you wouldn’t care about someone you love.

After returning to the UK, I wanted to settle down and have a normal life. I managed to make a career in financial services, but the cracks soon began to show. I started making a lot of mistakes at work. I had a headache, memory loss, chest pains. I had what I thought was a heart attack on a train – it was actually a massive panic attack. Kate knew about the alleged heart attack because they took me to the hospital, but I saved a lot of things for myself.

When our eldest son Harry was born, he was still trying to ignore my symptoms. It was very difficult for me to be interested in my family, and I began to isolate myself. One of my biggest regrets is that I couldn’t even enjoy playing with my son. It wasn’t because she didn’t want to be with him; I didn’t feel capable or emotionally capable of doing it, and I looked for excuses. I remember telling Kate that she wanted us to separate so we could sell everything and buy a small farm in rural France. He had nothing to do with her: he couldn’t face life and he didn’t want to be with people.

Eventually, I hit a brick wall and was unable to go to work. I went back to the doctor and said, “Look, I can’t think, I can’t sleep, I can’t play with my son, I don’t want to sleep with my partner.” I was referred to the Combat Stress military mental health charity and diagnosed with a complex post-traumatic stress disorder. My response was, “Bollocks, post-traumatic stress disorder doesn’t exist …” I was denying it: I can’t have any mental illness, I’m strong. I think it was a relief for Kate; at least I got a diagnosis and an offer of help.

I ended up spending three months in a rehab center, doing therapy twice a day with a psychiatrist. It was horrible to be away from Kate and my son, but a relief to be treated and away from the world. I needed a couple more years of therapy to get to the point where I could think about moving on. I got worse before I got better, and our second son, George, arrived at that time.

When Kate got back to work, I tried to be a father at home and take care of George, but I found it very difficult. He was always full of stress and so tired. I loved being with him, but it got to the point where I had to say, “I want to do it, but I can’t.” We had to hire a babysitter, which was more expensive financially. At that point I decided I could turn that negative into a positive. I earned my mental health degree and created a wellness consultancy for companies that offer mental health courses.

Illness still limits what I can do and that makes me anxious. Some days I’m so scared that something terrible will happen, which can be overwhelming. Kate takes care of me. He guides me: he asks me questions, he doesn’t go too deep. He resumes the game when I have trouble doing certain things. It gives me a lot of encouragement and helps me take stock. It reminds me that I have to do things, and it doesn’t get angry because I forget about things all the time. Kate is my stone. Without her, I don’t know where I would be.

Tom said that when Kate returned to work, she tried to be a father at home and take care of George, but “she found it very difficult.”

Kate Hughes, 42

I don’t know much about Tom’s military service, and I certainly don’t ask because I don’t want to incriminate him. I will never understand what happened. The boys share their experiences with each other, not their other halves. When he worked in Iraq, he left for three months at a time, and then returned for two weeks. At the time, none of us were really talking about how we felt. I think Tom masked a lot of things and I thought I was fine with him.

Tom spent years getting sick and seeking help. When Harry was little, I thought he was extremely selfish because we didn’t detect the warning signs. On the weekends he wanted some respite and a lot of family time, but he didn’t get out of bed, do his things, or go to the pub with his friends. I was dealing with this in addition to the baby stress and zero sleep, and I felt very resentful because I didn’t know what was really going on. Looking back now, I feel terrible about it.

When Tom was diagnosed with complex PTSD, he could not get out of bed. Even after I got home from the rehab center, I was everywhere. After our second son George was born, I went down one morning and Tom fainted on the kitchen floor. He was taking a cocktail of drugs: sleeping pills, antidepressants, anxiety drugs, and heart palpitations.

My maternal instinct took over and I canceled it: “I know you’re sick but I can’t stand you, I just have to give everything I have left to the children.” Having supported him for years while raising children and starting work had taken me a long time. We separated for about three months, but we still live in the same house and it was awful. We weren’t talking. When we did, we were eager to hurt each other as much as possible.

Kate said that even though she knew her husband was sick, she felt she had to take care of her children.

When Tom was diagnosed, he didn’t want people to know, so I couldn’t share anything with friends or family. I respected your privacy, but I found it difficult. I trusted my mom, who came and talked to Tom while I was at work. My mom is pretty honest and didn’t take sides. It opened the door to a conversation between me and Tom: it took about six months to regain that trust.

We are stronger now than ever. We communicate much better. I recognize her symptoms and understand what she needs. Once “full of head” – as he calls it – he gets tired and needs time to recharge. If he feels a little tense or tired, I tell him, “Let’s go guys, let’s go to the park,” and that gives him an hour’s silence. While years ago, I would have said, “Get your ass kicked, what’s wrong with you? You’re so lazy.

It’s still hard, but he’s the most fantastic father and partner: loving, caring, caring. I couldn’t ask anyone better than Tom. He is very different from the man I met 21 years ago and I am immensely proud of him. When you are so short, it is very easy to give up. People may tell you, “Come on, you can do it,” but you have to want to do it yourself and find that inner strength. Show courage.

Tom was a beneficiary of SSAFA military charity

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