Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Then and now.

     Then and now. Who was I before his injury? Who am I now? What made me stay when it would have been easier to walk away? I'm certainly not the same person I used to be, because my priorities and perspective on life have changed, but my core personality is the same. I'm still high-energy, independent and determined to succeed, but at the same time I've also learned to be introspective and to not take life for granted. I frequently refer to my life as "before his injury" and "after his injury." Many wives of wounded veterans refer to their life the same way, because there's a drastic delineation from before & after and it affects the entire family. While some wives choose to leave their spouse for various reasons, others will stay the course. It's a decision I have seen many wives struggle with. Being the wife of a wounded veteran can be a lonely one, because so few people understand the struggles we face.

 February 1992, I saw Aaron for the first time. My college roommate had invited her friend to visit and he brought Aaron along for company. What I saw when I looked through the peephole of my apartment door was 2 young military men in BDU's, both standing tall and proud, even though they didn't know I was on the other side of the door. I stood looking through the peephole for a couple of minutes before they walked away. In case you're wondering why I didn't answer the door it was because I had taught an aerobics class minutes earlier and I wasn't going to answer the door covered in sweat from aerobics! I was admiring the young man with the blonde hair and blue eyes and needed time to get myself together.

When they returned, I met Aaron and was instantly infatuated. We both liked to workout, which gave us a common topic to talk about. I remember talking to him and experiencing that giddy feeling inside of me. I wanted to talk to him for as long as possible and I was pretty sure that he was feeling the same. Over the course of the next few months, I got to know him, the feelings grew and I realized that he was "the one". His eyes light up his face when he smiles, he is masculine yet compassionate. He's protective of anyone he cares about. He's strong in mind, spirit and body. He's courageous and a fighter when it comes to something he believes in. He doesn't give up.

We dated for 3 months, Aaron finished his enlisted time with the Army, we got engaged and I moved to Missouri to be with him. Our wedding was the following June. Aaron completed his college degree and after 4 years of marriage, Aaron re-enlisted in the Army as an officer and we started the pattern of moving from one base to another.We both pursued our careers full force and planned to retire early so we could travel the world. In some ways I would say that we were on auto-pilot living life, but not truly experiencing it. We were both living for our careers and where those careers would take us financially.

Aaron's injury changed our lives drastically and we've both been impacted by it in different capacities.  I'll be honest in saying that one year after my husband's paralysis I didn't think I was strong enough to stick with him and I pretty much gave up. I'm not sure how many people would admit that, because they don't want to be judged, but I don't see the point of pretending that I had it all figured out when I didn't. I hit rock bottom before I realized that the man I married was without a doubt the man I still wanted to spend my life with no matter what the circumstances. "In sickness and in health" weren't just words anymore, but reality. There is no closure when your love one has a chronic condition. Each day is a constant reminder of what you both have lost. One day while eating dinner with another caregiver she said, "Sometimes I think it would have been easier if he hadn't survived, because then I could move on." Tears welled up in my eyes, because her comment resonated with me and I had felt guilty for feeling it on occasion. She had unknowingly validated my feelings.

I no longer work full-time in my career field, which means I have given up part of my identity. I continued working full-time the first 5 years post injury, but I was overwhelmed and resentful trying to hold it all together, so I gave that up when we moved last year. It's bitter-sweet in that I have more hours at home, which in turn means more flexibility in my day to day schedule. Many of the items on the "Honey Do List" are now mine to complete and traditional roles are out the window.

My priorities have shifted. Little things that used to upset me are now set aside, because I don't have time to waste on them. I spend my time not only keeping track of his schedule, but my own. That includes doctor's appointments, medications, rehab and more. I'm always thinking for him and myself, because his sleep deprivation affects his short term memory. I spend the majority of my time with my husband, which I didn't expect to have with him until my late 60's at retirement age and that has been one of the bigger adjustments. We're not traveling the world partly due to accessibility issues, but the traveling we do now is in the form of retreats with non-profit veteran organizations.These are not complaints, but rather the facts of our "new normal."
This year we celebrated 20 years and he's still "the one". I know that he's my rock. He's the person I want to bounce crazy ideas off of, the first person I want to share good or bad news with and he's the one I know will tell me what I need to hear instead of what I want to hear. We have experienced life changing events (his paralysis, my lung cancer and near divorce) that make you either give up or wake up. Fortunately, we both chose to wake up and become one team even though that road has been a rocky one with some mountains thrown in for extra stress.

I will close with a comment that a neighbor made to me when I was giving up. I was angry, feeling sorry for myself and wanted our old "pre-injury" life back. I'm paraphrasing what she said, but it went something like this, "You can walk away, which would be easier and start a new life or you can choose to stay with him. If you stay, it will be a harder life, but one day when you're old you'll look back and know you did the right thing." Starting over isn't always the easier choice. I had to dig deep down and examine what I wanted for myself and take part in life again. I had to let go of the guilt I felt for falling apart in that first year. I had to grow up and realize that life doesn't always give you the easy road and that often maturity involves putting your loved ones first. What I wanted was to be with my husband, no matter what the circumstances, which means now I ask myself, "What's next?"  instead of "Why me?"

"The bigness of the world is redemption. Despair compresses you into a small space and depression is literally a hollow in the ground. To dig deeper into the self, to go underground, is sometimes necessary, but so is the other route of getting out of yourself, into the larger world, into the openness in which you need not clutch your story and your troubles so tightly to your chest."  quote-Rebecca Solnit