I waited outside the front door for my boyfriend. We’d been dating for a few weeks and this was my first time spending the weekend at his place, a one bedroom flat in the inner city. I peered into the flat and saw he was in the kitchen, touching the stovetops with his fingers, then checking the knobs. He unplugged the kettle from the wall.
“What are you doing?” I asked
“I forgot to turn the stove off one day when I went to work,” he said.
He exited the flat and locked the door, clicking it five times as he counted, making sure it was locked. Over the next few months of dating his ritual was unchanged. I thought of it as a quirk he had developed after the stress of nearly burning his flat down.
I thought of it as a quirk he had developed after the stress of nearly burning his flat down.
Soon after we moved in, and married. One night I was sleeping when I woke up to someone screaming. Snapping my eyes open I realised my husband was lying next to me, rigid and unresponsive, screaming in terror. My attempts to shake him awake made him scream even harder, until eventually he broke free from his night terror. After he he drifted back to sleep, I lay trembling beside him, shaken from the experience. The next morning he told me that he had been dreaming someone was killing him.
I realised that the ritual I had thought of as a quirk was a coping mechanism to deal with his profound trauma and the post-traumatic stress that he’d developed as result. My husband had arrived in Australia nearly a year before we met. His parents sent him away from his homeland of Bosnia when the conflict between Croatia and Serbia began, fearing he would drafted as he had just completed his army reserve training.
During the four year Balkan war he’d lived as a refugee in Austria, door-knocking from house to house, seeking employment and housing, living precariously as anti-immigration sentiment raged, while his family lived under siege in Sarajevo experiencing daily shelling and sniper attacks. To survive he’d internalised the trauma and now that he had received citizenship in Australia and was living without conflict he was reliving his trauma.
To survive he’d internalised the trauma and now that he had received citizenship in Australia and was living without conflict he was reliving his trauma.
Over the years the night terrors flared up whenever he was experiencing significant stress. Even today, 23 years into our marriage, his screams of terror wake me and I have to interrupt the cycle of fear and bring him back to the present.
Over the years he has accessed counselling and therapy and I have learnt to understand and support him. He suffers from hyperarousal which means his brain and body are easily engaged to perceive that he is under threat and engage his flight or fight instinct. He has a strong startle response and if he doesn’t hear me coming behind me, he will scream in fear, and then experience a night terror that night. In the early days if I attempted to hug him from behind and caught him unaware, he would flinch and startle away, which I would view as a rejection.
His hypervigilance means that he interprets things like me being late home as a danger and will begin experiencing flashbacks of terror from the war when he was unaware about whether his family were alive or dead. We short circuit our check in system where I send him a message ‘here’ when I’ve arrived at my destination.
I had struggled with my husband’s hypervigilence until I met a friend whose wife also experienced PTSD from an abuse-filled childhood. My friend also messaged her wife when leaving work in order to help her manage her PTSD symptoms. Talking to my friend made me realise the similarities between our spouses, and the way that trauma leaves a lifelong mark.
His hypervigilance means that he interprets things like me being late home as a danger and will begin experiencing flashbacks of terror from the war when he was unaware about whether his family were alive or dead.
Even though I am aware of the strategies I need to implement to help my husband, accidents happen. The other day I put my phone on silent while teaching and forgot to turn it back on when out of the classroom. I collected our daughter from school and forgot to send him a message I was on my way home. On the drive home we got caught in traffic. My husband called numerous times and when he couldn’t reach me his panic and terror built. When we arrived home he was hyperventilating, convinced we had become victims of a car accident, and I was guilt-stricken for causing him distress.
Living with a partner who suffers from PTSD means that while I have seen my husband make great strides in dealing this his symptoms, I have also learnt that he will never be cured from the effects of his trauma, just as I will never be cured from mine. I gain comfort from psychologist Peter A. Levine’s quote, “The paradox of trauma is that it has both the power to destroy and the power to transform and resurrect,” and it is because of our loving relationship that we have transformed and resurrected each other.
Amra Pajalic is a high school teacher and author of memoir Things Nobody Knows But Me. You can visit her website here.