A Salute to Spouses/Caregivers of Veterans with Gulf War Illness/Syndrome (Deployed and Non-Deployed)
Originally published November 11th, 2019 in PsychCentral's blog, Narcissism Meets Normalcy. Written by Lenora Thompson.
We never raised our right hand and vowed to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States” but we may as well have. We simply said “I Do” and, Baby, as far as I’m concerned, we spouses/caregivers became veterans every bit as much as our spouse who suffers from GWI, deployed or non-deployed. Only we’re not in for four or eight years. We’re in "til death do us part" because Gulf War Illness never quits.
Your spouse may’ve gone to Iraq or he/she may have simply have been in the military in the early 90’s. Call it what you want: “Gulf War Illness,” “Gulf War Syndrome” or “Non-deployed GWI”…it all sucks.
We watch the pain, and I mean tears rolling pain, every hour of every day. Chronic fatigue/malaise. Heart attacks in their thirties. Fibromyalgia. Joint Pain. Degenerating discs, especially in the spine. Neuropathy. Dizziness. Gastro-intestinal problems. Reproductive problems. Inflammation. Insomnia. Uncontrollable perspiring that stains any fabric it touches black and smells just like military bug repellent. Fear that the children may also develop GWI/GWS because, oh yes, it's genetic. The list goes on and on.
But we suffer too. We suffer silently and burnout gracefully. We never had the injections, the anthrax "vaccine," never took the infamous blue pill (Pyridostigmine bromide) yet, vicariously, we suffer the same symptoms.
When he can’t get to sleep because his legs start aching and burning every night at 7 p.m. and it feels like bugs are crawling and biting his ankles, we try to sit up with him. When he finally gets drowsy and comes to bed at 5 a.m., we jerk awake with the automatic words, “No, I’ll get it” because we're always trying to save him steps.
When he wakes up an hour later at 6 a.m., we get up with him and make breakfast. When he can’t sleep, we stay up too so he has someone to shoot the shit with.
We dream up ways to make vegetables delicious and then shake our heads when he leaves 2/3 of our beautiful meals on his plate. The fridge is full of leftovers of his favorite foods, uneaten. Good nutrition never improves his health. Many meals give him diarrhea for no particular reason.
We accompany him to appointment after appointment where “doctors” in white coats ignore his actual, surgically proven medical conditions and instead say, “You just have anxiety. You’re probably depressed. It’s all in your head. Here, I’ll write you a prescription for…” knowing he’ll be furious all the way home, refuse to accept that prescription…and you’ll never see that particular condescending, invalidating doctor ever again.
We hear the pain pill bottles rattle and know that the pain relief they provide is fleeting and will be gone hours before he can take the next pill. What then? What can you do in the meantime? Watkins Warming Balm, Bengay and CBD can only do so much. They’re like putting a Band-aid on a cough.
So we spend money we don’t have on the next “magical” herbs or superfood supplement. The poor man swallows capsules til he rattles but they don’t do much good. Pretty soon, there are boxes and boxes of supplements, tinctures, gummies, you-name-it sitting around, getting old.
When things get bad, we have to play both roles, do both stereotypical female tasks and stereotypical male jobs. We mow the lawn. We snake out the pipes and clean black gunk out of traps. Check the oil. Air up the tires. We don’t ask for anything cause his distress is bad enough already. He tries to push through the pain and do everything he used to do…then we both suffer for it afterwards.
And all the time we know he sees everything we do that used to be his job and it’s eating away at his self-esteem as a man. Cause there’s nothing wrong upstairs. He knows exactly what’s going on. He's not depressed. He doesn't have anxiety. He just doesn’t know how to fix his body so he can be the man, the breadwinner and the husband he so badly wants to be.
That’s why he gets irritable sometimes. So we sneak the household tasks in the odd moments he sleeps so he doesn’t see, so he doesn’t feel bad. We both know what Thoreau meant when he wrote about living in "quiet desperation." We live that shit 24/7 but rarely talk about it. Talking about it doesn't help. Surprisingly, its dark humor that helps.
A lot of men turn to alcohol and you can hardly blame them but it only creates more problems. I got lucky. My man doesn’t drink, has a naturally happy disposition and is determined to be (or pretend to be) as happy as his body will allow. God knows if I had his pain level I’d be a frickin’ bitch, a miserable lump of irritability, crankiness and sarcasm.
Caregivers/spouses, your spouse may technically be the only veteran in the house but I think we’re just as much a veteran. We may never have gone through Basic or carried a rifle, but in my book we’re every bit as tough as the fighting man on the battlefield. Every bit as patriotic. Every bit as semper fi.
We’re in it for the long haul. There’s no off ramp. Our enlistment will never be up. We’re in the trenches forever, and unless God, the government or John Hopkins finds the cure for GWI/GWS, it’s only going to get worse and we’re enlisted til the bitter end. The last pang, the last groan, the last labored breath.
We are the spouses of veterans with Gulf War Illness. We love our country, our God and our veteran. We never took the oath but we are veterans too. "Til death do us part."
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