Both of us grew up in the same small community, and I remember seeing his photos in the local newspaper and the pride shown by our hometown. Looking back, I imagine that weight on the shoulders of a 12 year old, worried about his mom and dad. “I didn’t say anything to them or to the teachers,” he said. “If they knew what happened, I thought it would destroy them.”
This idea—that it was his fault for not speaking up—was embedded in my husband’s psyche for years. In an effort to survive, he buried the details deep, doing his best to forget the American Boychoir School. “Who would believe me?” he used to ask. “I was a scholarship kid.”
Newly into our marriage, and refusing to put more blame on that little boy’s shoulders, I said, “I believe you.”
This is the most important thing a partner can say. Almost 25 years after leaving the school, when Trav did tell his parents, they believed him, too. His mom had set out a pile of items unpacked from his school days to make a memory quilt. When Trav declined, his father asked why, and Trav told the truth.
As a parent, thinking you gave your child the opportunity of a lifetime, how do you watch that image corrode? How do you remember hearing your boy cry to come home, believing it was temporary homesickness? How do you process that despite doing your best due diligence, the organization you trusted with your child played a role in his trauma?
His parents’ immediate reaction—to hug him tight—was exactly right.
Travis sleeps most nights now. Before, he didn’t. When we moved in together, he was 23 and midway through a second military band enlistment. Our apartment was a small cinderblock studio, and in such close physical proximity, I watched his sunny, gregarious stage presence lie dormant for hours under a blanket on the couch. I suggested Trav visit the Air Force base clinic, and he got a 10-question checklist. “You’re fine,” the clinician said and sent Trav back to our couch.
Frustrated, we located a private practice, and with a small dose of anti-depressants, information began to slip out. “I can’t remember all the details, but I have this feeling,” he said. I held his hand as his night terrors, hyper-vigilance and claustrophobia began to make sense.
When Trav’s enlistment was up, we moved back home to Maine.
“But you’re eight years in,” people accused. “Why don’t you just stay?”
We were told we were stupid and short-sighted, throwing away good careers. I preferred that oblique assessment to my reality: If Trav were to stay in the regimented, institutional environment of the military, void of any personal control while he wrestled with these memories, he would likely put a bullet into his head.
Partners like me have very few resources. There’s no recourse, no opportunity for revenge, or even forgiveness. My challenges are loneliness, impotence, and the urge to do something, somehow to make it right.
I said, “let’s go home” because I didn’t know what else to do.
We took a 75 percent pay cut when we moved, but Trav gained a lifestyle structure with no overt vestige of imprisonment or dominance, emotional or physical. He could move freely, and we found a therapist who specializes in post-traumatic stress disorder. Details continue to leak out, but Trav is stable enough to handle them now.
At a recent dental appointment, while filling out paperwork, Trav checked the PTSD box in the medical history section. “Service-related?” the hygienist asked. When Trav said no, he thought she seemed disappointed. No war hero. He could buy sympathy with the truth, but he would never say it out loud.