PTSD: Couple battles ‘invisible demon’

Donna Stephens

by Donna Lampkin Stephens

Randy and Shelli Crowell of Morrilton have a Valentine-worthy love story, but they are battling a demon that makes their experience more appropriate for 501 LIFE’s veterans issue.

Randy Crowell, 48, a captain with the Conway Fire Department, suffers from combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder dating from his 1989-93 United States Marine Corps service, which included a stint as an infantryman with the 1st Battalion 5th Marine Regiment during the Gulf War.

Both Crowells wrote of their struggles with PTSD, sharing their experiences with 501 LIFE.

“For better or for worse. In sickness and in health,” Shelli wrote. “My elders always told me that at one time or another, there’d be struggles, and my marriage wouldn’t always be perfect. I would just smile at them and think, ‘Pshhh . . . How could that ever be?’

“We did not understand how true this was until around our 17th year of marriage. I always knew there was something off about Randy. Aside from the fact that he is an introvert and I’m extremely outgoing, looking back, there was just something not right.

“Never did I dream that something would shake our happy marriage to the core. Never did I realize we’d face an invisible demon that can come in and out like light to dark as if a light keeps switching.”

‘A BLACK HOLE’

In an interview, Randy said, “When you get depressed, it’s like a black hole. You can’t get out until it passes. People don’t know how bad it is.”

After years of close involvement with her community, family and friends, Shelli wrote that she had almost lost all of that energy.

“My pilot light has nearly died completely,” she wrote. “It’s become easier for me to stay indoors and away from others so I don’t have to explain my feeling of despair while battling this. Randy and I have learned who our real friends and family are and been quite disappointed in others’ lack of understanding, empathy and support. As we have to stay focused, those people don’t matter anymore.

“We have also learned who our enemies are. It’s not each other. It has a name. I hope in writing this, I can tell you about my husband as I see him and continue to love him, describe PTSD effects on me as a spouse and hope to make others going through this understand they are not alone in their silence.”

She wrote that in the public sharing of their experiences, they would probably go through another rough patch together.

“But if this story helps any veteran or their spouse gain knowledge and seek help, we will deal with it,” she wrote. “When we found out what we were experiencing and he sought help, it was just an ‘ah ha’ moment. Neither of us was crazy after all!

“In the depths of it all, we are proud of what we are overcoming as we face it together.”

A HERO

Shelli said her husband was her hero for many reasons, including his career choices.

“Once a Marine, always a Marine,” she wrote. “Second is that I have a handsome fireman for a husband. Three events in our relationship have made my heart pound out of my chest. First was the first kiss on my cheek in 1986 before we officially were dating. The second instances were four years later, as a Marine deployed to the Gulf War, he called me from Saudi Arabia as I anticipated with anxiety that I’d never hear from him again, and butterflies just took over my chest when I’d hear that click and echo of that very long-distance call from him. When I heard that click and echo, my chest felt like it would explode with relief and excitement.

“Forward to No. 3 as I’m a fireman’s wife. I once stopped as emergency sirens and horns were approaching. Upon sight of the racing fire engine, my heart gushed as it was my hero driving through the stop sign.

“Now I will tell of a negative heart throb. It is of dealing with a chronic abrupt rush of anxiety dealing with what we soon discovered is complex PTSD. While veterans have one level or another of aftermath from war, it is a full-time job as a spouse to love and honor them while they continue the battle for the rest of their lives.”

BUDDING ROMANCE

The Crowells grew up in Morrilton, and although Shelli moved with her family to Clinton for a few years, she “kept the roads hot back and forth” to see the one she had first thought of as “a punk kid” when they met as University of Central Arkansas students.

She had attended Sacred Heart High School; he graduated from Morrilton before their romance blossomed.

“We were married too young,” she said in an interview. “I was 20, and he was a month from 19. We were stupid and young and married.”

It was an early recipe for disaster. The marriage lasted 22 months.

“We were just too young and immature,” Shelli said.

After the divorce, Randy joined the Marine Corps. But he and Shelli weren’t through.

“He was going to the Gulf War, and we were trying to get back together,” she said. “We were trying to get married over the phone, as many did during the Gulf War, but that didn’t happen.

“I had a wedding dress, and right when the war was over (in 1991) and his plane hits New York, I get a Dear Jane call. Looking back at it now, after what we’ve been through, I believe that was the first sign.”

She said Randy didn’t remember that phone call now.

He married someone else in 1992 and had a son. But by the time Cody turned 2, Randy was a single dad, and he and Shelli reconciled — again — after seven years apart. They remarried in 1996, and Shelli adopted Cody, now 24. Their son, Clayton, is 20.

“We like to joke, and I like to say that I’m his first wife again,” she said.

PTSD

According to mayoclinic.org, PTSD “is a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event.”

The website adds that for most people, traumatic events result in short-term coping difficulties, “but with time and good self-care, they usually get better. If the symptoms get worse, last for months or even years, and interfere with your day-to-day functioning, you may have PTSD.”

Randy’s symptoms mirror those on the website, which features this quote: “Post-traumatic stress disorder can disrupt your whole life your job, your relationships, your health and your enjoyment of everyday activities.”

All of that has been true for the Crowells.

Shelli said despite their temperamental differences — she had always been an extrovert and Randy an introvert — after their remarriage, “everything was just hunky-dory.”

“But I always knew something was different and off about him,” she said. “Up until about four years ago, he would always tell me about his dreams. He’s had a dream about being back in the military, but he never expressed what the dream was about. About four years ago, he was falling apart.”

In a separate interview, Randy agreed.

“When I got back from combat, the first thing I noticed was I had trouble riding,” he said. “They’d transported us in a bus, and I had to be next to a window or aisle. I had this feeling of what I call craziness — if I was in a car, I had to roll the window down. I had weird thoughts about throwing myself out a window. I had recurring nightmares every few months, and they got worse and started happening more frequently.”

He wrote that he began experiencing medical difficulties and memory loss in addition to the recurring nightmares, which often woke him “covered with sweat, and I felt like I was reliving my past.”

FINDING HELP

The couple sought help at the John L. McClellan Memorial Veterans Hospital in Little Rock and the Eugene J. Towbin Healthcare Center in North Little Rock, commonly known as Fort Roots, where he was diagnosed with depression.

But things continued to spiral until about four years ago when he “snapped.”

“In the military as well as the Fire Service, there is a certain code of honor where you don’t show weakness, you suck it up and keep moving,” Randy wrote. “If you have all your limbs, you’re good to go. You sure didn’t complain about mental issues.

“As my marriage and work began to crumble, this is when I made the hard decision to go inpatient eight weeks at the Veteran’s Hospital and regain myself from losing control.”

The couple also went to counseling at the VA in an attempt to save their marriage. In the first session, the counselor said: “She’s a lot for you, isn’t she, Randy?”

“My sunshine is too bright for his darkness,” Shelli wrote. “I am learning skills to better react to his silence and outbursts, while he is learning coping mechanisms for his issues.”

But Shelli said for a while, the counseling made things worse.

“He became more and more distant and mentally abusive,” she said. “It’s been a terrible, terrible life the past four years. He can shut down over emails hitting my phone — he’s sensitive to sounds.”

But Randy wrote that during that time, he began to recognize pieces of the puzzle.

“I started to understand why I was the way I am,” he wrote. “I learned through an Impact Clinic group that everything is connected. I have to take care of my health, nutrition and mind. If one part is off, it affects me as a whole.

“I was put in a support group for veterans with PTSD. At first I told my doctor, ‘I don’t think I can be in here with these people.’ What did I find out from this experience? These people are just like me! I’m not weird, I’m not alone. These people are experiencing the exact same things that I do. Wow!”

Through counseling, he has found coping mechanisms in exercise, being outdoors, medication, yoga, mindfulness meditation and his service dog, an Irish setter named Darby.
Medication, though, has been a double-edged sword.

“It keeps you from going super low depressed and from being super pissed off, but it don’t make you feel good,” he said. “I ask them, ‘Don’t you have something that’ll make me feel happy?’ They told me that wasn’t legal.”

Work has been a godsend. He works a 24-hour shift every third day at one of the city’s smaller stations. He said there was no way he could work a regular five-day-a-week job.

“I think it’s good for me having a purpose,” he said. “Whenever I put on my uniform, it’s my superhero uniform. I’m a different person; it gives me strength. And the adrenaline flow for me is really good. I like to help people.”

Chief Mike Winter, he said, has been very understanding.

“He told me if I need time off to let them know,” Randy said. “I felt like I definitely wouldn’t advance up any farther after coming out with what I have been dealing with.”
Randy has been recognized for several saves during his CFD career, but he considers that to be just part of his job. “I don’t like being called a hero. I know that’s the way the public views us, but I just feel like I’m doing my job.”

Randy has had to face grim conditions, both in war and on the job as a firefighter. In war, he has seen “destruction, bodies, civilians kicking dead people on the side of the road, little kids — stuff nobody’s supposed to see. I’ve seen much worse as a firefighter — bodies torn apart. But when you’re in combat, it’s different. You don’t have time to prepare yourself. People pop over a hill shooting at you, and you don’t know it’s coming.”

TREATMENT

Besides mindfulness meditation, his treatment has also included Cognitive Processing Therapy and Acceptance Commitment Therapy. Together, he wrote, those gave him “tools to put in my mental toolbox on how to handle issues when they come along.”

The problem, though, is that while he can recognize issues happening, “I can’t control it.”

“The mind and physical reactions are stronger than anything I can do to fix it,” he wrote.

Another treatment has been Prolonged Exposure Therapy, “where you talk into a recorder about the activating event over and over in front of my doctor to desensitize myself,” he wrote.

“I remember telling my doctor, I’ll do it, but I don’t really remember anything. As I started recording, more and more details started coming out.

“Not only did I start remembering details that I had apparently blocked out, but sounds and even smells started coming back to me like I was there. To me, it was like pulling a scab off a sore.”

He said everything started returning.

“I had somebody get shot in front of me. Nightmares came back worse, but other symptoms got better. I can go to a football game, and you know how they shoot off a cannon when they score? I may have to leave after that. I know it’s coming, but it doesn’t matter.

“There’s nothing worse than when you have a panic attack. It may last 15 seconds, but you think you’re going to die. It’s like a heart attack — you can’t breathe; your back starts pounding.

“Looking back, it did help me with a lot of issues, but my wife said I was very irritable during this process. Something I am still working on today.”

PROFOUND EFFECTS

Shelli has been affected in a profound way.

She wrote: “Silence is a powerful word when describing what secrets couples keep to hold onto marriages while battling depression, anxiety, loneliness, sudden outbursts and aggressions, ridicule, criticism, heartaches, fear, paranoia, micro-managing and all the insane things that are brought from both husband and wife while trying to navigate PTSD.”

She added that when Randy first sought help from the VA after years of holding his emotions inside, the couple felt they couldn’t tell a soul.

“As times worsened during a problem that neither of us realized, my self-motivation and sunshine of a personality shut down as I would often feel backed into a corner,” she wrote.

“During therapy, as it seemed to get worse before getting better, I became resentful.”

She was “left completely and emotionally alone when dealing with life’s everyday normal activities, heartaches and worries” such as banking, bills, loss of parents, children’s functions, friends’ gatherings.

“Randy is a wonderful man,” she wrote. “I am very protective of him. I only wish I had the same in my life partner. PTSD is a devil that lives within him and often interferes with my feelings of security.

“In a veteran’s defense, these are just things they cannot do without much force. In our case, there is such a void and disconnect of any true feelings for Randy. Imagine the pain I felt when he first began to be aware of how deep his problem was. I probed him for an answer when I had been ignored and not spoken to for months, as he was so disconnected. ‘Randy, would you even feel anything if something happened to me or one of the kids?’ The answer was no!

“I cried and grieved alone for days over that one. At that mark of 17 years of marriage, I knew we had a serious problem. It just became easier to stay away from people myself. During therapy and trying to share things with people I thought were my friends, it became apparent who the real ones were and which ones I chose to cut from my life. I tell myself I have enough to deal with.”

Randy has talked to other firefighters who also keep everything inside.

“My family — they’re all I’ve got, but I really don’t have any feelings,” he said. “When my dad passed away, we were closer than anything, but I was sitting there wishing I could cry. It was the same thing with my grandma. I couldn’t cry.

“I’ve got to have my space. I don’t want anybody hugging me. I don’t want to hold hands; I don’t want people next to me. It’s tough.”

Shelli said her ultimate goal was to hold the family together.

“We love each other. There’s no doubt in my mind that my husband loves me, and vice-versa. It would be the same as if I had cancer or if I had a mental illness or if I had my leg cut off. I wouldn’t want my husband to leave.”

FIGHTING A BATTLE

“We just have this problem that keeps rearing its head. He’s fighting a battle inside his mind every day. So I’m mama bear when it comes to my family. But there’s nobody for me.”

Although he’s been described as lacking emotion, Randy acknowledged those who’ve helped him.

“My wife and kids have been with me every step of the way and probably deserve better,” he wrote. “My doctors and the VA have given me the best care available. My work and co-workers at the Conway Fire Department have been very supportive and understanding as well. To the veterans I have met at the VA through this journey, whom I still have contact with to this day, thank you.”

WORST EPISODES

Randy said his worst episodes seemed to come in cycles.

“I wouldn’t even know that if not for counseling, but for me, it’s a time of year,” he said. “It’s the first of the year and also around holidays, for some reason.”

He wrote of a dream he’d had multiple times — he was out of the military but signed a contract and was called up.

“I knew I had family back home,” he wrote. “I knew I had this great career that I was leaving before I made it to retirement age, and I didn’t tell my chief I was leaving, then I was back in combat reliving the horror of it all — land mines blowing up, Marines shot in front of me that I couldn’t help, dead enemy soldiers.”

While he has seen plenty of trauma and death in his fire service, there is a difference between that and his combat experiences.

“I didn’t cause this event; I’m here to help,” he wrote. “Also, I have time to prepare my mind and do my size-up before I arrive on scene. I remember coming to work one day on the interstate when a car flipped several times on the other side of the freeway. I called 911, turned around and everybody was OK. That scared the crap out of me! I see wrecks way worse than this at work. Why did this one bother me? Because I didn’t have time to prepare myself mentally for what I was about to see, just like combat.”

He wrote that Shelli’s summation of him as cold and emotionless was accurate.

“That is how I’m able to do that job,” he wrote. “I think to myself, ‘Isn’t everybody?’ But no, probably not. I don’t like loud noises, certain smells, high-pitched ringing. You can kind of see why people with PTSD don’t like to go out in public. Everything is heightened; you are always on alert. It drains you physically and mentally.”

BEING ALONE

Shelli wrote that her first realization that she was utterly alone when needing someone to hold and console her came while watching her father battle cancer.

“Regarding Randy’s support of me, I’ve never felt someone so cold and removed,” she wrote. “He’d turn his back, cross his arms over his chest and tell me to be quiet while I grieved and cried myself to sleep every night. This is something that is the same whenever I need him to this day on any emotional level.

“Losing my father and his father both in 2001, I never saw him shed a tear. When he lost his grandmother, I called him from the fire station to come. I watched him load her on the gurney like it was just another day.

“On another side of him, I’ve seen his compassion, kindness and patience with not only my father but my grandmothers and my mother before they passed away. It was a precious sight.”

That duality, she has learned, is the conundrum of living with PTSD.

“Randy’s PTSD is not him. He is not PTSD. They are separate,” Shelli wrote.

She is part of a Facebook support group for spouses of PTSD patients. “Jekyl and Hyde” is a common comparison.

“You never know when Hyde will appear,” she wrote. “Spouses walk on egg shells because during an ‘episode,’ as I call it, I can never predict what might make him ‘snap’ and set the anger into motion. Something that drives him mad is he doesn’t like his razor moved in the shower. Silly, but it can become a serious offense.

“He becomes very possessive of his body space. He has to manage his time to such a degree that we’re often two hours early for an appointment at the VA. He won’t speak unless spoken to. Over a minuscule situation, he can just lose it and shut down for weeks at a time. Blame is a huge issue when nothing I can say of sense will release me. Everything becomes a double standard. When episodes hit, conversation can become belligerent.”

EDITH AND ARCHIE

She said during such times, she jokingly referred to the two of them as “Edith and Archie” from the old television comedy All in the Family.

“At that moment, the blame is always my fault, and he eerily seems to enjoy this ridiculous challenge he’s created as his voice becomes forceful and full of hate,” she wrote. “Then the episode lasting weeks on end will just leave as quickly as a light switch has been flipped. Randy will oddly snap out of it and speak to me as if he doesn’t even remember the silent and hateful hell that I’ve endured.”

Despite those instances, she called herself one of the lucky ones. In her support group are wives who experience their husbands’ infidelity, unemployment, drug addiction, spending habits, physical abuse and suicide attempts.

“I’ve experienced only the mental shutdowns,” she wrote. “His vice is mowing the lawn obsessively; he’s very much OCD about our lawn. I’m blessed, but when ignored for so long, I feel like I’ve been held under water. When he finally comes to his senses, I come up for air!”

BATTLE CONTINUES

The couple will continue with counseling and exercising to stay healthy. PTSD doesn’t go away.

“You just maintain,” Shelli said. “We are finding hobbies together and separate for when he needs his space and I need rejuvenation. We have two beautiful, loving and supportive sons who are our world. We both are blessed with jobs that allow us the peace of mind while we make it through this. For all of this, I’m so grateful.”

She said she was calmed by John 16:33 — “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

“It means to me that whatever may come, there will always be light at the end of the tunnel,” she wrote. “We are not of this world, but the bigger picture will be our final home in Christ where all our troubles we will leave here one day. I have faith our little family we created together will thrive again.”