by Warriors Heart
“We have a saying in our family, ‘Those who fight the monster, should never become the monster.’ After his last deployment, something was different – he brought the monster home.”
Alexis O’Donnell* recalls the moment she first realized she no longer recognized the man she had been married to for over 20 years. The father of her two children, her high school sweetheart, her truest partner in crime returned from his final deployment a changed man, and she didn’t know what to do.
Jake* and Alexis met when they were just teenagers and instantly fell in love. The two connected over their difficult family lives and sought solace in one another. After graduation, Jake enlisted in the US Army, a choice Alexis knew she would have to either be along for the ride or step aside. “He assured me that we hadn’t been to war in YEARS and that there was no chance of it happening any time soon. As soon as he left for basic, the Gulf War kicked off…talk about a slap in the face.”
When Jake first returned from deployment, he was a full-fledged alcoholic. “He had been drinking before he left, and the deployment didn’t help things at all.”
Alexis was able to manage around Jake’s drinking, by making life easy at home, avoiding most conflicts, and even partaking with him. But one can only endure that life for so long.
“He was getting ready for work one morning – they were jumping that day – and he passed out in the chair while putting his boots on. He was about to jump out of an airplane, and he was so drunk that he couldn’t even finish tying his own boots.”
Frustrated, angry, and overwhelmed, Alexis woke Jake so he wouldn’t be late for work. As he rushed out the door, she hurled the six-pack he had started on at his back, knocking him down. It was at that moment, kneeling on all fours, that Jake had clarity. Realizing that he needed help, Jake began the painful process to get sober. He went through recovery, relying on his communication and relationship with Alexis, and his faith, to get through some of the hardest moments of his life. “He was literally going through recovery, while he was deployed – he was determined.”
When Jake got clean, Alexis found herself without a purpose,
“I was his caretaker, and now he didn’t need that from me – so I started drinking, and before I knew it…I was the one who needed help.”
They make handbooks for literally everything else in the military – why don’t they make a handbook for this?
As time passed, it was just routine for Jake to come and go – his military career progressed into the Ranger Regiment, and then into Special Forces with Delta, where deployments were more frequent than time spent at home. “He was always leaving, or getting ready to,” recalls Alexis. “The common issue when they leave so frequently is that they never fully turn off work mode – giving you zero time to reconnect as a family.”
Jake never lost touch with the family during deployments, an uncommon occurrence for those who deploy often. He would call often, and make sure he always knew what was going on with the kids and Alexis. “He was devout to his faith, and I think that was a huge part of not only his recovery but our being able to navigate through some rough waters.”
At the end of the day, Jake always came home – until the time, Jake didn’t. During his last deployment, which proved to be more active than previous trips, Jake suffered what would be later diagnosed as a severe cTBI (Combat Traumatic Brain Injury). “When he came home, his eyes, they weren’t his own,” recalled Alexis. “They were still attached to the man I knew, but they weren’t his. They were dull, lifeless, and at times were completely different colors depending on his mood.”
Jake eventually grew more disconnected, angry, and frustrated with life at home. The warrior who still thrived inside him needed to find a purpose in his new life at home.
In the same breath, Alexis found herself operating as a full-time mom and caregiver, working to keep everything buttoned up and put together. “I quickly realized that if you continue to sweep things under the rug, the rug eventually gets too full.”
Warriors come home to a family who has established a life without them – a routine that works seamlessly, and now they must find a wave to ride into that routine. “I had cherished my mornings; I drank coffee and watched my Desperate Housewives every day. When Jake came home, he was ready to go – on a schedule – and he wasn’t prepared for how I structured my life. One morning he walked into the bedroom, where I was laying in bed, with my coffee and Housewives, clapped his hands, and said, ‘what’s the plan for today?!” With all the love I had in my body, I looked at him and said, “Oh Hell No…. you need a hobby… fast!”
For men and women returning, or entering for the first time, into a life outside the military, reintegration can be difficult for both them and the families they are coming home to. For the warrior, it’s a life they are supposed to feel welcomed into – not a nuisance; for the families, they now have that member home, whom they’ve prayed for, but find to be somewhat in the way. This completely normal “Disruption of routine,” can become a burden, and can create cracks in an otherwise strong structure of a family.
“In the beginning, Jake’s change was just hard to deal with,” recalls Alexis. “We established early on, that the kids weren’t allowed to wake dad up – you never really knew which version of him you were going to get, and we wanted to protect them from that. But he was always ‘on’ for them. As hard as it was sometimes, he was never absent from his children.”
After some time, Alexis and Jake became intimately aware of the changes in Jake’s status, “it was like living with an angry and frustrated dementia patient. He knew he needed help, and he recognized that he couldn’t remember things, but he was a completely capable man.”
Jake’s self-awareness, and at the urging of Alexis, drove him to seek help. “I was reluctant,” stated Jake. “I was the man who, for my whole life, protected those who needed help…now I was supposed to just lay down and admit that I now needed it for myself?! That’s a tough pill to swallow.”
That hard swallow was something that ultimately saved Jake’s life. A trip to a brain treatment center revealed that Jake suffered a severe traumatic brain injury, affecting his functionality, memory, personality, and daily life. “I knew it was bad,” recalled Jake. “I had no idea HOW bad it was until after they scanned my brain.”
Following the diagnosis, Jake sought treatment for his TBI, and life began to change for the better. “That diagnosis was a breath of fresh air – as crazy as that sounds,” said Alexis. “I looked at Jake and told him ‘I can work with this – WE can work with this.’ At least now, I knew he wasn’t JUST being an asshole,” she said with a laugh.
A major life shift needed to take place, aside from Jake’s treatment. The family and life they had always known in the military, began to distance themselves. For one, anything military was a trigger for Jake, and he needed the separation – on a deeper note, for someone in that community to admit that he had a problem, was considered a weakness at the time. It was taboo for someone in the special operations community, to need to seek help for an injury incurred from their time in service. Best friends alienated them and turned cold shoulders.
“We know now that separation was out of need, not just for us, but for them,” recalled Alexis. “They didn’t want to admit themselves that they too had problems and needed help. After time, and self-reflection, those cold shoulders turned into humble apologies and gracious outreach for help.”
Today, Jake, Alexis, and their kids live life with every bit of gratitude life can handle. They follow a routine of treatment and counseling sessions for Jake and the family and continue to build their already unwavering communication.
“We’ve learned how to live together,” stated Jake. “If I’m having an off day, rather than keeping it to myself, and trying to muscle through it, as I used to be expected to do in the military, we talk about it. We even have code words, so that Alexis can understand when I’m having a moment or a day.”
Through continued therapy and counseling, this team has learned a lot about healing, fighting, and communication. For Alexis, learning how to be comfortable with not being Jake’s touchstone was one of the most real moments for her. “We [spouses] can’t heal them. We have to realize that there are moments we simply cannot connect with them on – that requires a totally different relationship, and that’s what they have their brothers and sisters for.”
The team at Warriors Heart recognizes and understands the unique demands of our warriors and their families – and works to successfully navigate healing and recovery while in the company of people who personally understand individual experiences. Working to create a cultural shift to provide these warriors with the support they deserve, without the fear of appearing weak. At Warriors Heart, Warriors in every walk of life are treated, offering a variety of treatments for those undergoing the damaging effects of PTSD and MTBI, as well as chemical dependency. For those who have fought battles to defend our country and our citizens, fighting the battle against addiction, depression, and reintegration doesn’t need to be done alone.
We are here to help our warriors become sober confident warriors. We have been there; we are here now to help.
If you or a warrior need help with addiction, PTS or co-occurring issues, please contact Warriors Heart’s 24-hour hotline (844-448-2567) answered by warriors and/or visit https://warriorsheart.com.