PTSD and Alcoholism: Making a Bad Situation Even Worse

One of the most common ways that combat veterans cope with their PTSD is by drinking alcohol. A lot of alcohol. In fact, one-third of veterans currently getting treated for PTSD also struggle with alcoholism, and those are only the ones getting help. As a spouse, this can be a frustrating situation until we take a moment to remember that people have reasons for doing the things they do.

If your soldier suffers from a drinking problem, know that you’re definitely not alone:

  • 60 to 80 percent of Vietnam vets who get help for PTSD also have drinking problems.
  • According to a study published by the Collegium Antropologicum, 22.92 percent of vets with PTSD drink more than they did before deployment.
  • Between 2003 and 2009, the number of vets getting treated for alcoholism increased by 56 percent.
  • A survey in 2008 showed that 13.8 percent of troops deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan developed PTSD.
  • According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, war vets with PTSD are usually binge drinkers.

PTSD and alcoholism clearly go hand-in-hand, which is something you probably already know. What you maybe don’t know is why.

Why Do War Veterans Drink?

Veteran drinking pr

We can understand our partners better if we we have some idea of why they get so drunk. My husband seems to get absolutely wasted at the worst possible times, and he’s told me before his goal is to black out. What he’s reaching for is oblivion.

For years, I’ve wracked everything inside me to figure out why. I’m sure you have, too. Why does this person I love seem hell-bent on destroying himself?

Here may be a few reasons why our soldiers tend to lose themselves in booze:

  • People with PTSD self-medicate. They’re trying to heal the only way they know how.
  • They’re trying to stop the traumatic memories that hound them for days or weeks on end. They get desperate for the pain to stop.
  • Some vets use alcohol to try to fall asleep and stay asleep.
  • Many veterans drink because of survivor’s guilt. (They made it through the war. Their friends didn’t.)
  • Other veterans drink because they need their nightmares to go away.
  • Some drink because they’re homeless.
  • Many vets drink to try to treat their anxiety.
  • A lot of veterans returning home have a hard time maintaining a job, social support, and financial stability. Getting drunk is a way to cope.
  • Some vets drink because the pain of alcohol withdrawal multiplies the agony of PTSD, which is why a lot of them relapse after periods of sobriety.
  • Some veterans drink because they’re in physical pain.

How This Insight Helps Us as Wives

Knowing what drives our partners to drink excessively doesn’t make the problem OK, but it’s made it easier for me to handle my situation with a little grace, empathy, and self-preservation. It’s also helped me to not take my spouse’s drinking personally. I didn’t cause it, and I can’t change it. I take a little bit of the pressure off of myself.

As the wives of combat vets, we put enough pressure on ourselves, anyway. It’s time to start being kinder to ourselves.

Does Alcohol Make PTSD Worse?

As the spouse of a PTSD sufferer, I’ve wondered if my partner’s drinking aggravated his symptoms. I suspected it did, but I didn’t know for sure. Then I started doing a little research, and this is what I learned:

  • According to the VA, getting drunk does make some PTSD symptoms worse, such as feeling numb, on guard, jittery, depressed, alienated, or irritated.
  • Alcohol disrupts already abnormal sleeping patterns in vets with PTSD.
  • Drinking to escape reality gets in the way of treating PTSD because avoiding memories, feelings, and nightmares makes the condition linger.
  • Drinking too much sets the stage for even more trauma, such as car accidents, money crises, violence, divorce, sexual assault, and serious physical illness.
  • A 2017 study using mice suggested alcohol can strengthen the traumatic, persistent memories associated with PTSD, making it harder for someone to shove them aside.

In other words, when someone with PTSD drinks to try to make herself feel better, she’s actually making herself feel worse.

So where does that leave her partner?

Impact of Alcoholism and PTSD on the Spouse

You probably already know how a combat veteran’s PTSD and alcoholism affect his wife. Money’s always an issue. Your husband usually seems a little pissed off. You’re never sure what’s coming next.

Sometimes, though, the issue goes deeper than that.

Your Life May Feel Out of Control

If you’re anything like me, you need to be able to control something–anything–in your world. Being committed to an alcoholic combat veteran with PTSD sometimes makes this difficult, or even impossible, to accomplish.

My family’s made it through flashbacks that have lasted all night long, financial problems that felt like they’d never end, legal troubles that shook the foundation of our home, and a year-long separation we were lucky to come back from. Some nights, all we could do was wait it out while my husband raged in the kitchen, trapped in his own wartorn head.

We’ve come back from catastrophes I swore we’d never come back from.

But we always did.

Alcoholics Are Known to Have Intimacy Issues

PTSD sufferers who drink too much are notorious for having intimacy issues, such as tendencies to lie, withdraw, isolate, or keep secrets. Sometimes cheating may even become a problem.

There’s something about getting close to people that scares our soldiers and makes them desperate to protect themselves. Getting close to a veteran is a slow, patient process that, in my case, took years. I couldn’t force my husband to open up to me about anything. I had to wait until he was ready, until he could trust that I didn’t want to hurt him, that I was on his side.

People Who Drink Too Much Have a Hard Time With Their Kids

Try taking a man who drinks more than he can handle, has a mind ravaged by monsters, and who’s sleep-deprived, numb, pissed off, depressed, and sick, and put him in a room alone with a four-year-old. How do you think that scenario will play out? How have you seen it play out?

On days when my husband self-medicates, sometimes he simply can’t pull off being a dad. His patience is already worn to a thread. Sometimes he passes out before he can feed our son his dinner or give him a bath, so I’ve gotten used to taking charge.

Sometimes my man hollers at everyone all night long until he finally passes out, seemingly incapable of calming himself down until he achieves that elusive oblivion. On days and nights like these, my son is counting on me to stay strong. I have no choice but to take on even more responsibility and a little more pressure.

Fortunately, I’m strong as hell. You probably are, too, whether or not you give yourself credit for it.

Other Problems We Face

Being married to an alcoholic with PTSD comes with a lot of other fallout, including:

  • family separations and breakdowns
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • neuroticism
  • poor self-esteem
  • domestic, emotional, and financial violence

Our reality is, alcoholism can wreak havoc on a family already terrorized by combatrelated PTSD.

As the wife of a combat vet–and the cornerstone of your family–how do you cope with with the challenges of being married to a PTSD-sufferer with a drinking problem?

How I’ve Learned to Live With an Alcoholic Vet

My husband and I have been together for five years, and his PTSD was a significant problem for him and our relationship long before I realized how bad it actually was. I knew he had PTSD, but I didn’t know how it could take someone over. I didn’t know how it could take over his partner.

Then the drinking got worse, and suddenly I had a very clear picture of what was going on. Since then, I’ve learned a few ways to cope with my husband’s PTSD and alcoholism and the effect it has on me and our family.

I Walk Away and Don’t Engage

Arguing with someone who’s blacked out and has no idea what’s going on is insane. Trust me, I’ve felt myself get a little crazier trying to do just that. Haven’t you?

When my husband blacks out after trying to medicate his own symptoms, he fixates on worst-case scenarios and gets angry, irrational, and self-pitying. He can’t hear anything anyone else has to say because everyone is his enemy.

Sometimes he destroys stuff: he slams doors until the handles fall off, punches holes in the walls, rages and screams on the other side of the house. There’s nothing I can do with this, so I make myself walk away.

I Focus On Something Else

After I disengage, sometimes I do something for myself: work on my blog, read a book, take a shower, go for a walk, go anywhere. Or I do whatever needs to be done next to keep the household running smoothly: cook dinner (even if it’s corn dogs and canned peas), start chipping away at the mountain of dirty laundry, get my four-year-old ready for bed. Anything beats going in self-defeating circles with someone who isn’t going to remember any of it, anyway.

I Approach My Husband After He Sobers Up

Maybe last night your partner emotionally assaulted you and your children, destroyed some furniture, drove drunk to get more booze, and doesn’t remember any of it.

And this morning, he’s probably a different person. Maybe he feels guilty, confused, and sick. Maybe his PTSD came back with a vengeance. He’s your partner again, and he needs help.

Now what?

On mornings like these, I’m not trying to protect my spouse. I’m trying to protect myself while still being available to love him. I tell him what he did the night before and how it hurt me. I unload my fear, hope, anger, frustration, loneliness, and whatever else I’m feeling. I say everything I needed to say the night before but couldn’t because there was no one there to listen.

This helps my husband, too. I have no right to protect him from himself.

It might not change anything, but at least I’m no one’s victim.

I Don’t Invite Drinking Into the Picture

Let’s face it: I like to have a whiskey (or two). But I stopped saying, “Let’s drink tonight,” in the hope it’d be a fun, relaxing occasion. Sometimes it was, but we all know, sometimes it wasn’t.

Finally, I decided it wasn’t worth the risk. My partner will make his own choice to drink. He doesn’t need my help.

I Try Not to Be Ashamed to Talk to People

I don’t like talking about my husband’s PTSD and alcoholism, but, sometimes, I have to. If I don’t deal with my own feelings, I spiral inside.

I try to be respectful of my partner when choosing who to talk to. I try to find someone safe and nonjudgmental who I can trust to keep secrets. For a while, that person was a therapist. People who knew us casually knew my person was drunk, but they didn’t understand why.

Sometimes I don’t know what I’m feeling, and there are deeply personal details I don’t divulge because they aren’t mine to discuss. At the end of the day, though, I can’t fight this war by myself, either.

I’m As Honest With My Child As I Can Be

I have to keep it age-appropriate, of course. My baby is four, so I’ve said things to him like:

  • “Dad drank too much bad medicine.”
  • “Dad was a soldier, and it made him sad.”
  • “It’s not OK when Dad yells at us. It’s not OK to treat people like that.”
  • “Dad’s just frustrated, but it isn’t your fault.”

Whatever I say, I don’t lie to my son. Someday, he’ll have questions, and I want him to trust me to give him the answers.

I Don’t Try to Force My Husband to Do Anything

This was a lesson that took me a while to learn: we can’t force anyone to do anything. Grown adults are going to do what they want to do, and we can’t stop them. When we try, it usually just pisses them off and makes the situation worse.

I don’t demand that my spouse get treatment or go to meetings or even stop drinking. I don’t tell him he’s an “alcoholic” because I feel that’s a personal call. Besides, I’m not a combat veteran with PTSD and a drinking problem. I’ve never had to deal with those issues, so I can’t tell someone else how to deal with them.

We can’t make someone change or get help, whether they need to or not. It’s something they have to want.

I Don’t Take Responsibility for My Partner’s Decisions

I used to apologize for my spouse’s actions when he was drunk and self-medicating. I don’t do that anymore.

I used to blame myself for his alcoholism and wonder what I could do to make it go away. I don’t do that anymore, either.

The only person I need to apologize for or make better is myself.

Living Our Lives

When a veteran with PTSD uses alcohol to cope, it has sometimes disastrous repercussions for everyone in her life, especially her partner. But there are ways to cope so you can feel happy again while still being there for your soldier.

I hope you find what works for you so you can enjoy the healthy, productive life you were meant to live.

2 thoughts on “PTSD and Alcoholism: Making a Bad Situation Even Worse

  1. I have been through it all. Your story is my story. It saddens me sometime that No one seems to understand my situation


    1. Beatrice,

      I can relate to the feeling that most people can’t understand the gravity of someone saying, “I’m married to a veteran with PTSD,” but I’ve come to realize that’s OK.

      However, being married to a psychologically wounded vet can still be a lonely experience, which is why I started “Veterans’ Invisible Spouses.” Not only has what I’ve learned from my research helped me handle my situation a little more gracefully, but I’ve gotten the chance to talk to people who can understand me.

      I encourage you to read more of my posts and maybe find more of your story buried in them. I also invite you to tell your story in the comments if you feel that would also help you start to heal.

      Thank you for reaching out, and stay healthy and happy.


      Sarah Sharp


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