How to support a loved one who has witnessed something awful that changed their relationship to the outdoors
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A few months ago, my girlfriend was the first person to come across a bad wilderness accident. I’ll spare the details, but the basic story is that she was solo backpacking, investigated the sound of yelling, and came across a situation where two people were extremely injured. She was there for hours trying to help and comfort them and taking messages for their families, but in the end, they both died. She doesn’t seem to blame herself—their injuries were already too severe to hike out and get help—but she still seems broken by the experience.
Since then, she’s been seeing a therapist to deal with PTSD and has made progress, but she’s still struggling to do things that used to be easy for her. She says she wants to go outdoors with me but then ends up getting really upset and lashing out, even though I’m just trying to do the thing she wanted to do in the first place. For instance, last weekend she suggested a day hike, and it seemed like things were fine, but when I wanted to stop at a waterfall to take some pictures, she started sobbing. It makes me feel like I’m doing something wrong, but when I try to talk to her about these patterns, she shuts down emotionally. I want to support her and enjoy the outdoors together again, and I am committed to this relationship, but I don’t know what to do.
Your girlfriend did an incredible kindness. She comforted other humans during their last hours on earth, offered them company and care and the knowledge that they were not alone, that their lives would not end alone, and that their families would know and feel their love. She bore witness. She cushioned their pain. And when these strangers passed, she absorbed that pain. It is not fair that this happened to them, or to her—or, for that matter, to you. But both of you should know that she offered one of the greatest gifts that humans can give one another. She provided the kind of humanity that we might all wish for ourselves, or our loved ones, if the worst were to happen.
And now she’s suffering from an intense mental illness, and you are the one bearing witness. Her brain is firing unfamiliar signals—imagine having a terrifying stranger inside your own head—and she’s trying to manage your concern and her own hair-trigger adrenaline response and batshit chemical responses at the same time. If she says she wants to go outdoors with you, then she does. She wants a connection to the part of the world that always made her feel whole, and she wants to share that with you. And that part of the world, because it is also the site of a great trauma, is at once a poison and the cure. It’s no wonder that her return to the outdoors is fraught and complicated.
The most important thing right now, for both of you, is that you’re getting help. I’m so glad that your girlfriend is seeing a therapist and making progress—though, as you know, progress is often slow, and circuitous, and sometimes requires reopening wounds so they can heal more effectively. If you haven’t already, you should also make sure that you have a good support system in place, whether that’s your own therapist or friends and family. There’s growing evidence that PTSD can be contagious, especially to romantic partners. If you’re supporting your girlfriend through her flashbacks, listening to her story over and over, then you’re taking on a share of that trauma. Make sure you’re getting the help you need—and much of it has to come from outside the relationship. Think of it this way: The two of you can’t save each other from drowning. You need a lifeguard for that.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t tell your girlfriend how you’re feeling, because you should. But be careful that you’re not expecting her to handle all of your feelings about her illness while she’s handling that illness herself.
Try to accept her and your emotions without judgment or worrying about what they mean for the future. They don’t mean anything for the future, not necessarily—they are only happening right now, just this moment, not forever. Ask your therapist for techniques to deal with difficult moments as they arise. If your girlfriend panics on a day hike, stay calm and comfort her. Breathe slowly and ask her to mirror your breathing. Describe sensory details to help place her in the present moment: “We are by a river. The rocks are warm. Listen to the sound of crickets. The aspen leaves are moving with the breeze. You’re with me. You’re with me.”
Read books on trauma: The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van der Kolk and Irritable Hearts by Mac McClelland. Be gentle with yourselves; make time for activities that you both find relaxing, whether it’s cooking or watching movies or just reading side by side. Focus on the next hour at a time, not the next week. Know that things are getting better, and that you love each other, and that your future is joyful and peaceful. Trust in that joy together.