PTSD from Divorce and the Risks of Suicide and Homicide
My wife, Jennair, had been treated for depression for years. But on the verge of separating after 24 years of marriage, she began to sink deeper into the depths of despair. While she presented herself as normal most of the time, she would have an occasional breakdown. It was difficult to see her suffer like that, but I saw her pain as an expected reaction to such an emotional, life-changing event full of uncertainty. After a particularly dramatic episode, including a staged threat to throw herself out a seventh-floor window, I insisted that she seek immediate psychiatric help and get the medication she needed. I never thought she would actually do any harm to herself, but clearly, she was suffering. Yet I was surprised when her psychiatrist diagnosed her with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Outside of hearing about how the disorder affects soldiers who have experienced the traumas of war, I had never heard of PTSD caused by other trauma, especially not for divorce. But as I later learned, it’s not uncommon for trauma from divorce and infidelity to cause post-traumatic stress disorder. Like anyone who has suffered physical or emotional threats to their well-being and security, PTSD can cause any combination of the following symptoms:
- Repeated intrusive thoughts
- Unstable emotional regulation
- Out of body experiences
- Alternating between feeling numb and striking out in retaliation
- Inability to stop scanning for any new data that might cause more distress
- Feeling overwhelmingly powerlessness and broken
- Needing to regain self-worth by assigning blame
- Confusion and disorientation
“My God,” I said after reading the list. “Jennair experienced every single one of these symptoms,” not to mention nightmares, sleeplessness and complete loss of appetite. But most disturbing of all, is a cluster of PTSD symptoms that the American Psychiatric Association calls “Arousal and Reactivity Alterations,” including anger, irritability, fits of rage, hypervigilance, violence, provoking fights, suicidal and even, in rare cases, homicidal ideation.
“Everyone keeps telling me to move on,” she told me. “They say, ‘Just say fuck him.’ But I can’t. I don’t want to love you anymore. But I can’t stop.”
For the most part, Jennair kept her darkest feelings and emotional outbursts to herself. But what she couldn’t hide evolved into an obsessive focus on the details of my infidelity and my plans for the future. While I had already admitted to her that I had fallen in love with someone else and that there had been a physical relationship, she demanded to know everything.
“I need to know,” she pleaded repeatedly. “I need to know every detail. For me. To move on.” She wanted to know every conversation we’d had, every activity we’d engaged in, and every detail of the intimacy we’d shared. It was as if by knowing these details of my relationship with another woman, she would be vicariously present, and hence, less betrayed, more in control. But I just couldn’t do that to her, no matter how much she wanted to know. Knowing every intimate detail would only have hurt her more. Unsatiated, and unable to stop scanning for information, she took matters into her own hands, beginning what started as a hypervigilant campaign of electronic espionage and ending with a violent plot for revenge. Unbeknownst to me, my wife had secretly planted a GPS device on my car and another on my girlfriend’s. She painstakingly sewed more than a dozen recording devices in my clothes and mounted them in my car. She bought a lock picking kit and broke into my university office to look for clues and plant still more listening devices.
50% of American adults will experience at least one traumatic event in their lives. 8% of those will actually suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Adult women are almost 3X more susceptible.
“Everyone keeps telling me to move on,” she told me. “They say, ‘Just say fuck him.’ But I can’t. I don’t want to love you anymore. But I can’t stop.” In hindsight, that should have scared me. But it didn’t. I truly felt for her. And what she was trying to tell me, and what I could not understand, was that she truly could not stop—the trauma of ending our marriage had been so great that her brain could no longer function as it once had. Her brain chemistry had literally been altered, causing her to have the same repetitive and tortuous thoughts over and over—a central feature of PTSD which causes people to experience intrusive thoughts and emotional flooding that they are unable to control—because they do not realize how trauma affects the brain and its neural circuitry.
Now, more than a year after she murdered my girlfriend and then killed herself, the symptoms of her trauma and the clues of how it manifested itself fit together like pieces of a disturbing puzzle. A puzzle I didn’t even know to look for. A puzzle she hid so well in plain sight.
My wife had told me that her psychiatrist had diagnosed her with PTSD, but until now, I didn’t understand the disorder or just how common and serious it could be. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, half of American adults will experience at least one traumatic event in their lives, but just under 8% of those will actually suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. While anyone can develop PTSD at any age, adult women are almost three times more susceptible than men, even more so when they are between the ages of 45 to 59. My wife was 47 years old when she painfully and slowly unwound and decided to unleash her murderous plan of retribution.
In addition to weekly therapy sessions with her psychiatrist, Jennair was prescribed Zoloft® (Sertraline), an antidepressant commonly used to treat PTSD, obsessive–compulsive disorder, and a number of depressive disorders. I was shocked to later learn that researchers don’t even completely understand how it works. But they think it helps increase serotonin effects in the brain, which can affect mood, aging, learning and memory. Unfortunately, like all psychotropic medications, Sertraline isn’t always effective. In fact, some, especially younger patients, report that suicidal thoughts get worse after just a few doses.
After less than a week of taking the medication, Jennair complained to me and to her psychiatrist, “I don’t feel any different. If anything, I feel worse.”
“Give it time,” I told her. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, some symptoms, like appetite, sleep, and energy may show some improvement within the first one to two weeks, but depression may take six to eight weeks to fully improve. When my wife committed murder and then took her own life, she had been taking Zoloft for just five weeks.
If I had only known then what I know now. According to VeryWellMind, more than one in four, 27%, of PTSD sufferers attempt suicide. But I didn’t know that then—I couldn’t even comprehend my wife taking her own life, despite her histrionic threat of leaping out the window. Histrionics were second nature to her. In my mind, she was just desperate for attention, desperate for my love. And if I had thought homicidal ideation was even a possibility, I would have sounded the alarm bells loudly from the beginning. I thought it was enough that she was under psychiatric care. I thought it was enough to wait for the medication she was taking to work. But it wasn’t. She was fighting a losing battle with her mental health and there isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t wish I could have done something more to help her.
What I have since come to realize is that understanding the differences between depression and post traumatic stress disorder is critical, and at the risk of overreacting, it could be a matter of life and death to get people the right professional psychiatric help they need. Of course, not everyone will develop PTSD after experiencing a traumatic event. They could land anywhere on a spectrum of stress reactions. On the low end, they might experience just stress, and on the high end, PTSD. There are, however, multiple studies that link PTSD with increased violence and murder rates in soldiers returning home from the battlefield. Although it’s rare. But I and others, including mental health professionals never thought my wife’s PTSD diagnosis would be among the most extreme cases. She wasn’t a soldier. She wasn’t a trained killer. She didn’t come face to face with the atrocities of war. She was a woman who was about to lose everything she had wrapped her whole life around. Me. Our marriage. And her identity as a wife—a woman who was wanted.
Psychologists who I’ve spoken with believe that her condition, her mental illness, was likely caused by trauma she probably had experienced as a child or teen. And while the ultimate tragedy that unfolded is rare, I believe that everyone has a breaking point and is susceptible to mental illness and PTSD from almost every type of trauma. The key to recognizing the signs of PTSD in the context of depression is to watch for obsessive thoughts or behaviors. Nightmares, the inability to stop thinking about the trauma and those perceived as responsible for it, and hypervigilance for threats to safety, are hallmarks of PTSD. If you or someone you love exhibits these signs, seek help from a mental health professional trained to diagnose and treat PTSD. Don’t wait for the magical day when “moving on” just happens. Get help now.
Subscribe to this blog for an upcoming post about mental health and breakups. For more information about getting help from someone suffering from PTSD, see the Help Guide for Mental Illness and Wellness.