Military Spouses and the Invisible Backpack: a conversation about stress

“Congratulations on your wedding and welcome to the military!” he said. “Here is your dependent ID card, your application for DEERS and your invisible backpack. Slip it over your shoulders, tighten the straps and you will be good to go.”

“Wait, what?” I said in confusion, turning around, trying to view my back. “You just put a backpack on me? Where? Why? I don’t see it!”

“Oh, you won’t ever see it, but it’s part of the package for every dependent.” he explained. “Don’t worry, every military spouse has one. Try not to let it get too heavy. Next in line please!” 

“What are you talking about??” I tried to ask. Feeling confused, I shuffled out of the room and quietly began my military spouse journey, never fully understanding the baggage I was acquiring along the way. It would take me two decades to fully comprehend the invisible backpack.

****

Moving past that imaginary scenario, the beginning of my Navy life was a little rough, I’m not gonna lie. But through the years I learned to love it and by the time my husband reached twenty years I was 100% in. Sure, I had some strange rashes and unexplained health issues but never you mind that. All was well!

One day during our COVID quarantine, I was discussing mental health with a friend (six feet apart) and our conversation turned to that of military spouses. This friend so aptly described this life like wearing an invisible backpack that gets heavier and heavier as the years pass and I thought her analogy was PERFECT. (Thanks Rebecca!!)

Like frogs in a pot of water that gets warmer and warmer, military spouses often do not realize the stress they are carrying because of the incremental changes. Obviously, we know on the surface that we have challenges before us, but what choice do we have but to go about our business, get the jobs done, get the kids fed and do what we must? We channel Rosie the Riveter, pull up our positive pants, support our spouses and find dear friends to walk with us along the rocky path. But I’ve realized that in spite of our awesomeness, we are not taking enough time to consider the weight on our shoulders and the rock collections we gather. We simply cannot ignore this revelation. It goes like this…

We uproot ourselves and move to a new place. In goes a rock.

We kiss our spouses goodbye and go long stretches of time without seeing them. In goes a rock.

We live with a schedule which is always written in pencil. In goes a rock.

We solo-parent for days, weekends and months. In goes a large, heavy boulder.

We feel depressed and anxious but we don’t want to tell anyone because we are supposed to be “deployment strong”. In goes a rock. And then another.

We live within a constant countdown- when they are leaving, when they are returning, when we are moving- rock after rock go into our collections.

We manage the kids, the job, the pets, the household, the cars, the yard, the next move and all the small but significant details of life which make our backpacks heavier and heavier. But the truth is that we often don’t notice the weight because it disguises itself in the form of subtle, low, chronic stress that feels “normal”. Everyone around us is doing the same thing so this is just life, right? No big deal. (Notice that I am not talking about dealing with the stress of a spouse in war or combat. That stress is real and palpable and impossible to ignore.)

The reality is, these subtle pressures don’t seem like a big deal until our bodies and souls decide enough is enough. My “enough” moment came a few years ago when I was sitting in a dermatologist’s office, waiting for a diagnosis on a wicked rash on my scalp. The doctor took one look at me and said “On a scale of 1-10, this is a 20! Honey, you need to lower your stress, what have you been doing??” I thought about how my husband had been gone over five hundred nights in the last three years and how I had recently moved my family three thousand miles to a place where I knew almost zero people. My shoulders slumped and I began awkwardly crying in her office as I finally acknowledged that I had carried the world on my shoulders and I was exhausted. (So was the doctor after my strange, unexpected outburst!!) 

But the truth is, until that doctor’s appointment, I wouldn’t have told you that I was bearing years of stress. As I said, I genuinely loved the Navy, our base was stellar and I was terribly sad to leave our community, even though it deployed again and again. I would have told you that there were times and periods of stress but far more positive days. So therein lays the problem: because I didn’t “feel” physically stressed all the time, I never did anything to actually relieve it. Because I didn’t “feel” the rocks in my invisible backpack, the stress accompanied me unnoticed and invisible.

I finished that week of doctor appointments with a couple auto-immune diseases on my plate and concluded that ignorance was definitely NOT bliss. While I had a genetic component to ultimately blame for these conditions, I was forced to finally understand that stress was real and active and definitely destructive, if not given proper attention. Armed with new awareness, I needed to remove that invisible backpack and quickly empty as many rocks as possible. NOW.

Do you? Have you ever considered the burdens on your shoulders and acknowledged the weight? Have you sat down and talked with your spouse and family about how you might lessen the load? Because IT IS OK TO NOT BE OK. It’s ok to admit that your shoulders are sore. It’s ok for us to take a time-out, evaluate our habits and start considering ways to help ourselves! 

We can take stress and self-care seriously. This isn’t about going to the beach every weekend or planning a vacation for next summer. It’s about taking care of yourself in small, daily increments. Whatever lowers your stress for a brief moment- DO IT. Not later, but TODAY. Not when a deployment ends, but NOW. Every day. Here and there, make it happen. 

We can be conscious of our schedules and current responsibilities and say NO more often. When your spouse is gone and you are juggling the world and someone asks you to volunteer for something, the answer might need to be NO. When all your kids want to join ten activities at once, the answer might also need to be NO. After my doctor’s lecture, I said NO to everything for a few months in my new city… but felt guilty and uncomfortable. What will people think?? I wondered. Short answer: WHY DID I CARE?? It was my life, my call and my health. I desperately needed that slow time and you might, too. But beware, you might start a blog in the middle of the stillness. 😉

We can hire babysitters or form a co-op to give our busy hands a break. Solo-parenting day after day after day is a weight on your shoulders, even if you adore your young children. Don’t feel guilty. Being YOUR best self is going to make you a better parent. Hear this: there is no golden trophy for the parent who never asks for help or goes through an entire deployment without a minute’s reprieve. The only reward is severe exhaustion. 😦

We can focus on finding community to help and support us– an FRG, an OSG, a neighborhood group, a club or a church. We were created to bear each other’s burdens and live in communion with one another. You don’t need to be a superhero in your own cave- come out and find a tribe!

We can tap into the resources offered to us by the militaryFleet & Family, Navy Chaplains, Military OneSource, and Child Development Centers all have resources to help you. Be brutally honest with yourself and the areas in which you need relief. And if you don’t know where to find it, ask your local spouses. If you don’t know anyone, message me and I will help you!

I have loved our twenty plus years in the military and wouldn’t trade them for the world (my reflections are here). But the subject of stress and mental health must be part of our broad conversation as we go forward. So let’s continue to talk about it, improve it and lighten our backpacks. IT’S TIME. 

Wishing you all the very, VERY best!! 

[Original unmodified photo by Joseph Young on Unsplash]

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