As a proponent of family readiness, I’ve spent a lot of time discussing the challenges that family members and especially children have with deployments and separation anxiety. Separation anxiety is when someone becomes anxious over being separated from family members. It is something that families of service members, first responders, and many others often face. Yet as I’ve recently rediscovered, service members themselves also often experience separation anxiety.
I have spoken often about the challenges that children experience when service members deploy. My first deployment, my children had a lot of typical issues – they had problems sleeping (nightmares, sleepwalking, etc.), acted out in school, made worse grades, etc. Although I did not know this would be an effect of my being gone, I quickly learned about separation anxiety. I afterwards spent considerable time trying to connect with my children to lessen their concerns. Although the anxiety was less noticeable in later deployments, it was nevertheless still there. As my children became older, they were able to talk about their feelings, and they understood when they felt disconnected and made efforts to get in touch with me, and I continued to stay in touch with them as adults if only to make them feel comfortable being on their own. In fact, they did the same when they went off to college or went on trips.
While it’s mostly children and family members that we think about as having anxiety, service members also suffer from separation issues, although they are much less likely to show symptoms until later. While deployed, they are usually too busy at first to worry about family. After time, the anxiety comes out as they worry about those back home, think or dream about them, and feel lonely or disconnected from them. Although most service members try to stay connected with their families through social media or phone calls, these occasional touch points are not enough, and they slowly become distant from those they most love. This sense of disconnectedness becomes more acute once they return. Often service members feel like they don’t fit in the family anymore. Sometimes this is because of families having grown more independent while they’re away – their spouses now take care of their finances or yardwork alone, children have learned to read to themselves instead of having their parent who is serving reading to them, or the family has a new schedule from which returning service members are excluded. Sometimes post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) makes these separations worse, but even service members who do not face the rigors of combat experience separation anxiety and associated depression and pain.
For myself, I became aware I suffered from some of these feelings only after my last deployment. My previous deployments, I had come home and immediately went back to work. Staying busy kept me from noticing my disorientation. In 2018, I was unemployed for some three months. In the interim, my wife returned to work, and my children were in school. Left alone with my thoughts, I experienced depression such as I have never felt before. It occurred to me that, of the 25 years of my marriage, between training, work trips, and deployments, I had been separated from my wife and family more than a quarter of that time. I thought about all that I had missed – birthdays, holidays, Christmases, vacations, changes in my children; and all the problems that my absence had created – financial burdens, household chores, safety and security, and more. Most of all, I felt a sense of loneliness, separation from family, and disconnectedness. As I looked back on earlier deployments, I saw that I had felt the same thing many of those other times, though I did not know what they were. I had also suffered from anxiety at times, although I was often too busy to notice or else I buried these feelings. Only in quiet seclusion did I begin to pay attention to these issues for the first time.
The truth is that many service members suffer from similar problems of adjustment due to living apart from family, but many are too busy or lack the introspection skills to notice. Especially among men, who often don’t like talking about their feelings or who try to be tough or hard, this can be difficult to admit. Only after they lash out at others, struggle with substance abuse, go through divorces, or experience dread or pain without knowing the reason do they begin to see that their own anger, frustration, pain, and depression are the result of being separated from their loved ones for long periods of time. Sometimes it takes a shock to make you really begin to examine yourself and change your attitude. However, it is only then that real healing can begin to take place.
I say this not to cause anyone embarrassment but simply to recognize that even service members must deal with their separation issues and anxiety. They also can take steps to connect more with their families and lessen their feelings of disconnectedness, both while deployed and when they return. Their families can take steps to help returning service members feel more integrated and included. Simply recognizing that Soldiers can have separation anxiety, too, can help with the healing process.
© 2021 J.D. Manders