I know about deployments: the predeployment crazy feelings, the arguments, the anxiety, and the eventual guilt for it all after the service member leaves.
I’ve even at times been hired to talk to groups of other spouses whose loved ones are about to leave. I tell those families to recognize that their feelings are normal. Everyone goes through it, I say. I tell them not to be surprised if, just before the departure date comes, they find themselves thinking, “I wish he’d just leave already!”
I know all these things. I preach these things. So it was a surprise when, unbeknown to me, I was experiencing them myself.
I should know better, I thought. If anyone can handle predeployment, it should be me. Haven’t I been the “teacher,” telling other spouses what to expect, how to recognize it, and what to do about it?
Oh, but wait; hadn’t I also told them that one of the worst situations to be in is having too much time, too much knowledge of a deployment?
I knew about Dustin’s deployment too soon. There has been too much time to plan and think. And worry.
I almost envy the wives whose husbands come home and say, “I’m leaving for a deployment next week.” Rather than pulling off the Band-Aid, if you will, one excruciating tug at a time, they can rip it off and start feeling better. They don’t watch the milk’s expiration date move closer and closer to the the departure day. They don’t spend every passing holiday thinking, “This time next year, he will be gone.”
But then, no; too short notice and there is not enough time to get things in order. There is no time for the service member to set up the family for success while they are gone. No time to clean out the garage, change the air filters, get the car serviced, or change all the fire alarm batteries.
Dustin is doing all those things now. Every day it seems he has a new to-do: “I should vacuum the basement for you before I leave.” Or, “Before I go, let’s sell my car.”
Before I leave. Before I go. This is the center of conversation lately.
And it’s still awhile before that day comes.
It is a slow march to the inevitable.
So in hindsight, it’s no wonder that my breathing has become more shallow, and I wake up twice in the night, finding every possible reason to be mad at my husband. But I didn’t recognize these things as they were happening. Neither did Dustin.
“Wow, you seem so mad lately,” he said one day. Then a couple of weeks after that: “Do you think you’re going through some predeployment stuff?”
What? Isn’t that like accusing a woman of being mad because she has PMS?
I turned up my nose at the idea.
“I am NOT going through predeployment anything,” I said.
But was I?
When I passed by Dustin’s closet, I caught myself thinking that I could probably use half his rack while he is gone — if only his side weren’t so messy. And I could use his sink while he is gone — since he never fixed my leaky faucet. Eventually it was, “Jeez, maybe things are going to be so much easier once he just leaves.”
In my predeployment talks, I tell spouses that this is called emotional separation. It’s easier to say goodbye to someone you’re mad at, or someone you don’t really need anyway.
The service member goes through this, too. They get into mission mode. Before they’re even on the plane or ship, they’ve already left. They are busy updating their passport, getting physicals and doing training. In the end, they probably won’t have time to clean the garage or change the air filters anyway. Besides, shouldn’t the family member be able to do that stuff for herself?
A week spent doing this back-and-forth is one thing. Several months spent doing this is pretty close to emotional torture.
Last week, Dustin brought home a predeployment preparation guide.
“I think you should read through this,” he said.
I laughed. I’ve been hired to write such guides!
“You don’t think I already know all this?” I said, tossing the folder onto the table.
But once Dustin had gone upstairs, I opened the pages and began reading. I found comfort in the words “normal” and “expected” — words I have written for other spouses. I read the information like it was the first time I had seen it, like my own Navy dad hadn’t been deploying since — literally — the day I was born.
I realized that whether it’s your first deployment or your 10th, it never gets any easier. And no one will be more surprised than you when you’ve “been there, done that,” but find yourself there again.
Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.