How to Break Up With a Brain Injured Soldier

by Sarah Kishpaugh

If the relationship is fresh and your soldier is on active duty, call his mom. Say you appreciate his service and you wish you could visit him at Walter Reed. She’ll curse that the portable eye-tracking device didn’t work to monitor his brain damage. Tell her you’ve done some research and refer her to the Center for Disease Control or the Mayo Clinic. Give her the link to the guidelines for managing combat related head trauma.

If he’s been home for a while and the relationship was exclusive pre-deployment, let it breathe. No one appreciates a quitter. Take a chapter from your Yoga girlfriends and Simply Be. Pretend you’re a scientist and look at his rehab with interest. When the stress makes you scratch at your scalp so it bleeds, see a nurse practitioner. Don’t be shy about asking for a prescription for Xanax. She’ll say: This is what it’s meant for. You’ll say: But what if I become addicted? She’ll say: From the looks of you I’d say you’ll be fine.
Organize his speech therapy sessions before you split. Make a spreadsheet of his appointments and give it to his brother’s ex-wife, the nice one who teaches second grade. If you have kids, don’t wait around for spousal combat pay. Devote energy into your moneymaking and exit strategies. At the counselor’s office, he’ll say: I’ll never be okay with her being the breadwinner. It’d be considerate to stay quiet, but if you must, counter with this: The sex is boring. And he never asks you a single question about yourself. Say: you are tired, tired, tired, you young caregiver, you.

Still, be a patriot and lobby for his purple heart. Let him represent all soldiers with undiagnosed multiple concussions. This will end in your favor later, for your absenteeism will be assuaged through his heroism. If the cognitive impairment is secondary only to visible wounds such as a limp, missing leg, or a droopy eye, there won’t be overmuch judgment from family and friends. Say: Honey, you can’t do this alone. There’s a whole community out there to connect with. Call your local Brain Injury Association and get him on the mailer list so he can apply for quick and free legal aid. Then contact the Veterans Association and fax over his medical files. Make copies of his records for yourself and keep them organized in a small file cabinet in the basement by your desk. You never know when you might need them for a story.

Unsubscribe from the International Association of Industrial Boards of Commissions. Tell Heather, the manager of membership and marketing, that no, you won’t be attending next year’s conference. Respond one last time that you are not interested in the webinar on jurisdictional perspective on video adjudication and you don’t need the newest white paper release on the Opiod Policy Guide. Turn off your Google alerts for Traumatic Brain Injury and get off the mailer list for the Professional Patient Advocate Institute. When they pester you for donations, say, thank you, no. It’s unnecessary to inform them how their workshops are rote and events irrelevant.

When you’re packing his stuff be sentimental to a point. Ask your best childhood friend over and together fold his messy clothes and put them into boxes. Keep the chocolate brown suede Filson gentleman’s jacket you gave him the fall he turned thirty. In a year maybe he’ll remember: give it back when he asks. For now, tuck it in the corner of your closet. Smell it from time to time when you need a reminder of his hunkishly sap- smelling neck.

Brain injury is a lonely club. Call a renowned industry psychotherapist and get on her waiting list. Sign the kids up too. With the donated cash from relatives, purchase a Reiki session or three; they should get you feeling like a woman again. If money is an issue – and let’s be real, when is it not? – skip the massage and phone the ladies at St. Vincent de Paul for help with the utility bills and groceries. Schedule the visit for when the kids are in school. De-clutter the living room and stash the Modern Warfare games behind the TV. Tell them your story, let them pray for you, cry on their shoulder.

Understand the disease so you can explain to family and friends why you’re leaving. Try not to say: This summer he charged one thousand dollars on the credit card for Scuba gear! Or: He called me an asshole at the dinner table in front of the children! Nobody wants to hear you ask how they’d like it if your husband slept fifteen hours a day. Instead, chair the committee for the Brain Injury Gala and put yourself in a docu-drama promotional video. That way, friends and family – notably his mom – might have the heart to absolve you from the crime of dissolution.

Getting caught with a lover would make you the bad guy, which sounds like an easy out, but don’t do that. It doesn’t matter if you spent one or ten years nursing him back to life; he’s a Marine and will find a way to haunt you for your betrayal. People like him get metals. People like you get stuck. Which is why you have to be honest. Say: It’s time to cut our losses. Don’t be shocked when he agrees. Put your arm through his and stroke his bicep. Let him snap nude pictures of you and give him one last blowjob. Swallow so he knows you still love him.

When he does leave, do the following:
Go first thing in the morning to the local DSHS and apply for food stamps. It will take all day, so bring a book and charge your phone. Be gracious to whoever walks you through your new client interview. Say: You are so nice. This must be a hard job. Smile with all your teeth. Don’t be ashamed when they ask if you need Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. This is Welfare. Take it. Refrain from sharing this news with your soldier. His pride is still so huge and you don’t want to deal with a suicide. 

Tell your oldest friend you need her to hold your hand at the food bank. Try not to turn your nose up at the massive bags of uncooked lentil beans and molding vegetables. There will be whole chickens, white bread, blocks of cheddar cheese, and three-day old pastries. Don’t forget the sundries station – it is surprising how fast shampoo, toothpaste and dish soap run out. 

Give his claims manager a heads up he’s leaving. Email his medical team, starting with his physiatrist. She will likely respond with at least a hello, but don’t expect a warm exchange. Call his ophthalmologist, speech pathologist, psychologist and neurologist. They will want to know the details but they won’t ask. Tell yourself: managing their disappointment is not your job. 

Take yourself to as many parties as possible. A prudish mom friend might ask twenty questions at a white elephant party over the holidays. She will urge against sleeping around. Say: Have you been through divorce? Oh no? Well. And leave it at that. High- five your doubly-divorced friend who’d been eyeing your reaction from the corner. If you can’t find a partner in crime, smoke a bowl of fat buds in the backyard by yourself. Who cares?

If mystery is your style, craft a macabre email form letter to you friends outlining how much you are falling to pieces. Blind copy hundreds: the ones who have forgotten you and the ones who won’t leave you alone. Tell them that in case they don’t hear or see from you in a month, it’s because you are benching yourself for a while. Inform your soldier’s buddies on the haps vis-à-vis private messages on Facebook. Consider blocking your soldier’s access to your posts. Does he really need to see you having all sorts of fun without him?
Relinquish your rights as a VA fiduciary. Hand over the on-going claim for his Pension. Tell him to look up for help. The Mortgage Delinquency Assistance program won’t change due to marital transition, and USAA will still carry your insurance.

A thoughtful thing would be to make a list, including the contact info and address of services for which he qualifies. Craft a lengthy, informative email to his mom identifying everything you know about the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation and Social Security Disability Insurance. Blind copying his lawyer will secure your position for primary custodial care, but you needn’t worry about that. No judge will give him the kids.

For your first Christmas without your ex, pre-forgive yourself for overdrinking. This is your year, the one for which people, even your mother, ought to forgive any belligerence. If having a friend’s holiday is an option, do that, and bring nothing except yourself and a bottle of something you plan to finish. Likewise at your neighborhood dinner processional, if looking at the couples in Christmas sweaters spreading cheer makes you want to hide in the bathroom puking over a cinnamon scented Yankee candle, politely tell the host that you are not up to it this year. Pack another big fat bowl of the pot your younger ballerina writer girlfriend gave you, smoke that, and stretch on the floor listening to Mazzy Star. If possible, on Christmas morning, instead of church, attend one of those Lonely Hearts Club prayer sessions. Don’t think of it as a-misery-loves-company type deal, but a natural part of the grieving process you endure with likeminded humans whose hearts feel like they may collapse at the sound of another carol. Let the grief soften your structure. Say: Tomorrow is a New Day. Breathe.

Walk to a neighbor’s house, those cool music teachers who don’t have children, for a very dirty martini stirred especially for you. Listen to jazz on vinyl and read their Dennis Leary’s “Merry Fuckin’ Christmas” coffee table book. If, when you crawl back to your house bleary-eyed, your children have put themselves to bed, chocolate smeared across their face and their Christmas dinner clothes still on, don’t feel too bad. This is character building and not only will they likely not remember, but if they do, they will be better for it. Be unique. You’ve made it this far. Keep going.

When you pack away decorations, think twice about tossing the hand painted ornament your Nana sent you when you told her you were in love. The sparkly gold angel has you and your soldier’s name on it. Stick it a drawer, along with the framed photo of the two of you at Disneyland with the princesses. After New Year’s is a good time to start writing your book. Set your alarm for 5 a.m. and warm a hot bottle for your belly. Outline chapters about his sketchy roommates at the hospital, a fictitious support group for caregivers, and the affair you fantasized about having with his hot surgeon. Weekends bring sophisticated wine to writer parties where you dance, smoke, become sultry and invite yourself to a racecar driver’s bed. Don’t feel bad he is fifteen years older. He will take care of you for a few days. Hold this memory close for lonely days are sure to follow. Your soldier need never know.
As for dating, don’t jump into anything too soon. Have phone sex and make out at the bar, but dear god, do not marry your rebounder. That ex-boyfriend calling you? Sure, roll around with him and laugh about old times, but listen when he says you need to be alone. It may feel like you want to worry and clean and cook for someone, but once some time goes by, that bed of yours by yourself will feel great. Buy yourself some high thread count sateen sheets, make tea, eat half your Xanax and read surrealist lit and poetry. Promise yourself you will do this for no less than a year. A warm body with emotional and physical needs will not stop your witching hour adrenaline rushes, so what would be the point of putting your kids through having a strange man in the house? Just wait. Your happy ending is on its way.

Be fair and throw nothing out. Buy a box of large Ziploc baggies to store his miscellaneous personals: an old wallet with business cards and a 3x5 of your wedding photo; his expired helicopter’s license, some childhood marbles, an inscribed Swiss army knife, and his dad’s U.S. Army pin; his wedding ring, a set of bonsai clippers, a set of 2.0 pencil lead and his favorite Staedler mechanical pencil and sharpener, a Factis extra soft eraser, and the twisted brass bracelet you bought in Puerto Vallarta on your honeymoon; a handheld voice recorder machine, a Li-ion 3.7 V battery for his ski helmet camera, and a book of matches whose logo of a pole dancer is underneath the tagline, Steak and Legs; a Hohner international harmonica in the key of C, a piece of what looks like a computer chip, inside a pink plastic baggie labeled, “The Memory Place,” and his arrowhead, styled into a necklace, that he found in the desert when he was ten.

The emergency epilepsy I.D. bracelet, the one with the weird American Medical insignia that’s like a thick red star with a snake hugging a staff, is yours to keep. On the back is your name and number. He never wore it and won’t miss it. Store it in the bottom drawer, along with the government memo identifying the date, time and details of injury. He may or may not keep the green silk satchel filled with good luck charms stuffed last year into his Christmas stocking: a gourd, a four-leaf clover, a shooting star, a horseshoe, and a pair of dice. Just put them in the box. They are his.
Chin up, you’re halfway there.

Sarah Kishpaugh writes, works, and parents in Edmonds, WA. She earned an MFA in Creative Writing at Goddard College and works at a public high school as an administrative assistant. Her debut book is a memoir forthcoming from Red Hen Press in fall 2018.  She is online at at and twitter @sarahkishpaugh. 

I wrote this from a place of frustration and empathy for the caregiver and the wounded - veteran or otherwise. It's a reaction to the systems of oppression that leave people with a traumatic brain injury (and those that love them) feeling isolated and lonely.  The piece is personal, though fictional in the sense that the people in my life affected by brain injury are not military-related.

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