Military Spouse Acknowledges Limits as Caregiver, Value of Self-Care

Every morning when Lisa Colella wakes up, she asks herself one question: “What can I control today?”

As a caregiver of a veteran with a traumatic brain injury (TBI), she knows much of the day’s developments are beyond her control. Instead, she prepares to help her husband cope with his TBI symptoms, such as forgetfulness, which can change in severity daily.

“The person you wake up next to one day might be different the next,” she said.

Colella’s husband, Marine veteran Staff Sgt. Rick Colella, sustained TBIs during a combat incident in 2003 and a military training accident in 2005. For two years, while he remained on active duty, the injuries were undiagnosed. But, Colella noticed something was off with her husband. He was irritable, at times hostile, and showed a decreased interest in and understanding of daily life events.

“None of us knew what [TBI] was, so we didn’t know what was going on,” she said. “Though he was physically well, he had major personality changes. He had increased irritability and lots of ups and downs.”

Colella convinced her husband to seek help. He saw medical providers at Naval Hospital Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and received both a TBI and post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis. He started treatment with his wife by his side.

In her new role as caregiver, Colella supports her husband as he continues treatment and copes with symptoms. She helps him remember appointments and tasks, and she is a calming presence when he experiences symptoms of anxiety. But, she also understands the importance of taking time for herself.

“I get up before my family is awake for ‘me’ time, to do things for myself where I won’t be bothered,” she said. “I also take walks, set aside time to be social, schedule routine physical and mental health checkups, take classes available for caregivers, and exercise.”

As for coping with the daily uncertainty of her husband’s symptoms, Colella said that it helps to know what she can control and to have patience with the things she can’t.  

“I can't control his actions or reactions, but I can control my actions and reactions,” she said. “In those moments, I take a time out, show grace and remind myself this is hard for him as well.”

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