Blind Devotion is the bold firsthand account of Sharlene Prinsen’s relationship with her husband Sean; a combat veteran who served in Bosnia and has suffered from depression, addiction, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) since his return. In this, her first book, Prinsen tells the searingly honest and remarkably brave true story of her family’s battles with mental illness, charting the ongoing struggles they have all faced in coping with the chaos induced by the trauma Sean suffered during his time in the Army.
After his discharge, Sean returns home to the US and is given a prescription for narcotic pain medication to help him cope with the pain of a neck injury he suffered during his military training. It is here that things begin to quickly spiral out of control, as Sean becomes addicted to his pills and begins to self-medicate with additional over-the-counter medications and alcohol, throwing the entire family into disarray:
“Alcoholism is an enigma — as complex as it is puzzling. It follows no rules and has no boundaries. Like a giant vacuum, alcoholism goes after everything and everyone in its path. It is a family disease – everyone in the family gets sick.”
Sean is reluctant to speak about the trauma he experienced, or to share the truth about his mental illness with anyone – even his wife. So, Prinsen assumes that her husband is simply suffering from addiction and she’s unable to connect the dots between the trauma he experienced in Bosnia to his subsequent depression and substance use. It takes many years for her to understand and recognize the nature of PTSD:
“For so long, in the early stages of Sean’s addiction, I didn’t understand the destructive interplay between Sean’s PTSD, his depression, and his substance abuse. That powerful trio of mental health issues would confound me for years… Only he understood the desperate need to escape from the crippling flashbacks and the intrusive thoughts that blindsided him without warning, bringing with them the full force of the emotions that he felt in the original traumas. Only he understood the exhausting anxiety that kept him on high alert for ‘danger’ 24/7 and the need for something – anything – to keep that anxiety at bay. Only he understood how the pills helped him get through a night that would otherwise be plagued by the alternating horrors of nightmares or insomnia.”
Sean’s PTSD continues to go undiagnosed until he finally reaches crisis point. One night, in 2007, Sean suffers a complete breakdown and attempts what is known as “police-assisted suicide,” becoming threatening and aggressive, arming himself with a loaded weapon, and then calling the police to the house, almost as a challenge.
Prinsen recalls the horrific events of this evening, as she and her two young children are forced to witness Sean’s breakdown and frightening behavior, fearing not only for his life, but for their own lives, too. Sean survives, and is arrested, and subsequently jailed. Then, incredibly, after his release, the same thing happens again exactly a year later, as he suffers a repeat breakdown and once again challenges the police to come and get him, putting his family’s lives at risk in the process. By this point you’d be easily forgiven for wondering why on earth Prinsen doesn’t just leave, but it’s here that the relevance of the book’s title becomes clear, as Prinsen adopts the military philosophy, ‘No One Gets Left Behind,’ and refuses to abandon Sean, no matter what anyone else tries to convince her, or how tempting it might sometimes seem.
It would have been easy for Prinsen to portray herself as a heroic martyr in this book, or else as an innocent, one-dimensional victim, with her husband as the evil aggressor. But she never strays into such simplistic territory and always paints herself and the other characters in her story as truly complex individuals. Indeed, her gutsyness is displayed from the outset, as she begins the book by acknowledging her own role in this chaos. She takes ownership of the fact that she too played a part in her family’s difficulties and recognizes herself as a codependent:
“I spent most of my life trying to shake crippling feelings of inadequacy that I believe stemmed from the chaotic home in which we were raised… I couldn’t wait to get to college and escape. Yet by the time I arrived there, my self-esteem and confidence in my ability to control my own world were completely shattered… Melody Beattie, the writer credited with popularizing that term, describes codependents as those who become so obsessed with other people’s feelings and behaviors that they lose sight of what they themselves are feeling or how they themselves are acting.”
But Prinsen doesn’t let her husband off the hook lightly, either, and always holds him fully accountable for his actions:
“It took me many more years to fully grasp the reality that abuse isn’t just physical. Sean was a master at manipulating my emotions to get just what he wanted, and as difficult as it is even today to say the words – that is abuse. Throughout our dark years, Sean also used threats of suicide and self-harm to keep me from leaving or setting healthy boundaries – and that, too, is abusive behavior. And most importantly, there were his raging behaviors – his screaming, the holes in the wall, the slammed doors, and the broken objects. Definitely abuse.”
One can only imagine how difficult it must have been for Prinsen to put all of this into writing, knowing that her husband, friends, and family would all be able to read it. At one point in the story, Prinsen finds herself wondering “What will people think when they see this in the newspaper?”, worrying about the local community’s reaction to her husband’s exploits. It’s even more impressive, then, to see her publish this book, and to lay her soul bare so bravely for all to see.
Later, Prinsen even recounts, with brutal honesty, how she at times longed for her husband to crash:
“Sean stayed in our home, but I was finally starting to understand that Sean would never get help until he hit rock bottom. He needed to fall hard if he was ever going to get up again. I did something then that I’ve since found out is common behavior for the loved ones of addicts: I began to systematically pray for my husband’s downfall. I didn’t want him to get hurt. I didn’t want him to injure someone else and live with the regret. I didn’t want him to suffer lifelong consequences. I just wanted him to suffer enough to want to get help for himself. I needed my husband to crash, and I prayed for it every day until it finally happened.”
It is rare to find these sorts of frank admissions in a personal memoir, let alone a first book, and it is this fearless honesty which makes Prinsen’s book so powerful. There are doubtless hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of families that will be able to relate to Prinsen’s experiences, and to hear her speak about them so openly and shamelessly will surely be a relief. Prinsen’s voice is a powerful one, and she is an inspirational advocate for anyone who has ever had to deal with PTSD and its effects.
Beyond her husband’s trauma, Prinsen also frequently considers the effects these experiences have had on both her and her family, and offers a detailed explanation of secondary traumatic stress and how it should be treated:
“My precious little boy was suffering – an unwitting victim of the horrors that his father had brought home with him from Bosnia. I couldn’t stop myself from wondering, ‘Why, God? How many more people have to get hurt because of some stupid conflict in some faraway land? How many more innocent children will become ’casualties of war?’”
In addition to sharing her own experiences here, Prinsen also follows every section of the book with a short factsheet, providing the reader with a brief summary of the fundamental topics covered, and links to further resources. All these topics are also indexed at the back of the book, so that they can be easily accessed when necessary. These factsheets might easily have seemed disruptive or out of place, but Prinsen keeps them concise and informative, and her advice and research are first class, putting many professional self-help books to shame.
The book also raises some vital ethical and political issues as Prinsen questions the morality of a system which treats its military veterans in this way:
“I was relieved that Sean’s legal troubles were now behind him, but I still felt sick to my stomach as I considered how Sean – who had never had any trouble with the police before he was deployed to Bosnia – was now a twice-convinced criminal. ‘So this is the ‘freedom’ for which people like my husband risk their lives every day?’ I thought in anger as we walked out of the courthouse. ‘What kind of a country is this to condemn and shame its own soul-wounded soldiers in such a way? Why don’t we just help them?… How can we expect our veterans to come back to their homes and be ‘normal’ again after they have seen humanity at its worst?.. Why do we do so little to help them?’”
Prinsen doesn’t dwell too long on this debate, and doesn’t presume to be able to fix the system or offer any answers, but her bravery once again stands out in simply asking such powerful questions and bringing these issues to the fore.
Blind Devotion lives up to its name as a remarkable testament to the unquestioning power of love against all other odds, including the most destructive mental illness. Prinsen writes that she “originally thought this book would be the story of my husband’s struggles and redemption – but it was destined to be about my redemption as well.” This is a story of survival, with protagonists who are determined to conquer their personal demons and triumph, no matter what. Prinsen’s writing constantly draws you deeper into the book, and her narration of the story is so engaging and thought-provoking that this will appeal to every reader, regardless of their experiences with PTSD. An inspirational book by an exciting new author: both Sharlene and Sean have much to be proud of.
Blind Devotion: Survival on the Front Lines of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Addiction
By Sharlene Prinsen
Hazelden Foundation: 2012