My Personal Military Challenge

The first time my boyfriend (let’s call him Ben) brought up the military in conversation was on our second or third date. He was driving me home and he casually asked how I felt about the military. I gave him my honest opinion, which was that I hadn’t given it enough thought to really form an opinion about it. I told him I believed that yes, we should have a military, but other than that, I didn’t really have much to say.

The next time the military came up in conversation was much, much later. Ben told me that it was his dream since he was young to join the military. My seventeen-year-old self at the time could only conjure images of his dead body lying somewhere by itself, and I cried into his pillow for an hour. Ben didn’t bring it up again.

About a year passed, and I was in university studying to become a teacher while Ben worked for a garbage company to help support his parents. I continuously pressed Ben about college, but Ben was disinterested and dismissive. He feigned interest for my sake, but never actually put energy into pursuing college. I grew angry with Ben’s seeming lack of concern for his future, and Ben grew irritated with my constant nagging. Finally, Ben exploded that his family didn’t have money to send him to college, and he had to support his family because his dad lost his job, and where did I think all of their money came from? I was deeply ashamed, and embarrassed, and apologized to Ben, and, bless him, he accepted my apology.

Eventually Ben’s dad found a new job. Ben called me one day soon after and told me that he and his dad had talked, and I wasn’t all that surprised when Ben said that he was signing up for the military and “was that okay with me.” At first I was hesitant – the only thing I knew about the military was that there was a higher risk of his death than in other occupations – but then I decided that it was his life’s dream, he was finally moving forward with things, and I would deal with the risk of death for him. I loved him, and I just wanted him to be happy. He was supporting my decision to push us in a long distance relationship because of where I chose to attend university – I could support his decision to follow his dream.

Joining the military isn’t a simple matter of signing up. Ben had to take written tests and physical tests to see if he was even qualified to join the military. I knew that Ben was nervous to take his tests, especially since he had never been the studious type in school. I rooted for him, and was happy to hear that he scored high on his written tests and passed his physical examinations. But when I asked him, curiously, what was on his written tests, he said that he couldn’t tell me.

I bristled. I wasn’t expecting an answer like that. Ben and I told each other everything. I didn’t hide anything from him, and he didn’t hide anything from me. To learn that there was something that he couldn’t tell me felt like a knife to my gut. Yes, okay, maybe a little melodramatic. But I started thinking about the future. Mostly, I started thinking of all of those spy and superhero movies where the guy gets to do all of this amazing stuff and the girl is left at home, often in the dark. And suddenly I felt resentful that he was keeping secrets from me. But mostly, I was hurt that there was a part of his life I couldn’t be a part of.

One night I when I was home from school, lying down in my basement with Ben, I decided to disclose my biggest fear thus far about him being in the military.
“What if you change? What if you’re not the same person when you come out?”
Ben looked me directly in the eye. He told me that going to the military wouldn’t change who he was, and that he would still be my Ben that I fell in love with. He wasn’t going to be any different coming out of training – it was just training for a job, after all, nothing more.
For the night, I was reassured. Especially after he gave me some loving words before we parted. But the next morning, I couldn’t help but feel a lingering sense that he might be wrong.

Ben came up to where I lived during the school year and stayed with me the weekend before he had to go to basic training for the military. The weekend didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to – instead of being incredibly romantic, it was strained with feelings I couldn’t put into words and feelings Ben didn’t want to think about. Instead of enjoying every last moment together, I fumbled with words and ideas for things to do to make the moments last. I panicked because no moment was good enough to be the memory I felt I needed, and the hours passed by and I was growing increasingly sad and anxious. Finally, when we almost had no time left at all, the words spilled out and tears fell and Ben held me while I cried. He tried to soothe me, but I could only see the reality of the next month – I would be facing all of my demons completely alone.

We held each other until the last minute, and when Ben drove away I watched his car until I could not longer see it. My throat was tight and my eyes were teary and I made it to my bedroom seconds before I broke down completely.

It seemed like such a cruel fact that Ben would have to leave me in the midst of a deep depression. I had grown apart from many of my close friends from home, due to the most common factors: distance and time. The friends I had at school had begun treating me like a stranger, and the few friends that weren’t I wasn’t very close to. I had no one to talk to when I was feeling poorly, which was every day. I didn’t want to let my parents know how bad it had become – they had seen me suffer through one depression, and I didn’t want them to be distressed because I was struggling again. I found it difficult to concentrate in school. I was fatigued and falling behind on my schoolwork. I was missing classes because I couldn’t get out of bed, and I didn’t go a day without crying.

When Ben got to base for basic training his parents notified me that he had made it safely. I was momentarily excited, thinking that he would call me next or somehow get a text out – I haven’t said this yet, but during basic training soldiers are not allowed contact with the outside world – and soon I became…well, an absolute mess.

For me, during a depression, the night is always the worst time. I don’t know why – I could be in the middle of a great book or listening to happy music, and then it will just hit me – and when Ben was gone, it hit me, hard. I knew it would, and that’s why the first night he was gone I practically pushed for an invite to a party, even though my friends weren’t even being friendly towards me – and I drank heavily to keep my emotions at bay. I was so drunk that when I got home my head hit the pillow. I thought that I had skipped the grieving process, but the next day it caught up to me. To say the least, I didn’t handle it well.

The second day I cried. I screamed into a pillow. I cut myself. I drank. I switched from anguished to empty to enraged to panicked and back again, in any order. At night when I couldn’t stand it any longer, I ran out of my bedroom and threw myself into the arms of anyone who would hold me. I had never felt so lonely in my entire life. Every time I checked the time on my phone and saw that there were no new messages it was a reminder that Ben was out of reach. Gone. At school, if I went, I would reach out to anyone and everyone, and it would never be enough. I was in despair. Every day was the same.
Would I have handled it better if I hadn’t been depressed? Maybe. But at the time, I couldn’t see past the depression. It felt like it would never leave.

I was sitting in the cafeteria in the university when suddenly I received a text from Ben’s mother. I picked up my phone so fast it almost slipped, hoping it would be good news about Ben. It was. Ben’s mother told me that he had to log into a computer to get something for his records, and that he had sent her a quick email and maybe he sent me one too.

My heart racing and my head pounding, I opened up my email as fast as it would load.
When I saw the email, I made a little noise of glee and I couldn’t stop smiling.
The email was titled “I love you.” It read, “Hey sweetie I have no way to get in contact right now only through emails when I can get data so I don’t know when I can send another email but I love you and I miss you so much my sweet love and I hope you are okay I know I am not romantic enough but I have cried every night since I got here cause I miss you so much and all I want is to be with you and cuddle, look into those big, beautiful, brown eyes and feel your soft hair and kiss you and hold you until we feel asleep, I miss you and  I love you so much my and I hope you are enjoying school, Love Ben.”

I read it five times and was smiling so hard my face hurt. He had contacted me! And from the content of the message, he was still my Ben!
The e-mail was the small amount of happiness I needed to keep me going until I heard from him again.

I was home visiting my parents when my phone rang with an unknown number.
“Who’s that?” My mom asked. I immediately grabbed my phone, and then put it back down when I saw the screen.
“It’s just someone calling from Nova Scotia. Probably a wrong number.” I said.
“Pick it up! It could be Ben!” My mom exclaimed, and I picked up the phone.
“Hello?”
“Hello?” It was Ben.
I didn’t say anything for a minute. I had frozen. I was so excited to hear his voice, so surprised, and I was overwhelmed with emotion. But his hello sounded…off.
“Hi sweetie.” I whispered.

I forget the rest of the conversation. It was short. Ben was borrowing a friend’s phone and had to go. The only thing I remembered from the conversation was that Ben sounded, bored, almost…empty. He didn’t sound excited to hear my voice. He didn’t even sound happy. He definitely didn’t sound like ‘my Ben.’ I remembered the tone of his voice and replayed that ‘hello’ in my head over and over after he hung up.
Ben’s parents got a call from Ben, and he told them roughly around the time he might be able to call again. Ben’s parents invited me over so that I could be at his house and talk to them – at this point (I think I’m remembering correctly) Ben could only contact phones connected to a landline.

When Ben did call, I waited as patiently as I could while his parents talked to him. I listened greedily as Ben told them what he could, and spoke much longer that the brief few seconds I had on the phone with him. I wasn’t expecting it, but Ben’s parents allowed me to take the cordless phone in another room to talk to Ben privately.

“Hello?” I asked, waiting for his response with anticipation, and then I started to cry tears of joy and misery at the same time. Joy from hearing from him, misery from being so far away.
“Don’t cry, sweetie.” Ben said in the same, dead-sounding monotone he had used before. My heart ached.
“Are you okay?” I asked, gripping the phone tighter, hoping for a glimpse of the kind, loving Ben I knew and loved.
“I’m fine.” Ben responded flatly. I began crying again.
“Why are you crying?” Ben asked. I told him that I felt something was wrong, and that I missed him.
“I’m fine.” Ben repeated curtly.
Not much more was said. The phone call was painful and unsatisfying. At no point did I sense any love or longing from him.
After returning the phone to his parents, I tried hard to hide my discomfort and worry.
I convinced myself that Ben was just stressed, and when we saw each other again, everything would be just fine.

When Ben was able to contact me more often, I believed that we would easily fall back into our loving dynamic. Instead, Ben remained stoic and cold on the phone, dismissing my anxiety, and getting angry when I continued to be anxious. Ben seemed to expect me to direct the conversation, and I could never find anything to say. Ben would grow frustrated with my silence, which would cause me anxiety because I was uncomfortable with people angry with me. I would freeze up and become silent, which would make Ben angrier with me. He would raise his voice and sometimes hang up the phone or say a curt goodbye, and I would be in tears. That is, until rage took over and I would text him back furiously about blaming me when we both couldn’t find anything to say, and getting angry about me freezing up when he knew that I had anxiety. He would demand that I speak – when I was that anxious, I literally, physically, couldn’t speak. My thoughts would be spinning in my head and my throat would close up. I was hurt that Ben’s anger was directed at a part of me that I couldn’t control.

Texting Ben afterwards when the anger hit was the only way I was able to communicate my thoughts with him. This frustrated and irritated Ben, who told me to stop ‘acting like nothing was wrong’ and then send him long, angry texts later.

This pattern kept repeating itself until soon all we did was fight. We ended most of our phone conversations with an impasse – you’re mad at me and I’m mad at you but we’ll end with an ‘I love you’ because that will keep the peace.

We both said some things we didn’t mean. We pushed each other’s buttons. One day, out of the blue, Ben said that someone of a higher authority than him in the military had told Ben that to rise through the ranks, you would go through at least one divorce. At first upon hearing this, I was panicked. Was Ben trying to tell me something? And then I snapped.
“Are you trying to piss me off?” I spat.
“No.” Ben answered petulantly.
“Then why did you bring that up?” I demanded.
“I don’t know.” Ben said, sounding tired.
There was a moment on the phone that etched itself into my memory. I brought up a fear of mine, and tried speaking to Ben as if we were still the couple we used to be. It marked a turning point in our relationship.
“Ben,” I said softly, vulnerable, “You promised me you wouldn’t change. Do you remember that?”
“Yes.” Ben said, his voice equally soft.
“But you did,” I accused, “The military changed you.”
“Yes, it did.” Ben agreed. “I’m sorry.”
There was a pause.
“But I still love you.”
After hanging up the phone, after having my fears confirmed, I cried into a pillow and began questioning whether Ben really did still love me the way he used to, or at all.

I never knew what I would feel after talking to Ben on the phone anymore. I couldn’t count on the warmth and happiness he used to give me. I felt like an emotional thunderstorm.

I got an invite through email to Ben’s graduation from basic training. There was nothing in the world I wanted more than to go. I thought that if I could just see Ben in person, everything would fall into place, and I would know whether or not I had lost him.

On the phone, I was, as I had become, antagonistic, anxious, despondent, and hopeful all at once. And I spoke impulsively.
“I’m coming to your graduation.”
“Okay.”
“But I want you to know something.”
“What.” Ben responded. The word sounded tired, and more like a statement than a question. I told Ben that a part of my social anxiety (I have social anxiety) was fear of people in uniform, and that I didn’t know how I would react seeing soldiers in uniform. I warned Ben that I might freeze up like when I get anxious when he’s angry with me.

Ben did not take this well. He told me that I had better get over it before I come. We got into another fight, and I told him that seeing him in person would be a test to our relationship – whether it would continue.
As soon as I said it, I wished that I could take it back. But a part of me didn’t want to. A part of me meant it. Every part of me wished that we could go back to the way we were.

I travelled with Ben’s parents down to Quebec (when the training had taken place and where the graduation was being held). All of my anger had evaporated. I was only excited and nervous. I was nervous because of my anxiety. I was excited because I was going to see Ben in person for the first time in a long time.

Feeling guilty, I admitted to Ben’s parents that we had been having troubles. I felt miserable, because I didn’t want to break up with Ben at all – but I was convinced that eventually he would want to break up with me. Ben’s parents seemed shocked when I told them that we were fighting. I realized that before all of our tense phone conversations after his training, we never really fought.

I wore a pretty pink dress with tights. Ben’s mom made a comment about me dressing up to impress people, and I blushed. That is exactly what I was doing. I wanted to look like a girl Ben could be proud to show off to people. I wanted to make him happy.

I was fearful. I felt my heart rocketing in my chest when we entered the base. We met Ben, and when he marched towards us, I thought I might faint. The movement was so formal and unfamiliar and I felt embarrassed watching, as if it were something I wasn’t allowed to see. Ben smiled a smile that lit up his whole face when he saw me, and I couldn’t even look at him. I blushed and stammered, looking at the floor. It got worse after that.

Ben left with his mom to show her something. At that moment, a soldier in uniform (I think Ben knew her – him? I don’t remember, I couldn’t look) approached me and said something, and my ears were ringing and I could barely hear. Tears grew in my eyes and I felt myself begin to shiver. My throat closed up and I couldn’t say a word. Ben’s dad put a hand comfortingly on my shoulder and said something to the soldier. I let out a breath when the soldier went away. Ben returned to find me near tears, and his dad suggested we leave base (for my sake) and get something to eat. I was grateful. Ben held my hand and whispered something loving in my ear.

And then I knew. I knew, even in the midst of a panic, even with my head spinning. He was still my Ben! Changed or not, he still loved me as much as I loved him, and just like that, in the moment he grabbed my hand, I felt an understanding in our connection, and it was like we had never been apart at all.

When Ben and I got to the hotel and had a moment alone, he asked me if I still needed to talk. He was very sweet about it. I told him that everything was okay, and it was. And ever since, we’ve been okay. Yes, we’ve had fights here and there, but nothing that wasn’t quickly solved and nothing that created a distance between us. If anything, we’ve grown closer since and gained more love and understanding for each other.

Today, I still struggle with Ben being in the military. I struggle with the unpredictability of it all. Not knowing when I might see him again. Not knowing if suddenly we will go through a no-contact period. Not being allowed to know what he is doing sometimes. And other things. But, I love Ben, and I know that the military is important to him, so I am working through these struggles. I have faith that no matter what happens, we can work through it together.

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