By Jenna Levin
I recently saw a post in a military spouse group discussing the pervasiveness of the phrases, “get used to it,” and “you know what you signed up for,” and both of those phrases got me thinking.
I realized just how often I’ve heard both of those phrases in the past 17 years.
I had no idea what I was getting into when I got married. I was 19, we were in love (we still are) and we knew that we wanted to be together. We’d already been through boot camp, A school, and a deployment together, and I still had no idea what I was getting into.
This lifestyle can be both beautiful and impossible and exhilarating and everything in between. I liken it to landing in Oz and having to find your way home again. You never know when a tree is going to hurl an apple at you in the form of a denied TRICARE referral or a weekend with your spouse that you carefully curated to be perfect, cancelled because he has to leave for a detachment three days early.
That 17-year-old version of me in the photo that is still in a frame on my bookshelf, grinning so proudly on that day in Great Lakes, Illinois, beaming after surviving her first nine weeks of Navy life, had literally no clue what was in store. I had no basis for comparison, no guide, barely even any internet support in 2002. I remember moving into our first apartment in Lakeside, California, about a month after our wedding, vividly. The day after I arrived from Rhode Island and he went to work, I woke up, I made some coffee, I called my grandma, and I cried and cried because I was so scared and felt so lonely. And she didn’t tell me to get used to it or that I knew what I signed up for- she told me that I was very young, I was 3,000 miles from home, and if I wasn’t a little scared, that would worry her, and of course I didn’t know what I had gotten myself into- I had never done this before, so how could I?
I’ve learned a lot over the past 17 years, but one of the most valuable and important lessons is that it’s OK to not necessarily know what you’re getting yourself into.
You can ask for all the advice, read all the guides, all the books, all the websites, go to all the COMPASS classes you want, but until it’s you on that pier at midnight watching your husband walk away from you towards a ship that will take him all the way around the world away from you.
Until it’s you who hears about a helicopter accident involving his squadron on the news and your heart stops, you don’t know.
Until it’s you trying to navigate TRICARE claims.
Until it’s you celebrating Christmas alone and working that day because you’re all alone and have nothing better to do and dying inside because you know you’re going home to an empty house while everyone else is going to be with family, you don’t know.
Until it’s you having to contact the Red Cross because your mother in law just told you she has breast cancer and your husband’s deployed.
Until it’s you who has to see the light in your husband’s eyes go out when his mother dies and he has to go straight back to work, you don’t know.
Until it’s you who gets told when you apply for a job that “it’s pointless to hire military spouses because you either get pregnant or move away.”
Until it’s you standing on that pier, or at that terminal, feeling the butterflies flapping in your rib cage because you see them, and you see them smile at you, and you get that first hug in 7, 8, 9 months, you don’t really know.
You never do get used to some things. I will never be used to watching him turn around one last time to wave goodbye, knowing that I won’t see him for almost a year. After 17 years on active duty, 6 deployments, and nearly 16 of marriage, that still breaks my heart.
Being told all the time as a new 19 year old spouse to “get used to it” when I had just moved 3,000 miles from home and my husband was always gone was disheartening.
That’s not a kind or helpful thing to say when someone asks for advice (back in 2002/2003 it was Yahoo and MSN groups and message boards,) and instead of asking for help when I needed it, I just internalized it for years. I bought into the archetype of the strong military spouse who can do everything and never asks for help. It affected my mental health, and it took a long time for me to let my guard down and ask for help when I needed it.
This brings me back to my Oz analogy. Imagine if Dorothy had tried to find the Emerald City all by herself. At the end of the day, she needed the Tin Man, Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion to help her through it. Sure, maybe eventually, I would have found my Emerald City, but it would have been a lonely, yellow brick road. This lifestyle can be inordinately difficult and can require an immense amount of fortitude to get through it a minute, an hour, a day at a time, even with a good support system; I’ve had my share of apples hurled at me and flying monkeys in my path. There is a lot of beauty, a lot of joy, a lot of laughter, in this life as well, and coming up to the end of these 20 years, I don’t even have to click my heels three times to be home again – I’ve been home all along.
Jenna Levin lives in San Diego with her husband of 16 years. Like her hero, the late Carrie Fisher, she is a firm believer in staying afraid but doing it anyway, using humor to deflect from awkward situations, and de-stigmatizing mental illness. When she’s not working (she’s got cats to put through college, and they don’t want to go to a state school,) you can find her knitting, reading, writing, or hiking.