By Rebecca Hyleman
From the moment you stepped into your role as a military spouse you may have also started dreaming of your life beyond the confinements of this role, living life on YOUR terms. It may feel much longer, but those years will actually show up as fast as your spouse’s PT alarm. Whether you like it or not, it will soon be time to get up and get going on a whole new life.
Understand that this transition is going to take a toll on you and your family, but it’s important to make sure your own self-care and personal preparation is a priority, not an option. Start the process a minimum of 18-24 months before the anticipated-out date, meaning 6 months to a year BEFORE your spouse drops that paperwork to retire. A great place to start is by contacting VetsWhatsNext (vetswhatsnext.org), a nonprofit agency that assists veterans and their families by walking them through their transition before, during and after they officially leave the military.
If you are reading this looking for help and your spouse has already retired, as my spouse says, “If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute.” Start now.
Focus on Mental Health
Military spouses are often left out of the conversation about military mental health matters. Utilize Military One Source, Tricare or the Life Givers Network to find a counselor. Maybe you don’t feel like you need one, and that’s ok, look for one anyway. Search Psychology Today and find someone who looks like they will meet your needs, set up a quick five-minute introduction call or virtual meeting to see if that person could be a good fit for you.
If you are not in crisis, use the time to build rapport and create a safe space for yourself. A good therapist will help you fill your tool box with things you will need to be emotionally and mentally successful in the future. Think of this like you would a tune up. You could push your car’s mileage to wait for an oil change, but the problem is that you run the risk of major damage to your vehicle, which takes more time and parts to repair. That can be costly.
Finding a therapist before you need one sets you up for success and will help you stay in check. If something does happen, you’ll know exactly where to go (and will already be established).
Prioritize Physical Health
You may have missed appointments over the years or possibly asked a doctor to take a referral out of the system if you didn’t want to be placed into the EFMP system, unsure as to whether EFMP would risk your spouse’s career. You will, of course, be focused on your spouse, ensuring they have documented all of their medical records and are working to get their VA rating.
But what about your health? You might not be working towards a VA rating, but it doesn’t mean your health has not taken a toll over the years. Commit to finding a sitter, taking time off work and doing whatever needs to be done to prioritize getting your personal medical records in order.
Talk to your PCM (Primary Care Manger) about your needs, set up a physical and any other annual exams that may be coming up, create a plan to have refills of medications you may need, reach out to your military instillation, or other medical offices and gather your medical and vaccine records to create a file you can carry with you. If you have children, do the same for them.
Grow Through Personal Development
Consider hiring a Life Coach. Look for one who specializes in helping people with transitions. If you are not ready to jump into one-on-one coaching, start with a short workshop. Heyday Coaching’s Navigating Transitions 3-Part Workshop encouraged me to put down all of those things we carry as a military spouse, to take off the caregiver-helper hat and spend time reflecting and focusing on myself.
Dedicating specific time, with a Life Coach as my guide, I was finally able to start to answer the overwhelming questions that people were throwing my direction: “What do you want to do? Where do you want to live? Are you going to finally go back to work? What comes next for you?”
One would think that I had twenty-two years to answer these questions, but I found I was staying in the role of seeking what was best for everyone in the family, and I was putting myself last on the to-do list. A Life Coach can help you hear those needs you’ve been silencing — and no longer remember. Once you rediscover your needs, share them with your spouse.
Cultivate Professional Growth
Take advantage of free programs, like the “Arm-Me-Up Careers Campaign,” through Military Spouse Jobs, a non-profit with a mission for helping military spouse’s gain employment through no-cost job placement assistance and career progression services.
Also, create a LinkedIn account to start making professional connections.
Give Space and Time to Grieve
Grief is not an exclusive feeling to the death or loss of a loved one. The five stages of grief absolutely do occur when transitioning from active-duty military to civilian life. It will come in waves, and you might not be prepared for the things that will trigger the emotions. Give yourself grace as you ride the waves of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Just when you feel you are in a sea of calm, something will happen such as, seeing friends share their next PCS assignment while you are treading water with no land in sight. The way your body will respond to simple emotional triggers may come as a surprise, but take the time to move through the feelings so that you don’t stay stuck or have them show up in a bigger way later. While you may be gaining a whole new life in retirement, you are still losing a way of life with your spouse that you’ve probably been in for at least two decades, and it’s important to give time and space to experience your emotions.
Reach Out and Make Connections
You have been a part of a uniquely connected military community, and it has helped shape you into the person you are today. Don’t think you have to walk completely away the day your spouse receives retirement orders, but do recognize you are going to be straddling the fence with one foot in the military world and one foot in the civilian one. It may take time to figure out how to balance being in both places. Find new ways to connect with people outside of your military community. If you are not working in a civilian community, volunteer with a non-military nonprofit, joining a gym or fitness group, meet up with locals who share a similar hobby or volunteer to be an assistant coach for a local recreational league. If you plan to move to a new location, or go back to your hometown, take time to reach out to contacts in the area and set up coffee dates ahead of time.
Create a Quiet Space
Find a place in your house that can be all yours. Think about emptying out just enough of your closet to make room for a yoga mat and some blank wall space. Some people like to start their day with prayer and meditation, but others struggle making their minds turn off for peaceful sleep. Instead of scrolling your phone, head into your quiet space just before bed. If you use your phone as an alarm, be sure to set the alarm before you go into your space to stave off the temptation to scroll.
Keep a stack of note cards, a nice notebook, some tape and your favorite pens in your space. Use the time before bed to write down whatever comes to mind. It could be a favorite quote, something about your family, things you want in your retirement home, any worries, job ideas or any positive praises from your day, then tape them to the wall. Some days you may just have one thing to put on a notecard, and that’s fine. Other days you may write a novel in your notebook.
Close your eyes and spend time sitting and breathing in the good things while exhaling the hard parts.
Repeat after me: YOU are not responsible for fulfilling the expectations of others. This is your life, and only you get to decide what happens next. I’m talking about your friends and family here, not your spouse. Please, include your spouse. You are going to have people in your life who have created their own scenarios for what they believe is best after your spouse retires. It’s heartwarming to know that people love you and want to plan your life for you, but it’s not their life, and YOU are not responsible for their feelings. The cool thing about being an adult leaving the military life is that you no longer have someone making decisions for you. For the first time in a long time, maybe ever, you don’t just have the illusion of choice, you actually have a say in the next steps of your life. When people around you want to insert their ideas, and their feelings, it’s ok to listen, but hold onto your paper and pen. This next story is finally yours to write.