**Guest Post by Kara Ludlow**

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

After all, I had selected the word, “brave” as our family’s word for the year. Grace, my ten-year-old, had painted the word in gold letters on white cardstock and artfully framed it with fabric backing. BRAVE hung on the wall in the turquoise frame, reminding my three kids and I what we were facing; a nine month deployment without Dad.

I planned to be brave. I had to be. Having been a Navy wife for 16 years, this would be my chance to prove how strong I was. While we had weathered a deployment early in our marriage, our family of five hadn’t yet been tested with this long of a separation.

We’d been in California for two years, but I had not made a point to connect with anyone inside the military community. I’d been too busy with my kids, hanging at the beach with my husband, and living the “California Dream.”

As a mom, I was responsible, capable, and organized. These were my strengths and I was ready to shine. Without close friends or family nearby, I knew I had to handle it all; three kids, our house, cars, oh- and my own health and well-being.

I couldn’t wait to be BRAVE.

Apparently, my body had other plans. It wasn’t but a couple of weeks into the deployment before physical anxiety symptoms ravaged through my body, signaling trouble.

Outwardly, I kept up the bravery facade, while inside our home my kids knew otherwise. I couldn’t tell anyone the truth-that I was lonely and drowning in the weight of responsibility in my husband’s absence.

Blindsided by fight or flight symptoms, I fought a racing heart and misfiring nerves while carrying out everyday tasks such as; grocery shopping, driving to soccer practice, and culminating in a middle-of-the-night emergency room trip with judgmental paramedics.

What in the world?

Well, this wasn’t brave. This was like the opposite.

Shame crept in, telling me I was failing in the worst way.

This was still very early on in the deployment, and with many months stretched out ahead, I knew I had to play offense with deployment stress.

I vowed to commit to hard, daily exercise. Breathing became intentional instead of passive. I scheduled long overdue massage appointments and more days at the beach. I was in southern California, after all. I was learning to release stress in healthy ways and relax. It was all very zen.

I seemed to be in control of my health, and most of all, finally felt BRAVE.

Normally, this might have been the happy ending to a terrifying story, but this was in the middle of a deployment. So, we know disaster lurked ahead.

Leaving a heavenly massage appointment one morning, I noticed a zinging down my left arm and some involuntary muscle twitches in my left hand. I shook it off, but it continued all day. I started to wonder what the gal at the upscale spa had done to me. The nerve pain persisted, and within a few days, it was clear I was suffering from a pinched nerve.

My entire neck and back locked up in muscle spasms, trying to protect the aggravated nerve. My doctor explained that my body was reacting as if I had experienced whiplash from a car accident, except my injury occurred on a massage table.

It was Mother’s Day and instead of having brunch, I wailed and whimpered in pain, curled up in my bed. Ibuprofen was unable to touch the excruciating, radiating pain. Driving had become downright dangerous. Head checks were impossible with locked up neck muscles. I was in a pit, and couldn’t see a way out.  

I still had five months before my husband returned and I didn’t even know how I was going to make it until lunch.

Between life-saving visits from my mom and a best friend from out-of-state, my pantry shelves were at least stocked for the summer and my kids never missed a soccer practice.

I had envisioned a summer of lazy beach days, impromptu zoo trips, completed charts from the public library reading program, and adventurous family hikes. Instead, I spent the summer in physical therapy and begging my kids to vacuum the house and cook me a frozen pizza.

BRAVE? Laughable.

I was compelled to redefine our word-of-the-year.

The ambitious word on the wall seemed to mock me every time I shuffled through the room, a reminder of lofty expectations gone awry.

It was time for reinforcements. I couldn’t do this alone anymore. I craved friendship and laughter and was so sick of being in pain.

I started to open up to a couple of friends who had previously pegged me as “strong.” I spilled everything, sharing my struggle with anxiety, my freak injury, and desperate need for friendship and help.

When I redefined bravery as having the courage to be vulnerable instead of remaining self-sufficient (which I clearly wasn’t), I noticed a shift almost immediately.The weight of responsibility on my shoulders lifted when I knew I had a couple of friends to carry the load with me. The kids and I were invited to backyard dinners.

These seemingly ordinary evenings of pizza and trampoline jumping were actual slivers of hope in my world.  

Picking up the phone, uncomfortably at first, I started to ask friends for what I needed. Please take my kid for 8 hours. Can you pick up peanut butter at the store? Will you come over for dinner and board games? 

Every single request was met with an emphatic, “yes!”

I’m just sorry it took six months into the deployment for me to figure out that close friends weren’t optional on this journey. I thought I would be a strong, brave, self-sufficient military wife, and ended up realizing I was never meant to do it on my own.

Speaking up and asking for help was the bravest thing I’ve ever done, and it was in the middle of evenings of laughter over tacos with friends when I started to heal, see the light in my darkness, and truly believe that I wasn’t alone.

Strength in numbers. Someone to say, “I got you, girl.” Finding a couple of buds, linking up, and facing life together made all the difference in the world.

© Strength 4 Spouses LLC, 2019.

Kara Ludlow is a Navy wife and Momma to three energetic kids. She is a Pacific Northwest native currently living the California dream in sunny San Diego. Kara is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and reads cookbooks like juicy novels, while usually thinking about what’s for dinner. She is a freelance writer, and blogs regularly on her website: http://karaludlow.com about all things military life.

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