caregiver profile: amber

The Stranger She Has Known Forever

Think back, for a moment, to your first childhood crush. Was it a neighbor, a classmate, a family friend? Someone you idolized for years, even if he didn’t give you the time of day? For Amber Creager, that boy was Bonner.

Amber was only seven years old when her family and Bonner’s family became close. Bonner was four years older, and Amber worshipped him, largely from afar; he hardly knew she existed. But Amber remembers Bonner as the fun-loving captain of all the children during their large family functions, chaperoning ninja missions when the entire group would go explore his family’s ranch. He was the leader of the band—kind and loving and full of adventure. For maybe five or six years, their families spent time together, but when Amber’s family moved elsewhere in the county, they grew apart. She didn’t see him for years.

It wasn’t until Amber was in high school that the two came into contact again, a happy coincidence when a friend of hers got to be friends with Bonner. By that point, he had graduated and joined the Army. Bonner had always been intrigued by war. A history buff, he could rattle off the dates, locations, generals, and minute details of wartime battles. So it was no surprise to anyone when Bonner joined the military after he graduated from high school. He enlisted in the Army in 2000, and after 9/11 happened, he was honored and excited to deploy to Iraq as a military police officer.

While Bonner was on leave or between deployments, he and Amber would spend time together, in the beginning just as friends and then slowly they got closer. As their friendship deepened, Amber noticed in Bonner a darkness she hadn’t seen before. One night after a group went out to see a movie about bounty hunters, filled with gunfights, shootouts, and explosions, Bonner loaded up on liquor and drank himself sick. Amber recalls, “We were just thinking, “Oh, he wants to celebrate, he’s home and wants to party.’ But later on he shared with me… that the liquor was to help him after being triggered from the movie.”

That wasn’t the only indication that Bonner was struggling. He suffered from night terrors, which Amber first mistook for simple nightmares. He often woke up disoriented, not knowing where he was or how he had gotten there. He was defensive and apprehensive. “When he got back from being deployed his last time,” Amber says, “he was still that very loving person, but there were differences.” But still, she didn’t think too much about it. After all, she had known him forever, and she knew he was a good guy. And she was still so young—barely out of school.

Marrying Your Childhood Crush: A Dream Come True?

Within a year of Bonner finishing his term and being discharged, he and Amber got married. She was just 22, and he was 26. Amber began her marriage with the idea that they were embarking on the adventure of a lifetime. They loved to go out salsa dancing, they wanted to travel the world, they had their whole lives before them. “We did get to have some really wonderful times and really wonderful adventures before the PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder) really started getting worse, and I’m really grateful for those times,” Amber says wistfully. “But I definitely do think back and oh my gosh, my 20s were full of taking care of a man, my family, his family…”

For years, they struggled in Fresno County, where they had grown up. Bonner’s PTSD was becoming debilitating. He had a hard time finding work, aside from occasional work at his family’s ranch, and Amber had to quit working herself because she worried about what would happen to Bonner if she was gone for too long. Her decisions all centered on Bonner’s needs.

“It took me a long time to understand what he was going through. I didn't understand why he couldn't do things like normal people.”

“It took me a long time to understand what he was going through,” Amber explains. “I didn’t understand why he couldn’t do things like normal people. Why wasn’t he applying, why couldn’t he get a job like a regular person. Why couldn’t he go to the VA or go to the hospital when he was sick, and take care of himself. I just didn’t understand, and he finally said, ‘Amber, you have to treat me like you would treat somebody that was missing their arm or their leg.’ And it was the first time I got it.”

A Move South to Get on the Right Track

Then three years ago, after seven years of marriage, Amber and Bonner left Fresno and moved about 350 miles south to San Diego. By most measures, the move has been great. The San Diego Veterans Administration (VA) approved Bonner’s disability claims, where he had languished with Fresno VA for years. He has been diagnosed with PTSD and is plagued by depression, anxiety, and dissociative amnesia, but he is finally getting help. And Amber has benefited from programs that just weren’t available in Fresno. She is taking care of herself for the first time in years.

What has been difficult is striking the right balance between helping him and being part of a codependent relationship. This year, Amber says, has been a difficult one, as she has begun to extract herself from Bonner’s gravitational pull and create boundaries. “My job right now,” she says, “I’m just being a very dedicated caregiver—knowing the differences between a caregiver and his wife, and taking care of myself in the meantime.”

She has found support through programs such as VA Caregiver Support and Operation Family Caregiver (OFC), which are designed especially to help the people taking care of service members and veterans returning from war. Founded by the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving, OFC has operated in San Diego through Southern Caregiver Resource Center since the program began in 2012. The program provides coaches to military spouses like Amber to help them adapt to all the many changes in their lives that result from their loved ones returning home with injuries.

It was OFC, Amber says, that helped her realize she had to separate the PTSD from her husband. Bonner was the man she married, but his injuries were dictating everything in their marriage. And that, she realized, had to end.

“I have felt very empowered from the steps I’ve taken for myself,” Amber says. “It feels good. It feels really good. And I really want to help encourage and inspire other women that are in these relationships to do the same for themselves if possible.”

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