So, I’m sure you’ve noticed that I haven’t posted in a few weeks. There is a very good reason for that which was mentioned in previous posts. I just finished spending three weeks training with my new service dog, Chauncey. He is a pure breed Golden Retriever and he has already begun changing my life.
Before I left, I couldn’t even get through the grocery store without panicking and forget talking to someone, simply asking a sales associate a question had me stuttering and stammering until I was barely understandable. I can honestly report that I have not stuttered once since being partnered with Chauncey.
It truly is amazing how much your life can change in three short weeks. I can now face the world without fearing that I will melt into a puddle of sobbing nerves. I no longer fear taking my children out in public, going to the drug store, running errands, or simply existing outside of my house without my husband. I had never really considered myself a ‘dog person’, but Chauncey has changed that forever.
One event that happened while in Florida really sticks out as the moment I realized that Chauncey is truly mine. We had a visit from 15 wonderful women from the Daughters of the American Revolution. Chauncey was a complete ham with these women. He went from person to person trying to get them to pet him, play with him, rub his belly, etc. Every few minutes he would come over and lean against me for a moment before going back to being the center of attention. Todd, K9s Director of Operations, mentioned how different Chauncey is when he’s wearing his vest. Considering I had never seen that instant change due to the fact that we always rode in the van to get to a destination where he needed his vest, I decided to grab his vest for a demonstration. The instant I said “time to work” he was a completely different dog. Chauncey sat stoically and regally at my side. I was the sole focus of his attention as he simply leaned gently against my legs to let me know I was safe. After a few moments I took his vest off and he immediately returned to being a complete ham!
Since returning home, we have been on several outings. The chaos of learning a new home with so many children, a dog and cat is immediately erased as soon as I put his vest on. Chauncey is in his zone and everything is right in his world. He is going to be a completely spoiled member of the family and my best friend. I’ve been giving him a break from training (beyond the basics) so he can get used to being here and know this is his home. Unfortunately, when his vest is off, he is already trying to test boundaries; however, as soon as I say “time to work” the testing ends and he is focused on me.
In the coming days, I hope to write about my experiences at K9s, the wonderful people I met, and the things I learned…both about Chauncey as well as myself. I’d like to be able to give those who are waiting for their school dates a glimpse of what to expect, though I know nothing I could write would begin to touch on the individual growth that each warrior will experience through this process.
I would like to take a moment to thank everyone at K9s for Warriors as well as Veterans Airlift Command. Without either of these great organizations, I would not be where I am today…firmly on the road to recovery!
As I discussed earlier, I am at a sort of cross road in my life. I know the path before me and I can clearly identify the forks in the road. One path leads down the path I’ve been traveling all these years. The path of denial, depression, and isolation associated with my PTSD. Then, there is a second path. A path unknown to me. A path that, from all reports, leads toward recovery. Its not a path to a cure, I have long ago conceded that there is not cure for PTSD; I have suffered too many traumas for there to be a cure. But…and there is always a but… this path will lead toward a better future.
I have always been terrible with change. I’m not talking about change as in rearranging the living room. I’m talking about bigger changes. Adding a member to your family, moving to a new base, my husband deploying as well as when he returns. Those major life changes that require you to rethink your entire daily routines. I know the path I am choosing to take won’t be all rainbows and lollipops. I know it will require hard work and determination. It will require me to come outside of myself to care for this dog. It will require me to get out of this house and actually get some fresh air and potentially some exercise. It will cause me to interact more with my children as they get to know Chaunsey. It will change virtually everything about my daily life. That alone terrifies me. My stomach is in knots, my nerves are frazzled and my head is swimming. Just the thought of leaving my family for three weeks is enough to send me into a panic attack, even though when I’m here at home, I tend to isolate myself away from everyone.
I know I am not alone in these feelings. I have already talked with one of my classmates and she has described feeling very much the same way. I’m sure all of the graduates of K9s have also felt some level of what I am feeling. They are the ones who have kept me moving forward to the place I am now.
I am looking at these two paths. One is familiar and comfortable to me, even though my PTSD is anything but controlled. The other, the path that I am actively choosing to follow is the new one. I am choosing to step outside my comfort zone with the hope and determination to fight back against my PTSD. After all THIS is what this blog is supposed to be all about…fighting back. Realizing we are not alone and that there is always hope. Learning that there are ways to find some level of peace with our inner demons, deciding that we are no longer going to be the victims of our trauma’s but survivors.
We can fight PTSD. I choose to do so. You can also choose to fight, or you can choose to take the familiar path. Ultimately, its entirely up to you. Which path will you take?
Most people weather life’s changes with little more than some slightly elevated stress levels. For someone with PTSD, however, even the smallest of life changes can make them feel like their life has been turned upside down.
Right now, I am three days from a major life change. In three short days, I will get on an airplane and fly to Florida where I will meet my service dog for the first time. His name is Chaunsey, the beautiful golden retriever in this picture. We will train together to learn what it means to be a team. I will learn what his ‘alerting’ behaviors are, and he will learn how to perform tasks that mitigate my disabilities. This is a huge step. This will be the longest I have been away from my family in, well… ever. I have never been away for even a night without at least my husband, if not my kids. This is something totally new to me. I will be hundreds of miles away from my support system and that thought scares me to death. The ONE thing that is keeping me from canceling the entire thing is this single simple fact…I will be gaining a new tool to add to my support system. A tool that will allow me to do something as simple as going to the grocery store alone, or taking my children to the park without having to worry about freaking out (though I will admit, most of the time they keep me pretty grounded to the present).
I also know that my life will continue to change once I’m home. No longer will I be able to hide away in my bed when depression is rearing its head because Chaunsey will need exercise and potty breaks. He will need to be fed and brushed, but most of all he will need attention. His needs will require me to come out of myself and engage in the world around me instead of hiding in my computer and isolating myself away from the world.
There are so many things that Chaunsey and I will do together that they would be impossible to list them here. But there is something I would like to share. If you, or a loved one, think you would benefit from a service dog, and you are a post-9/11 veteran, I encourage you to check out K9s for Warriors. Without their generosity, I would not be getting ready to enter this new chapter in my life. They are a non-profit group based in Florida that provides these dogs to post 9/11 veterans at no charge. Also, if you think you may need help with transportation to and from Florida (its a three weeks of training, lodging is provided), I encourage you to check out Veterans Airlift Command. These generous pilots volunteer their time to fly veterans and their families all over the country.
I will do my best to update everyone about our progress over the next three weeks. As I have said earlier, I am terrified right now…but I am also hopeful. I feel as if the light at the end of the tunnel is finally turning on and the darkest hours of my PTSD may soon be behind me. I know this isn’t a cure. I know there will still be bad days or weeks, but, I know with Chaunsey, I will have a life long battle buddy that will be with me 24/7. Everywhere that I go, he will go. When I have a bad day, he will be there. He will bring me out of the flashbacks, interrupt the panic attacks and help me with mobility. I will be his forever human. Neither of us will ever be alone again, we will be battle buddies, we will be a team.
As I’ve stated before, I know my PTSD is no where near as sever as entirely too many veterans out there. However, hell is a personal perception and as such, what I experience is just as valid as what Jason or anyone else goes through on a daily basis. As I count down the days until I get to visit K9s for Warriors, I thought I would take the time to walk you through what a typical day is like with PTSD, if for no other reason than to give me something to look back on after I have my service dog.
Each morning, my husband wakes me just before 6am. Unfortunately, most mornings my night time medications have not worn off and I end up falling back to sleep until my children come downstairs. I say ‘unfortunately’ because I am NOT a morning person. It takes me at least half an hour to get past the ‘grumpy’ stage, otherwise I end up being rather short with my three youngest children. Generally they wake up around 7am and I spend the next hour getting them dressed, fed, lunches made and two of them on the bus. Most days the youngest stays with me, though she does go to preschool on the days I have doctors appointments or therapy. The days I stay home, I generally have minimal symptoms. Moodiness, irritability, depression, perhaps some mild anxiety. I do have mild agoraphobia. I’d much rather be at home than anywhere else most days. If I can be home with my husband…well, thats the best of all scenarios. Currently, my medications keep my symptoms under control most days. I was having multiple anxiety attacks a day, depression, nightmares, insomnia, mood swings, problems with concentration and memory.
On days where my youngest goes to preschool, as soon as the other two are on the bus we get in the car and I take her to start her day. By 8:30am I am normally child-free and head back to the house. Thankfully the traffic is minimal at this time of the morning as I don’t have to navigate the interstate to get to preschool. Upon returning home, I normally take about half an hour to get myself grounded again. Even with minimal traffic and the fact that I actually like Madi’s preschool teacher (its an in-home preschool), I still sometimes find myself overwhelmed with having to deal with stupid drivers. I take some time to get myself breakfast and take a shower before heading to my appointment around 11:00.
Now, keeping in mind that I have MAJOR trust issues with authority figures and therapists, saying that I actually like my therapist is huge. I am beginning to learn to trust her and slowly open up to her. Lately we’ve been spending time just talking, she gives advice, then we talk more. Once I have my service dog, we will start working on more in-depth treatment such as EMDR (I had a severe reaction to the one “mild” EMDR session we did, so we’re waiting until I have my SD). Even though we spend most of our time just talking, I still leave feeling agitated and worn out. Often if I have errands to run, I do them after therapy as I’m already feeling out of sorts, might as well get things over and done.
Trying to run errands during the day is exhausting for me. Being around crowds of people causes me to feel hyper-aroused, causing me to be extra alert of my surroundings and personal space…which makes me over-stimulated, increasing my hyper-arousal, causing me to be even more over-stimulated. Its a vicious cycle. If I have to run errands, I try to do it at the slowest time of day so the crowds are smaller. I have given up on trying to do something like grocery shopping by myself. I can run in for an item or two, but staying in there long enough to get an entire weeks worth of groceries is just too much. I used to enjoy walking through the mall, even if I was just window shopping. However, since leaving Dillard’s due to a stalker (as well as some rather unethical business practices) I can’t do it anymore. Yes, much like the grocery store, I can go in for a specific item or two, but beyond that, forget it. I’d be a wreck, especially if I ran into Mr Creepy (the stalker).
I have started to really dislike driving. Often I find myself wondering where I am and having to find some landmark to remind myself which road I’m on and where I’m going. My lack of concentration has become so severe some days that I went home and stayed there because I didn’t feel safe driving. When my symptoms are at their worst, I do my best to avoid driving at all because I find it so hard to concentrate on everything that needs my attention while I’m behind the wheel.
Once I’m home, I’m completely frazzled and emotionally and mentally exhausted. I try to get something to eat, get on the computer or turn on the TV…something, anything to get my mind off of whats bothering me and onto something generally mindless. Too often, I tend to fall asleep. To most people, an afternoon nap sounds like a wonderful escape from the world. For me, not so much. You see, my bedtime meds help me with the nightmares, however I have no meds to take for when I may nap, so the nightmares are there and all too real. Dreams of my time in Iraq, or being assaulted, or having someone trying to take my children away from me. I wake up feeling even worse than when I dozed off. Instead of feeling refreshed, I spend the rest of the day feeling off kilter, agitated, and irritable. I want nothing more than to hide away in my room from the whole world. Not exactly the best way to parent my children, but whats the alternative? Going off on them for every sound they make? They’re just children being children, but their noise and commotion aggravates my already frenzied nerves. Sometimes its easier for everyone if I hide….however its not fair to anyone for me to just hide.
By time time we finish supper and get the kids ready for bed, I’m exhausted. I have zero energy, no ability to concentrate on anything more than watching television or playing mindless games on my phone. Yet, I can’t simply fall asleep either. Thankfully one of the meds my doc put me on has drowsiness as a side effect. I don’t know how it keeps the nightmares at bay, but it does MOST of the time. Unfortunately, it doesn’t leave me feeling very rested when I wake. Perhaps thats why I wake so grumpy. Who knows.
In the end, as I said before, my symptoms are not as severe as others, but they are my perception of hell. I used to enjoy being the center of attention at all times. I was the loudest person there (my husband would say I still am, but I can feel the difference in myself), I loved life and living it. Now I’d much rather retreat to the safety of my room and stay there. I’ve been told this service dog will give the parts of my life that PTSD has taken from me. Even if he/she can’t give them back, I hope they can at least make them more tolerable.
So, what’s a day in your life like?
As many of you who know me have learned, I am currently waiting (rather impatiently) for June to arrive. You see, on June 3rd, I will be flying (courtesy of Veterans Airlift Command) to Ponta Vedra Beach, Florida for three weeks of training with K9s for Warriors. K9s trains and provides service dogs for Post 9-11 Veterans suffering from PTSD, and they do it free of charge to the veteran.
There are many ways a Service Dog benefits veterans with PTSD. The International Association of Assistant Dog Partners (IAADP) has put together a rather extensive (but by no means exhaustive) list of various tasks these dogs can be trained to perform for their partner. These tasks can include ‘blocking’ to create a personal space barrier for veterans who have issues with people standing to closely to serving as a ‘reality check’ to combat hyper-vigelance. They can provide tactile stimulation to break the veteran from a dissociative spell brought on by a flashback. The things these dogs can do are amazing.
Two stories come to mind, both relating to graduates of K9s for Warriors. The first involves R and his partner M. As they were taking their daily walk, they came across an in-ground hornets nest. M saved her humans life and nearly lost her own when, after her human was brought to the ground by the hornets trying to attack his face, she laid herself forcefully across his face to protect him. She received hundreds of stings, swallowing dozens of hornets. Her vest probably saved her life as the hornets stings could not penetrate it. She instinctively knew her job was to protect her veteran. Today both are healthy, still working together and doing what they can to help other veterans.
The second story concerns L and his dog S. L had been feeling very poorly and had gone to lay down to rest but his service dog S would not leave him alone. She kept licking him and pawing at him, trying to keep him from falling asleep. Finally L decided to heed S’s alerting behavior and called for help. L had been suffering a heart attack and S’s alerting saved his life. L is still recovering and S is never far from his side.
There are many more stories out there about how many of these dogs have saved human lives; dogs trained to alert for seizures, food allergies, diabetes, depressive episodes, panic attacks…the list goes on and on.
I know I am quite lucky to have been chosen to receive a service dog. Many wait for years to be selected. My hope is that this service dog will allow me to resume some of the things in my life that I have not been able to enjoy because of my PTSD. Something as simple as taking my girls to the zoo without having to leave as soon as it begins to get crowded, or going to the park and staying until they are ready to leave rather than leaving as I begin to feel hyper-vigelant due to the presence of other people as I try to keep track of three very active young girls. I want to be able to walk through the grocery store with my husband without needing to leave him halfway through and go to the car where I feel ‘safe’…hell, being able to go to the store by myself without having a panic attack. Another reason I am eagerly awaiting this gift is to assist me during therapy, when things get emotionally overbearing, he will be there to keep me grounded. Also, because I know my medications will not keep my symptoms at bay forever. I’ve already seen them faltering, beginning to become useless to my body and mind. Having this dog will ensure that when the meds stop working, I will still have that back-up to help mitigate the symptoms of my disability. I know he won’t be a cure, but he sure as hell will be an amazing tool in my healing process.
Take a few moments today to look at all the things these dogs can do for our veterans with PTSD. If you have the ability, donate what you can to help ensure that other veterans will have this priceless resource available to them. Training a service dog can easily cost more then $10,000 with no guarantee that the dog will graduate to full fledged service dog status. Some service dog academies suggest fewer than 30% of service dogs in training will graduate, the requirements are extremely high and most dogs can’t meet those standards. Some of the dogs who don’t make it can be retrained into other areas of service (therapy dog, in home service dog, etc). That is an expensive gamble that these organizations take on behalf of our veterans. If you can’t afford to donate money, perhaps you could donate your time at a local animal shelter. Many organizations that train service dogs for veterans rescue the dogs from local shelters. Or perhaps you could simply send them a short note thanking them for what they do for us. They are literally giving veterans a new life with 4 paws.