In a nation who has been at war for more than a decade, the rate of service members diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), and the frequency of suicide, has radically risen. The backlog of veterans waiting to receive benefits has also dramatically increased. This is leading to longer waiting times for diagnosis and treatment. To date, no authority seems able to find a viable and expedient solution to any of these problems. Yet, nationwide, some veterans are finding a solution. They have discovered the healing power of a service dog. While this is not a cure for PTSD or TBI, it is extremely beneficial to those who have chosen to utilize this tool in their recovery.
Since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11th, 2001, the United States has been at war. To date, approximately 1.64 million (Rand) U.S. service members have deployed in support of Operations Enduring Freedom (OEF, Afghanistan) and Iraqi Freedom (OIF, Iraq), many have deployed multiple times. Of the nearly 60,000 U.S. casualties, 6,778 have lost their lives (iCasualties.org). This means approximately 50,000 have returned home with injuries from minor to catastrophic. Many of these casualties would not have survived in previous wars but thanks to better protective equipment, medical advances, and the ability to rapidly evacuate the injured to medical facilities both in country as well as in Europe and the United States, service members are routinely surviving wounds that would have formerly been fatal. This decrease in fatalities is leading to an increase in veterans returning with traumatic amputations of one or more limbs, TBI’s, and PTSD seeking compensation and treatment through the Veterans Administration.
PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) have been called the signature wound of the War on Terror. “Although these invisible wounds would appear less severe than the amputations inflicted by the IEDs, they affect many more service members and can have as much impact on the casualty’s future as the loss of limbs” (Kreisher). According to a recent report, nearly 30% of OEF and OIF veterans are being diagnosed with PTSD (Reno). Compare this number to The National Center for PTSD which has “estimated the lifetime prevalence of PTSD among adult Americans to be 6.8%” (Gradus). Part of this massive difference is likely due in part to many service members serving multiple combat tours in their careers.
PTSD is a condition that has been around since the invention of war. It has been called many names: Nostalgia, Homesickness, Soldier’s Heart, Neurasthenia, Shell Shock, Combat Stress, and finally in 1980 the American Psychiatric Association called it Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and added it to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. PTSD is comprised of a set of symptoms which include re-experiencing the traumatic event, avoiding places, events, or objects that remind one of the trauma, and hyperarousal. Most people feel many of the symptoms of PTSD after a traumatic event, but those symptoms fade with time. To be diagnosed with PTSD, the symptoms must last longer than 6 months.
PTSD can be extremely debilitating, leaving veterans homebound and isolated, suffering from co-occurring mental health issues and addictions (generally caused by self-medicating their symptoms). Add to these issues a Traumatic Brain Injury and you have a recipe for disaster. TBI’s can range from mild to severe, even resulting in death. The symptoms include loss of consciousness, memory or concentration problems, headache, dizziness, sensory problems, fatigue, convulsions, and emotional disturbances. “According to a Rand study, about 19 percent of troops surveyed report a probable TBI during deployment” (Williamson). Many symptoms of PTSD and TBI mimic each other, making definitive diagnosis difficult for some patients. How much of the patients symptoms are related to PTSD and how much to TBI? Patients and doctors are often left in a guessing game as to whether the symptoms require therapy, medication, or both.
The great influx of veterans returning home from the current conflicts has caused a massive backlog for the Veterans Administration. Currently, “401,000 claims remain officially backlogged, meaning the applicants have been waiting at least four months” (Glantz). Many of these are waiting a year or more for appeals related to service connected disabilities. This means veterans, who are too injured to continue their military service and unable to achieve successful and meaningful employment in the civilian work force are waiting for their disability compensation for a year or more, putting them and their families in financial peril. The stress of dealing with gathering the enormous amount of information required to fill the claim, the aggravation of having your claim misplaced, delayed, or denied only adds to the problems already being endured by the veteran.
The stress of dealing with PTSD and fighting the VA’s red tape backlog is lending itself to the suicide epidemic plaguing our veterans. Senator Bernie Sanders said, “Without being overly dramatic, let me state that we are losing 22 veterans every day from suicide. This is a tragedy that we must address. I know that no one in the VA, no one on this committee, wants to add to that tragedy, because of unnecessary delays that could extenuate the problems that veterans express” (Johnson). In 2012, the suicide rate of active duty personnel outpaced combat fatalities. “Access to care appears to be a key factor, […] once a veteran is inside the VA care program, screening programs are in place to identify those with problems and special efforts are made to track those considered at high risk” (Maze). The veteran suicide rates are outpacing that of the civilian population. In reports from 48 states, the suicide rate among veterans is 30:100,000 compared to civilian rates of 14:100,000. This is more than twice the rate of the average American citizen and is increasing at double the rate (Hargarten). Traumatic Brain Injuries can increase the propensity toward suicide, as can the overwhelming symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. According to Hargarten, “concussions also are a chronic risk factor leading to suicidal thoughts, […] because head trauma makes people more vulnerable to suicidal thoughts” (Hargarten).
Over the years, countless studies have been published promoting the health benefits of owning a pet. Pets can, lower blood pressure, encourage exercise and socialization, improve mood and reduce stress. Is it any wonder they are being trained to assist disabled veterans struggling with the effects of PTSD and TBI? Training dogs to assist with disabilities is not a new concept. Most people are quite familiar with service dogs for blind or wheelchair bound individuals. However, those with invisible disabilities can also benefit from a service dog.
Psychiatric Service Dogs can be trained to assist their handlers in many ways. They can be trained to retrieve assistance during a disabling episode, either a nearby person or by using a special K-9 rescue phone to dial 911. They can be trained to answer the door and lead first responders to their handler. They can provide balance during episodes that potentially cause dizziness and help their handlers up off the floor. These dogs can be trained to alert to increasing anxiety levels so their handler can more effectively handle the symptoms before they become overwhelming and disabling. They can pull their handlers from dissociative episodes, or flashbacks, wake their handlers from nightmares, provide deep pressure therapy during panic attacks, and give their handlers a sense of ‘crowd control’. In short, these animals are giving back to veterans something they lost when they left the service…a battle buddy – someone who has their back twenty-four hours a day.
The legal definition of a service dog, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act, is a dog that is “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities” (ADA). These dogs and their handlers are granted public access by federal law, meaning they must be allowed wherever the handler would normally be allowed without the presence of their dog. There are some restrictions such as sterile environments, such as operating rooms or burn units, and private property. They are allowed in stores, restaurants, hospitals, and anywhere else the general public goes. This protection enables veterans who had previously been home bound to return to the world without the crushing effects of PTSD plaguing their every movement.
United States Marine Corps Captain Jason Haag, credits his service dog Axel with saving his life. “I’ve led 150 Marines into combat three times. I couldn’t walk out of my […] house to buy a pack of gum. I couldn’t go to sleep without a gun underneath my pillow. That’s how bad my PTSD was” (HLN). Captain Haag states that after returning from Afghanistan he began drinking heavily, having angry outbursts at his family, unable to leave his basement and on 32 different medications. “Axel hit the reset button for me” (HLN). Since graduating from K9s for Warriors more than a year ago, Captain Haag has radically decreased his medications – to 2 per day, he now regularly participates in family activities, and has even been to Capitol Hill, advocating for service dogs for veterans with PTSD (Haag).
Captain Haag’s story is not an anomaly. Most graduates have returned to a new ‘normal’ of doing the everyday things that most take for granted, such as walking through the grocery store or visiting their children’s school.
K9s for Warriors is just one of many non-profit organizations who are training service dogs for veterans with PTSD and TBI. These organizations train and place service dogs with disabled veterans, often at little to no cost. They are filling a gap left by the Veterans Administration, when they discontinued a congressionally mandated study on the efficacy of service dogs for veterans with PTSD.
There is still reason for optimism, though. Two bills have been introduced into the House of Representatives this year with the intent of expanding the availability of service dogs for disabled veterans. H.R. 183 – “Veterans Dog Training Therapy Act”, introduced on January 4th, 2013 directs the VA to begin a pilot program to research the efficacy of service dog training and handling in the treatment of PTSD. H.R. 2847 – “Wounded Warrior Service Dog Act” would direct the “Department of Defense and the Veterans Affairs to jointly establish the K-9s Companion Corps program for the awarding of grants to assist nonprofit organizations in establishing, planning, designing and/or operating programs to provide assistance dogs” (govtrack.us). Should these bills pass, perhaps in time the studies will confirm what those veterans who already have service dogs know.
According to Sandi Capra, the Director of Development for K9s for Warriors, of their more than 100 graduated teams, 92% of graduates had reduced or eliminated their need for medications, and 94% have reported reduced symptoms of PTSD (according to the Harvard PTSD standards). At one year from graduation, 95% of teams recertify successfully. These achievements are not an isolated occurrence. A simple online search of service dogs for PTSD returns more than 286,000 results. You will find countless news stories about homegrown veterans reclaiming their lives thanks to their new ‘battle-buddy’, veterans attesting to the lifesaving partnerships they’ve found in a service dog and web pages for scores of organizations who train these dogs for our disabled veterans.
These stories are not the ‘too good to be true’ paid endorsements for the latest fly-by-night “cure” for PTSD. They are not random coincidences. They are the stories of recovery from a devastating and debilitating invisible injury. These dogs are not a cure. They are a tool in their handler’s arsenal for coping with and overcoming some of the obstacles associated with PTSD and TBI. There is a reason they are referred to as “man’s best friend”. They are the heroes on four legs and they are giving a new ‘leash’ on life to veterans who suffer from the invisible wounds of war.
Capra, Sandi. K9s for Warriors. Director of Development. Personal interview. 13 November 2013
Glantz, Aaron. “Overtime, New Computer System Put Sizable Dent in VA Benefits Backlog”. The Center for Investigative Reporting. 11 November 2013. Web.
Gradus, Jaimie L., “Epidemiology of PTSD.” National Center for PTSD. n.d. Web. 24 November 2013.
Haag, Jason. Personal Interview. 13 November 2013.
Hargarten, Jeff, et.al. “Suicide Rate for Veterans Far Exceeds That of Civilian Population”. Center for Public Integrity. Web. 30 August 2013.
“HLN Stories of Courage – K9s for Warriors”. Headline News. Television. 11 November 2013.
iCasualties.org, Coalition Casualties by Year, n.d. Web. 24 November 2013
Johnson, Bridget. “Sanders: VA’s Massive Claims Backlog Could be Contributing to Vet Suicides”. PJ Tatler. PJ Media. Web. 13 March 2013.
Kreisher, Otto. “Biding the ‘Invisible Wounds’.” Brainlinemilitary Brainline.org. n.d. Web. 24 November 2013.
Maze, Rick. “18 Veterans commit suicide each day” Army Times. Web. 22 April 2010.
Reno, Jamie. “Nearly 30% of Vets Treated by V.A. Have PTSD.” The Daily Beast Presents: The Hero Project. The Daily Beast. 10 October 2013. Web. 24 November 2013.
“Service Dogs.” ADA.gov. Web. 12 July 2011
Williamson, Vanessa and Mulhall, Erin. “Invisible Wounds – Psychological and Neurological Injuries Confront a New Generation of Veterans”. Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. Issue Report, January 2009. Web.
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.
You would think celebrating your child graduating from kindergarten would be an exciting thing to witness. For those of us with PTSD its anything but exciting. Sitting in a room full of people watching their little darlings graduate is nothing that even resembles fun. It’s excruciating. By the time its over and you’re able to leave, you are simply grateful you survived without having a panic attack (assuming you actually did so).
This shouldn’t be a matter of survival. I’ve faced scud missile attacks, I have worked in too many mass casualty incidents, you would think I could handle a simple graduation. The fact of the matter is, I cannot. Being in a room full of people terrifies me…..me, the person who used to thrive on being the center of attention, the person who was in theater, choir, and the dance team. The person who had no problem whatsoever getting up in front of people and give a speech and actually enjoy it. That woman is gone. In her place is a woman who begins to tremble at the idea of being in a crowded room, who can’t walk through a grocery store by herself. I have spent quite some time morning the loss of the woman I was not so long ago.
You see, when you’re exposed to a traumatic event, something in your brain begins to change. When you are exposed to multiple traumatic events it only serves to alter the brain further. The way information is process is now different. Our primal brain has been awaked and everything becomes a question of survival. Emotions don’t process correctly and often begin to express themselves at inappropriate times (like being fearful in a room full of kindergarteners and their parents). There is no reason for the emotion, for feeling like you need to react as if you were in peril. There are many coping techniques that you can use, but there are times when even those don’t work. Today was very nearly one of those days.
I hate that I can’t even enjoy my daughters graduation. I hate that we couldn’t stay until they were ready to leave. But I had to leave and I had to do it ‘NOW’. I will admit that I lasted much longer than I thought I would make it. When I arrived I made a point to speak with the school nurse. You see, all morning I was feeling feint and wanted her to know that if it happened, I did NOT need an ambulance, I simply needed a quiet place to calm myself. I also spoke with the principal. She gave me her seat against the wall and slightly away from the crowd. That probably helped me more than anything else.
These next 16 days can’t pass fast enough. Knowing that at the end of my training at K9s I will have an additional tool to aid me in recovering parts of my life is what keeps me going right now.
Dogs have been assisting humans since they were domesticated well before recorded history but it wasn’t until after World War I that any formal training came about. It was in Germany that dogs were first trained to assist blind veterans. These types of dogs are probably the most recognized type of service dog. However, over the past several decades, dogs have been trained for a larger variety of services.
Before the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was originally signed into law on July 26, 1990, disabled Americans depended on their local communities to accommodate their various disabilities. There were no requirements for stores to be wheelchair accessible, no rules protecting the rights of service dog handlers to grant them access. In short, there were no anti-discrimination protection measures.
In 1985, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshal wrote in ‘City of Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Center‘ that the plight of people with disabilities reflected nothing less than a “regime of state mandated segregation…that in its virulence and bigotry rivaled, and indeed paralleled, the worst excesses of Jim Crowe” (as quoted in an ACLU Position/Briefing Paper dated Jan 1, 1999).
That all began to change in 1990 with the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The act afforded civil rights law protection to disabled Americans such as prohibiting discrimination based on disability.
These laws were further strengthened in 2009 and again in 2011. Today, the ADA includes measures such as reasonable accommodations for disabilities in the workplace as well as all public transportation, restaurants, and anywhere else that a person is otherwise legally allowed. According to the most recent version of the ADA, a Service Dog is defined as
“Service animal means any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. Other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, are not service animals for the purposes of this definition. The work or tasks performed by a service animal must be directly related to the handler´s disability. Examples of work or tasks include, but are not limited to, assisting individuals who are blind or have low vision with navigation and other tasks, alerting individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing to the presence of people or sounds, providing non-violent protection or rescue work, pulling a wheelchair, assisting an individual during a seizure, alerting individuals to the presence of allergens, retrieving items such as medicine or the telephone, providing physical support and assistance with balance and stability to individuals with mobility disabilities, and helping persons with psychiatric and neurological disabilities by preventing or interrupting impulsive or destructive behaviors. The crime deterrent effects of an animal´s presence and the provision of emotional support, well-being, comfort, or companionship do not constitute work or tasks for the purposes of this definition.”
Today, service animals perform many tasks to assist their disabled handlers. They can be trained to detect changes in blood glucose levels, to sniff out potentially lethal allergies, detect seizures (thought to be more of an inherent trait than a trained one), assist in breaking the spell of a flashback for a handler with PTSD…the list goes on and on.
I have previously discussed some of the things a service dog can do for those of us with PTSD, but it’s worth repeating. These dogs can mean the difference between truly living life and simply existing. The can mitigate the side effects of medication, such as waking a sedated partner in an emergency and guiding them to safety. They can help a handler with the emotional overload that can accompany the symptoms of PTSD such as anxiety and flashbacks, bring medication to treat panic attacks, ground them to the present and give them a reason or ability to leave a challenging situation.
These dogs are amazing! They are giving lives back to veterans suffering the effects of PTSD and/or TBI. Veterans who have spent years hiding in their homes are finding life once again. These dogs are the reason for that progress. They assist these veterans by giving them something to focus on aside from the typical stimuli that often leads to their agoraphobia.
Its hard to believe that in 17 short days I will be meeting my service dog. I know my PTSD isn’t particularly severe, however, this dog will help me to regain a resemblance of ‘normal’. I know this path will not be easy. There are still far to many businesses who are not aware of the protections afforded by the ADA. There are people who only see a ‘pet’ rather than a trained (and protected by federal law) service animal. Restaurants who don’t realize that the ADA trumps the Health Department when it comes to access by handler teams. I know there will be access issues, but I also know that part of my training includes education on the protections afforded to me by the ADA and how to handle access challenges.
I will be receiving my service dog through K9s for Warriors but there are MANY programs out there that train these wonderful dogs. Which ever school you choose, make sure you do your homework. Some schools have waiting lists that are years long, others have residency restrictions. However, as a veteran don’t EVER consider a school that requires payment for a service dog. There are way too many other programs that don’t require you to contribute a single dime. Again though, this is where you need to research the school. Some are quite reputable, others offer little more than basic obedience training before slapping a vest on the dog and declaring it a service animal.
In the end, for the animal to be a true benefit, they need to be trained to mitigate the specific aspects of the handlers disability. A handler who needs mobility assistance needs a larger breed dog who is not only trained but capable of providing assistance. Someone who needs a dog to be able to brace them during a dizzy spell or assist them in walking due to a spinal injury wouldn’t benefit from a small breed dog who is trained to detect allergens that do not effect the handler. Make sure you are specific about what needs you need accommodated. One of the best ways to do that is to research the various tasks that can be accommodated and match those to your needs. One place to start is with the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners. They have prepared a PDF document listing some of the tasks and how they can help to mitigate aspects of particular disabilities. Read through the entire document and you will begin to understand just how much of an asset these dogs can be to their handlers. As you are filling out an application for a service dog, refer to their list when listing what tasks you think may benefit you the most.
I realize for most people, being normal is ‘overrated’. The same cannot be said for those of us with PTSD. For us, the very notion of ‘normal’ is something we fear we may never experience again. We often mourn the loss of what others take for granted every day and in the same breath feel guilty at the thought of our brothers and sisters who lost their lives…so what right do we have to complain?
Today was going rather well, but then it was a day that I didn’t have to leave the house…or so I thought. It’s amazing how something so seemingly trivial as a grocery store can ruin my day. No, I didn’t have to deal with a rude customer, an inept cashier or an uncaring manager. I simply had to go inside, pick up three items, pay and walk out. Seems like a pretty ‘normal’ thing to do, right? Well for someone with PTSD, it’s anything but normal.
Imagine for a moment. Think back to a time that really had your adrenaline pumping. Perhaps a near-miss car accident, loosing track of your child in a crowd, that sudden unexpected clap of thunder. Think of how your heart pounded in your chest, your muscles ached to either swing or flee, your every sense heightened. Remember that feeling? The scent of burning rubber as you slammed your foot on the breaks, the way your hands trembled for an hour afterwards. Now…imagine feeling that way for ABSOLUTELY NO REASON. That is what a person with PTSD goes through every day.
For us, there is no ‘normal’. Walking through the grocery store (for those of us who can actually leave our homes) causes the same reaction. Our hearts pound, our hands shake, our senses both heighten as well as ‘scope-lock’. We become hyper-aware of our surroundings which only causes everything else to become even more overwhelming. All this from simply walking through a grocery store. What could be more ‘normal’ than that?
Days like today have me counting down more fervently to June 4th…the day I start my training with my new service dog. Thank God there are groups like K9s for Warriors.
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.
Same old stuff again! Seems that, once again, my medications are puttering out.
This had been the longest run on a medication…almost 2 years. I was really hoping this wouldn’t happen until after I received my service dog. Apparently my body has other plans. Over the past two months my ‘doc’ (she’s actually a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner) has tried to increase the dose because it wasn’t working so well….which made things worse as can sometimes happen. She added an adjunct med and that helped, but gave me insomnia so she switched me to a different adjunct. I felt almost normal for the last month (aside from the random muscle twitches that made me jump like someone snuck up and poked me in the ribs).
I can’t get in to see her again until the 14th, in the meantime I get to deal with the anxiety, depression, mood swings, and ugly dreams (not quite full fledged nightmares but they are quite unpleasant and leave me a wreck for the day). The only reason I’m not dealing with insomnia is because the adjunct is still working….somedays too well as I cannot seem to get myself awake and feel groggy all day.
Yesterday I tried to discuss this with a friend and instead spent the conversation preventing myself from saying anything that would be construed as ill-tempered. Don’t get me wrong, I like the guy and I know he means well (so if you’re reading this, don’t be offended, this is how I feel). But he is of the mindset that PTSD meds are a “crutch” and I should just take myself off all of them and “decide” to feel better. This was from someone with PTSD. If it was from anyone else I would have completely blown it off, but it came off as something else I’ve heard in the past “I smoked ‘x’ packs a day for ‘y’ years and I quit cold turkey, so can you” No, I can’t. I have gone med free before and it ended poorly EVERY time. Yes, I did well for a while but eventually (sometimes years, sometimes only weeks) I cycled downward again, each time a little lower than the last. Considering how far I spiraled last time, I worry that I wouldn’t come out of it intact next time.
Don’t get me wrong, I know he’s saying this from a good place in his heart. He isn’t trying to be cruel or put me down. I know meds won’t help me forever…hell, I wouldn’t doubt if the emotional numbing that the meds provide are impeding my therapy, but I also know that where I am right now, I need them. One day, I want to be med free, but I also know from past experience that this isn’t the time to simply stop taking everything. I am no where near stable enough in my therapy or coping techniques. My family needs me to be able to function without panicking because someone knocks on the door, to be able to leave the house and run errands without needing to hide away in my room for the rest of the day because I am so emotionally overwhelmed.
I know we are all on different parts of various paths. Not everyone is able to walk the same route in this journey. We all hope it leads to the same place though…healing, normalcy, a life free of the confines of PTSD. I know I’ll get there….eventually. For right now, this is where I am on my path. I’ve been through this part before…I know it’s dark and I’m hoping there is one more clearing, one more med that will work long enough to get some serious therapy and learn other tools so that one day, with my service dog, I can be med free. Until that time comes….
Here we go again, same old stuff again….
So, for some odd reason, I got the gumption yesterday to share my blog post ‘Confidently Conflicted’ with the author of ‘Until Tuesday’, former Army Captain Luis Carlos Montalván through Facebook. Well guess what…just a few short hours later, he wrote me back. How awesome is it for the author of such a wonderful book to take the time to correspond with me?!
He, of course, thanked me for writing and encouraged me to never compare my personal perception of he’ll with anyone else’s. Here is his response to me:
Dear Melissa ~
Thank you for your thoughtful note.
As you know by now, Until Tuesday was written with the intention of helping service members and veterans, their families, and people with disabilities. Additionally, we hope it will inform the general public of a number of key issues facing these groups. It’s heartening to know that the book touched you so.
Would you post a short review on Amazon or Barnes & Noble? Your note is essentially just that and I believe your feelings would really be helpful to other readers.
Incidentally, please do not compare your own life situation to anyone else. This is frequently done, and it is not fair to compare your life/goals/conditions with anyone else’s. You have every right to pursue life, liberty and happiness. No one is more or less deserving. Period.
By the way, we keep a schedule of events at the website below. We hope to make it to your beautiful land this year or early next year. Needless to say, it would be wonderful to meet you.
With blessings and golden hugs,
Luis & Tuesday
p.s. — We hope the messages of the book and forthcoming major motion picture continue to offer healing and hope to others.
Today, I am just tickled pink!
So, I’ve been reading ‘Until Tuesday’ by Luis Carlos Montalván. Political convictions aside, it’s been a delightfully eye opening read, but it has also caused me to feel rather conflicted about my own PTSD.
You see, I know without a doubt that when it comes to PTSD, I’m lucky. That may sound like a huge contradiction, but let me explain. I have learned that hell, like time, is a perception. Each persons perception is personal, no two people experience the same event alike. What may knock me to my knees may only cause another to flinch, what seems like an eternity to you may fly by for me. I KNOW there are far too many other veterans who suffer extremely more debilitating symptoms of PTSD. I also know that fact does not diminish my perception of hell when it comes to my own symptoms. In fact, my personal theme song for several years has been Rodney Atkins ‘If You’re Going Through Hell’.
“If you’re going thru hell, keep on going. Don’t slow down. If you’re scared, don’t show it. You might get out before the devil even knows you’re there.
So, while I am enduring my own personal version of ‘hell’, I know I am lucky, because there are others who have it so much worse than I do. I have flashbacks, grey-outs, hyper-vigilance, over-stimulization (which exacerbates the hyper-vigilance), anxiety and panic attacks, over sensitive startle response, and insomnia. Thankfully most of my symptoms are fairly stabilized by my current regime of medications.
So, why do I need a service dog? Because I know from my own experience that these meds will only work for so long. Once my body decides to become immune to their effects (as has happened with three other meds thus far), I will begin to spiral once more. Also, my therapy has had some horrible side effects in the past. I have so many layers of trauma in my life that trying to resolve a single trauma is like trying to unravel a sweater…you can’t just pull out one row of yarn without effecting the next row. We tried ONE “mild” (in my therapists words) session of EMDR and I was a train wreck for the next two weeks. It was like ripping off a bandage and taking the scab and sutures with it. EVERYTHING was trying to pour out and I spent the next two weeks having anxiety attacks, horrible nightmares (that my meds wouldn’t let me wake from, and if I was able to wake, it was like someone simply pressed pause on a movie…as soon as I fell back to sleep, the dream simply picked up where it left off), I was depressed and horribly moody. My therapist believes having my service dog with me will help me get through not only the therapy itself but the aftermath.
And yet I feel conflicted about receiving a service dog…almost guilty really. I often feel like I’m being selfish because I know so many others need this more than I do right now; like I’m taking something away from them. Perhaps it’s the medic in me, always looking out for the welfare of others before, or in spite of, my own well being. What ever the reason is, I again know I am lucky to even be offered this valuable tool. This opportunity to have such a huge asset in my journey through recovery is immeasurable. Monetarily, these dogs can cost tens of thousands of dollars to train, without the guarantee that they will actually graduate to full fledged service dogs. Personally, this dog has the potential to give me back aspects of my life that I have nearly given up on ever experiencing again. Things as simple as walking through a busy grocery store without having a panic attack before we even get through the produce section, let alone if I have to go by myself. I look forward to being able to have an outing with my daughters and being able to stay until they are ready to leave, rather than needing to leave once it starts getting crowded. It will help me to return to college and sit through the class, able to pay attention rather focus on the other people surrounding me. Finally, being able to get through a therapy session without having to worry about falling apart.
I suppose being conflicted isn’t such a terrible thing. It certainly helps me appreciate this gracious gift even more than others might. It helps me to realize, during my darkest times that it could be so much worse than what I might be experiencing at that moment, and it helps me to empathize with those who do have it so much worse than me.
Today is a pretty good day, except for my back. I have a pinched nerve that has me using a cane. I have sciatica all the way down to my toes and it feel like I got a huge GG shot in my butt!
Yesterday was a bad day. I had forgotten to take my meds the night before so I was extremely irritable and jumpy all day. I couldn’t figure out why I was having such a horrid day until I wrnt to take my meds and saw the dose that I missed.
On a more positive note….I am currently waiting to receive a service dog. I’m getting him through a program called K9s for Warriors. They are a non-profit group from Ponta Verda Beach, Florida that places service dogs with veterans suffering from PTSD. They do this at no charge to the veteran. In June I will be traveling via Veterans Airlift Command to Florida for 3 weeks of training, then this wonderful dog will be my forever friend and service dog.
The Veterans Airlift Command is another non-profit group that provides free air transportation to veterans and their families. The pilots volunteer their time and money to fly warriors anywhere in the US for training, medical treatment, etc. They are an amazing group!!!
If you ever have any desire to donate to a charity that benefits veterans, please check out these two! They are doing amazing things in the lives of veterans!