January 24, 2010

Empathy is a Two Way Street: Combat Veteran and Wife Find Unconditional Love

In spite of, yet mostly because of my husband’s PTSD, he possesses an incredible capacity to identify with comparable suffering with such empathy that I feel humbled. And although I don’t want to say I suffer from PTSD, I can say with certainty I have persistent fears related to a trauma I suffered when I almost lost my right eye in an accident involving a horse. Now, almost five years after the accident, my physical wounds have long since healed but the emotional scars continue to create problems for me to this very day. And although I don’t actively seek out his reassurance, my husband is right there to recognize and validate my feelings whenever my fears haunt me.

It was August 2005 around 6:30am; the weather was warm even at that wee hour and I could tell it was going to be a scorcher. I was managing a horse ranch at that time, and on this particular occasion there was no one else in the barn but me. To cut a long story short (‘cause long posts become monotonous) one of the horses I was turning out spooked, slammed into me, knocked me on my back, and kicked me in the face. Without a doubt it was the most terrifying event I’ve ever experienced my entire life.

The whole ordeal took place in the blink of an eye (no pun intended), but when it was over it took me at least a minute to comprehend the extent of my injuries. From my final resting position on my back I could see my ball-cap, my cell phone, my knife, strewn on the ground…then nothing…at this point blood coursed into my eyes from a facial injury. I rolled over onto my knees feeling the warm blood running between my fingers and let out a cry for help. Remembering there was no one in the barn I knew I had to go get help myself as I was going into shock from the loss of blood. Later at the ER, a CAT scan revealed a maxilla facial fracture, a fracture in the optical cavity and a ruptured arterial feeder just above my right eye.

Almost five years later, and although only a feint scar remains below my eyebrow, I am still dealing with the psychological baggage from the accident, the end result of which is an irrational fear of being injured again. Most of the time when the fear creeps in I can rationalize my way out of it, but on occasion the ghoulish flashbacks loom larger than life and twice as ugly as they did on the day the accident happened. Out of the blue I can be struck with such dread that I have to stop riding immediately; I mean literally get off my horse and be done with it for the day. There is nothing quite like the feeling of self-loathing that consumes me when that happens. Coward, pussy, stupid bitch!! I am angry that the accident ever happened, I hate that the one constant perfect joy I have had throughout my entire life is now imperfect and blemished.

But despite how extreme those situations can be, I am eternally grateful that my supportive husband who, despite suffering from severe combat PTSD and TBI, empathizes with me. He never belittles my fears, always encourages me on my bad days, applaudes me on the good ones, and for that I will be eternally grateful. For empathy is a two way street and for all my outpourings for him, he returns the favor to me many times over.

January 22, 2010

Zoning Out

I sat in the passenger seat of the truck and watched the familiar landscape pass us by as we rolled along toward our destination. Ahead was our exit which I noticed we were approaching at a higher rate of speed than was prudent, and in the blink of an eye we cruised by our turn-off at a steady 60 miles an hour. I looked across at my husband. “We just missed our turn.” No reply. “Hun, we just missed our exit.”

“Huh?” he said, turning to look in my direction with a puzzled look on his face.

“Why didn’t you turn off back there?” I inquired.

“Why didn’t you remind me?” he said as if it was my job to narrate every step of our journey.

“Because we’ve been this way a hundred times.” I said resisting the urge to add “duh” to the end of my sentence.

“Sorry, I guess I zoned out again.” he explained.

At this point I ask him to "please pull over, I’m driving from here.”

Indignantly he responds “I know how to drive.”

I assure him that I’m not challenging his knowledge of driving, fighting back the urge to say; I just want to arrive alive! Again I make my appeal “Take a break, let me drive.” I say this for both our sakes as when he says, “I zoned out again” I know how serious this can be.

There have been many incidents that he’s told me about (and who knows how many he hasn’t confessed to) like the time he found himself in a parking lot not sure where he was or how he got there, and had become filled with panic for what he might have done while “zoned out.” Or the time he set the car on cruise control and then forgot to disengage it and wondered why the car was moving too fast to merge into traffic. Or the time he didn’t stop for a red light, or took off from a red light before it turned green. Or the time his attention was diverted by tire fragments, or road-kill carcasses that might conceal an IED!

So now I don’t take anything for granted, and will tell him “turn here” “turn there” and he looks across at me like “I’m not retarded” and I know he is not. And I curse his PTSD/TBI and how a simple drive in the truck could turn out to be the last thing we ever do.

January 21, 2010

It's My Pity Party and I'll Cry if I Want to

It’s Friday morning and my husband leaves the house for the VA to attend one of his support groups and I’m left home alone. I use the time to vacuum (a noisy chore that may upset my husband), empty the dishwasher (another noisy chore that may startle him), and throw in a load of laundry. It is a scene of domestic normality as the cat follows me from room to room curiously observing me dust and mop. I spray down the kitchen counter top and proceed to wipe away the crumbs from breakfast, a mindless task that finds me gazing out the French doors. On the wall, the new 2010 calendar just recently hung briefly catches my attention and I move in for a closer look to check some of the appointments I have jotted down.
  • Hubby’s VA group
  • Hubby’s Psychologist appointment
  • Hubby’s Primary Care Physician appointment
  • Hubby’s Nurse Practitioner appointment
  • ...and on, and on, and on
Hmmm, hubby, hubby, hubby. I flip through the months and the only appointment I can find for myself is my bi-annual teeth cleaning. Wtf! What about me? Where is my support group? Where is my psychologist? Oh shit, am I feeling sorry for myself?

Break out the violin, send for the waaaaambulance, do you want some cheese with that whine? Boo fucking hoo, but I still can't stop myself from wondering who’s in my corner cheering me on? “You’re doing great...you are a strong and resourceful woman” Nah, it’s not happening. And just like the sugar crash that comes after drinking a giant Red Bull I suddenly feel incredibly guilty. How dare I detract from his suffering, how dare I question why he needs so much therapeutic rehabilitation?

Let me just say this it is okay to have those thoughts and feelings. What is not okay is to allow those feelings to become the "elephant in the room". It is there, and it is real. Please discuss with your combat vet the fact that you may need to seek some help. His problems and your problems should not become dueling banjos competing for the number one spot. You need to seek support just as much for yourself as for your vet. You need to remain strong and yet allow yourself to recognize the vulnerability in yourself because you are human.

January 20, 2010

The Nightmare Cure

3:30am, I stir in my sleep. Maybe he came to bed already? But my outstretched arm feels no warm body and finds only a cold empty space…..again.

I can see light dancing on the wall downstairs, reflecting the muted TV’s flickering images. I slip from my bed and quietly make my way to the living room. As I approach the sofa I already know the scene that awaits. There bathed in the light of the television he is slumped, passed out, vodka spilled across his lap while still clinging to the empty glass. I take a moment to regard this sight putting aside the conflict of emotions I am experiencing (pity, sorrow, anger) and take care of the situation. He looks so vulnerable, almost fragile, and I curse the demons that haunt him so.

Leaning forward I take the glass in my left hand and gently touch his leg with my right. "Honey....babe....come to bed” I speak softly so as not to startle him. The grip on his glass grows tight and he groans some incomprehensible words of objection. I make my appeal again “its 3:30....come to bed”. This time his eyes open briefly, he utters, “I’ll be right there” and closes his eyes again.

Knowing that he will not "be right there" I turn off the TV, feeling helpless and hopeless I admit defeat and retreat upstairs. At some point between 3:30am and the time morning comes he will have found his way to bed; too drunk to be troubled by the horrific nightmares of the combat veteran.

Sleep well my love, sleep well.

January 19, 2010

Screw Christmas!

So another Christmas is in the bag, and I am grateful that it passed by with minimal amount of agitation and upset. I’m sure there are other spouses out there whose combat vet was deployed over at least one Christmas, if not more, and finds the holiday just too much to bear. As December 25th approaches I become more and more apprehensive as I know I will be playing dual roles of sympathetic wife and placating mother as I try to keep both sides of the camp happy at home.

Bill hates Christmas, and all the trappings that go along with it, and is at great pains to remind me that he is only allowing a tree in the house “for the kids sake” permitting it to stand for the shortest amount of time that doesn’t constitute cruel and unusual punishment in the minds of a 7 and 14 year old! The tree literally goes up the day before Christmas, and is located in a room where Bill does not have to look at it except when passing through. The lonely Noble is the sole decoration in the house; there is no bunting or wreaths on the door, just the tree, nothing else, zero, zilch, nada.

Christmas day passes in a blur, with the kids opening their presents before Bill even gets out of bed, and I make sure to bag up the paper and bows they have left strewn across the living room floor before he gets up. No special meal is on the menu and I leave for work with a thermos of soup (I always work Christmas day at the jail) and my family is left to fend for themselves with microwavable ready meals.

The tree comes down literally on the 26th, and is removed from the house along with the wrapping paper and Christmas cards and taken to the burn barrel for incineration, symbolically purging the day away as if it never happened….and I can again breath a sigh of relief, it is all over for another year.

January 18, 2010

Puppies Behind Bars

In 2008, my husband Sgt William Campbell was the first OIF veteran to receive a service dog from the charity Puppies Behind Bars (PBB). PBB is based in New York and trains inmates to raise puppies to become service dogs for disabled OIF/OEF veterans as well as explosive detection canines.

This video shows the reunion between my husband and the female inmate that raised his dog Pax. I cannot fully convey what an incredibly emotional trip this was, nor can I over-exaggerate the number of Clonazepam my husband took to deal with the event! The reunion was captured by Glenn Close and her production team and resulted in a full-length documentary. The following clip is just a snippet which was used on Oprah's website to help promote the PBB charity.

Glenn Close, from her website, www.fetchdog.com,
I have been inspired and moved by one story after another, but never as much as I am by the story of Bill Campbell and Pax … Pax was first socialized and trained by Laurie Kellogg, an inmate at the maximum security Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women. So a dog, initially loved and trained by a woman who has lost her freedom, but wants to give back to society, is enabling the life of a veteran of the Iraq war who was imprisoned by his disabling injuries. The story speaks for itself.
Please visit Puppies Behind Bars website for more information www.puppiesbehindbars.com