So how could a bucket of horse poop, an ass, some hula hoops, horses and a turkey along with twelve other women cause a change of mind within this doubting Thomas? Well let me explain what we encountered upon this trip.............
As I mentioned in my first blog about this retreat, we were counseled over the weekend by Dr. Bridget Cantrell (author of Down Range: To Iraq and Back), Dr. Edie Dopking PHD (owner and founder of QLF/), Carla Staats (MA,LCDC,CAP/At E.A.S.E. Equine Self Exploration Program developer) and Jenna Miller (MA) all of whom are just wonderful and friendly. I can't leave out Lisa Reedy who is the financial guru and magician for Quantum Leap because she was there throughout the weekend making sure everything was taken care of. Special thanks to the Gulf Coast Community Foundation of Venice for helping make this trip possible! Most doctors and counselors I have encountered in the past four years of our turbulent ride of PTSD/TBI always seemed to focus solely on the medical book and really lack in beside manner not to mention, forgetting the impact of damage that is there within our veterans and our families. Along with their atrocious attitude, they often disregard the most important person in the veteran's care giving and healing processes, us.
This group at Quantum really made you feel like you were around family or friends. The atmosphere was laid back and they didn't bombard you with medical jargon no one understands which is often times the case we as spouses encounter. They didn't just welcome us to the farm with a attitude of "just another part of the job, get it done and get the hell out" attitude but welcomed us with open arms and without judgment. This was a huge issue with me as often I am faced with outsiders looking in through blinders and not listening to my story, but passing judgment that I am indeed a bad wife, lack the honor of being a military wife when I am upset, or tsk tsk you when you feel like walking away.
Saturday while we were there, we got an introduction to all our counselors there on the farm. They explained who they were, what they did and how they got to be where they were at the farm and with the program At E.A.S.E. Carla Staats treated us with respect, admiration (although most of us could not imagine anyone admiring us) and deep concern for our well-being and our lives as caregivers. Dr. Dopking went over quite a bit of information in regards to TBI and what that actually means. It was interesting because we, the human race, don't really appreciate what a fantastic but completely sensitive organ our brains are. She talked to us like a normal person, and not "just" a doctor at the VA who is trying to shuffle you out the door. I will place a tab next to the home tab on the different portions of the brain and damage done linking that to different issues a person can face when damage is done. She explained the testing and how sometimes, different scans like CAT often miss the damage. There is a scan called the SPEC but it's so expensive that the VA can not do it, but one spouse did tell us they opted to do that one and paid out of pocket. Their experience showed quite a bit of damage from that one test.
We sat in a close circle which was nice and talked about ourselves and our story with our military members. Many of them similar and at the same time, very different. I myself, found that there was no way to talk about everything because you mentally compartmentalize issues over the years and just simply forget or there is so much you can't unload it all. So when someone else was telling their stories and it related, you were mentally thinking "oh yeeaaaaahhhh! How could I forget that!"
The counselors had the horses brought out which we were told to take a few minutes of quiet and just observe our equestrian friends. It was interesting to see them react to each other; some fighting for dominance and some just trying to be around the others. At one point, one was sniffing in the middle of the arena and another circling the gelding. We were then asked to voice our observations which was pretty neat, because all of us had different perspectives and findings. I found that I best related to the one horse stuck in the middle with the other gelding circling around him. I found that it how I feel most of the time....my husband in the middle and me circling him trying to cushion the world, protect him from others and at the same time...keeping an eagle eye out on him.
The whole weekend was about the focus on us as caregivers. To concentrate on our feelings, but at the same time....letting go of things we can't control. If we can't control it and we can't change it....then there isn't really a reason to let it stress us out. Dr. Cantrell spoke to us extensively about how we need to focus on the inner us. It wasn't about us, as caregivers....it wasn't us as in military spouses...but who we really are as a person. To be honest, I haven't really given thought of how much I gave up or who I really was as a person in a very very long time. We are all our own person with individual personality, things that we have done, do or accomplish that makes us who we are. Somewhere between the hectic ride of PTSD and TBI or other injuries that incapacitate our warriors....we as individuals get lost because everything becomes focused on our Veterans. It was about focusing on the real us, and how to improve our lives as far as stress goes.
Many of us in this small group had the same stresses. It was the VA system, our warriors with their reckless behaviors, disabilities, being a married single parent, the red tape and bureaucracy, and the fact that we never catch a break. Dr. Cantrell talked to us like we really mattered, that it was ok for us to grieve and feel our losses, and how that we have every right at times to be angry and upset. She spoke to us about how often as caregivers we control every aspect of our warrior's lives, leaving them feeling less masculine. That we need to set boundaries for our Veteran's but at the same time....learn to let go of some of our control. Basically, we have such a tight rein (no pun intended) on our spouses with issues, that it leaves them more helpless than they were to begin with, doesn't help them in the long run, and often with men....leaves them feel less of a man. Dr. Cantrell told us about not setting up expectations on what we think our husband's should do based on how they used to be, or how we think they need to be. This only sets us up for failures and disappointment on both sides. Setting boundaries and letting our spouses know there are consequences, giving them something small to achieve but praising them wholeheartedly for a job completed, and not letting our Veterans with issues, control the situation or us; were all part of this weekend. Allow your warrior to beat on his chest and scratch himself while grunting "Me Man-you women-uggg-uggg" would indeed give them some control back and feel as if they aren't completely helpless.
I thought about this latter portion heavily Saturday night as I was laying in bed at the hotel rewinding the day. I suddenly realized, I don't give my husband much room to breathe. When they come home and there are issues, automatically we as spouses....are forced to jump in. What else can we do but leave our spouses if we don't jump in? You get in this routine, a constant circle every day and before you know it...you are doing everything for everyone all the time....everyone and everything but taking care of yourselves. Letting go of things, often scares me...don't know about you but I haven't really put much faith or trust in my husband's ability to do things for himself since he has been home. Dr. Cantrell spoke to us about the fact that we must allow for some focus on positive things and not automatically count on the negatives. As Wounded Warrior Wife stated, "The Power of Positivity".
The weekend was designed to show all the things we are missing in our lives, how many mistakes we are making that add more stress on us and how to release that stress. We had to carry buckets of horse manure around all day Saturday which wasn't as bad as you think! We had to label our buckets with the negative aspects in our lives and place on our buckets. The bucket was a representative of how much added stress we are carrying around all the time. At first, you don't really notice how heavy the buckets are....just like we don't recognize the stress we are carrying on ourselves. After a while though, that bucket started getting heavy! When we had to dump our buckets at the end, it was almost a sigh of relief. Because by then, you really felt empowered, stress free and ready to get rid of the "crap" in your life.
I ended up with a horse that I swore up and down, was simply a reincarnation of my husband. I did tell the counselors that I flew all the way there to get away from him, and here he was in horse form. We had to walk our horses along with a partner, and armed with our poop buckets around obstacles that we labeled as various obstacles in our lives. My partner and I did pretty good, but Stinky Pete (we nicknamed him because right out the gate he kept passing gas so loud that it sounded like someone was sitting on a whoopee cushion amplified by a thousand) was hard headed, wanted to goof off, and most definitely did not want to be told what to do. We tried every which way to get that horse through an obstacle we labeled as the VA. It was so ironic that it was hysterical! In the end, we had to go around the VA and that was ok. It showed us that like our Veterans, they aren't often going to do what they are told and going to have to find their own way that they feel comfortable in doing.
There was so much in this trip to the farms, that it's hard to write everything although I want to. The most powerful thing I can think of was when Carla Staats brought us out hula hoops. First reaction, was those horses are not going to jump through those! We were told to get into the center of these hula hoops and look inside our small space. What did we see? Ourselves and nothing more. Outside hassles and obstacles were not in our hula hoop, people with their own judgments against us and large stressful things like the VA were out of our control, so why do we need to stress ourselves with such things? What matters is what was inside of our hula hoops. When our warriors become hard to handle or stress out over small things, it's not in our hula hoops.If there are things that are weighing us down and stressing us out so severely, look to see if its in our hula hoop. It's not, so let it go.
Between the magnificent horses which just seemed to draw out the stress and made you feel like they listened, there was also Wishbone the Turkey. Wishbone was rescued by Dr. Dopking when she found him by the side of the road after being hit by a car. His feet are deformed as you can see, but he is quite the bird! I have never been around turkeys, other than a few wild ones here around my home or on my table come the holidays! Wishbone loves loves people! No matter where the group was, this turkey would follow. If you laugh, he would gobble as if he was laughing too! He loved to be petted as he was truly a love muffin. The thing I noticed the most about Wishbone was his willingness to trust complete strangers just for that love and attention. He didn't care about the surrounding obstacles such as the distance he waddled after us or the horses. He just kept on trucking where he needed to go. I really enjoyed loving on this turkey. He also showed me that for that little bit of love, you are willing to go the lengths. Somewhat like us...we are willing to put up with so much stress and heartaches...just for the small amount of time that we see that glimpse of our "old" warriors.
Eugene was the resident mule and we were given this as a tool to remind us that often we are going to encounter our wounded warriors as asses. Often times, we had to overlook Eugene as he seemed to like being in the center of everything and everyone. We had to push him out of the way some of the times while we were working or meeting in a circle, other times he was constantly around somewhere reminding us that he was there. It was similar to that of our PTSD/TBI Veterans when their "PTSD Beast" side appears. Gives you a nice visual to have in your head when that "side" of our spouses appears!!
Overall, I learned quite a bit of helpful and useful information. In my next blog, I will make a list of things that we talked about, the things we learned and most importantly, whether all this horse stuff made any sense here Living with PTSD and TBI.............
Still Inside My Hula Hoop,