The Bravest of the Brave – Yoga as Therapy for PTSD in Recovering Combat VeteransDec 06, 2014
At every Yoga conference that I have attended, great attention has been paid to Yoga as therapy for military veterans as treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I had no point of reference for veterans. I literally turned my body to the side in my seat and resisted the incoming information at these conferences because A) I did not know any veterans and B) I did not care to break my heart over their plight.
Last month, a veteran walked into the Yoga studio.
I want to honor his anonymity and I want to tell his story because it has changed my life. I had seen video of WWI soldiers rattled and lost in their minds, present for Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s moving demonstration of veterans and trauma-sensitive Yoga (http://www.traumacenter.org/), but to meet someone scarred by war, during duty for which he had volunteered, and offered very little by way of compensation by the government that had created this situation… I could not turn away.
First of all, this guy is a handsome devil. Young, mid-twenties. He’s got style and he’s got a sparkle and spunk. I am a sucker for young, handsome men with style. Super bright, fervent, and in need of support. Broke his wrist from hitting a wall. Tinnitus, scoliosis, flat feet from military gear. Still, he came to Yoga. But not to a “regular” Yoga class, because of his discomfort around people – to a private class offered to local volunteers. Anxiety. Depression. Unipolar. Bipolar. Insomnia. Rage. Loss of appetite. Disabled and nearly homeless. Lonely and terrified. Fixated on his story and dying to tell it. Suicidal. Suicidal. Suicidal.
Twenty-two veterans of The Wars on Terror committing suicide per day upon their return home drew the attention of The Armed Forces to Yoga and, in some places, Yoga is available to returning soldiers through the Veteran’s Administration. In our tiny seaside community, however, this kid was struggling without resources to back up his efforts to rehabilitate himself. I knew that I did not personally have the resources to offer this young man everything that he needed and I was scared. My thoughts had become restless over the situation, sensing that it was dire.
So, three days after meeting my first veteran, I found myself making phone calls, from my bed, early one morning. The second number that I dialed actually reached a human being. I was surprised, at 7:30 in the morning on a Tuesday, to talk to a very reasonable, like-minded Yogi and veteran named Gail Francisco. I had, miraculously, reached the outreach coordinator for Warriors At Ease http://warriorsatease.com/ and Gail has become both my lifeline and, through me, the lifeline of my veteran. Just as fervent, Gail has pulled out every possible resource available to this young man. When I wondered out loud if we – if I – were in too deep, she said, “It’s people like you helping one veteran at a time.”
This young man and, I feel now, every veteran, is the bravest of the brave. After serving his country selflessly and offering his life for the United States, upon discharge my veteran expressed subsequent feelings of disillusionment and abandonment, deep grief and haunting flashbacks. Trained to kill, he was never untrained. Fight or flight, without the flight. Fight fight fight fight fight. After six years in the service and reprogramming, beginning at the age of seventeen, he was returned to a culture from which he had been awkwardly separated and to which he no longer belonged, mentally. Taught to endure physical and emotional pain, injury, heat, trauma, cold, homesickness and more, he came home unable to control his temper, socialized in the exclusive ways of the military, uncomfortable in his body, mind and soul. Some of our service people have no one to return home to and enlist to escape brutal abuse and socioeconomic circumstances stateside. This, too, is part of my soldier’s broken heart.
So, on Halloween night, we met at the Yoga studio. I did a medical intake and I let that take one hour to help me to gain his trust, to not rush through, and not be too clinical. I asked the studio owner to stick around because I wasn’t sure of my safety. His physical and psychiatric issues were beyond anything I have ever come across personally or professionally, from traumatic brain injury and tinnitus to not being certain which mental health diagnosis was right. He has been prescribed every gnarly medication there is: opiates for pain, anti-anxiety meds, anti-depressants and more. After our intake, he spent the next hour in supported baddha konasana, where I led him through breathing and visualization. He fell asleep for forty minutes. I was glad, since he had mentioned not sleeping much during the previous week. It began to rain and I opened the door to the outside to finally rouse him. I was afraid to touch him to wake him up. I didn’t want to startle him. I was scared to death of him, while drawn to his vulnerability and need.
That night, on the Yoga mat, my approach was unconventional for Western standards. He wasn’t paying me and I spent much longer with him than I would have ever projected – four hours total. Intuitively, however, I knew that this kid needed help and that I might be the last person that he might trust before taking his life. I know suicide, and once you know it, you always recognize it. Besides, it was Halloween night, it was raining, I like what I do and, underneath it all, he was very likeable, polite, receptive, willing – exceptional, even.
Over the next six weeks I bought him groceries and dog food, birthday presents and housewares. I brought him Yoga blankets and weight bags so that he could practice at home. I called the Veteran’s Administration and spent hours on the phone learning about services available to him locally and around the state. I took him to court, to the hospital, to the VA in the next county. I took him to the beach and to lunch. Some of those days he was calm, subdued and sweet. Some of those days, though, his moods were so severely unreasonable that I said nothing to avoid exacerbating his PTSD rage. He told me of his plans to kill himself. Some days he could not leave the house or even talk to me on the phone. One day, he refused to wear shoes, and went to his appointment wearing socks, in the rain.
Eventually, though, through the efforts of Gail at Warriors At Ease, myself and my veteran, he ate, slept, got a solid cast on his broken wrist and started the process of enrolling into an inpatient rehabilitation program in northern California, The Pathway Home http://thepathwayhome.org/. There, they have individual and group therapy, service dogs, Yoga, arts and crafts and four months of residential training for twelve veterans at a time. Part of the rehabilitation is to send the warriors into the community to interact with shopkeepers to teach them that not everyone is an enemy. My veteran refused to apply until I told him that he would have his own room, that he could maybe bring his dog, and that it was free.
We have also managed to practice Yoga, in some form, every time we see each other and even over the phone. This young man relaxes faster than anyone I have ever seen in the decade that I have been teaching. He melts. It is so rewarding. He loves it. His body hurts. His body hurts and Yoga helps. It also helps him to feel more clear-headed, less anxious and more present. It helps him to sleep. Sleep is imperative for mood management, be it PTSD or bipolar disorder. Good sleep can dull the blade of anxiety and help to rein in the ferris wheel of mood cycles. It does not matter how good looking or charming you are, you still need a good night’s sleep.
If I could devise some sort of structure for him, a regularity of practice for Yoga and breathing and relaxation, he would benefit greatly. As it is, however, biological rhythms like eating and sleeping are not yet firmly in place and those come first. Yoga is still currently a positive adjunct and every little bit helps. Hit it from all angles, I say: Yoga, sleep, quiet time, good nourishing food, altars everywhere, rosewater spray to reduce anger, frankinscence essential oil to cool your jets, coconut oil on the bottoms of your feet plus socks for sleep, regular exercise, avoiding crazy music, getting out into nature, avoiding spicy foods, wearing soothing colors and natural fibers, practicing trust and faith…
I wish I knew better how to mentor. The mentorship that I could offer was beneficial, but time consuming – necessarily so, and I have no regrets, but would not have been affordable to this young man had I billed him. How do we make therapeutic mentorship care affordable and accessible to those who need it, especially to those with mental health issues? One needs more care than one person can give – it takes a village. Hopefully, my veteran will be admitted into The Pathway Home program soon and begin intensive recovery. His recovery will last a lifetime, as does the recovery for anyone with a lifelong illness. Fortunately, Yoga can be a lifelong practice. I am glad to help wherever I can.
I am pursuing further training through Warriors At Ease so that the next soldier who walks into the Yoga studio can be served with greater expertise. Another warrior will walk through the door. We need all the skills we can gather to support these brave souls to live in peace, and to support ourselves as we do so.
I am so very grateful to this young man for teaching me so much in such a short amount of time.
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