We learn a lot about ourselves in wartime.
As a community, we find it easier to respond to physical wounds than emotional ones. Ironic, isn’t it? Life provides most of us with trauma and loss, sooner or later. Respite from suffering is the only humane response.
Privately, we understand about emotional anguish, and we want it gone. Publicly, however, stigma is alive and well. People will endure incredible suffering and not seek help, because they are afraid of what others will say, even if the emotional wounds occurred in war- ravaged Afghanistan.
We politely overlook the emotional wounds of the 20 percent of veterans who return with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), so as to not embarrass them. They say they are fine, and we want to believe it.
It’s not working. Sadly, this year, 50% more violent deaths in military service are caused by suicide, than from physical injuries. We know about PTSD, but we are more comfortable talking about medicine than about the wounded human spirit.
What helps, anyway? Unlike depression, there is no pill to treat PTSD. Therapy is not available to everyone who needs it, even if they were willing to give it a try. Therapy for PTSD takes time, too; people have to learn to trust all over again, to tolerate their emotions, and to discern all over again, when they are truly safe. It’s complicated.
In the meantime, people with PTSD need immediate relief; they need to be drawn to the present moment, putting aside their demons for a while, knowing that they are fully accepted just as they are. What if their families are traumatized too? Who is capable of providing a connection beyond words, buying some time for the process of therapy to work? Dogs, as it turns out.
Dogs just love us. They connect with us on a deep and mutual level, without many conditions. The relationship itself is healing. Traumatized veterans who may return to find urban life overwhelming, are able to receive comfort from a dog. The New York Times recently shared one such story, of a Naval veteran who served in Iraq, her golden retriever, and her slow, incremental healing process. There are many such stories. Fortunately, there is no stigma involved in accepting the love of a dog.
But nothing is simple, in this scientific era. Research must be done. The VA is conducting a 3 year study on the clinical effectiveness of dogs in helping persons with PTSD. The service dogs they study have been trained to maneuver their humans through crowds, turn lights on and off, and to awaken a sleeping veteran who is having nightmares. There is a complex application process to qualify for a VA service dog, and there is a shortage. It is a humane response.
But it may overlook the point. The healing of the human spirit happens in relationship with one another. Human to human, and human to dog, or bird, or horse. The healing of trauma may not, for most people, require somebody to turn on the light, so much as somebody to be there in the dark, ready with love, and always glad to listen without judging.
In counseling, a traumatized person can gradually discover how to let go of anger and shame, that they could not prevent the terrible events they witnessed, and how to live with their memories. In the meantime, animals connect with us, one being to another, regardless of how effective or lucid we feel. They just love us, and evoke love. Rediscovering the capacity to give love, is itself good medicine.
Community groups are emerging around the country, to help facilitate the healing of PTSD by matching veterans with service dogs. One such group is called Dog Bless You, and it is using social media creatively. For every thousand “likes” on its Facebook page, Dog Bless You donates a dog to a veteran with PTSD. The photographs on their page are warm and wonderful.
Trauma is not, at its heart, a mental illness, but a predictable response of a human heart, to something it was not designed to endure. The mental health professions have some useful tools, to help those with PTSD gain insight, and to calm their responses to it. In the meantime, it is ingenious that the community is rising up to offer sufferers something so deeply therapeutic. A warm furry presence. Timeless moments of acceptance. Unconditional love.
What could be bad?