CBS Evening News on Caregiver Stress and Secondary PTSD: Letting my deep secrets out for the world to see (VIDEO)

“You keep convincing yourself that the worst is behind you, and I think that’s what helps you keep going.”

~ Torrey Shannon, CBS Evening News interview

I, along with three other caregivers, was featured on Monday night’s CBS Evening News discussing a very important topic: Caregiver Stress and Secondary PTSD. In this post I will share the rest of the “story” that you didn’t get to see. In doing so, you’ll hear more of my deepest secrets.

To say I was nervous about being on national television would be an understatement. I’ve done it before and have lived in the public eye for many years now, but this time it was MUCH different.

I opened up about a very private and personal side of my life that I have held in secret for more than five years. I carried guilt and shame each and every day because of it. I WANTED to tell my story, but I knew that in order to tell the full story, I’d need more time than what the news segment would afford me.

It was a huge and scary risk.

I was actually going to save my story for the book I am writing. Once I started writing about it, the emotional purge was more than I could bear.

It was painful to think about, let alone talk about. How could I possibly share something like this?

I worried that if I shared my secret with even one person, let alone the world, I would be looked down on as a weak, fragile, selfish person.

I am not. 

Unfortunately, it took me a very long time to realize that truth.

I would have shared it sooner, but I asked myself these hard questions:

What would my friends think of me? Would I be exposing my family to more criticism? Would my children or loved ones feel they were to blame? What about my community? Would they treat me differently? Would I be the one who walks into a room and people would speak in hushed tones and give sideways glances? Would Child Protective Services show up at my door…again?

I thought about talking about it for a long time. I decided I couldn’t risk more criticism in my life for five long years. Thanks to a very special moment during a writing workshop this past summer, I am learning to live my truth and speak about it.

Now that it is done and over with, my dirty laundry aired for all to see, I wish I had done it sooner.

Sharing my secret was probably the bravest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I clearly underestimated the public’s reaction. The results were astounding.

People respected me (and the other caregivers) for being so transparent. Others in my shoes said, “I felt so alone. Now I realize I am not.”  Total strangers got a glimpse of a life they didn’t bother to understand until now. We were thanked for being the voice of the caregiver community.

The message was heard, loud and clear, and I am stronger for it as a result.

This time of year, 2006:

My husband was severely injured in 2004. Back in those days, even the ‘experts’ had no idea what the recovery process should be for someone with a brain injury and severe PTSD. The burden fell on my shoulders to manage his care, chase down his doctors to make sure they were doing their jobs, and see to it that our family stayed together and sane in the process.

There were no support networks. There was very little information about what life was going to be like for us next week, let alone next year. There was very little hope for us, as we had many odds stacked against us.

As I said in my interview, “I struggle because I feel like I’m not doing enough, or not doing everything the way I should be doing.”

The stress of our situation, which amounted to living 5 to a tiny hotel room with two double beds, only having enough money to eat twice per day, bill collectors calling because I was no longer working, not getting a single dime from the Army to be with him in his time of need, all to make sure my husband was taken care of in a hospital environment… added up.

Two years of living in a virtual hell, I became a literal ball of stress.

I broke down and decided that I couldn’t take care of anyone unless I took care of me. As selfish as it seemed at the time, it was the smartest thing I did. In theory.

I was assigned to a mental health doctor. Not just any doctor, but the now-infamous Dr. Hasan. The Fort Hood Shooter.

The first time I met him I didn’t like him. In fact, after my first appointment I called the Mental Health clinic and requested a new doctor. That request was refused.

On my first visit I explained the stress I was under, resulting in severe insomnia, lack of appetite despite a rapid weight gain and feelings of hopelessness. I remember telling him that all I wanted was something to help me sleep, as over-the-counter sleep aids were not doing the trick.

I. just. wanted. a. good. night. of. sleep.

He questioned my past medical history, which all doctors should do, but he quickly determined that I was wrong about what my needs were. Since I had told him I had a history of having post-partum depression and had taken anti-depressants in the past, I was somehow more of a mental case than I thought. He prescribed a cocktail of psychotropic medications like Zoloft, Wellbutrin and Geodon to be taken in high doses together.

Two weeks later I felt more out of control than when I started. I told him it wasn’t right. He told me I didn’t know better than him and he increased my dosages, adding even more medication to the mix. Topamax and a few other medications followed.

He added fuel to the fire when I questioned the need to take so many meds. He told me that I was bipolar and if I didn’t take them, he’d have me involuntarily committed to the mental ward of the same hospital my husband stayed as a patient.

Who would care for my kids? Would I lose my kids? What about Dan and his needs?

I was scared shitless of the alternatives. So, like a good patient, I kept taking them, even when I knew it was making me worse. The answer was always, “You are bipolar. If you stop the meds then bad things would happen.”

I lost my ever-loving mind on those medications.

{I need to step in here for a minute and explain that this is another factor that played into my need to keep this a secret. Medications like the ones I took are valuable for people who need them. By sharing this, I risk leaving a message that medications are bad, or will make you crazy. Please do NOT stop taking medications that your doctor has prescribed. If you feel you are being over-medicated, find another doctor. You know what is best for you but you MUST be followed by a doctor who listens to you too}

After a series of bad events happened, and I mean REALLY bad events that no one deals with in their lifetime, let alone in a one-to-six month period of time, I had a world view that didn’t include a desire to live.

I was doing EVERYthing wrong. My husband couldn’t stand me. My in-laws purposely created a divide between me and my husband by throwing a birthday party for him and not allowing me to be a part of it. The bank illegally repossessed our car. The one job I did manage to get was cut short after I reported a supervisor for sexual harassment. {He was married and told me he was looking for a mistress, and proceeded to tell me what he’d do to me if he had me ‘on the side’, which involved handcuffs}. My parents convinced our oldest child that he was better off living with them than with us, thus undermining our authority as parents. In desperation to make them stop intruding, I allowed our son to stay with them. I desperately missed him.

If that weren’t enough, there’s more.

I took what little money I had left from my last paycheck and put in an order for some purses to sell on eBay, desperate to make money to pay our bills. The supplier/dropshipper took my money and never delivered the goods. I had been scammed. One of the customers (who happened to be local) didn’t write a bad review or give me time to make good on the deal. Instead, she called in a favor from one of her students – a police officer – to come and arrest me in front of my children and neighbors.

In the meantime, I had discovered that a woman who had a history of dealing crack cocaine had managed to persuade Dan to let her into our home while I was gone. He was getting conned out of money because she came up with some very interesting sob stories. Weeks later I found out she had stolen checks out of the back of my checkbook and wrote hot checks all over town. I’ll never forget her name: Brenda Powell. I never did clear my name for all of those checks I never wrote. Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, an online group of people decided to start stalking my every move and even impersonated me.

My identity was being rewritten every day.

My life and my family was falling apart before my very eyes.

In my twisted and incapacitated thinking, I somehow convinced myself that the world was a better place without me in it. My children deserved a better mother than me. I just wanted it all to stop, even if temporarily.

I figured the only thing I had left to do right was to try to swallow as many of those pills that Dr. Hasan gave me, all at the same time.

So I did.

I couldn’t even get that right. I woke up in the psych ward, the very place I feared I would end up.

I stayed in the hospital for a week, living among people who were truly out of touch with reality. It was a co-ed facility. There were no locks on our doors and men could come and go as they pleased. One woman was certain she had been violated in her sleep. She slept in the room next to mine, and I was totally freaked out at the thought of being raped.  About five days into my stay, the orderly in charge of dispensing my medication made sexual advances toward me. The dude was sicker than me, telling me how sexy I was because I had hair on my arms. {I can’t make this up if I tried} Pissed to no end, I fought back. They released me that day for fear that I would expose the hospital for their obvious liability.

To add insult to injury, I was forced to take those medications after I got out. Child protective services showed up at our door. Not because I tried to commit suicide, but rather my family was convinced that I was a horrible mother by staying with a man who was diagnosed with PTSD. They wanted all three of my children in their care, not just one of them.

If they only knew I was truly the mental patient at that time. I HAD to keep this a secret.

By then I was scared to death to not comply with doctor’s orders. By then they had me convinced I really was bipolar after all. Only crazy people try to kill themselves, right?

So I kept taking the medication. I kept living in fear of losing my marriage and my family.

Then one day, about six months later, after my father told me what a horrible mother I was to not dish out $1,000 for my son to take a trip to Mexico with his church group, combined with a husband who was once again in another “I hate you” mode because his sister convinced him I was the devil himself. Not only that, but she was pushing him to drink excessively. Oh, the drinking! He was a MEAN drunk. He never laid a finger on me, but his words cut into me like a knife.

… I lost it.

FUCK this, I thought. Why do I try?

My mind was still in a fragile state. I once again went into a twisted way of thinking. I figured the best gift I could give to my children was to let them have another mother. I was sure Dan would find a quality wife to replace me. At least then they would have a chance of being together and happy.

That time I tried even harder. I swallowed more toxic pills, and lots of them.

I have vague memories of getting my stomach pumped. My bowels had released in my bedsheets while laying on the gurney. They called my husband in right after that, leaving him to see me naked and covered in my own excrement. I didn’t care at the time, but the look on is face is forever etched in my mind. Stripped of my dignity, I tried harder to let go. I overheard female voices that sounded like they were coming from inside a tunnel. The faint voices referenced the surgical scars on my now-bare chest. The bitches said, “If I were her, I would have asked for a refund on that surgery.”

A man in a gurney next to me had also overdosed. I vaguely remember telling the nurses to go help him and leave me to die. It’s not like they seemed to care about my dignity anyway.

For reasons I don’t understand, I was spared with my life and the man next to me died. I still hold guilt over that. Why me, God? Why him?

I spent another week in another hospital. I try to block some of those images out of my mind, but they come to me in the form of nightmares.

This time, CPS showed up because my family DID find out about this suicide attempt. My sister went as far as writing to my husband’s command to strip him of his 20+ year career, pointing her fingers at him as the culprit. How she thought that would fix anything is beyond me. She was malicious and vindictive, though I am sure she has convinced herself it was for ‘my own good’. She acted as though he personally shoved the pills down my throat. I told her that Dan was not the problem.

It was the lack of understanding and the insistence of criticism from both sides of our family that was the real problem!

As if to prove my point here, I will share this: Instead of getting support when I needed it most, that’s when my parents and sisters went on a mission to go to anyone and everyone to tell them what a horrible and incapable mother I was. They talked to our son’s pastor. They talked to our children’s teachers. They even colluded with my evil sister-in-law to see that Dan and I would no longer remain together. CPS showed up, of course, and part of the ‘terms’ they gave me to keep my children was to continue taking my medications and continue seeing a psychiatrist.

And that is when I took a huge risk and refused. I have not taken a single solitary pill for the last five years and I’ve never had a problem since.

I won’t go into detail here about what saved my life and replaced my will to live, as that will have to be shared in my book, but suffice it to say…

I was either the world’s worst fuck-up — or the luckiest woman in the world.

It took a long time to realize: I am the luckiest woman in the world. God spared me for a reason. It wasn’t my time, and now I understand why.

A good friend and colleague of mine, Debbie Stanley, shared this analogy as to why people lose hope in times like these. She says:

Suicide is always an option for each of us, every moment of every day. Usually we don’t consider it a viable or desirable option, but logically, it’s there. When unbearable depression or anxiety takes hold, suicide can start to seem like a better and better idea. Eventually it can become just one of a few options the person sees, and sometimes it becomes the only visible option. It’s like walking toward the corner of a room: The closer you get to the corner, the less you can see of the space behind you. This is brain chemistry, pure and simple. It’s not character or willpower or optimism. A bullet changed Dan’s brain in an instant; the relentless crush of circumstances changed yours over time. Blessedly, both of you made it through the eye of that needle.

Fast forward to 2012

I’ve learned a lot of things about myself, about being a caregiver, and about paying it forward. I have tirelessly worked to help others, but one piece of the puzzle in helping others was missing.

I needed to tell my story. To the world. And not feel ashamed in doing it.

I came to the conclusion after five years of being ‘unmedicated’ and thus completely stable that I DID NOT NEED TO BE MEDICATED and/or LABELED AS CRAZY. I needed support. I needed proper sleep. I needed better coping skills.

{I need to once again step in here to say that medications do have value and there is no shame in taking them. My husband takes many of the medications I once used to take. He is now stable as a result. Please do NOT take my situation and apply it to yours. We are all unique in our needs.}

What I really needed was for people to either support us or get the hell out of our lives. We need to be surrounded by people who are willing to work to understand the sacrifices our family is making. I needed to be heard. I needed to have a voice.

{I need to be ABUNDANTLY clear here. I do not blame anyone for what happened to me. I take responsibility for my actions. No one should feel guilty over what I did. I do, however, hope they learned from it as much as I did.}

In 2009, we moved to the middle of nowhere for a reason. My family and his family are no longer allowed to intrude. PERIOD.

The good news is, now I am to a point of healing (in part as a result of my Extreme Do-Over Experiment) that I feel strong enough and secure enough in this process to share these secrets, to let go of the shame and guilt, and let others know they are not alone. Our paths are not easy. But together . . . with strength that comes from shared stories and experiences . . . we can ensure that our journeys continue to make a difference.

So, with that said, I’d like to share two videos with you. If you have already seen them, perhaps seeing it again or even for the first time…knowing what it took for me to share my confession, knowing what I went through to get to this point…I am praying you’ll see me in a new-and-improved light.

First, the video of the story that aired:

(RSS readers, click this link to see the video)

For the full print story, click here.

Next is the bonus footage that did not air, but is posted on the CBS News website. I am particularly proud of this segment because it  articulates very well what we’ve been through, are going through, and demonstrates the hope that we have for a better future.

(RSS readers, please click this link to access the video)

I want to give a VERY special thanks to my fellow caregivers who appeared in this segment too: Brannan Vines, founder of FamilyofaVet.com, Melissa Johnson, volunteer coordinator for FamilyofaVet.com, and Kat Honaker (AKA “Uncle Sam’s Mistress“). Your strength and determination to help each other in our darkest times of need, despite having your own needs, inspires me. Thank you just doesn’t seem enough.

Resources I wish to share:

Caregiver self-care packet

More on Secondary PTSD

Join the Caregiver Mental Health Summit 2012 (November 29th and 30th)A Virtual “Summit” for Military & Veteran Caregivers (and those who want to help them) – focused on mental health – the first of its kind!

If you are holding secrets inside yourself like I had done for all these years, I encourage you to get help. Reach out. Connect.

And …keep reading…

I hope this blog will somehow touch you and help you find the strength you may have forgotten you had inside.

 

About The Author

Torrey Shannon

My name is Torrey Shannon and I am a writer, author, blogger, movie consultant, speaker, veteran's advocate and Blue Star Mom. I am also a full-time caregiver and spouse of a wounded warrior. My husband survived a gunshot wound to the head in a gunfight in Iraq in 2004 after serving in the Army for more than 23 years. We spent three years of his recovery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He has severe PTSD and suffered a traumatic brain injury. Dealing with the invisible wounds of war first-hand allows me to bring a human element to the problems our military communities face. Blogging gives me the chance to do what I love the most: write about life after combat and help create awareness and solutions for military members and their families. When I am not writing here, I freelance for a variety of publications and media outlets and am currently writing a book.