Treating the effects of trauma is never easy. And in military culture, the challenge is even greater. The special demands placed on our service members and their families can lead to sometimes-tragic consequences: PTSD, depression, divorce, drug and alcohol addiction, trauma, and suicide.
We at LEAP recognize that within the military culture, traditional psychotherapy can be stigmatizing and feel like "just a lot of talk" among people who value doing and action. Service members are hands-on. They trust their experience and the people they serve with. LEAP strives to engage them in their own healing process with solutions offered that understand who they are, respect their culture and meet them squarely on their own terms.
In equine assisted psychotherapy, horses serve as metaphors and powerful stand-ins for the people, issues and challenges in the client’s life – or the lives of the couple, family or military unit. A highly-trained LEAP team puts the horses’ unique sensitivities to work – their special capacity to read and respond to peoples’ non-verbal signals and cues - helping military clients understand and recognize patterns, build on their personal strengths, and translate emotional insights into life-changing action.
To learn more, please read linked Eagala and Military Services brochure.
Peaches by Dustin Stacks
*Dustin has asked LEAP to use his name in full with the hope that others in need of help may seek treatment thanks to his willingness to share his journey.
This is the story of my personal journey through, PTSD, depression, drug abuse, suicide and most importantly my recovery. My story is just that it is my own. It is unique to me, just like yours will be to you. I say “just like yours will be to you” because this isn’t for people who have already recovered. This is for you, the lost soul looking for a better way. We will travel together through a lot of sad, a good bit of in between and all kinds of happy. But at the end of this no matter what, there is always hope, there is always a chance to save yourself. If there is a breath in your body it’s possible to change.
The day I turned nineteen I was at U.S. Coast Guard Training Center in Cape May New Jersey. I graduated shortly thereafter and spent the next five years living the dream. Everything was awesome. I had some great friends, my family was proud of me and I had a rewarding job. I felt invincible. I acted that way as well. One day that all came crashing down. We were on patrol in Seattle Washington escorting the M/V Tillicum to Vashon Island. It was our last escort of that deployment, the last five minutes operating on the water. Then we were homeward bound. But the last five minutes of that patrol ended up defining the next eight years of my life. The worst possible thing happened; we had to watch as our shipmate lost his life. All the control I had over my life the feeling of invincibility, the trust that we put in each other whenever we hit the water, those feelings were all but gone. Hopeless doesn’t even begin to describe what that feels like. Everything immediately got worse. We had to do an investigation. The people that were supposed to take care of us when our world turned upside down left us to be managed by strangers. We spent a week just the seven of us constantly retelling the story to people we didn’t know. At one point during the investigation one of the Lieutenants said to me “Were you good friends with Petty Officer Gill” I said “what does that have to do with anything? But no we weren’t best buddies going out every night if that’s what you want to know.” Her reply was shocking to me “Well I just wanted to know because it’s probably not as difficult for you to deal with.” “Lady you seriously do not understand how this job works? I mean come on you’re a god damn Lieutenant. Well let me explain it to you: When we gear up and hit the water I don’t give a flying f*** if you are my worst enemy or my best friend. It’s an unspoken truth that we have each other’s back, we have the mentality that if I can save your life by giving mine that’s what’s going to happen. Do you even have a clue the bonds that are formed? The shitty part is that when we can’t do that, when we can’t save our own, it tears a hole in you that cannot be filled ever again.” That was the last exchange I remember before going to the Irish pub down the street and getting so drunk I could not function. That’s where I found something to fill the hole.
I got back to Alaska the next day it was April now and there was still snow on the ground I took 2 weeks of leave. I sat in my house drinking and doing a lot of cocaine, I didn’t sleep much for those 2 weeks. Then things got scary. I finally passed out at midnight of day 3 or 4. When I was startled awake by a loud crash on my back porch. I ran outside with no shoes on and all I could see was blood stained snow. My entire yard was covered in it. I ran back into my house and grabbed my shotgun. On my way back outside I stopped and noticed something in the bushes. I could clearly see my neighbor in the woods yelling for help but I couldn’t hear anything and I couldn’t move. I was frozen. It felt just like the accident. As drunk as I was I put two and two together and realized I was hallucinating. I called my friends and they came and got me. But I couldn’t tell them what I had been doing, I would have been discharged. So I just told them I was drunk. I went to the Airforce base the next day to speak to a counselor. I told them about the accident and the walking nightmare I had just experienced. They reassured me that this was normal and that I wasn’t going crazy. But the dreams kept coming, just about every night. I would wake up with a feeling of either hopelessness or sheer terror. Often times I would see the event that occurred and others someone would be trying to drowned me. After having these dreams for a long period of time I knew they were not real when I woke up the auditory and visual hallucinations were just dreams that didn’t stop upon waking. The problem was the feeling of terror and hopelessness was very real. Those feelings are so powerful that, I would literally climb the wall to get away from them.
I spent the next four years of my career engaging in risky behavior. I lost all motivation for the job and I became a recluse. I stopped hunting, fishing, flying and even gave up playing guitar which I had never imagined giving up. I had been playing since I was twelve. I put everything down except the pill bottle and a straw. I would get home from work and take a handful of Percocet and try and make it through the night. I still wasn’t sleeping it was terrifying to fall asleep. I had night terrors all the time. My work performance was horrible. I didn’t care about living anymore, why would I care about my job. Suicide is really hard to wrap your mind around especially if someone has never been down that road. It is completely irrational for example I was worried about telling people my problems, but I saw no problem with killing myself. I was completely alone until I met the woman who saved my life, my loving wife Leah. Trust me it was not an, I love you let’s get you some help overnight deal, not even close.
My wife did not know anything about the accident other than it happened. She did not know I was using drugs. I had a bad knee so I got the pills from a doctor so that really didn’t look like a problem. I remember the first night I had a night terror with her next to me. I was screaming in my sleep so she shook me awake. Well I was completely terrified I didn’t recognize who she was, she looked like a demon her eyes were hollow and void of all life. I was paralyzed with fear but I managed to reach out and launch an uncoordinated attack. (I still apologize for doing that). She got me to come around and I just sat there crying telling her I was sorry. What a tough devoted woman she is every time that happened she just held me tighter. I couldn’t scare this one away, she’s got no quit in her. I had several relationships before I met Leah but whenever they would start to get close I would shut them out until they gave up. But things were about to go so far south that I almost gave up on myself.
I had bad knees and couldn’t run anymore. Long story short they medically discharged me. So me my wife and one year old daughter Hannah left the west coast for my home town of Charleston South Carolina. I had cleaned up just enough to pass drug tests and find a job. We bought a house in the middle of nowhere. That’s ideal if you want to hide from the world. For an addict with a bunch of money in his pocket and a lot of demons left to hunt down it is a recipe for disaster. I surprisingly kept off of cocaine for six months or so. I had curbed my pill use a bit. I thought I’m doing well I can do this, But I soon lost all motivation again and the thrill from being free from the restraints of the Coast Guard had worn off. I realized then I was all alone. That little voice inside of me started to whisper “Dustin your all alone out here, nobody to save you now, your wife will leave you everyone leaves you, you will never be happy again, and you don’t deserve to be.” I didn’t feel like I deserved to be happy. There was only one way I could silence the whisper pills and more coke. It’s amazing how long you can go before you run out of excuses to keep doing drugs. I would disappear for hours sometimes days. My wife knew what was going on but she felt just as helpless as I did.
The night it all came down to zero I was out getting high. I came home and my wife was on the front steps in tears yelling at me. “WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS TO US.” That is one of the hardest parts of addiction the people who really love you, don’t know what to do sometimes. They want to help but they don’t know what’s going on inside your head. And most of the time when they ask all they get is a bunch of lies. There is a lot of “I’m fine” or “it doesn’t matter you wouldn’t understand” and they don’t understand because like I said before your story is unique only you truly know it. That night I decided the jig was up there was no reason to continue so I took about 300 milligrams of morphine some more coke and told my wife “when you leave I’ll be gone” “what do you mean Dustin” “I’m saying when you leave for California next week just stay because I’ll be dead before your plane touches the ground.” I said all of this without a single tear no emotion, I was as cold and hard as a stone. Every day I woke up feeling like I had been locked in a cage with my past and it was skinning me alive. I felt like my soul was like one big scab that was peeled away every night. My bones ached and all the thoughts in my head were as loud as thunder. My wife just looked at me walked the space I had put between us reached through the bricks and grabbed my heart. It was the first time in years I had felt anything at all. She sat there crying on my shoulder showering me with love, telling me how much I meant to them how much they needed me. She said “I love you more than your problems so we can beat them together” I agreed to go to the VA Emergency room and talk to one of the mental health professionals. So I did and they put me in the mental health ward for a week. I hated it there. I really wanted to get better but it felt like I was in prison. It felt like I was back in that investigation room all over again. My mother came to see me there, she had no idea I was depressed or had a drug problem. That’s not her fault that’s how easy it is to conceal all that pain, all that sadness just cover it up with a smile. (Things get better soon I promise don’t get more depressed reading this part. But we have to go through the sad to get to the glad). When I left the hospital the first thing I did was get a giant bag of fries god they starve you in that hospital. I bounced around from job to job trying to get my footing, but I relapsed within 60 days. Back to the VA I went. This time something happened. A very nice lady from the Veterans Enrichment Center came to speak with us. She said a bunch of stuff that I didn’t pay any attention to. Then she asked me a question “If you could be doing the thing that makes you happy what would it be” without any hesitation I said I’d be on the back of a horse. She handed me a pamphlet with a bunch of VA sponsored therapeutic riding centers in the area. I left the hospital again but this time I had a lead. Growing up the only things I did were play guitar and ride horses. I gave up riding for quite a while, almost six years. When I left Alaska and went to my next duty station in California, I came across a horse named Rebel. He was a twelve year old paint mustang with a lot of spirit. I was drawn to him, I wasn’t looking to buy a horse or even start riding again. But that’s how I made it through my last duty station. When I would ride Rebel I had that feeling of invincibility again and it’s the only time I didn’t think about the accident. It gave me energy to get through the day. When I was discharged I lost Rebel, I had to sell him. But when the VA gave me the option of therapeutic riding as a therapy somewhere in my mind I put together that horses were a tool that I had already used to survive.
I researched on the internet and came across Low Country Equine Assisted Psychotherapy. I emailed the office, asked for information and got a response that day. The next day I spoke to Dr. Kathleen Broughan. I didn’t really know what to say to her but being the savvy doctor that she is; she brought it out of me. She told me this is not a riding facility, that’s not how this process works. I will admit that bummed me out but I made an appointment anyhow. My first session with DR. B, Equine Specialist Lindsay Carter and one of the horses went really well. We talked about the accident and how it was affecting my life. I was completely sober and completely ashamed of my drug use. I didn’t even mention drugs to Dr. B for two or three months. Every time I would go to talk about it, it was like someone piercing my heart it was emotionally and physically painful. I was getting better; I would leave therapy holding my head a little higher each time. Every session I became a little more comfortable with my past. As I became more comfortable with the past my future once again started to shine. I had this feeling that I was supposed to make a big leap in the therapy process. Sometimes those feelings turn out to be true and this is where the happy picks up and the sad falls to the wayside. It is so important to have a network of mental health professionals and friends and family to support you. Doing this alone is extremely difficult and you don’t have to do it alone.
I guess I was about six months into therapy doing all the work, making strides every time just giving it my all. That is what it takes, if you don’t do the work, if you go there and tell yourself a bunch of bullshit because that’s what you think everyone wants to hear, you might as well save yourself the gas money. When I was using I could tell you and myself exactly what I thought would get me what I wanted. We love to hear what we want, but it is just one of the many pitfalls along the rocky road of addiction. But anyway I show up to the barn and all the horses are in the arena, the gate is closed and all the horses are eating. I walked up to the fence and climbed through the boards like I was Dewayne “The Rock” Johnson. (That’s how much confidence and energy these animals gave me. Before I would sulk into the arena and now I am entering like a professional athlete). I said “What are we doing today working with everyone” no she said “Just pick one but ill warn you Peaches is a little moody and not many people work with her” I thought to myself I know what that’s like being moody and nobody wants to work with you. Needless to say I picked Peaches. If you have ever seem a movie about a man and his horse and they instantly connect like they were created for each other, that’s Peaches and me. She was nervous about the wind, trees blowing and birds rustling in the bushes. She had the startled look of wanting to flee but I kept her attention. I spent that entire session completely locked on with Peaches. It was the first time in 8 years that the pain I felt was gone. Everything was purged from my spirit I felt clean again. It wasn’t this empty hole anymore either. Peaches allowed me to reconnect with the feelings that I only remember having as a child; the feeling of no pressure; playful energy that forces you to smile. It was almost like a slow motion scene from a tragic movie where at the end the characters are reunited with their loved ones and the music is playing and everything is perfect. Now the session did end and I had to go back to the world and face my problems without peaches there, but making that breakthrough that day gave me the power to go back to that feeling again and it has kept me from relapsing so many times that I have lost count. When I went through that trauma it consumed me for eight long years. I was steeped in emotional and physical pain. I felt it all the way to the marrow of my bones. The thing I realized is, I had to purge those feelings from my body and mind. The only way to do that is to find a safe place and to talk to someone. When I spoke about my problems it did something to my mind. It helped me to logically evaluate the chaos that was rampaging through my mind. If I wouldn’t have done that, I would be in the ground. Your success is in your hands. It’s a whatever it takes moment and only you can make the decision to wade into the sea of hope. It is so hard to do that and requires a tremendous amount of courage to face everything that is haunting you. So when you take that first step realize there is nothing braver and you will be a better person at the end of your odyssey.
I talked before about being ashamed of my addiction and the horrible things I did to my family. I felt terrible about it. But now I own that part of my life. Sometimes I find myself talking to complete strangers about it, but the difference is, I don’t look at the ground and sulk through a sad story anymore. I tell the story of the human condition, the spirit of a man that was on the edge of the abyss and how I overcame an ocean of misery. I detail my journey through treacherous seas and crooked roads. I tell of the people that diligently manned the lighthouse never giving up on me, knowing I was out there somewhere, trying to find my way home and the horses that have always been there waiting for me.