It’s 2:53 a.m. and I’m wide awake…with so much on my mind. I step outside to smoke, clear my head, and Butters, my yellow Lab, follows me outside. I can’t explain it, but he knows when I’m upset or pensive…with something on my mind.
Post traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, is one helluva thing. Tonight, I was awakened by a message sent to me by a dear friend. The iPhone alert was enough to nudge me from my slumber. Slumber, I might add, which was riddled by yet another horrible nightmare; a rather vivid mental retelling of horrible sights, smells and happenings from battlefields far, far away.
Sadly, this nightmare is not solely a dream. Rather it is a transcript, a verbatim reliving of things many will only ever read about in books, or observe from the comfort of their own couch.
I’ve struggled for over 7 years with this insomnia, broken up by intermittent bouts of naps, sprinkled with the nightly reliving of loss, pain, heartache and conflict.
Sometimes I say I’ve grown accustomed to it. Other times I stop lying to myself and admit that it never gets any easier, nor does it simply fade away with time. Not in 7 years, at least.
My team of medical professionals has tried a wide range of medications which usually only leave me feeling dazed, confused and as though I’m walking in a fog. This doesn’t work for a guy like me with a zeal for life and helping and loving others. So I stopped the regimen of drugs. It is a never-ending cycle of pharmaceutical musical chairs. Indeed, it often feels like a cruel joke is being played on me. Sadly, it is no joke, but is the life which I now lead. It is a life lived by so many combat Veterans.
Regardless of the landscape and geography, Veterans spanning decades of conflicts march to the beat of this same drum, nightly.
Last year, I wrote a blog post titled, “Annoying Pets & Their Owners.” In it, I described a variety of types of pet owners, irritating traits, aggravating animals, etc.
You were annoying; your pet was annoying.
I had a secretly-held disdain for you both.
I never understood those of you who posted pictures of your animals, who loved on and kissed a dog, allowed him to kiss and lick you. I never appreciated a pup who met you at the door after a long and challenging work day, or who you took with you to every event. Where you found solace with your pet, I found germs, inconvenience and hair. LOTS of hair.
I met someone shortly after moving to Texas. A lot happened. Some positive; some negative. Nevertheless it happened, and it happened to me.
She had a beautiful yellow Lab named Butters.
Many of you have seen me posting pics with this big hunk of beautiful fur. Well, that’s how it happened. Through heart-breaking loss, Butters and I found each other. I remember the very first night that we bonded and truly connected.
She was gone, and Butters and I both had only one thing: each other.
I had never let a dog really sit beside me, much less sleep with me. But as I sat on the edge of my bed, broken, Butters silently walked over to me, sat back on his haunches and nudged my hand with his nose.
He saw the pain, heard the heartache and knew that I needed him, even when I didn’t know I needed him.
Later that night, as I lay down with the glow of the television dancing across the walls, Butters lay down on the floor bedside me. Every time I sighed, moved, stretched or turned … he was right there nudging me, letting me know that he was there for me.
The irony is that if I hadn’t been there, Butters himself would have had no one.
He needed me.
And yet, there he was, caring for me without any expectation of love in return.
He cared for me.
He saw my pain.
He wanted to help me, to comfort me.
I wept, deeply touched at the realization that this dog cared for me. Butters got it.
Even most of my family doesn’t “get” PTSD. It has severely crippled relationships with my entire family, relationships which were already strained. They never really tried to connect with me, nor have we ever even had much of a conversation about it. For over 7 years, now.
I put on a happy face most of the time. I try not to share the struggles and heartaches which I experience in my day-to-day life publicly.
You don’t want to hear that I haven’t had a full, restful night of sleep since that Blackhawk helicopter carried me away from that mountainside in the Korangal Valley, deep in the Hindu-Kush mountains, nearly 8 years ago.
You don’t want to hear that the reason I hate driving so much is because every single stray item on the side of the road resembles an improvised explosive device.
You don’t want to hear that in a crowd I can never relax and enjoy myself because I’m waiting for someone to pull out a weapon and begin to hurt others. So, I constantly scan the crowd for that threat.
You don’t want to read about the daily struggle that I have with simply swallowing all of the pills prescribed to me by some doctor who says he understands my struggles because he’s treated many, many Veterans…and yet, he doesn’t, because he never wore a pair of combat boots and he never had to kill in order to survive.
You don’t want to read that I’m scared to fall in love because I’m terrified that I’ll have no control over what comes out of my mouth and inadvertently I might hurt that special someone for whom I care so very much.
You don’t want to hear that I’ve been terrified of owning a dog because I was afraid that he’d do something like accidentally poop or pee in the house and I’d lose it and be incapable of providing the loving home which he so richly deserved.
You don’t want to read that I have such a tender heart that I retreat and withdraw because I’m overwhelmingly afraid of attracting someone who will only be hurt by me.
Even now, while sitting on my patio at 3:50 a.m., most of me cannot believe that I’m actually considering publishing this post. PTSD is embarrassing. Most of you don’t, and never will understand it. Some of you will try to do so because of a close friend or relative whose love and friendship you cherish. It is heart-wrenching, to say the least. For those of you who do try to understand, please let me say that you will never know precisely how much that will mean to your Veteran … even if we are unable to say or show it.
That night, as I lay there unable to sleep, consumed by my thoughts, Butters nudged me again, seemingly unwilling to allow me to lay there in fear, heartache and misery. Then suddenly, for once in my life, I just wanted that warm fur ball next to me. So I patted the bed and without a moment’s hesitation, he tossed his 115 pounds of cuddly love beside me. Since that night, he’s pretty much never left my side.
We completed a training regimen for PTSD service dogs and handlers together through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Butters has been a God-send. He often goes with me to work, even.
We grocery shop together.
We travel together.
We run together.
We laugh together.
We cry together.
We swim together.
We read together.
We play instruments and sing together.
And, since I’m a chef, we cook (and eat) together.
Now, apparently we blog and write together.
As I type this, Butters is laying at my feet, doing that annoying thing where he licks his paws, and all you can hear it his tongue making this weird noise. And I can’t help do anything but smile. Nights like these, where the dreams are just a little too real, the flames burn just a little too hot, the gunfire pops just a little too loud, and the screams echo just a little too frequently…he knows.
How could he have known the pain which I felt?
How can he know that I need him to be exactly where he is at this very moment, licking those damned paws?
I don’t know, nor do I know why. What I do know is that I’m a proud pet owner, and completely in love with a yellow Lab.
Go ahead. Call me a hypocrite. That’s okay, because I am one. But the other thing that I am is man enough to admit that I was wrong. And, I’m man enough to eat my words every time I buy a new squeaky yellow ball to throw and play fetch with JoeJoe for hours on end.
Chances are, I still probably find you – and your pet – incredibly annoying. But now it isn’t because I hate animals; it’s simply because I have the best dog in the whole, wide world.
Lastly, I’ll say this: God sent Butters to me, because HE knew that this big ole pile of fur and happiness would give me the love that I needed.
That, my friends, is absolutely a blessing. One which I don’t think I’ll ever be able to repay.
For now, I’m just loving me some Butters.
The funny thing is Butters wasn’t a “rescue,” I was, because he rescued me.
Editor’s note: the original, unabridged version of this post can be found on Roman’s blog.
Roman Coley Davis is a disabled combat veteran who medically retired from the Army following a lengthy deployment to Afghanistan, where he served as a human intelligence collector/interrogator and linguist, in the Korangal Valley, made infamous by the National Geographic documentary entitled “Restrepo.”
After his retirement, Roman followed another passion by graduating from Le Cordon Bleu. Now a skinny, Southern chef, Chef Roman is a National Chef Advocate and Blogger for Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign, and serves on the national Social Council for No Kid Hungry, a campaign that aims to end child hunger in the U.S.
He is also an advocate for disabled combat veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, through his support of and advocacy for the U.S. Special Forces Association, The Fisher House, and the Military Order of the Purple Heart.
In his private time, Roman can be found somewhere near Houston, Texas, eating, fishing, flirting, traveling, and blogging about the “shenanigans” of his life…and playing fetch with a Yellow Lab named Butters, his PTS Service Companion!