Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Finding Me in My Hoop

Last weekend, I stepped out of my comfort zone and into an area of the unknown. I was a bit fearful, as I had no idea what to expect or what was to come. I had been invited to a Wounded Warrior Project Retreat for caregivers of wounded veterans. I was full of excitement, yet nervous. I have heard from others the emotional toll the retreats can take on wives of wounded veterans and knew that it would take a lot for me to keep my composure. Talking about Kevin's combat injuries and the toll it has taken on our family can be difficult at times with people that don't understand what we live through, but when you put women together that just "get it" and live the life every single day, the emotions can really take over. We understand what the others are going through and it is an understanding and bond that cannot be expressed in words.

With the hotel being in Tampa, FL, I ended up leaving my house around 5:30 Friday morning in order to be at Heather's house around 8:00 and on the road from her house by 8:30. We arrived at our hotel around 2:30 Friday afternoon and walked into the conference room, where we were greeted by WWP ladies. I am so sure a bit of fear and uncertainty was written all over our faces as we began to wonder what the hell we had gotten ourselves into.

After filling out paperwork, we were able to check into our room and were in awe at the suite we were provided and the fabulous view of Tampa Bay. I could have stared out my window from sunup to sun down. It was just beautiful. Following check in and some needed downtime, we took some time to learn names of the ladies that were taking part in our adventurous weekend and to become more familiar with the WWP ladies, who we each came to love! We ate a wonderful dinner at a nearby restaurant, where stuffed shrimp, steak, Mahi, and other tasty foods were served. I decided to go with an impeccable Crab Crusted Mahi Mahi, salad, and New York style Cheese Cake. It was divine!!! Many laughs and stories were shared over our tables and bonds were in the early stages of being formed.

*Disclaimer before I even start into our weekend: If it is out of order, please understand. The weekend was incredibly busy and held so many emotional moments. I am also certain I have left a few details and activities out of this post because my mind is running in a million directions. If you were at the retreat and want to add something, please leave a comment! I would love for you ladies that were there with me to also add to it from your perspectives.*
Saturday morning, we all woke, ate breakfast, and loaded the vans by 8:00, then were off to Quantam Leap Farm. Upon our arrival we were welcomed by a group of amazing women, Edie Dopking, Carla Staats, and Jenna Miller. Over the course of the weekend, we spent the majority of Saturday and Sunday with these ladies, especially with Carla and Jenna. Edie founded QLF in 2000 to serve to those with injuries and disabilities. She wanted to share the special gifts and sense of freedom horses offer (and I can definitely attest to this). Those of us know the retreat we apart of the W.O.W (Women of Warriors) at EASE (Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association) Program. This program is for caregivers of wounded warriors and is a program that will follow each of us that have participated in it. The EASE program is run by Carla Staats, Co-Director, MA, LCDC, CAP, CTT, EAP, EAGALA Certified Professional, who is the founder and president of Staats Behavioral Health and Wellness, LLC, and Co-Owner of N2 Nutrician, LLC. Jenna Miller is also a Co-Director at EASE Program, Head Therapeutic Riding Instructor, MA, RMHCI.

On Saturday morning, we spent it around a fire getting to know each other and focusing on PTS with Bob Delaney. I must say, if you are not familiar with his name, become familiar!!! Bob has so much insight on PTSD and has so many stories to tell. I feel so very fortunate that we were able to be blessed with his presence.  Delaney wrote a book, Surviving the Shadows, that each of us left with. I have yet to have time to read it, but it is my next read - one that I cannot wait to read!

Saturday afternoon was spent in the arena, taking on the equine side of things. This is where many emotions came out and we began processing all that we are taking on in our lives. We tend to take on more than we realize and honestly more than we should. To start the afternoon session off, we all stood on a ramp in the arena and were told to watch the horses as they made their way around the arena and interacted with one another in their world. We quietly observed as our soon to be new equestrian friends moved around while carefully watching the unfamiliar humans that had taken over a small portion of their space. We watched how they reacted to each other, how one would claim dominance over the others and how one would stand off to the side, almost alone. We cautiously and carefully observed every move they took, just as they did us. After a short time passed, we were asked to discuss and express what we had witnessed. The observations were each unique and each so truthful. It is amazing what you can learn in a few moments of silence and observation. After a short talk, we were then instructed to go out into the arena and meet the horses. Excitement swept over some of us, while fear washed over others. I instantly felt connected with what looked like the largest horse in the arena. There is something special about him. He is large, yet has such a soft demeanor about him. I guess he reminded me of Kevin. Everyone is instantly intimidated by him, but when given the chance the intimidation factor subsides and the soft side shows through.

At one point on Saturday we were each told to grab a bucket and were led to a huge pile of manure. At this pile we were told to fill our bucket with as much crap as what we felt was taking an emotional toll on us, what was bringing us down. Most of us filled it close to the rim, yet one person filled it not even half way - Her reason was no matter how bad things get, she is still optimistic. In an instant light bulbs started to brighten in everyone. How could we not think about that as well? We each labeled the our buckets with things/issues that emotionally and physically drain us. We labeled them with things that take a toll on us and that interfere with our lives. It seemed as though our lists were almost endless... After sharing, we were told to form groups, locate a horse, put the bridle on the horse we choose and take turns leading the horses around the arena WITHOUT putting our buckets down. Never once did anyone complain. Never once did anyone show any complications with balancing everything at once...we just did it. As wives, mothers, and caregivers - it is amazing the things that we take on. We often think that we are going to break should we take on anything else, yet we don't. We keep taking things on without losing our composure. We have learned how to smile even when we are overwhelmed with day to day life. The one thing that none of us thought about: We were told to carry our buckets...we were never told we couldn't dump the crap out of them. Take a moment to think about what dumping the bucket would have entailed... Personally, I can now leave so much of the things that I allowed inside my life that have no place where they belong, out of my life. The buckets represented the unneeded stresses in our lives that we really do not need, but have been hesitant to let go of. These buckets become heavier by the day because we keep piling more and more crap into them, but if we just dump the buckets and stand up for ourselves, we will feel the heavy weights being lifted from our shoulders.

After a short break we were introduced to Hula Hoops. Okay, I will admit I saw the hoops and at first felt like running. If they expected me to hula hoop, they had another thing coming! Haha. I am not sure I would even remember how!!! Thankfully, us hula hooping was never the plan. However, their mission with the hoops was quite intriguing and has stuck with all of us since we left there. Place a hoop on the ground and stand inside of it. Take this time to process something. What is inside the hoop? Your hoop? You are and that is is. If you cannot control what is happening and it is not a direct impact on you, it does not belong in your hoop. What a great way to let go of things and focus on your own happiness and sanity. Outside of the hoop no longer matters nor is it a concern to you. If you cannot control it, let it go. The only thing that matters is you... in my hoop, me. Undoubtedly, people will judge us and our families and the VA will stress us out. Life won't go as we plan it, and you know what - that is honestly okay. Obstacles on the outside are not within our hoop and should not be added to our daily stresses.

Following an eventful day, we enjoyed amazing food, smores, and much needed girl time around a fire. Without realizing it, bonds had been formed by this time and we were all opening up more and more to each other. 

On Sunday, we started our day off the same way. Once at QLF, we sat in a circle with our feet in our hoops and went through the day before. Some had a wonderful nights sleep after a busy and emotional day, and others of us struggled to sleep as we took time to process things. I am one of those that has to take the time to process conversations and events when there is a meaning to them.

Shortly after arriving, we all took chairs into the grass in order to feel the warmth of the sun. It was quite chilly in the arena that morning. We sat in a circle as Dr. Edie Dopking spoke to us about the brain and how TBI's affect the brain. My attention was definitely drawn to all that she had to say with Kevin's brain injuries being one our his daily battles. Edie is so full of knowledge from her educational background, experience, and curiosity. I could have chatted with her for hours to gain more information on brain injuries and how the brain functions. Her strength and intelligence is admirable. Maybe one of these days I can spend more time picking her brain and gaining better knowledge on it all. I will say, it is nice to have a better understanding of why Kevin does some of the things he does or behaves in the way he does now. Thank you Edie for taking time with us!

During the course of Sunday, we spent more time in the arena and with the horses. Much like the day before, our conversations were around us as caregivers to wounded veterans, our husbands injuries, children, daily life, and things we can do to better ourselves. 

After talking and some activities, we were led to the stables and told to come up with four things that hold us back, then we were told to form into four groups. Each group was to take one word and one horse. We painted the words on the horse and painted pictures to describe our word. There were two other ladies in the group with me. We ended up with my favorite horse, who allowed us to paint all over him as he just stood there. He is such a loving guy and honestly, I miss him! We wrote Stigma in big, glittery pink letters and outlined it in black. We drew pictures of things that are a stigma when PTSD is heard.

Once we all painted, we were led back into the arena where three buckets of hay with carrots added were left sitting together. We were then told to label the buckets with resources that help us with our lives. Those resources consisted of support groups, family, money, organizations, and much, much more. We had labels all over each bucket with a different positive resource. It was surprising in a way with all that we were able to come up with, yet how little we actually utilize them. Jenna and Carla then told us we had to protect our resources from the horses. The only rule: We could NOT touch the horses. At that point, they allowed the four horses to come back into the arena. We formed a tight circle around our buckets of resources, refusing to let the horses near them. We had to protect what was rightfully ours. It was actually a bit humorous in how it all played out. One of the horses had "negativity" painted on him. Now, we know how negativity likes to try to force it's way into our lives and too often we allow it to seep into our lives, taking what is ours and leaving us on an emotional uphill climb. This horse tried everything he could to get into our resources. He nibbled on ears, he tried to push his way through, he even kicked ladies in the legs. Yes, he actually kicked! He chased the other horses away and showed his true stubborn side. It was a constant fight for awhile as he became very persistent. We stood strong and never allowed him in.  After time passed and many kicks were made and stomping from him was seen, he walked away and left us alone. Of course, this is also the time that we realized we did things the hard way...again. We were told to protect our resources and NEVER touch a horse. We were never told we couldn't take our worlds (hoops) and resources and leave the arena. We did eventually take our resources away from the threat, which is what we each need to remember to do in day to day living. Walk away from the negative aspects of life.

Following this, we did lead our horses out of the arena to wash the paint off. That was a chore in itself! If you ever paint a horse, which is actually a lot of fun, don't expect the glitter to just wash off!

After an eventful day, we said our goodbyes and went back to our hotel. We had about an hour of downtime to shower and collect ourselves before we dressed in our pajamas, WWP robes, and headed to the lobby for the start of a pajama party. We took a group photo outside by the bay, were surprised with an Willow Tree: Quiet Strength. It is perfect not only for the weekend that was spent, but also for the quiet strength we hold and carry with pride. After eyes filled with tears, we ate very tasty Chicken Alfredo while watching videos on WWP. We then hung out, chatted, made survival bracelets, then headed to our rooms. Some went to bed, while others formed up into groups and sat up chatting. Three of us decided to hang out in one of the rooms and talk before we all headed our separate ways the next morning.

My first ever Survivor Bracelet and YES I made it!!! I have now found something very therapeutic that I love making! More to come, I am sure. If you want one, send me a message! (brbiddle@ymail.com)

 Over the course of the weekend, not only did I learn a lot, but I also returned home with more knowledge and clarity in life. I was able to discover and release a peace within me that I did not realize I have and feel the tranquility that I had been missing. When we sat in our circles talking, we shared stories of similarity, stories that each could relate to and stories that only that person had been through. We each realized that no matter how different or alike our experiences have been - whether it be through marriage, the VA, disabilities, parenting, deployments, families, or whatever; the one thing we all shared: We are wives of wounded veterans. We understand the emotions that are tied into being wives and caregivers of veterans, while the majority of society have no idea. It is our husbands PTSD and TBI's and being wives of wounded veterans that tie us together and help up build an instant bond. We listened and we shared stories with a lot of head nodding, "I understand", "Me too" and "Oh, how could I possibly forget that one". With so many different backgrounds and experiences, we could all relate.

From a personal standpoint, I learned it's okay to let go of what I cannot control in life and to do so without feeling guilty, as well as maintaining my hoop and allowing everyone else to work their own messes out. I am working to accept life as it is now and to not hold on to the "what if's" or "could have beens". I am letting go and accepting that Kevin is not the man I kissed goodbye over six years ago, that he did in fact return a different man. He is a man that I am still learning and falling more and more in love with everyday.  He is not who he use to be, but who he is now is still an amazing man. I gained more knowledge on his brain injuries and exactly what they entail, so I now have a better understanding as to why he acts/things in the way he does and I am okay with it. I was able to come to the conclusion that I do fear letting go and trusting in many ways. I have to give trust back to Kevin and allow him to do more of what he can do. I think for quite some time now I have been afraid to do that because he has been through so much. I want to protect him when in all reality, I have to accept the fact I can't. I am human and I am his wife, but not a miracle worker nor can I predict what will happen.

I also learned that I have to put a focus on myself, as in only me. Yes, I am a wife, mother, caregiver, daughter and more, but I am also a person that has been through hell, not only through the military experiences and Kev's injuries, but also with my own health issues and personal life. I have to put some attention back on me and take care of myself. If I don't, who will? I deserve "me time" and it's okay to take the time away that I need.

Each of us hold so much in life and possess a uniqueness that has been pushed to the side. We each have to find the way to let the amazing qualities we hold shine again. We tend to easily get lost in the chaos of everyday life, husbands injuries, children, appointments until "it" becomes who we are. We neglect our wants and desires. The combat injuries that our husbands battle should never become who we are. Taking time for ourselves is not walking away or leaving behind our husbands and their injuries, because our love is too strong and runs too deep. Regardless of what we do for ourselves, our husbands will always be a top priority. However, we must focus on ourselves and how to improve who we are while finding ourselves again.

To the WWP ladies, Sue, Nina, and Robyn, I cannot thank you enough. There are no words for the weekend that was spent in Tampa. I am still trying to clearly process everything, yet in many ways that weekend helped me in numerous ways. To the ladies I am now blessed to call not just friends, but sisters, I love you all and miss each of you. YOU are NEVER alone...ALWAYS remember that! We are in this together. When one of us hurt, we all hurt. When one is happy, we share your excitement and are happy with you. It's comforting to know that we have each other and bonds that will last a lifetime.

(Thank you Ingrid for allowing me to use the photos you took or that were taken from your camera.)


  1. Great post Brittney and spot on! It was a terrific weekend and I enjoyed meeting and getting to know everyone :) Stay strong and remember to keep other people's crap out of your bucket and away from your hoop!

    1. Thank you so much! I am so glad we had the opportunity to enjoy and take in this retreat together! We must all remember to kick things out of our hoops that do not belong there and know that we can lean on each other through all that is going on in our lives!!!

  2. Thank you for sharing your experience. I don't have any of my family with PTSD but I do have a granddaughter with brain damage that occurred before birth. My daughter, her mother, goes through many of the same issues and problems that wives of these soldiers experience. I am sharing your blog with her as I believe she will see some of herself and hopefully gain some comfort in knowing that she is a part of the sisterhood of dedicated caregivers. She is my hero.

    1. Thank you so much for taking the time to read my blog and for sharing it with your daughter. I can only imagine what your daughter takes on and am sure that she is a hero to many. Whether we fall into the caregiver position as a spouse, parent, or child, we can all relate. Taking care of someone else can be trying, but it can also be so rewarding. Please tell your daughter she is in my thoughts and prayers and if she ever needs someone to talk to, I am just an email away! brbiddle@ymail.com.
      Sending hugs your way!!!

      ♥ Brittney

  3. Really enjoyed reading your blog. My husband has PTSD caused by military service,and is under a fantastic veterans mental health team here in the UK. However you guys over in the US seem to be a lot further ahead than us here with regards to spouse support. I have (with the help of the hubby's veterans team) just set up a spouse/carers group drop in once a month with the same sort of philosophy and ideas you guys seem to have, The one thing we have all said is we feel so alone in all of this. To be able to reach out to others and say hello and make them realize your not alone is such an empowering thing!
    like i say we are in the baby stages of set up but who knows maybe one day we will have a retreat programme like yourselves,

    Thanks again Karen.

    1. Thank you!I think that it's wonderful that you have started up a support group for spouses over there! If there is every anything that I can do to help, please let me know.

      Going through the post-combat life with our veterans is a bit difficult and can be overwhelming, leaving us to feel so alone. Just know, no matter what country you are in, you aren't alone!

      We all start with baby steps and at times, we have to resort back to the baby steps!