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A Shared Recovery

Reprinted from PN/Paraplegia News August 2015

I think real empathy is a powerful tool that many professional therapists can only attempt. However, those assigned to SCI wards can relate to us on a level outside therapists can’t reach.

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It’s been said the secret to living isn’t only being alive, but having something to live for. I believe a veteran knows this more since most of us have put our lives on the line for something we believe in — our freedom.

When I’m at a Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital, I spend a lot of amount of time trying to cheer up the newly injured and offer advice to help them continue leading the life they’ve already embraced so tightly.

Although I realize it’s a very dark time for these veterans, I firmly believe making someone smile is a great medicinal experience.

It was during one of these conversations I realized that maybe I’m struggling with these conversations because I completely changed my life path after my accident.

Mutually Beneficial

I spent most of my life in the business world and I remember lying in the hospital after my injuries contemplating my future. I ended up going in a completely different direction and went back to school to become a therapist.

So in essence, my efforts to help a veteran understand his or her life need not change because of the accident was based on an incorrect assumption. If I didn’t want to continue on the same path as before, how could I expect my new veteran friends to do the same?

I’m not a professional therapist yet, but I’m realizing that a good successful therapist-client relationship is mutually beneficial. I find as I chat with newly-paralyzed veterans that I experience their pain and my own simultaneously.

Although I’m able to contain and understand what’s occurring in my mind and heart, the emotional experience is still just as fresh as it was during my months in the hospital.

At first, I wondered how am I able to help someone else when I’m still in turmoil? Then I realized maybe this is a journey we (me and the newly injured) should be taking together.

Mentor Program

I have to thank our Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) executive leadership for insisting spinal-cord injury (SCI) centers be staffed with psychological personnel.

Without PVA, we wouldn’t have our own psychologists at VA hospitals and we wouldn’t have one particular psychologist work tirelessly to create our SCI patient mentor program.

During my participation in this program, I became motivated to meet and talk with newly-injured patients. During those conversations to help veterans sort out their angers and fears about their injury, I came to understand that I was experiencing emotions and memories from my accident.

Staff psychologist Sarah Fraley, PhD, doubled the opportunities for therapy to occur at the VA Long Beach Healthcare System. If anyone is interested in setting up an SCI mentor program at your facility, take this article as my recommendation for the program.

Carrying The Pain

I’ve worked out an appropriate metaphor for this concept.

Remember a time when you felt ill, but not sick enough to go to the hospital? Well, by the same concept, you must realize that although we weren’t perfectly healed during our rehabilitation course, we were healthy enough to leave the hospital.

Most of us are cognizant that our physical and mental recoveries are an ongoing process, but to be there for someone else while he or she is suffering really can clarify our own experience.

I looked up the word “suffer” and found it comes from the Latin word “sufferre,” which means to bear or to carry. The modern meaning of suffer can be said to be a state of severe distress that is associated with events that threaten the sense of intactness of a person.

When we attempt to relieve others of their suffering, we’re attempting to partially carry the pain and experience of those who are coming into the VA for their rehab.

What we bring to the process is our own life experience, which enables us to have some real empathy with the veteran on many different levels.

We’ve all experienced the strain of serving our country. Many of us have experienced the horrors of war, and all of us have had to learn a new way of life in a wheelchair.

I think real empathy is a powerful tool that many professional therapists can only attempt. However, those assigned to SCI wards can relate to us on a level outside therapists can’t reach.

Together

I’ve learned that sometimes there’s no way to alleviate suffering, but to endure it.

I willingly carry as much of the burden the vet will allow. Before, I simply thought I was giving advice, but now realize it’s so much more.

As I listen to veterans’ stories, I’m also sharing my own and together we walk down that long road of recovery. It’s now six years after my injury and I’m still climbing that mountain.

However, as I make sure our new veterans have a mentor, I also gain a disciple. And this is a journey we can embark on together.

Scoba Rhodes is a U.S. Navy veteran and author of  Rules of Engagement: A Self-Help Guide for Those Overcoming Major Personal Trauma.

 

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