I was having a conversation recently with one of my favorite veterans (and which veteran is not?!) about how we were going to take a look at his past in a way that wouldn't also cause him some sort of setback, which I wouldn't want (and nor would he). I'd done a little digging on his behalf, and found a bunch of "the missing link" type information about what happened to his platoon that he served with in Vietnam, during a particularly vicious battle which had left very few of his buddies alive.
He was away from the field at the time, recuperating at a naval hospital in the U.S., and his finding out casually about the entire wiping out of his company of Marines has been the single hardest episode of his life. What with one thing and another, I'd managed to find out much of the information he wanted to know, but was loath to share it with him, lest it cause him any more horror than it already had. So I wanted to proceed gingerly with him, not just set him on the slippery banana peel of reflection, as it were, and give him a push. Vietnam had already been plenty hard for him to process, and its explosive tentacles reached all the way into his present.
We discussed the methods back and forth for a while, of what would be comfortable to share with him, and what the pace could be, and then I asked him, was there anything "good" for himself that he could be doing, so that the material might be absorbed in as successful a way as possible? Was there any special place he could go to, music he could listen to, anything therapeutic he knew to do for himself, while he tried to take in bits and pieces of information about the most troubling time in his life, that has plagued him for the 40 years since it happened. This is what he wrote back in response:
So, what I need is a very sunny mildly cool day, no monsoon weather or rice-paddy heat; a quiet place in the woods (back forty) with my three dogs; and a print off of the material to read, meditate on, cry, scream, cuss, and read some more; AND my cell phone with your number on speed dial. That arm and hand reaching down to pull me up out of the darkness.
You know when you save someone’s life, you own that life, until they save yours. So if you save me, you own me…
(Can you tell why I just adore him?!) But it did also put me in mind of one other "therapeutic" item we haven't talked about much on the blog yet, but which I know about from my previous writing life. There's a former cancer nurse named Valerie Cooksley, who's written a number of books for Prentice Hall and others on aromatherapy, but from the scientific end of things, not the frou-frou end. For a while she was a consultant to Tacoma General Hospital, among others, and their ICU, and she developed some essential oil blends (her term) or "potions" (mine), that have therapeutic aspects. The ones I'm remembering, because they were directed to the dying and their families, were blends that attempted to enhance people's ability to both grieve the past, and to let it go. Somehow I can't help thinking that essential oil blends like that would be of some potential value here, too.
It would be hard to quickly go into why and how medicinal aromatherapy works -- it has greater credibilty in Europe, where Cooksley's trainers were trained -- but the concept, in a nutshell, is that essential oils have properties that can modulate people's emotional states, and they're very effective "drug delivery" models, because they quickly cross the "blood-brain barrier" through the nose, directly into the brain's mood receptor sites. I've probably just botched the science by trying to explain it in two sentences and get back to the point, but that's the gist of things, and Cooksley knows what she's talking about.
If you're a fan of the Bible, you also remember essential oils in use with the "We Three Kings of Orient Are" types, who allegedly came to visit Jesus. "Anointing people with oil" is a practice that dates back at least to Biblical times. "Gold, frankincense and myrrh" were the three gifts the Wise Men brought (why do they sound like Mobsters, at this remove? Too much "Sopranos") -- and of those, two were rare, costly essential oils.
Just to be very clear on this, I by no means think that dabbing or sniffing a few essential oils is going to be a cure for PTSD. However, as a pleasant adjunct to what you're already doing, or a lovely relax-i-fier that can be put into use at any time? Great stuff, and a nice addition to life, in the way that a massage is, or great sex -- not curative in itself, but a nice and pleasant and stress-reducing aspect to life, that's wise to incorporate into your life as much as possible.
Herewith some lovely blends of Cooksley's, along with her notes as to why those particular choices. Although she's focusing on "death and dying," expand the definition of that as you read these blends to include situations that would also bring up horrifically charged emotions around that topic, such as revisiting combat trauma, and those who were dead and dying there, plus the resultant grief, shame, guilt and confusion that typically surround these episodes. (This may explain why my "lavender sleep pillows" for returning combat vets and their families, made from a Cooksley recipe, and blogged about here, were consistently such a big hit.) The last two she mentions are the two I would particularly want to focus on. You'd have to "read the directions" elsewhere on how to use essential oils (externally, obviously), but sometimes even a drop touched to the underside of your nose, at the point where it meets your upper lip, or waved underneath on a tissue, can give you an immediate "read" on whether the remedy might have some value for you.
It's also fair to say that anyone I've ever made essential oil blends for, after Cooksley's recipes, has become a fan for life: they're "delish," and this is just lovely high-touch, low-tech stuff. Women tend to be bigger fans than men -- they're six times as able to "notice" the scents themselves, though this isn't necessary for the scents to do their work -- but both sexes have been able to see the value, once they've tried a few of these for themselves.
“Serenity Blend”: Lavender 15 drops, Bergamot 6 drops, Mandarin 3 drops.
“Anti-depression”: For depression or grief; useful for back or hand massage.
Lavender 9 drops, Ylang-ylang 9 drops, Basil 2 drops, Geranium 2 drops, Bergamot 2 drops.
“Joyful Hope”: Anti-depressant blend. Uplifting and purifying, to encourage a healing and caring environment. Orange 4 parts, Ylang-ylang 2 parts, Bergamot 1 part, and Lemon, 1 part.
“Grief and Bereavement”: For dying patients and their families. Lavender 4 parts, Marjoram 1 part, Hyssop 1 part.
“Ceremonial Oil”: A nurturing, peaceful blend, to be used with terminal patients. Helps with feelings of fear, encourages faith. Grounding hand or foot massage, solar plexus, or used to anoint head. Lavender 10 drops, Ylang-ylang 8 drops, Sandalwood 4 drops, Frankincense 2 drops.
Another book on the suitably "grand and broad" topic of Aromatherapy and Healing the Spirit, mentions this blend for helping soothe "sudden psychological trauma" -- perhaps, in this case, as it is revisited in memory:
Lavender 3 drops, Frankincense 2 drops, Spikenard 1 drop.
And there's also an item that has a long therapeutic history in Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a blend of Bach flower essences called "Rescue Remedy," available, like essential oils, both online from Amazon.com and places like Whole Foods, Wild Oats, and other natural grocery stores. Rescue Remedy is a low-tech, non-drug remedy for calming nerves that has an enthusiastic following among a diverse group of CAM adherents, including veterinarians. (I highly doubt even the skeptics suggest that animals are susceptible to the Placebo Response ;-).
I wonder if we can add one of these to the list of what my friend will be taking into the woods with him, when he wants to try processing his trauma from the past, in manageable bits and pieces; I hope so.
I'd actually like to see him outfitted with many of these items, some soothing, restful music, and Thomas Day Oates, Jr.'s spectacularly-soothing DVD, "Pacific Light," which we blogged about earlier, here. Maybe he'll need a little red wagon, too -- to carry all that stuff into his healing space into the "back forty" of the woods, with the dogs running along beside him, hoping for the best.
In a perfect world -- ahh, I can dream, can't I? -- veterans healthcare options for PTSD would include scented oil massages with just the essential oils necessary for helping speed healing, or take the edges off the particularly hard memories. As no less an authority on health than Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine, once said:
"The way to health is to have an aromatic bath, and scented massage every day...healing is a matter of time, but is sometimes also a matter of opportunity." -- Hippocrates, father of Western Medicine (460-377 BCE)
Here's hoping that my adored veteran buddy gets his healing, and his opportunity...
Editor's note: Update...he certainly seems to have. Read the "before and after" of his story, here.