It was bound to happen, and it did today. I had my first negative experience in public with my service dog Iris.
I had a product to return to Walmart while Julie was doing some shopping. So I headed over to the Customer Service counter while Julie wander the labyrinth in search of treasures. The Customer Service counter at this particular Walmart is directly adjacent to one of the entrances.
I, pushing a cart with the item in it, and Iris got into line to wait our turn. About 30 seconds later the Walmart greeter sees me there with Iris and does his duty to come ask about her.
There are only 2 things he is legally allowed to ask me: 1) Is that a service dog? and 2) What is she trained to do? That is all that is allowed, and this man knew his job and was pleasant to deal with. He came up with a smile and told me she was a good looking dog. Next came, “Is she a service dog?” in a inquisitive way (like he was genuinely curious, instead of asking accusatorily). And sure enough, when I answered “yes”, came the follow-up of, “Really, what is she trained to do?”
I answered and he asked said something about how he really likes dogs and then excused himself. He made it seem like the conversation was impromptu and natural instead of something he had been trained for. I didn’t have any issue with him. He was well trained and very nice.
Throughout that interview with the Walmart greeter, Iris stayed by my side and never made a sound. She never does. When it was over I turned my attention to the line ahead of me which had moved. I moved up and around the corner of those rope type barricades.
When I finished moving Iris was still what I considered “by my side.” Her tail was hitting me in the leg (which is how I knew she was by me) but her body length was extended behind me while I was reading something on the wall.
Apparently the person in line behind me doesn’t like dogs. He firmly, but politely said, “Can you get your dog from me?” When I turned to look she was looking at him from a couple feet away, and was still touching my leg with her tail. He and his wife had stopped their cart a few feet back, but Iris hadn’t advanced toward them. She wasn’t moving, but just standing and following his movements with her head.
I pulled her gently on the leash and told her to come to me. She turned and faced the front of the line and sat on the ground as we waited. This customer, apparently not satisfied with that mumbled, just loud enough for me to hear, “shouldn’t bring your dog into the store.”
This person had been behind me when the Walmart greeter had done his job and asked me about the animal. He surely must have heard me say that she was a service dog. In my mind she didn’t in any way act inappropriately either. She was impeccably well behaved the entire time.
Just a moment after this comment I was served at the counter and we moved on. I didn’t say anything to him. It wasn’t worth the time or stress. I know that Iris was doing just fine, and that I wasn’t doing anything wrong by having her there.
Maybe this guy was just having a bad day. So I let it slide. But I did mention it to Julie, and I’m sharing it with you now. I knew it was bound to happen. I’m equally sure it is bound to happen again. Hopefully it never happens when I’m under high stress and doing poorly, or I might react much differently (and surely worse). Actually, hopefully I’m never in public at all at those times.
What are your thoughts? Could/should I have done anything differently? Would YOU have said something to the customer? Have you ever said something to anybody about their service dog?
Trivia: Other than a dog, what is the other authorized animal to have as a “service animal”?
I finally got around to that trip to Missouri to pick up the rest of our belongings out there. What was originally planned for March just kept getting pushed back until it finally happened in late September.
Things only fell into place at what felt like the last moment. I only knew the exact date I was going to leave a couple of days in advance. But, eventually, I did get on a plane and headed East.
You might say I’m not a big fan of strangers. And being couped up with them for hours in a plane is as far from enjoyable as it can be. Thankfully I was able to snag the front row of both planes I got on, window seat, and so I only had one neighbor next to me and nobody I had to see in front of me. It made it more emotionally manageable.
My 2nd flight ended in St. Louis, which is NOT my favorite place on earth. I caught a cab to the Amtrak station for the next leg of my journey. The 10 minute ride to the station cost more than the 4.5 hour train ride to Walnut Ridge, AR. This was my first time on an Amtrak train. Not a bad experience if you don’t mind the time it takes to get from point A to point B.
In Walnut Ridge at 12:40am I was met by my parents who had arrived a few days earlier in their car. They picked me up and we drove to Thayer, MO where they had rented a place for a week.
The Work Begins
At first light the next day I was up and out to the farm. We had left our Tahoe in MO, and so it was waiting for me and ready to go. I left my parents asleep and headed first to the neighbors, Norman and Mark Rizner, who had been babysitting my tractor since we left. They, with my Dad, had made sure it was up and running and ready for me to arrive.
It was emotionally taxing to be here, but this machine made it much easier. When my therapist has me working on a “safe space” to think about during panic attacks, my tractor is my frequent choice. I just feel at peace and calm when I’m working with it. Good thing too.
This is what remained of our driveway. The weeds had grown completely through the rock and completely obscured the remains of the house. From here, I was only about 300 feet from where the house stood. The kids swingset is under that oak tree just left of center of the photo.
The entire yard had turned into a jungle. Waist high (or taller) weeds were everywhere. What was once a well manicured yard had been lost to nature in less than a year. It was heart wrenching to see and contemplate. To witness the change to what we had labored to maintain and care for was difficult for me.
When you got close enough to the foundation you had this out of place concrete in the middle of the jungle.
I spent the entire first day there, Wednesday Sept 27th, mowing down the weeds with the brush hog, pushing the house debris up right next to the foundation, and cleaning off the garage area.
This is what that garage area was when I started. You can see the garage door in the front, and in the back you can see the brick that had been the back of the garage on the deck side. I used the tractor to push it all to the back and scooped it all over the edge into those tall weeds you can see.
The basement was obviously full of ash, appliance remains, brick that fell inward, etc. This used to be our home. It’s now 2500 sq. feet of mess.
This area on the left is the storage room roof. It doubled as our tornado shelter, and so it was completely concrete encased with a metal door. So, surprisingly, everything in there survived the fire just fine. Much of it didn’t survive the rodents or moisture that came in due to its neglect, but there is no sign that the fire produced any heat in this room, nor any smoke stains.
I spend day 1 almost entirely alone on the tractor doing work. Day 2 was spent almost entire with Darian Walters (who I entirely failed to get a single photo of) and my Father. The task for the day was to shovel a path from the storage room door to the closest window. We needed a clean path to unload all of the stuff from the storage room.
Because of the work we were doing I kept forgetting to get good documenting photos. But this shows the work we did to clear that path we needed. We also spent time moving items out of our 40ft shipping container so that I could go through there and determine what was garbage and what was coming home with me.
This is an ‘after’ picture. This was jammed full of items that we shoved in there before we left to Utah. We cleared a path to the back of it so that I could get in and see everything and decide what to haul out or leave.
Also on the days list was to set up our Taj Ma-Tent. CRDN was scheduled to return the items they had collected from us last October and I needed a safe dry place to store them. The tent provided a nice location.
This beast of a tent can easily sleep 16 people with cots, and more with just sleeping bags.
Friday. Three people from church showed up to help unload the storage room.
We carried all of the items out of the storage room and put them on pallets next to the window. Then I’d pick up the pallets and move them up onto the driveway. Items included glass jars, jars with food, 5 gallon buckets of flour/sugar/popcorn, #10 cans of food, a washer/dryer, a freezer, and a safe. Thank goodness for the tractor because it did all the heavy lifting.
All of the clothing items in the storage room were wasted. Mice had gotten into them and they were beyond saving. I picked up one bag and moved it out the way; two mice ran out of it when I set it down. We also found 4-5 snake skins in there. They seemed to get bigger each time we found one, so it must have been having a great time with all those mice. The mice found plenty of food among the items that were in cardboard, such as pasta.
All of the small cans of food were unsalvageable as well. The moisture had really gotten to them. Almost 1/2 of them were already empty because they had swollen and burst. The rest were so corroded that there was no way we would risk eating the contents. It was all left in the basement ash for the critters to eventually eat.
With the items from the storage room and shipping container all staged, we were ready for loading a Uhaul on Saturday. This was all much faster than I anticipated. I thought I’d need a week to get ready, but thanks to all the help of all the great volunteers everything was done quite quickly.
Words won’t do justice to the deplorableness of this task. Emptying that freezer was just flat terrible. There is no way that I’ll be able to describe the smell. You should be glad of that.
We always had a good supply of frozen vegetables in the freezer, as well as things like butter and cheese. About 2 months before the fire(s) we had slaughtered a pig, and we had a fair amount of chicken as well. So this freezer was fairly full.
And then the fire… and the accompanying loss of power… to the freezer. That was 10 months ago. Just imagine what happens to frozen meat after 10 months of neglect! Yes, you can pause reading and say a prayer of gratitude that you didn’t have to smell it. The putrescence was unbelievable. To call it pungent would be a massive understatement.
Thankfully the freezer remained closed, so there were no flies and no maggots, but the smell alone would kill a zombie. It almost killed my friend Kevin and I. I’m not sure how neither of us vomited. The smell of vomit would have been an improvement.
It didn’t bother Dad much though. He took a hatchet in the forehead as a kid that severed his olfactory nerve, so he can’t smell anything whatsoever. Lucky guy! The pic above was us cleaning the freezer after emptying it. This was a piece of cake comparatively.
We took the freezer baskets, grabbed handfuls of rotting meat/cheeses/butter/veggies/etc to fill them, and dumped them into the loader of the tractor. When it was full I drove it to the far reaches of the 120 acres and dumped it for the animals to have.
After that we moved the freezer out of the basement using the tractor again. We splashed as much bleach as possible all over it and tried to do our best to alleviate the odor. It was much, much better by the time we unloaded it here in Utah, yet was still a subject of discussion by those who helped unload.
Here we dumped two full gallons of bleach into it and filled it to the brim with water. We let it sit for 4 days and then emptied it and scrubbed it down again. It still retains some odor, but we’re hoping some baking soda and another bleach bath will rid it entirely. I just hope after all this that it will still work when I plug it in.
Saturday. Because everything was done so quickly I hastily arranged for the Uhaul for Saturday Morning. I picked it up in West Plains, MO at 6am to begin the 5 day rental. A group of volunteers showed up at the farm around 8am and we started loading immediately. I worked the tractor and Paul Murray (who I also failed to get a picture of) took charge of getting things loaded securely.
Most of the crew left around 10:30 to catch that Saturday sessions of LDS General Conference but we were mostly done with the loading so it was fine. The remaining bit did take most of the rest of the day. But before dark came we were completely done and relaxing.
Sunday – Departure Day
Sunday morning my friend Kevin gave me a lift to the farm where we had left the Uhaul. The only thing to be done was to load the tractor onto the trailer. That didn’t take too long to accomplish and after a few moments of talking it was time to leave.
I had arrived on Wednesday, and by Sunday morning I was ready to go. The only problem was that I didn’t want to. I had already driven away from Kevin, Patty, church friends, and my farm once and I didn’t want to do it again. It was hard on me to climb into the truck and drive away.
Julie and I love and miss the people we met in the Myrtle/West Plains area. This felt like a final goodbye from me, and I didn’t like it. My eyes were moist as I drove out of the farm, away from friends, and headed back to Utah. I hadn’t once visited West Plains during normal hours and hadn’t visited anyone there. I only got to visit Patty briefly in a parking lot on her way to St. Louis. Because of Conference weekend there was no church to attend to give my thanks and say goodbyes. The trip was over much faster than anticipated and faster than desired.
The trip home took 3 days – about 33 hours of driving – instead of the 20 it normally takes us in a car. I made it home safe and sound.
The biggest issue with having a mental health problem/issue is that nobody can see it. Same with various diseases, disorders, or conditions. They aren’t visible. This creates some service dog issues.
Service Dog Issues
I took Iris with me to church again on Sunday. She was as calm and well-behaved as the first Sunday at church. Iris is a good dog and created no problems. She did create some confusion however.
Several people who weren’t present when I introduced her as my service dog on the first Sunday came up to meet her. This is perfectly acceptable to me because I would like everyone at church to be comfortable with her. But because these people hadn’t heard me introduce her as MY service dog, several of them asked, “Are you training her?” I politely responded, “Actually she is MY service dog.”
This brought about several confused looks. They didn’t say it, because they were too polite to pry, but they looks clearly stated, “Why do you need a service dog?”
I’m not blind, and I don’t have any missing limbs. I didn’t even have my cane with me this week. So as far as they could tell visually there was no reason for me to need a service dog. The looks clearly conveyed their confusion.
Totally Normal Reaction
This reaction is totally normal. If any of these people happen to read this I don’t want them to think I’m being critical. They share the most common reaction and belief about mental health issues like PTSD. They did nothing wrong and are still wonderful people.
But that common belief/paradigm is that only physical problems are disabling; that a person who can walk around just fine doesn’t need a service animal. The mental health issues that disable so many are not accounted for, OR are dismissed as not really being a cause of disability.
Many unseen conditions are disabling, including mental health issues. But if those issues can’t be seen it is hard for people to take them into account. I understand that, and think it is perfectly normal. I was that way once because it was beyond my experiences.
But that does lead to the type of situation I described at church. It has happened other places as well.
That paradigm (that if you don’t have a physical problem then you don’t have a disability) is so common though that it creates another service dog issue as well. How do I convince people, change their paradigm, that I need a service dog when they can’t see anything wrong with me?
As I described in my post about Iris, she isn’t a pet. She is a service dog. I only have her because a medically trained professional gave me a “prescription” of a service animal for my PTSD. Then I took that “prescription” to CWAC who provided me with a dog much like a pharmacist would provide you with your medication. I don’t have her with me because she is fun to be around (though she is), I keep her because she is medically helpful.
With new acquaintances this isn’t much of an issue. I tell them I have PTSD and some accompanying issues, and they just accept it as true. It isn’t a matter of debate because they’ve never known differently.
However, this is hard for people to see and grasp when they are someone I’ve known for some time, like family or friends, and especially since Julie and I do our best to downplay my maladies. Like most people, we tell people I’m fine and things are going well and we act like everything is great. Nobody wants to be (or be around) a whiner who complains about their life all the time. So it is easy for those who’ve known me for some time to think that there is no need for a service dog, because “he’s been doing just fine without one for years.”
But in reality I haven’t been. They don’t see it (it’s not a visual thing unless you catch me in the middle of a panic attack) and we don’t tell them about it. So how would they know? It isn’t their fault. When asked, “how are you?” would you really respond, “I feel like I’m trapped, am miserably depressed, and have been having panic attacks all weekend?” Me neither! And so nobody really knows how any one else is doing because we all constantly lie about it.
Hopefully nobody ever has to witness Iris pulling me from a location because I’m having a panic attack. And I really hope they don’t witness her waking me from nightmares while I sleep (don’t really want them in my bedroom and all).
So when those more physical aids are never witnessed, how do I get people, particularly family, to see that a service dog is a need, and not just a whim?
The REAL Issue
A couple on Julie’s side of the family likes to invite us over regularly for social events. The husband though doesn’t like dogs and has been bitten by them several times. He doesn’t want a dog in his house under any circumstances. I completely and totally understand that. But I now have a service dog, that I’ve been waiting months to get, that I now take with me wherever I go. So there is an issue brewing.
How do we reconcile these things? He hates dogs, and I take mine everywhere. I don’t want to leave the dog behind and he doesn’t want to allow it in his home. So do we just never visit them again? Do we have to plan events at public parks or use church buildings?
His wish to not have the dog around is totally within his rights, is understandable, and I’m willing to honor it. But that means I don’t go visit. That isn’t okay with Julie though. She wants me to be there and be involved, but that means I bring the dog and he won’t allow it.
In my mind, this relates to the paradigm I talked about above because I don’t think he’d refuse the dog if he thought it was medically necessary. For example, if I were blind I don’t think he’d refuse me a seeing-eye dog, because I think he’d view that as a medical need. I don’t think he’d refuse any other medically prescribed item either, like medication or a prosthetic limb if I had one.
But a service dog for PTSD isn’t a medical issue to him (both of them maybe?) because we tell them everything is okay, and because mental health problems don’t present with a body deformity.
What compromises would you make? I can’t leave the dog home alone, but I’m not allowed to take it into their house. We’ve been invited there this Sunday. Last time this meant that I sat in the car the entire evening alone with the dog. I’m not mad about it, but it did make Julie and this other spouse cry apparently.
Am I unreasonable to want to keep the dog by me? Is he unreasonable for not allowing a service dog in his home? Is it unreasonable for us both to stand firm and I just don’t visit any more?
Again, I’m happy to honor their wishes of not bringing the dog into their home, but that means that I don’t go either. And that makes Julie upset, which I’m not nearly as happy about.
What would you do? What would be a reasonable course of action?
One of my weekly VA therapies is a group meeting with other PTSD guys. One of the new additions to our group is a young woman who is a psychology intern working at the VA with our regular group psychologist. At group on Friday she drove the discussion for the entire 1.5 hours with one question about talking to family.
How Do You Talk To Your Family?
She actually asked in in three parts: talking to them about treatment, talking to them about symptoms, talking to them about the trauma. This also morphed into another question: How do you choose who to talk to?
Talking To Family About Treatment
It hasn’t been hard for me to talk to family or others about treatment. It used to be something I was embarrassed by, but not anymore. I’m happy to be getting the treatment I am, and so it isn’t hard to tell people about something I am glad to have happen in my life. As soon as I got over the stigma/issues surrounding telling people I have PTSD, it became easy to tell them that I’m getting treatment for it.
Telling people you have a mental health issue isn’t desirable. There is still a lot of negative stigma with it. There is still a little worry that people will have the negative reaction, or even just a negative thought about me, when I tell them. But I’ve accepted that that is a problem with them, and not with me. So yes, I have a mental health issue in the form of PTSD that I receive treatment for twice a week. After years of not understanding what was going on with me, or not having treatment easily available, I’m just simply thrilled to be getting treatment that I hope is helping.
Talking To Family About Symptoms
This is much harder for me to do. The two main reasons for this are 1) these are much more personal than simply stating I have PTSD; and 2) I don’t fully understand or recognize them myself.
Talking of the symptoms is personal and feels awkward. I’ve been dealing with this for so long now (almost a decade) that it is hard to distinguish between what emotions/reactions are “me” and which ones are from the PTSD. One of the common themes of the therapies is to try to separate them for ourselves. One group participant said he found a lot of mental relief when he jokingly named his symptoms Bob (anxiety), Fred (anger), and George (depression). Now he is no longer depressed, but instead “George is visiting.” Or if his wife asks how he is doing he might say, “Bob stopped by to say hello” and she’ll understand.
It is also hard not to feel like talking about the symptoms is in some way shifting blame. I can’t use them as justification for the way I am. It isn’t okay to say that I yell at times, but it’s okay because I have PTSD. I don’t want to use that as an excuse for not trying to get better. PTSD isn’t something that goes away, but is something that can be controlled and managed. And I need to learn to manage it.
A big part of why talking to family about symptoms is hard is that I don’t know them all. There are diverse symptoms that come and go. Sometimes they come and go quickly. I might be fine walking through a supermarket one moment, and the next I’m feeling trapped and in danger. I’ve only been in treatment for a few months now, and I’m still hearing people talk about symptoms they have that I also have, but that I didn’t even recognize as being symptoms until it was brought to my attention. So I can’t just give a definitive/final list of symptoms. I don’t know what they are, when exactly they’ll manifest, how intense they will be, etc.
That might be a little strong, but close to true. I’ve talked to Julie only in vague terms and very limited in scope. I’ve told my parents even less. Nobody else has gotten anything else to date except my therapist, and he’s only gotten about as much as Julie has.
This is a hard topic to talk about. It isn’t something I like to think about. I don’t want to relive it. Talking to family about it just isn’t on my To-Do List. It causes a lot of mental agony and stress to talk about it. It is an extremely undesirable task.
I’m not alone with this sentiment. Our intern said one of the trainings she is getting has a “homework” assignment to have patients go home and talk to family about it. She asked how we feel about that.
One guy said he did it once and will never do it again. He talked to his adult daughter and it turned out disastrously and they haven’t spoken since. All she had to say to him at the end was, “maybe you deserved it.”
Another told of the two destroyed marriages, estranged relationships with children, etc, and said talking to them never worked. They simply didn’t believe him, grew to fear or distrust him, and used the information as a weapon against him.
Another said that only after 38 years of marriage did be begin to trust his wife enough to talk to her with vagueness. Past experience has trained him not to trust people with deeply personal sources of pain because they’ll use it against you.
I trust Julie, so that isn’t my issue. But I don’t want to taint her. I don’t want her looking at me differently. She shouldn’t have to feel sorry/hurt/pain for me. I don’t want her to have to hear how vile and terrible the world and the people in it can be. I don’t want to ask her to shoulder the pain I am carrying, and I feel like talking to her more openly would do that.
Finding People to Trust
This was the biggest issue for all of us in my group when it comes to talking about the trauma. There is no way to know how people will react, and our combined experience said that almost everyone will react badly.
When the VA gave me my 100% disability rating and paid me for being unemployable I also applied for Social Security Disability. Of course they denied the initial claim (as they always do as a matter or policy) and so I appealed. That led me to sitting in front of one of their administrative law judges.
He needed to ask about my disabilities obviously and asked about the PTSD and it’s source. I gave him a simple response about the trauma and this guy stops and looks up at me and says, “Really? You’re a huge guy and look like a football player. That couldn’t have happened. You expect me to believe that story?”
And that is why it is hard to know who you can trust, and who you can safely talk to. Even this government official, who presumably has a history of dealing with people with PTSD, was full of negativity toward me.
I’ve had it happen with church leaders too. One I’m dealing with one Stake President right now who tells me every time I see him that he doesn’t believe mental health issues cause the problems that they cause. How am I supposed to talk to him at all after he tells me that?
Most people just don’t have the training to deal with it, gov’t and clergy alike, let alone family. They don’t have the experience to tell them it is even real, or really has the effects on you that it does. They dismiss it, don’t believe it, or think that you are somehow to blame for what happened to you.
I even had it happen with a family member who I previously had had a great relationship with. This person was in my home one day and complaining that I wasn’t doing enough to take care of Julie and the kids. “Why aren’t you working?” and so on. I replied, “Because I can’t. I’m a disabled vet who was injured in the military!” They came back with, “No you weren’t! Blake (my Vietnam Vet – Purple Heart Father-in-law) was injured in the military. You weren’t!”
So even this close family member didn’t believe me, and accused me of pure laziness, in my own home no less. I, of course, reacted badly and essentially called them a horse’s ass on social media. That has led to two of Julie’s sisters to refuse talking to me AT ALL for almost 5 years now (I’m assuming that is the reason, but maybe it’s some other personality flaw).
So talking to family is a difficult thing to do and seems to only end badly. There is no way to know how they’ll react, and experience says that they’ll almost definitely react badly and/or use the information to cause you more pain/suffering.
Everyone in my therapy group has a collection of similar stories. EVERY! ONE!
How To Choose People To Trust
Don’t! Just don’t!
I wish I could give you a feel good story about talking to family or others, but I can’t. They will try to shield themselves from the idea that something similar could happen to them and will blame (or make up) some negative aspect of you that caused it to happen to you. And because they don’t have (insert negative idea they make up) therefore this trauma could never happen to them. It’s not their fault, it’s the natural human reaction. But now they view you negatively in order to believe that they are safe from the bad thing that happened to you.
So talk to them about treatment and positive strides your making. Even let them in on symptoms you experience if you feel inclined. But I say don’t bother talking to them about the trauma. It just ends badly.
Instead, find a good therapist who is under professional obligations of confidentiality and who has experience dealing with your issues.
For the last week I’ve been pretty MIA on social media. That’s because I went to Missouri and back again in that time.
I got back last night after a long couple of days, and I’ll post more about it later.
For now let it suffice to say that I’m happy to be home, and feeling good that I made it safely. I’ll post more about the trip later (probably not until tomorrow) because I have a massive Uhual to unload today, and quite frankly, I’m beat!