- - Wednesday, December 23, 2015

A detoured life. That is how military caregiver Allyson Bowers describes her life caring for her husband, Benjamin Bowers, a medically retired Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran. Along with caring for her husband, Allyson also holds a master’s degree in human services with an emphasis on military resilience from Liberty University and is a Fellow Emeritus with the Elizabeth Dole Foundation.

According to the U.S. Department of Affairs Veterans Affairs (VA), more than two in 10 veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) also have a substance abuse disorder. Almost one in three veterans seeking treatment for a substance abuse disorder also have PTSD. Also, the VA has found that of post-9/11 veterans, one in 10 returning soldiers has a problem with alcohol or other drugs.

Ben is one of those veterans: He has been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury (TBI), PTSD and substance abuse disorder or SUD.

Throughout his first deployment, Ben was involved in many combat missions which resulted in the loss of several friends. During this deployment, vehicles that Ben was in hit improvised explosive devices (IEDs) causing him to sustain a TBI. After suffering from the TBI, Ben was prescribed pain medication to help him recover. The medication did more than just mask the physical pain from his injuries; it helped dull the psychological pain of losing friends close enough to be family. For the past six years, Allyson has helped Ben in his recovery, supporting him as he has struggled to overcome his addiction.

During the beginning of 2011, Ben, with Allyson’s support, made the decision to seek medical help for his undiagnosed PTSD and addiction. While active duty, it was difficult for Ben to receive the treatment he needed, treatment that focused on his addiction as a symptom of his PTSD. This led to a cycle of sobriety, drug abuse and recovery, which Allyson struggled to cope with as a caregiver.

Allyson explained that one of the reasons why military caregivers of veterans who are battling addiction feel isolated is due to stigma. The failure of others, including family, friends and medical professionals to view the veteran’s addiction as a symptom of medical conditions resulting from battle and not as just a drug addict. There is also a stigma against the caregiver for staying with a veteran who is also an addict. Allyson believes that the “caregiver needs support especially if they are going to stay. They need to know what to do and where to go. Where the support system is without being labeled as an enabler.”

It is a balance of encouraging recovery while not enabling the veteran to continue with his or her addiction.

When Ben was medically retired from the Army and transitioned to the Veteran’s Health Administration for his medical care, he connected with a psychiatrist who recognized the substance abuse as a maladaptive coping skill of Ben’s PTSD. Due to a high turn-around, Ben struggled with finding a VA counselor who was able to provide long-term treatment.

According to research done by the VA, drug and alcohol use by veterans allows them to create what is called a cycle of avoidance, which in turn can make the PTSD last longer. The VA identified other health problems in veterans suffering from both PTSD and SUD. Those other problems include: relationship problems, sleep problems and functionality, such as keeping a job. For veterans who are suffering from both PTSD and SUD, the VA encourages them to reach out to a SUD-PTSD specialist.

Too often, caregivers such as Allyson express that they are frustrated with the lack of treatment options that are able to simultaneously address all aspects of a veteran’s care, including addiction. While Allyson was recovering from a miscarriage, Ben relapsed at 22 months of sobriety. It was several months until Ben found treatment via a private rehabilitation center that addressed both the addiction and PTSD. After leaving rehab, it took Ben a few months, due to a staffing shortage at the VA, to find a new counselor at a vet center. 

In response to the alarming rate of opioid pain management use by veterans, the VA is working to expand their chronic pain management program to include not only pain management by medication, but alternatives such as yoga, psycho-education, aquatic therapy, biofeedback and acupuncture, to name a few.

However, due to funding and staffing limitations, these options are not always available at all VA facilities nationwide.

Military caregivers such as Allyson face a unique struggle, which often isolates them from even others within the military caregiving community. Not only do they deal with the challenges of helping a veteran recover from the physical and emotional wounds of war, they deal with an addict trapped in the cycle of substance abuse. Allyson has learned to set healthy boundaries for herself, while supporting Ben in his recovery.

At the time of writing, Ben is currently in a private, long-term inpatient treatment program. Allyson also said that dealing with an addict “always makes me think of the drowning in man: throw him a life jacket but he does not grab it, then a life preserver and still not reaching for it, so you jump in to help and he tries to drag you with him.”

Allyson is also working to help bring awareness to the issue of substance abuse disorders in the veteran population. By speaking out and sharing her story, Allyson wants to share the message with other military caregivers in similar circumstances and let them know that they are not alone.

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