Owning Her Story

Dog helps homeless female vet cope with addiction, PTSD
by Anelia K. Dimitrova

Let’s call her Jane Doe.

It’s not that she doesn’t like her name, but today, she’d rather go without it.

At least for now.

A Jane Doe is somehow easier to think about.

At least for now.

A story without a real name is somewhat easier to own.

At least for now.

One day, when she gets her life together, Jane Doe may find the strength to put her stamp on her story.

A name is like the door to a home and for now, Jane Doe is homeless, literally.

So a door, even a metaphoric one, would do her no good.

After all, it takes a brave soul to separate the lived truth from a sugar-coated story about it that’s fit to print and easy to stomach.

As she tells it, on a sunny February afternoon, Jane Doe reaches so deep into the why of where she finds herself today that she breaks out in hives, and from time to time, tears roll down her face.

“That’s what it looks like to heal,” she says. “Every day that I am clean and work on myself, seriously work on myself, this is what it’s gonna look like. I am gonna be covered in sweat, I’m gonna break out in hives, because I have to take an inventory of myself and find out who I am. How could I fix what I don’t even know?”

The way Jane Doe explains it, the only reason to tell her story under an assumed name is that someone else, someone out there, who might be grappling with warzone induced PTSD, addiction and depression, may see it as a straw to salvation, thrown their way in their turbulent world.

Echoes of her experiences abound in any veterans affairs office, and more tangibly, in many area communities in Bremer County, and in Waverly, where a shelter for homeless veterans, called LZ Phoenix, opened last year.

Where Jane Doe thinks she may really make it worth anyone’s while to hear her story is that she has failed, and failed several times, to stay the course and slipped right back into the darkness and the desperation that had held her hostage for years.

Multiple attempts at rehab didn’t work, and neither did the threat of incarceration, or the prospect of being homeless or dying with a needle in her veins, in some god forsaken ditch in the county.

Death was not a deterrent, it was more like a Russian roulette, with the thought of extinction actually bringing on some sickening thrill and indifference. Dead under a bridge? So what?

“Homeless, in jail or dead, that how it ends for me everytime or me,” she says of her nightmares.

Why relapsing into the old habits of pills, meth, and heroin, then paying the price by going in and out of jail and prison, as in her case, would be enlightening to hear – even for addicts down on their luck who have been there many times – is because of Jane Doe’s unforgiving candor.

It didn’t happen to her.

She allowed it to happen to her.

She’s quick to take responsibility and this is not just a manipulative move to garner sympathy from outsiders.

“I’ve lost everything to drugs,” she says.

That’s how Jane Doe talks about her own cycle of drug use, her struggles to cope with life constructively, and her own betrayal of herself.

An equally good audience for Jane Doe’s story are those who have the guts to listen, the patience to commiserate, as well as the mechanisms to see through hardship and always steer in the right direction, the kind of people who would never meet a Jane Doe like her, except on paper.

Where else would an ordinary person see themselves in the shoes of a woman from Ohio, who moved to Iowa in 2011, hoping she would run away from “people, places and things,” to get away from her drug habit, only to find herself in an environment in Cedar Falls that fueled it.

Jane Doe’s life is the counter narrative about the blessing of safe and uneventful life, about the struggles of someone who is not  a number in an annual report about veteran drug use.

But perhaps the best audience Jane Doe’s story is Jane Doe herself, as her unrelenting articulation of her own mess ups, almost clinical in nature, deeply revealing in character and sometimes excruciatingly astute, are no doubt somehow healing for the woman who lives them.

In her mid-30s, her life has meandered more than most people’s from Ohio to Iraq to Ohio to Kansas and now to Waverly.

Today, she finds herself at a crossroads, counting on the Cedar Valley Friends of the Family and the veterans shelter in town to put her back on a track to “normalcy.”

She has been clean a few weeks, and she hopes that this time, the outcome will be different.

“Sometimes, it may take you 15, 20 times to get clean. You just have to be ready to stop,” she says. “you have to be emotionally ready. You have to be ready to give it up… You have to work on it every day… addiction is a disease… I am sick. I have to do things in order for me to make sure that I am not going back to using.”

Every time Jane Doe has relapsed, she felt she let herself down.

“I will always be a heartbeat away from going back,” she says. “In the past I haven’t taken it as seriously as I now do. Now I buy it, I get it. I listen to what they say, (in group meetings) some of those people have been clean for 30 years, one day is a miracle.”

In her journey, Jane Doe has been in many dark places.

Iraq was one of them.

“I had a very dangerous job,” she says of her duty to haul fuel.

Convoys were attacked daily, either with small fire arms or improvised explosive devices, but she accepted death and danger as part of life there.

“It’s an honor to have served this country and it’s the best thing I ever did,” she says, fighting back tears. “I’m very proud of the years I spent in the military. I’ll do it again, any day…”

Jane Doe said when she returned from Iraq in 2003, the VA was ill-equipped to handle the veterans’ needs, and band-aided the situation.

She admits she abused her meds and didn’t reach out for help beyond that.

“That’s story’s not new,” she says. “There’s still Vietnam vets under the bridge to this day because 1, maybe they didn’t ask for help, but 2, maybe they shouldn’t have had to. It’s a lot better now. There could be better help for service men and women coming home.”

But the darkest place where Jane Doe found herself was not in the battle field.

Neither was it when she mourned the loss of her fellow soldiers.

It was when she was using meth.

“My paranoia starts to play in, it’s like being back in the desert, not knowing who your enemy is, it’s just a dark, dark place, and it’s just hard to see any kind of light,” she says. “And sometimes you feel like you deserve to be there and stay there, but now I know I don’t deserve or stay there. So I don’t have to go there any more. I don’t have to live there any more.”

What helped Jane Doe see a glimmer of hope was a dog she adopted two years ago.

The two have been inseparable since.

“How I ended up with her is she found me,” she says. “God is how I found her.”

The dog has a healing presence for Jane Doe. It’s the one soul that has never let her down, even though she has let the dog down many times with her relapses.

But every time Jane Doe would slip back into using drugs, the dog was her motivation to seek help.

“It was her getting me out of the dark place that last time,” she says. “She makes me feel closer to God, actually. She doesn’t hold a grudge. She knows, ‘I am happy to see you.’ She just waits for the day (when Jane Doe will be drug free). She knows that I will get it together.” The Waverly shelter is the only non-profit shelter in Iowa that accepts families and pets, says veterans affairs coordinator Neal Jarnagin. That is why Jane Doe agreed to stay there.

“I’d rather live with my dog under a bridge than in a mansion without her,” she says. “We are a package deal.”

What Jane Doe hopes to find on the other side of her hardship is a life where she looks and acts like everyone else, where she can retrain her brain not to be on constant alert.

“I’m savvy in a crisis, I’m who you want in a crisis, but normal stuff, I’ll flip out because the rug kicks up every time I go to leave,” she says.

But she is not waiting for her day of victory when she can conquer herself.

She knows she will have to do the heavy lifting in making it happen. She wants to go to school and “be able to focus on the teacher and not worry who is sitting behind me.”

Jane Doe wants to study physical therapy, so sh could help her buddies.

As she sees herself down the road today, she struggles with sudden replays from scenes in Iraq, or nightmares about using meth in Iowa, but longs for normalcy, that place of equilibrium in civilian life called “daily routine.”

“I want to go to work and come home, like normal people,” she says. “Once you are able to help yourself, it’s important to carry the message on, when I’m strong enough and have some years of sobriety under my belt, I will be able to help someone else that was like me once. Maybe something I say will be a little bit of light they might be able to grasp.

“For me, it was my dog. And for me, it was my buddies who came home in a box with the flag on it, they definitely do not want me to be here (using drugs). God is another one for me. Anything that allows you to see any bit of light, hang on to it.”

So when will she tell her story using her real name?

“I hope and pray that I get my acti together. I have to be willing and able to help myself.”