A 22 year battle with PTSD, a man, his dog and their journey
Many people deal with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It can be a traumatic experience, abuse, a flashback from a moment, like a traffic accident, but nothing compared to the soldiers that live that traffic accident every day, repeatedly. These are the words of Thomas Skinner, a U.S. Army veteran diagnosed with PTSD, agoraphobia and severe anxiety. Skinner told his story, which could be the story of many dealing with PTSD, in the community of La Mesa at his home church, the United Church of Christ on Saturday, Jan. 11
Skinner said it began 22 ago, but it was 2010 when his eyes opened to what was wrong in his life. He never understood why he did not want anyone around, stayed hyper-vigilant, or why he shut down mentally and physically and cared about nothing.
“I spent hours and hours hiding in my room,” he said. “I loved my family, but I didn’t want to be around anyone. And I didn’t know why. I thought I was going crazy.”
Skinner said he became a professional at pushing friends and family away.
Joining the Army at the age of 17, he earned an honorable discharged after eight years of service. During that time, his son was born, but after his discharge, his life turned for the worse, he said. His divorce came after two years, with his son living 2,000 miles away. He said that it happened at Christmas, so the holidays are a tough time of year to deal with. He went to his uncle in Chicago, held several odd jobs that did not last, when he decided to go to trucking school.
“I found I could not work with people and deal with my past,” he said. “But truck driving gave me the opportunity to work, without having to deal with people.”
Skinner said he lived for the open road. For 10 years, he racked up more than 1 million miles. He was comfortable.
Skinner remarried, had a stepdaughter and took a job as the director of education at a trucking school. Two years at that job, he injured his back and his trucking career was over.
“When I was able to walk, I left,” he said. “But it wasn’t home. It was to a Greyhound bus station, leaving my wife, all of my friends without as much as a wave goodbye.”
Skinner came to his mother’s home. Photography became his new career. He photographed the famous, sports figures, kids, families and he was happy .
“But the real thrill of my photography was when I was able to focus on wildlife,” he said.
Skinner said it was during this time he met the one he thought he would spend the rest of his life. He said after two years, he threw it all away and pushed her out of his life. He went to Alaska and missed her, came back, they got married and he became a father again. His photography business was going well and they moved to Southern California. Skinner said two years later, that his life came full circle.
In 2010, he began to have nightmares he could not remember, but woke up in fear for his life. He did not know what was happening and then began having dreams during the day. One day he broke, and found himself hiding in a field down from his house, making plans for his escape.
“I was a warrior again,” he said. “And I didn’t even know it. My wife, my mother and my pastor of my church finally got me to the VA (Veterans Administration) Hospital.”
He said many doctors, visits and weeks went by before his PTSD diagnoses came.
The following Memorial Day, after several arguments with his wife and two police calls for domestic dispute, he was arrested.
“I have never felt so alone, abandoned or helpless in my entire life,” he said. “Arrested on Memorial Day for PTSD.”
Skinner said he could hear the Memorial Day prayer going on at the nearby park as they drove him to jail. PTSD and the symptoms were more than his wife was able to deal with, so she left, moving 300 miles away with his stepson and daughter.
“I was discharged a warrior,” he said. “But not all wounds are visible. And mine took 22 years to finally be diagnosed. I don’t want a purple heart. I want my life and my family back.”
In his last year of the Army, Skinner performed burial detail, burying soldiers. He said it was duty he did not mind, it kept him away from the people and the 21-gun salute was his favorite part of the ceremonies.
Skinner said in 2010, after his veteran uncle passed away, he did everything in military tradition and went back to life. But two month later, the nightmares began, and from there it escalated.
Skinner said his purpose of starting Understanding PTSD and Welcome Home Ministries was to inform people about PTSD and how horrible it is.
“We are losing 22 people a day to PTSD and that is on the low side,” he said. “California and several other states do not report veterans death’s to suicide.”
He said there are many resources out there that are unknown and even his doctors did not help. He said these programs could help the veterans and their families on how to deal with PTSD. He said he found some of these resources from the hospital’s chaplain.
After his diagnosis, he said that it was a lot to take in, but it gave him a clearer understanding, but they could not see him to begin treatment for six months. He said that he was suicidal at that time and after five month his condition worsened and they started treatment. He said the suicide hotline for veterans is a recorded message and when he called it, he threw his phone. “I felt so unimportant to get a recorded message,” he said.
Skinner said he has battled with the VA for years, red tape after red tape and it makes it so difficult to get help. He said many people just quit, including himself quitting several times due to the frustration. Anger was his worst enemy.
“I was so angry, mostly at myself,” he said. “It didn’t matter, if I could get angry with someone else, it gave me something else to focus on.”
He still avoided people, become disoriented, so he decided to help himself. He put together a presentation about his struggles with PTSD. In 2012, he traveled by bicycle, with his service dog Scrubs through 17 states and 4,012 miles, giving presentations along the way. He rode for 100 days from California to the National PTSD Center in Vermont. He began his journey at his home church in La Mesa.
Skinner said social media is one thing that helped him move forward. He found that Twitter and Facebook pages gave him the opportunity to seek help, without the confrontation of dealing with people.
“It was my safe spot,” he said. “On Facebook alone, I found resources where there are 20 people I can call at anytime and they will talk to me all night long if necessary.”
Skinner said that this year his goal was to leave San Diego a few days before Thanksgiving for his 2013 venture. But he had a severe setback in his mental health right before the holiday. He went to the VA the day after Thanksgiving, feeling suicidal, and because he told them he was not planning to die today, they told him they could not see him until Feb. 4.
“That is the waiting list when you tell them you are having problems,” he said.
Skinner said he would go to his appointment and then head to Austin, Texas. From there he will ride back to San Diego and travel up the coast of California to Bellingham, Washington giving presentations all of the way. He said from there they will go to Alaska and work the summer tourist season.
His service dog Scrubs, 6, a border collie, is his constant companion. Skinner uses her herding instincts to help him with his PTSD. On his own, he needed to find ways to help himself. So he trained Scrubs to help fight his sudden panic attacks.
“I am able to have a panic attack in public, get over it in public, take the attention off of me and place it on Scrubs,” he said. “Anytime I start a severe panic attack, she will jump up on me, almost like a hug and I’ll pet her.”
Skinner trained her to calm him down. Looking steadily at Skinner, Scrubs will take one step at a time. With every step, Skinner takes a deep breath and she will not take another one until he signals her. If he gets to the point where he does not want to talk to people, she turns in a circle three times and barks, then runs off. That gives him the ability to leave.
Scrubs does not like loud noises, so when Skinner wakes up thinking he has heard gunshots or explosions he looks to Scrubs. If she is sleeping, he knows it was a dream. If she is under the bed, it means he heard something that triggered the fear.
Doctors have been amazed at the progress Skinner made in training Scrubs to fit his own PTSD needs.
Skinner said there are many places to donate to help people with PTSD. He said to help him on his travels spreading awareness, donations can be made at understandingPTSD.com or the United Church of Christ of La Mesa, designating it for the Welcome Home Ministries.
“There are many people out there like me,” said Skinner. “I am not trying to cure PTSD. I am just letting you know how I am dealing with it.”
Because of Skinner’s travels, many with PTSD have started similar programs, including training guide dogs. For Skinner’s next journey, follow his blog at understandingPTSD.org, @Alaskahome2010 on Twitter, or follow Scrubs on Facebook.com/scrubs.ptsddog and see his photography at ThomasSkinnerPhotography.com.