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Learning to Breathe Through the Journey of Addiction and PTSD

From left to right Jenny Pacanowski, Brooke Melton, and Annetta Carman in Tikrit, Iraq (2004). (Courtesy of Jenny Pacanowski)
From left to right Jenny Pacanowski, Brooke Melton, and Annetta Carman in Tikrit, Iraq (2004). (Courtesy of Jenny Pacanowski)

Jenny Pacanowski was a soldier in the U.S. Army and served in Iraq as a combat medic and provided medical support for convoys. She also did shifts in the Navy medical hospital. In Germany, she was part of a medical evacuation company.

The first time I snorted heroin felt like the peace of a sunset at dusk, the ending of the day and beginning of darkness. Even though I had a great service dog and a solidly maternal house dog, I struggled. I sought to alleviate my pain by escaping my memories, instead of investing in the internal workings of my mind and body. I hated myself. My choices. My looks. My existence was guilt ridden and shame flowed like the blood in my veins.

Eventually that's where the heroin ended up too, swimming in my veins with all the other poison that circulated through my body. I treated it like anxiety medication. I shot up and went to work without my service dog. I shot up and went to class. I shot up and went to the store. I shot up and felt brave enough, or numb enough, to be social with my family and friends outside my home. I felt so numb I could easily navigate the side effects of my PTSD without fear.  The heroin lifted the pressure that sat on my chest, it provided relief from the expectations that were drowning me.

Why couldn't I get better faster? Why was every day a continued struggle, even with the three years of therapy I could accrued? I wonder still: Why am I still in pain? Why are my internal wounds still bleeding? Why do I still feel alone? Why am I so f***** up? Why am I so crazy? Why am I still struggling? What's the point? What am I doing with my life? Why is surviving not satisfying? Why continue to survive when nothing is sustainable, not happiness, not relief, not love, not compassion, not humanity?

As the Why's and What's consumed me, the heroin brought breath and the freedom of emptiness. I maintained my mask for six months and successfully flunked out of college, because heroin trumped finals week.

The heroin as anxiety medication was not enough. The heroin wanted to be center stage.

It enveloped me, and I was no longer a suitable foster home for bullmastiffs. I maintained some strength in who I was by surrounding myself with Boo and Kiba. However the dogs' care suffered, diminished to feeding, couch sitting, and lots of sleeping. Being awake was brutal and when the heroin ran out detoxing was like dying with my eyes open.  I finally broke down after a year and half of abuse and told my PTSD psychologist what was going on. Everyone had witnessed my triumphs of losing weight and successfully navigating the world without my service dog. As I plummeted back into anxiety and isolation most people thought my PTSD was flaring up and I let them think it. Being labeled a drug addict was unforgivable by society. Having PTSD was an admirable war wound, and mine had scabbed over. But with enough agitation the scab broke open and bled for all to see.

I exposed my weeping needle-pricked arms to the psychologist. He looked at me solemnly and stated, "You are out of my scope. I will give you a recommendation for an addiction therapist."

I hated my addiction therapist at first. He was objective and seemingly lacked empathy for my pain. However, with Boo, my service dog, as my witness at the sessions, my path lit up again. Mindful breathing was another answer, one that didn't take the destructive shortcut of injecting heroin into my veins, a shortcut that I'd relied on to access my breath.

The Why's transformed into How's, as in how to respond instead of react while identifying where the emotions physically manifested themselves. I started mapping out the intentions of my goals -- what would improve my life and also others in my same situation -- to begin narrowing down what my purpose was in this world. I came to the understanding that my heroin use was a direct symptom of my PTSD and my need to escape it. We discussed how to communicate to my family and friends what I was going through, what I needed from them, and who I am as a person, not as an addict going through it.

I simplified my life, changed my schedule by creating a more structure schedule. I developed my language with a conscious filter which required dropping the sledgehammer reaction to external stimuli, instead evaluating while breathing through my reaction and picking the suitable tool to respond with. I started to evolve. Sessions with previous therapists had been like having coffee with a friend as I bitched, replayed situations and traumas. This therapist was giving me applicable skills to do in my everyday life, my everyday anxiety, my panic and depression and How to get through those previously debilitating moments.

I gained momentum, retraining my brain and solidifying strength within my sobriety. I moved away from the birthplace of my addiction. I left my boyfriend and my drug-abusing circle of acquaintances. To save money, I lived in my parents' garage for six months sleeping on a full size mattress surrounded by my two dogs and two cats. I made a plan to move to Ithaca, N.Y. to join a veteran artist, writing, and farming community. I tried to improve myself every day and embrace the pace of going slow instead of letting the impulses control my actions. Sitting on the edge of Lake Cayuga, I learned to breathe and feel the sunset in my bones, my heart, and my soul without the heroin.

This column first appeared on the War Horse.

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