The Pictures You Don’t See on Facebook: PTSD and My Son’s Service Dog Hero

We went on vacation last week, and it’s not lost on me that we’re now part of a narrowing group of American families who can afford ridiculous luxuries like paid time off and time together in the sun and water. Never mind that this holiday was paid for by Nana and Papa, and not us; we won’t pretend generous grandparents involved in their grandkids’ lives and with the means to gift us family time isn’t its own elite past time. We’re beyond lucky. We know it, and we walk a line that’s littered with guilt and gratitude in equal measure.

I posted pics on Facebook to prove we vacationed. Our happy family. Smiles, surf, sun and silliness. And I didn’t feel guilty about that. Not even a little. I still don’t, in spite of the loud voices everywhere telling us we’re Fakebooking when we post the pretty things and are trying to deceive our friends by highlighting only the joyful parts of life and omitting the rest. Facebook is my scrapbook. It’s where I hold happy memories. And the more happy on Facebook the better, in my opinion. POST ALL THE LUNCH PICTURES, I say. I WANT TO SEE YOUR PRETTY SANDWICH, friends. And ALL THE BABY PICS, too. TOO MANY CUTE KID PICS, PLEASE. When did we decide to be the cranky, old lawn neighbors, anyway? “Damn kids! Keep your happy off my Facebook lawn!

I feel guilty, in other words, for having a vacation at all. Guilty and grateful because I want ALL the families to have one, too. But I feel no guilt for having a happy moment out loud, and one I can share in public. Maybe because I long to share your happy moments, too. Or maybe because I know that vacations and families and friendships and children and life are made up of the happy mixed with the unhappy. The joyful mixed with the barely-holding-it-together. The gasps of air at the surface mixed with drowning. The magic and the mess intermingled. Grace and grime all the time.

Maybe, for me, it’s because every moment like this one,

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comes hand in hand with innumerable moments like this one
IMG_0547where our son, who experiences Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from an early life that was deeply unfair to him, falls all the way apart.

Our vacations, therefore, are moments of trauma and triumph strung together haphazardly. Angst and sorrow sprinkled with joy. Frustration, mostly, for this precious man-child, and tiny glimpses of freedom, now and then, and not often enough.

I don’t usually share much with you about Ian’s life or ours with him. I have occasionally here and here and here and here. But mostly we keep what he experiences to ourselves because each of our kids has control over the “publish” button when it comes to their stories, and Ian is the most private of our kids, the one who’s most bewildered about this strange life; the most uncertain that there are good things out there for him; the most sure that he’ll be hurt again like he was in his first life, before we were there were champion him and fail him and champion him again, like all parents who mean well and succeed and fail in equal measure but still hope they’re not screwing it up entirely.

I took the pictures below of Ian with his service dog, Zoey, months ago, because he asked me to. He wanted to “watch Zoey do her job, Mom,” and so I sat with him while she worked as she so often does to ease anxiety and panic that overtakes my son but which he’s helpless to explain, bearing the double burden of PTSD with an expressive language disorder that keeps most of his thoughts and feelings stuck inside with no way out. I’ve kept these pictures private, of course, because they’re really not mine to share.

Except that Ian has asked me now for a week straight to show them to you.

We had a conversation after vacation. A conversation about Miss Zo and her special place in our lives. A conversation about the many who suffer, as Ian does, from PTSD and myriad other disabilities. A conversation about mental illness, with which I am far too familiar myself. And a conversation about what it’s like to feel so terribly alone, wading through the muck and mire and wondering whether there’s a way out.

Ian said, “Show them, Mom.”

I said no. A whim on his part didn’t seem like a good enough reason to show his anguish to the world.

He still said, “Show them.”

I said no again. And again. And again.

But he’s asked me every day for a week after that convo. Until I said, “Why, Ian? You usually want to keep this to yourself. You usually don’t want people to see this. And once we show them, it’s not possible to take it back.”

And Ian said, “So they’re not alone, Mom. So they know they’re not alone.”

And so, to honor my son and his battle, my son the hero, and his dog the hero, too, here are the pictures we don’t show on Facebook. A face of PTSD and the dog who would lead him to the light at the end of each tunnel:

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With love, friends, and the reminder from my kid that we’re not alone,

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ABOUT BETH WOOLSEY I'm a writer. And a mess. And mouthy, brave, and strong. I believe we all belong to each other. I believe in the long way 'round. And I believe, always, in grace in the grime and wonder in the wild of a life lived off course from what was, once, a perfectly good plan.
44 comments
  1. Thank you Ian for sharing. With tears in my eyes Beth this touches me. as I walk along side my own daughter who struggles people rarely see the struggle within our walls. I prefer to share the good things too. :). God bless and hugs to you both.

  2. This is a beautiful glimpse into your life Ian. Thank you for being brave enough to share it, thank you for caring about others so they know they are not alone. Neither are you sweet boy. Neither are you.

  3. Please thank your wonderful son for his courage and kindness in letting others know we are not alone in our struggles. What a great human he is 🙂

  4. Ian, you have made me more brave this morning. I’ve been struggling with wanting to share the struggle I’ve recently gone through– severe anxiety and depression linked to being pregnant. I was scared to share because I know some of my friends won’t understand… you’re supposed to be happy when you’re pregnant! But I really wanted to post about it in case I have any friends that have struggled with the same thing. I wanted them to know they are not alone. Now I will follow your brave example and share my struggle with my friends too. Thank you.

  5. Ian, thank you for being so brave and caring to strangers on the Internet. That you shared the darkest part of you so others could see that they’re not alone shows a maturity beyond your years. I don’t the no I could have done it-I don’t even like family members to see me hurting. What a brave, loving soul you are. I really needed to see that-I had a horrible day yesterday where a stranger made m feel embarrassed and less for having multiple sclerosis. You’re a young man who couldn’t have known that your timing for sharing made a stranger feel like she could be ok. Your bravery astounds me-I can’t begin to thank you enough for opening yourself up like that. Thank you a million times over. ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

  6. *hand raised* PTSD here, too… and my youngest has autism accompanied by difficulty expressing his needs, thoughts, wants, hurts, and feels.

    All my love to Ian. I choked up when he said “So they know they are not alone.” Brave kind lad! So glad he has Zoe.

  7. Thank you, Ian. I also have to deal with PTSD and this beautiful reminder that I am not alone will help me greatly in the future. And what a wonderful friend you have in Zoe. Dogs are the best. Thank you so much for sharing.

  8. Thank you, Ian, for sharing what you were feeling, and for sharing Zoe. What a blessing to have a friend who is really there for you in that special way. We’re not alone, and neither are you.

  9. I have tears rolling down my face. Thank you, Ian. We all need to know that we are not alone.

  10. Thank you. I just showed these wonderful photos to my son who also suffers from PTSD due to early life experiences. We received his service dog, Amani, just three weeks ago. It was really nice for him to see that he’s not alone out there in the world. Thank you!!

  11. Thank you for sharing Ian. Because I’m not alone, and neither are you. God be with you, little brother

  12. Thank you Ian for sharing your story and how life can be great sometimes, and uncontrollably painful at others. Thank you for helping us know that we are not alone, even when things are horrible. Thank you for showing us how comforting it is to have Zoey. Thank you for helping us understand your story. You are brave to share it. Thank you for being part of our family. We Love You!

  13. Thank you for sharing, Ian. Our Rottweiler mix dog is not a real service dog, but he is a GREAT comfort to our son who has PTSD and depression. Just today he jumped up on my son’s bed and licked away his tears, then tried to distract him with his silliness. Sometimes if my son can’t sleep, he comes upstairs to find the dog to sleep with him. I’m glad your dog helps you so much too. Much love.

  14. My son has ptsd and aspergers his service dog has been such a joyful helper to help him navigate life, his anxiety, and helps him calm himself when the ptsd ambushes him. I cried at your pics they could have been of my son. Hugs to your boy for sharing this, they are not alone and they got this 🙂

  15. Ian, Thank you for showing your photos. You are a brave a caring boy. I have a feeling you will let more than one person know they are not alone. Thats a wonderful superpower to be able to show compassion and empathy to others.

  16. I feel better just seeing those. Thank you Ian.

  17. Your next vacation should be to Fort Myers Beach, Florida. Why? Because about a half hour from there is the most fantastic miracle of a man named Dr. Bill Tollefson. I suffered for 17 years with PTSD, I had tried every “treatment” out there including the new EMDR. None worked, most made me worse. So much worse that I had planned on ending my life. I couldn’t live through any more traumatic events running through my head all day and night. Keeping me from sleeping all night, the few minutes of sleep I was getting at a time were filled with nightmares and night terrors. I was hypervigilant, angry, and consumed with feelings of revenge for the perpetrator. Any time I was alone, I sobbed. I was miserable and I hid most of it from everyone. No one knew how bad I was really suffering. I gave myself one last chance to do an in-treatment program and told myself if it didn’t work I would end my life. I have a great husband and four wonderful children, yet I could not live happily and I had no choice on the matter. By the grace of God, I found Dr. Bill. I told him bits and pieces, he understood. He told me he couldn’t give me in treatment because he now works from his home. But he could Skype with me. I needed the time to be away from my family though so o decided to make the trip. He said it would take three days, it took two. 11 hours total. He also was VERY inexpensive.

    The first day dealt with backgrounding (6 hours). The second day was treatment (5 hours). Dr. Bill invented RRT to deal with his own PTSD. The night after treatment was the first night in 17 years that I slept through the entire night. No nightmares, no insomnia, no PTSD symptoms whatsoever. I called everyone I knew, I was so excited. The real test was my drive up to Tampa to see my mom. I spent three hours in a car by myself. Prior to treatment that would have been a three-hour blubber fest. I was so shocked, I sang along to the radio, it felt amazing. Next October will be three years since treatment. I used to have 8-12 flashbacks a day and nightmares all night. Total in almost three years I’ve had two minor couple hour bouts of insomnia caused by a trigger earlier in the day. Absolutely no symptoms otherwise.

    I referred someone who had a daughter who was raped at 16 by a stranger and hadn’t attended school for over a year because of PTSD. She went back to school the same week of her treatment, she attended prom, graduated, and his now living a normal life. Please bring your son or even use Skype. Please feel free to contact me with any questions. You can send me an email or message me on Facebook. I’ll answer any questions you have. jamieostertag@yahoo.com

  18. Ian has been one of my heroes for quite a few years now. Love you lots Ian. I hope to see you soon.

  19. I had a long message typed out, and then my phone died and cyberspace ate it. But mostly I wanted to say THANK YOU Ian for being brave and compassionate to those of us who really needed to be reminded that we’re not alone <3 And thank you Zoey for being a loving friend and companion <3

  20. Thank you Ian. Your brave sharing is a gift to others, including myself and my family.

  21. Thanks for sharing this, Ian. We are working on getting a service dog for my son with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. I want the dog to do exactly what Ian’s dog is doing…comfort and calm him.

  22. Ian, you are a hero and compassion genius here. Thank you.

    I also love the picture where you are having a hard time but she is all, “you are sad so you need to rub my belly right now so you will feel better.” Oddly similar behavior to my untrained, recently rescued shi tzu who takes a similar approach to most problems. Dogs are awesome, and I’m glad you have such a good one.

  23. God bless him for sharing. My daughter was hospitalized several times with depression this past year, and after the first round she opted to explain where she had been and why to her whole 8th grade class. I asked her why, and she said “my whole class (about 25 kids in a Catholic school) has been praying for me while I’ve been gone, and I want them to know what they’ve been praying for. And I want them to understand what depression is all about.” I cried. I was so proud. I’m proud of your boy too. Well done.

  24. Ian, I am humbled by your bravery. Thank you. Beth, thank you for sharing your story, your life, your son. It DOES help to know we are not alone.

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