By Skye Anderson
I close my book, place it on the bedside table, and turn off the light, the signal for Sam, my yellow Lab, to jump up on the bed for one last goodnight snuggle.
My room is dark: I no longer have to sleep with the light on and under the covers. I no longer see dark human shadows traipsing past my window during sleep time hours. My room is quiet: I no longer have to doze off with the radio softly playing background sounds. I can sleep longer and sleep more soundly: sometimes, even all night long! I wake up more refreshed in the morning. Not perfectly refreshed, but more so.
Yes, I still have nightmares. But after ten years, fewer of them, thanks to Sam.
Sam is my service dog wonder, the other half of me. Being a light sleeper, he has been trained to jump up on my bed and wake me when he detects any rapid, irregular breathing, a swift, sharp intake of air, a strangled whimper, or even my uncoordinated struggling with the sheets as I turn and toss, or punch my fists at a ghost who is alive to me. Sam will snuggle close to me and demand that I come back to life, force me to pay attention to him so that my mind awakens and I realize I am home, in my bed once again – no longer in the hot, arid, breathless, stifling desert.
Now, it is dark, quiet, and even cold. The vivid dream (‘couche mal’ or nightmare) fades away with my rhythmic stroking of Sam’s fur, and soon we both relax and fall back into a deep sleep once more.
Eventually Sam will jump off my bed and curl up in his own cozy dog bed on the floor, but half of him remains ever vigilant to hear me waken, or to see me struggle with reminiscences of a rocket or mortar attack. Afghanistan, again, but now, less often.
Before Sam, after Sam
I am not always aware of where my mind travels –I still startle too easily, but less often. Sam resides in the here and now and is constantly aware of who is approaching us, even someone just around the corner at the end of the aisle in the supermarket. Sam walks a slight bit ahead of me, ready to turn and tell me someone is there – slowly, so as not to startle me.
A few years ago, before Sam, I was once ready to open the front door on my way to work the afternoon shift. Just as I was reaching for the doorknob, a delivery person flung down a package on the welcome mat on the other side of the door, scaring the living daylights out of me. I cringed inwardly and had to sit down and take many slow deep breaths. It was a long while before my heart recovered to its slow regular rhythm.
I was late to work.
Now, living with Sam, I would no longer be late for work if this were to happen again – Sam knows if there is someone about to ring the doorbell and vocalizes to alert both of us.
I met Sam as a spunky, fat, joyful little puppy and then again as my specially trained Battle Buddy. We both fell deeply in love instantly. I found an adorable little teddy bear of a pup, blond like me, and he met a human to live with always, with tasty treats to die for, a comfy lap to snuggle in, and two hands to pet both sides of him! I take care of him and he takes care of me now. I don’t know what I would do without him. I do know that I no longer have to “navigate the minefield of emotions” alone anymore.
I don’t want to forget Afghanistan, I just want the colors of that far-off country to become a bit more muted–and the sounds and the dreams more faded. Sam takes that on for me as Afghanistan recedes deeper into my memory — but does not disappear — as it should never completely disappear.
Battle Buddies now, we are in a different war. Our goal is for me not to need him as often as I once did. We work on this daily, but our work is also rewarded daily. Sam loves to be cuddled and stroked and massaged. He loves to show off all the tricks I have taught him –twist and spin, the Fonzie Flop, a commando crawl. Fortunately, I was a dog trainer before my Army deployment and also had taught canine massage. Now I am finding that the closeness massage brings, to both human and canine, can solve a multitude of problems.
And, so . . . .
I close my book, place it on the bedside table, and turn off the light. That is the signal for Sam, my yellow Lab, to jump up on the bed for one last goodnight snuggle.
“Thank you, Sam, for allowing me to sleep through the night: I trust you will wake me if I am reliving a nightmare and will comfort me, making me hold you – and comforting strokes will soon relax me and put me back to sleep, along with you. Good night, my friend.
“Thank you, Sam, for giving me back my life. You are truly a gift.”
Now, when someone clicks their car key fob and the car beeps, I no longer jump as high. . .
A graduate degree in avian cytogenetics makes Skye uniquely qualified to train dogs for shelters, rescues, families and as service dogs. Dogs adore her canine massage workshops. Skye currently trains and matches dogs for other Afghanistan veterans with PetsForVets.com, “Helping veterans and pets create new beginnings together.”