(47) Have Yourself a Murky Little Christmas? Animal confusion during the holidays

Molly, the service dog

Golly, Miss Molly

A blog about a service dog and her veteran with PTSD

(Supporting the veteran and the family caregiver)

Blame it on PTSD

William and Molly exhibit behaviors lately, deserving double-takes and a candid camera shot. One Molly and William nappingminute they cuddle on the couch, the next, Molly takes off for an hour, defying William’s command to return. One minute Molly sits dutifully by his feet, letting him rub her neck. The next minute, she’s drooling on the floor for dinner and he’s yanking her collar because she refuses to sit by him until given the command to eat. He’s agitated lately and she’s confused. I blame it on PTSD, as I often do to justify odd behavior.

With just two weeks until Christmas, no tree stands in front of our window, flashing hues of red, blue, green, and yellow. Boughs of holly remain boxed in the garage. No Christmas cards line our windowsills, and the only stockings visible cling to our toes and feet. We are lovers of Christ and always celebrate Christmas with joy. So why is this year different?

This year feels differently because of fractured family relationships, health issues, and losing special people in our lives, including William’s sister to ALS and his 30-year old niece to cancer. I cannot blame PTSD for these things, although somewhere back in time, it certainly did contribute to how he views the world today. I never served in the war yet have done my share of grumbling through the holidays. I expect we all experience this at times.

The Veteran’s Experiences in War

I’ve tried to put myself in the place of a veteran with PTSD or TBI—especially one whose service ended a short time ago. Brightly lit decorations, which represent the star of Bethlehem, might trigger flashbacks of missiles crisscrossing in air or the spark of gunfire. Family get-togethers may cause feelings of claustrophobia, as being pinned down in an ambush or trapped in a bunker. Loud music, Champaign popping, and clinging glasses might sound like an explosion and confusion experienced in a street battle. Family disagreements leave one with an emptiness that causes the veteran to retreat. Certainly, after returning from battle or being reminded of those tragic days of war, wassail and figgy pudding taste no better than an MRE and canteen water. Joy to the World rings hollow when it collides with bombs bursting in air.

I do not mean to sully the amazing celebration of the day Jesus Christ was born—in fact, the paragraph above is exactly the reason God did sacrifice His son for us—to redeem us from sin in a world filled with evil. Unfortunately, for our warriors, the turmoil inside from serving our country tarnishes the joy of the holidays. Even a service dog or family pet will feel the confusion and conflict going on inside of our beloved veteran. So, how can we make the day, the season, the time enjoyable for them?

Understanding the Behavior

Understanding that the experiences of our warriors shape how they see the world today, helps make it easier for us to accept their behavior. Do not criticize a decision to retreat from a family event, opt out of a concert, or not attend a worship service. Odd behavior may be logical to the veteran but never explained to the caregiver—know that it makes good sense for a reason.

I find my veteran needs routine and safe space. With the holidays, routines fade as early as the sun in winter and personal space dissipates with shopping crowds, family visits, and too many cooks in the kitchen. Give your veteran his/her space and as much normalcy as you can muster while taking care of guests and family needs. If irritability or agitation continues beyond the new year, encourage your veteran to schedule a visit to a VA doctor—especially if he/she has not yet been diagnosed for PTSD or TBI or has not been given a disability rating.

I made the mistake of asking William about his post-war Christmas experiences in front of Miss Molly.

“Well, I remember the drugs and being high for about 20 Christmases after the war—that was before there was such a thing as PTSD and before I received treatment.”

Molly buries WilliamMolly buried her head under her paws. The next thing I knew, Molly joined William on his easy chair and buried him under the girth of her body. Aha, another candid moment to capture.

I’m glad Molly is with us for our second Christmas. Now, I remember why I did not want to put up the tree and decorations. One swish of her tail and the tree comes crashing down. One rampage through the house, and the boughs of holly and Christmas cards soar through the air. Cute angels and poinsettia leaves stick to the plume of her tail. In one distracted minute, her head dips into wassail and her paw swipes at figgy pudding. My goodness, I think my veteran and I will drive to the kid’s house and spend Christmas day there while Molly sleeps off an eggnog stupor.

A Note From Molly’s Veteran

Christmases have always been hard for me, the veteran, because I feel guilty about the time I lost over the years with my wife and children. Somewhere along the way, I lost my Christmas spirit, as we used to start celebrating Christmas in July and here we are just a few days before Christmas and we don’t have any intention of putting up the tree. So when your disabled veteran spouse looks at you with sadness in his eyes, understand that it is his heart that is sad not just his eyes. It has nothing to do with you, relationships, eggnog, or Christmas cookies. So walk over to your veteran and just give him or her a kiss—your veteran needs to know you love him. Merry Christmas

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Does your pet have a special place in celebrating the holidays with you? Please comment below.  

Photo credits: pculbrethgraft

About the blogger

Dr. Penelope “Penny” Culbreth-Graft is a retired city manager and graduate professor. She lives with her disabled Vietnam Veteran husband, William, and his service dog, Molly, on Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado. She writes, paints, cares for her husband, and spends time with her grandchildren.