Being a veteran caregiver means doing what I can to give my veteran the tools necessary to live a life that feels like he has some power given back to him.
What is one piece of advice you would offer to other military and veteran caregivers?
Find time to take care of you! When we were in the eye of the storm, I didn’t think it was possible to take care of myself, as my number one focus was giving to my husband and making sure he had what he needed. But I allowed that season to go on for too long. I found myself in a place where I was miserable because I had ignored taking care of myself for so long. Once I started investing in myself again, the care I gave to my husband was so much better than what I was giving before! I was more kind, loving, understanding, and patient. If you give to yourself you will be amazed at the kind of care you will give to others!
At what moment did you realize you were a military caregiver?
My moment came over time. At first, it was setting up appointments because my husband was struggling to. At the time we did not realize the full scope of his injuries so it was easy to brush those things off as a bad day. Over time more got added to my plate, like talking him through panic attacks and researching the best resources for his injuries. I think it was when I really started to get into research mode that I felt my role beginning to grow. In the beginning, neither of us had any idea where to turn and how to help him progress. The injuries he was facing prevented him from taking that on, so it became my job. I went to work and started looking for all the modalities veterans were using to progress and started matching that to what was in our community or organizations I knew that were aiding in specific treatments. It was when I started utilizing the flexibility that my job as a social worker so graciously offered that I knew I was a caregiver. Juggling work with attending appointments, intakes, therapies, etc. was the final point at which I knew 100 percent that I was now a caregiver.
How has your life changed since you became a caregiver? What sacrifices have you had to make?
Since I became a caregiver, life has been much more intentional. We used to go with the flow, not really think about investing in ourselves, the future, or our relationship. Now in order to live our best life, we have to be intentional which can be a bit of a double edged sword. It’s great because we are continuously thinking of and working on ways to grow, learn, and stay ahead of some of the issues that various injuries can bring. I love that we really put a lot of thought into what we do and how we do it so that we can operate at our best, but sometimes it can get tiresome and the feeling of not always wanting to be on can pop up.
Feeling lost, drained and unhealthy in every respect, Bree Shields reached a breaking point in her caregiving responsibilities for her husband, Sean. On a day when she felt like throwing in the towel, before she could talk herself out of it, she decided to leave the house right away and go for a hike. As she descended with a tear-stained face and reached the trailhead, she realized she had coped in a healthy way for the first time. This set her on a health and self-care journey that would dictate how she would care for herself and Sean from that point forward.
Deployed in 2013 to Afghanistan, Sean was involved in multiple firefights and a Humvee accident resulting in his injuries, including post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, hearing loss/tinnitus, knee and back injuries, as well as vision impairments. He struggled for years in silence and self-medicated with alcohol.
On the night Sean attempted to take his own life, Bree convinced him to get help at the VA and they called the veterans crisis line together. Once checked in at the VA, a social worker pelted Sean with questions which he could not collect his thoughts fast enough to answer, frustrating him further. Bree stepped in and told the social worker if given some time she could get Sean to cooperate. Sean had always trusted Bree to have his best interests in mind and eventually signed the paperwork to admit him into a mental health facility inpatient program. It broke her heart, but she knew he would be safe and would get the help he needed.
After Sean's inpatient program, Bree’s love of research and savvy, creative nature helped them explore and connect to alternative methods of therapy that might promise a better quality of life for Sean. Indeed, Bree found many resources and programs that have helped Sean, her, and their marriage. She continues to help Sean daily with medication management, emotional regulation, memory challenges, and utilization of the tools learned from different therapies.
Bree has an adventurous spirit and recently joined the IT field. She is also a Whole 30 certified coach and has begun her work as a self-care and health coach. She loves working directly with caregivers to help them improve their quality of life through nutrition and wellness, reminding them that they do have more control over what they may be feeling, and that by being well themselves, they can give the best care to the people around them.