The following is the first in a three part series that includes portraits in prose, photography and video. Please meet Robert, an extraordinary person living with pain.
Looking Outward, and Moving Forward: Finding Purpose Within the Cycle of Chronic Pain
By Tyler R. Vunk
Although an aggressive pool of young soldiers had competed against him for the opening, Robert was, at fifty, the most qualified person for the job. Having placed in the top two percent of all Marine Patrol applicants, the experienced SEAL was in excellent standing going into the final round of the officer examination. Yet, after his Achilles tendon was severed during an exercise, Robert was forced to wear a leg cast, which disqualified him from beginning the remaining part of the application process: the distance run. Showing no bias, the Marine Patrol allotted him thirty days to heal before being retested—a seemingly impossible feat, as the man’s attending surgeon had prescribed a six-month recovery period—but Robert was neither willing nor able to capitulate. With five herniated disks, a fractured spine, and scores of abdominal injuries, the Navy SEAL had learned to fortify his mind with an impermeability that denied access to most human frailties—especially pain, as its avoidance had been crucial for his training, and, above all else, survival. He cut off his own leg cast, and continued on with a conditioning regimen, dragging his damaged limb over the unforgiving pavement of his neighborhood, refusing to give in to the excruciating torment of his injury. When the thirty-day period was over, Robert, in front of a panel of ranking officers, took to the track, and went about the task before him. “I was trained that my mind was stronger than the shell,” recalls the retired SEAL, “and I still feel that it’s true, even today.” The man met his qualifying time, both earning the opportunity he had set out to obtain, and a respect that comes not from forced stoicism, but an innate will.
While Robert’s career with the United States Navy was both long and accomplished, the physical and emotional demands placed upon him during his years of service would eventually become too intrusive to ignore. One morning, after returning home from a rigorous workout at a local gym, the retired SEAL soon discovered that he was physically unable to get himself out from the passenger side of his car. Robert’s normal level of pain skyrocketed. Parked in his driveway, alone with agony, he tried to convince himself, as he always had, that the pain he was experiencing was an unimportant detail—one that could be easily controlled if he merely focused hard enough. “You can do this,” he remembers saying to himself, “you just have to get your legs out of the car…but I couldn’t.” Robert, the same man who had navigated through the unspeakable hardships as a SEAL stationed in the Middle East, and braved the dangers of drop points riddled with vehement floods and typhoons—the same unbreakable machine that had gone on countless diving missions without concern for his wellbeing—was forced to do something that went against everything he had come to associate with strength: he asked for help. Having exhausted his mind’s influence over his corporeal existence, the man called out to his wife, allowing her to literally pull his lower half out of the car, freeing him to stand upright, and walk on his own.
The events of that day transformed Robert’s life in unthinkable ways. Up until his late forties, the retired SEAL had never made any allowances for pain—even the word, as Robert once admitted, “wasn’t in my vocabulary.” Now at fifty-eight years old, he experiences chronic pain throughout his entire body on a daily basis. Coming to terms with his limitations has been an ongoing process; yet, despite the decline of his physical capabilities, he refuses to live a sedentary life, electing to modify the intensity of his activities to levels that will not cause him any further harm. As for the management of his chronic pain, Robert has fought hard to gather the resources he now has at his disposal. While the veteran is grateful to have found a few health care professionals that he can trust for guidance and support, his interactions with the medical community have not been very positive; often riddled with disconcerting conversations and insensitive physicians, the majority of services provided to him have not been useful, as many of them only offer higher levels of pharmaceutical intervention—an approach that Robert would like to avoid as much as possible. A firm believer that lucidity of the mind is integral for sustaining the body, he relies upon a combination of different methods to manage his chronic pain symptoms—a “synergist approach,” as he describes it—that includes chiropractic alignment, as well as mild exercise.
While physical pain continues to negatively impact the quality of his life, Robert has expressed that his struggle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (P.T.S.D.) has been the most difficult part of his health to treat. After conventional attempts to navigate the emotional tolls of his daily existence failed to alleviate his suffering, he began to readjust his focus—a combination of challenging himself to center his awareness upon the needs of others, and allowing the outside environment to unfold in whatever way it chooses. Through the twists and turns of his introspective process, the retired Navy SEAL found equine therapy. Often unrecognized by the medical community, the healing modality has provided some relief from the unrelenting symptoms of P.T.S.D. “It’s not about riding,” says Robert, “it’s about connecting soul to soul with another living animal that senses your pain.” The rapport that he has with the animals he cares for cannot be duplicated by a counseling session—“I trust the horse, and the horse trusts me.” It is this same intimacy that has not only become a crucial part of his symptomatic management, but has also made a profound change upon his life’s direction. In recognizing the healing capacity of his work with horses, the retired Navy SEAL has become an adamant supporter of equine therapy, suggesting that all veterans who are suffering—whether from P.T.S.D. or some other ailment—might benefit from including the relationship in their lives. Vivified by his new understanding, Robert is eager to tell others his story, trying to spread hope to those who feel that they may no longer have the ability to cope. He encourages everyone to find their own passion, look outward, and move forward. “Not every horse is meant to do everything,” says Robert, ”but every breathing, living horse has a purpose—every horse. There are no limits.”
About the author - A native New Englander, Tyler R. Vunk is a musician, ghostwriter, and national award-winning essayist. After receiving his B.A. in Music from Wheaton College in 1999, he worked as a musician for over ten years, playing and recording with various acts throughout Cape Cod and Boston. Although born and raised on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, Tyler currently resides in Southern Maine where he attends the University of New England, pursuing a dual degree comprised of both Neuroscience and English—an odd combination that, to his own surprise, actually encourages two of his favorite pastimes: learning new things and inventing inappropriate mnemonics.
Learn more about the 11th Annual UNE Interprofessional Spring Symposium: the Science of Pain and the Art of Healing, April 4, 2013, Biddeford Maine.