Healing by sharing the pain

Veteran Army Captain Emily Stehr has been a longtime supporter of Resurrecting Lives Foundation, having referred a number of veterans to RLF as they were returning to the US to be discharged from service. Because of these referrals, RLF has been able to assist their reintegration process, including enabling VA access. Likewise, she has spoken to veterans referred from RLF in order to share her knowledge and experiences. We are proud to help spread her message of hope.

Emily and Matt Stehr

Emily Stehr is a physical therapist at the VA Hospital at Fort Drum, New York. She finds great reward in guiding veterans to a fuller life through therapy.

She finds even greater reward in sharing her story of survival, although she rarely does this anymore. Army Captain (veteran) Emily Stehr, DPT, stationed with the 2nd Stryker Calvary Regiment in Iraq in 2008, fought her own internal war against suicide, and won.

She chose to live, and to share her story, and in doing so tore down barriers.

She came home post-deployment with PTSD and thought she could wait it out. “My husband was in Germany,” she said recently as she recounted her journey, “and I came home to Pennsylvania and spent time with my parents. I wasn’t sleeping, was having nightmares, and anger issues, but was still waiting it out – just thought I’d get it out of my system, like a poison. I knew how I felt but thought that it would be a switch that turned off, or a set of clothing I would change.”

Emily attended mandatory suicide prevention training immediately after her return from deployment, but the idea that this type of training will “fix” these destructive thoughts is incorrect. “It’s more complicated than that. I sat through the role-based training and thought that this is not working, because maybe I was struggling with suicidal ideation and waiting for the switch to flip. I understood the intent of the training, but it wasn’t working, not helping, and I hadn’t yet come to grips with my illness.”

Doing the everyday things, she was walking her cousin’s dog when she realized her illness was deep. Passing a cemetery, she envied the rest enjoyed by those buried there… and began to understand the scale of what she was facing.

Nevertheless, Emily returned to Germany, telling herself, “everything was fine; I had all my limbs, I was alive.” But still sleep eluded her, and she knew deep down that she wasn’t improving. One day, when she was back in the clinic as a PT, she read a report of a friend of a friend who was fatally injured on the battlefield. “The effect was cumulative,” she said, “and at that point, the façade that I was trying to hold up broke, shattered into a thousand pieces. I went to the hospital rather than kill myself.”

When faced with a choice, she chose hope, even if she felt little. She also chose to acknowledge that she had an illness – a medical problem – “rather than a sign of weakness, as is ingrained in our culture. I said to myself, ‘People here at the hospital think I’m sick – they are treating this as a disease.’ So I allowed myself to be sick.”

At Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, Emily’s medications were adjusted, sleep returned, and life began to get better. “They did a good job in treatment for me,” she says. Key for her was attending a group class during her hospitalization and meeting others who had similar experiences.

“The big switch was when I realized other people were going through the same thing. If you are suicidal, you have isolated yourself. But through this group class, I started to find that I could relate to others…. I came to understand that this was a disease. If this is a medical problem, then what’s the treatment? It’s the human story- connections.” Others had given her similar advice but hearing this from peers brought credibility.

That’s when her recovery started in earnest- her realization that she should tell her story so that others might learn from her experience.

Working with her chain of command and the Army News Service, Emily broke down a door with her personal story of suicidal ideations, hospitalization and recovery. She went to Washington, DC to testify for the Department of Defense Suicide Prevention Committee. Over time, she was featured in interviews ranging from Women’s Health Magazine to CBS Morning News. Her goal: to help remove the stigma about suicide; to encourage us as a society to talk about the problem as a medical issue and to point out the many paths to recovery; to “… get some good for others who are sick and desperate to come from my pain…” she said.

Most difficult was the memoir she wrote and self-published (Knife Allergy and Treatment Plan). “The memoir was difficult to write; after my first inpatient psychiatric hospitalization it sort of wrote itself. …There was almost a biological need to expel it, almost like an exorcism. The experience is still with me, I just needed to write it all down to jumpstart the healing process.”

Ultimately, she knew this was the right thing to do when she received thank-you emails from military members and veterans, and learned of others choosing to live because of her story.

Emily is quick to point out that the largest roadblock for recovery from PTSD or suicidal thoughts is the stigma. “I’m fortunate because my family and my husband are very supportive, and stood by me all the time,” she says. “As I became more alive (I had been a zombie), just the things people would say against me because I came out on suicide were unbelievable. Also, I think people think there’s a risk, if you’re coming out about having these type of thoughts, in the military, that your security clearance changes, that your jobs are impacted – but that’s not at all true, even in the macho military culture.”

You most certainly can get better if you are suffering from such darkness. But Emily notes, “You have to decide to get better, and put the work in. We are our own self-fulfilling prophecy. Either for PTSD or TBI, you may feel like recovery is not possible, but it is. If you are willing to put the work in, you will find improvements – not perfection, but ‘post-traumatic growth.’ My advice: find things that bring you joy, and give back to other people. These have been important for me.”

Emily’s career has encompassed PT for veterans with TBI as well as orthopedic PT. She’s an author of more than 50 other publications, compilations of “interesting facts.” She envisions a retirement of traveling with her husband and enjoying family.

But above all, Emily Stehr is a survivor, and a believer that we all help each other survive the wounds of war carried by so many.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

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