Talking circle helps veterans cope with stress disorder

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Casey Phillips, The Albuquerque Tribune

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) – In this plain, white room at Albuquerque’s Veteran Affairs Medical Center, many stories have been told; few of them have happy endings. But the five veterans sitting in a circle facing each other are tied together by more than their unhappy tales.

They all served in Vietnam, they all suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and they’re all Navajo.

On the first and third Friday of every month, they and other veterans meet to share things with each other they say no one else – not even family members – can understand.

And when one of them speaks, everyone else listens.

This is a talking circle, a form of group therapy and discussion used in a number of cultures with roots stretching back thousands of years, said James Gillies, a psychologist in the center’s PTSD clinic.

”There is generally a high level of respect and an almost sacred quality to the talking circle,” he said. ”With PTSD, people feel very alone and don’t tend to talk about their inner experience.

”Being in a group with other people who share similar experiences and being able to talk about those experiences, even if they’re difficult, brings a lot of hope.”

The talking circle is just one of the ways the VA works with approximately 5,000 veterans suffering from PTSD, depression and anxiety.

And the number is growing. Since 2003, 336 veterans of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan have been treated at the VA for PTSD, depression and anxiety, according to hospital records.

”I would say the number of people we’re treating is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of need,” Gillies said.

Al Benalli, 58, a Navajo who served as a combat medic in Vietnam, said he understands how rough the road to recovery can be.

”People with PTSD get afraid of getting better because they don’t know wellness, don’t know peace of mind,” he said.

”I can imagine the isolation they feel, thinking they’ve been out there all by themselves and what just a little time can give them,” he said.

That’s what a talking circle provides: time to talk and people to listen.

”Coming to the group and feeling part of the community goes a long way to help resisting the urges of drugs or alcohol,” he said.

”They can share their experiences and let them out of the bag a little bit. With all they experienced, they feel that civilians can’t relate to them; but among the group, they feel they are able to talk.”

The talking circle is open to veterans of all races and conflicts.

Although not exclusively Navajo, all of the group’s 30 to 35 participants are American Indian. An average of 10 to 12 turn out for each meeting, Gillies said.

The method works best with Indians because it conforms to their cultural practices, Gillies said.

”We understand that the world view Native Americans hold is really, really different from the Western world view,” he said. ”If you don’t relate to them from that point of view, it’s just not going to work.”

The VA’s talking circle formed 10 years ago but stopped meeting in June 2004 when its facilitator left the clinic, Gillies said.

In January, Gillies arrived and became the circle’s new facilitator because of his prior experience with a talking circle at Acoma Pueblo west of Albuquerque.

In addition to combat trauma, Indian vets carry feelings of subjugation branded on their genes, Gillies said.

”For a people that are basically treated like second-class citizens in their own country, Native Americans are always the first ones to volunteer and step up to go to war.

”It took a lot of adversity and a lot of conflict to make me feel proud to be an American Indian.”

Chester Clah, 56, of Farmington, said he felt obligated to serve.

”The warrior is in our blood,” Clah said. ”When I first went, I felt like I had to do it, because if I didn’t, I couldn’t live with myself. Looking back on it, I should have gone to Canada, the way I’m suffering now.”

Some versions of the talking circle use a rock, stick or other ceremonial object to designate the speaker.

At the VA, whoever feels the greatest need to speak simply begins when the time feels right.

The sense of respect is overwhelming – there are no interruptions, no shouting matches. When a speaker pauses during a particularly emotional story, the room waits silently for him to continue.

”People like stories that have a beautiful ending, but none of the stuff we’re here for has a beautiful ending,” said Thomas Bitsie, 59, a Navajo from Shiprock who said he lost his religion to alcohol after watching too many friends die during combat.

”The only thing that war determines, I suppose, is who’s left. I put up with it, but I needed a lot of cooling off, and I did it with a Coors Lite.”

Before finding a brotherhood of sufferers to lean on, many of these men say they thought of death as a welcome escape.

”A lot of Vietnam veterans died there and didn’t know it until they came home,” Clah said.

”You come to a point when there’s nothing else you can do – it seems there’s no future anymore. That puts thoughts in your mind, but suicide is the easy way out – to learn to stay around and fight is hard.”

Choosing life with PTSD over death means continually fighting to separate the past from the present.

”PTSD is reinforced after the event by all the symptoms of re-experiencing, like nightmares and flashbacks,” he said. ”People develop avoidance strategies and hyperarousal – being tense and keyed up – unable to sleep and constantly on guard to fight off negative experiences, whether real or just in the mind.”

For Benalli, walking unnecessary baseline patrols is just one side effect of the blurred world he lives in.

”I don’t sleep with a knife under my pillow anymore, but at work every three days, I walk a perimeter to make sure everybody’s OK,” he said. ”I can’t go hiking because I’m checking for booby traps and snipers.”

Everyone is given a chance to speak, but sessions tend to average around two hours regardless, Gillies said.

”There’s sort of this sense when an issue has been discussed and everybody has gotten out what they needed to get out that day,” he said.

At the close of each session, a circle member closes with a prayer delivered in their native language.

”The group intentionally has different people speaking different prayers in different languages,” he said. ”That way, there’s not a particular spiritual base being practiced.”

The relief of opening up, even if only for a moment, was written on participants’ faces as they left the room.

”I’ve been healing a long time, and I don’t think it’s ever going to end,” Benalli said. ”But if we can do anything to give of ourselves to ease somebody else’s pain, that’s what we’re going to do.”