Abby Jackson and Cpl. B.J. Jackson on Supporting Intimate Relationships

From the Wounded Troops and Partners: Supporting Intimate Relationships Conference, 2008. Sponsored by the Morehouse School of Medicine Center of Excellence for Sexual Health, Disabilities, Chronic Conditions and Sexual Health Program.

Transcript of this video.

We really learned right away it was truly your family and your friends that get you through anything. You cannot do anything alone. You may be 18 to 24 years old, the average age of the military members getting injured, the best shape of your life. It doesn't matter. When I woke up, I was 102 pounds. I went on much like the weight loss diet that Dave went on, just a different war. My wife came down when I got injured. They sedated me and kept me in sedation for six weeks because she said to do it. She didn't want to deal with me yet, I guess. >>That's right. In my sedation, I did a lot of things, ripping out tubes and, fortunately for me, I didn't rip out my food tube. I ripped out the ones that were down lower. So I went through the sedation and was ripping out tubes and fighting, trying to figure out where I was and all that. And all I could dream of or the visions that came to me was how I got injured, how my wife got injured, how I got to where I was. They'd wean me off every now and then and say, "You're in Brooke Army Medical Center, "San Antonio, Texas. This is where you're at." My wife came down and was there when I woke up. I'll let her talk a little bit about that before I get into anything else. But I instantly realized when I woke up and saw my wife there that I won't have to go it alone. I was 22 years old and we had two young daughters. Much like Dave, you think, "Wow, I'm different." "Is my wife going to love me for who I am?" "Am I going to be accepted by my friends how I am?" I'll let her get into a little bit of the first part of it. She can remember a lot more than me. That's true. It still holds true today. I'm Abby, the better half. It's not only just the looks but the brain too. [laughter] Like he said, we have two young girls. When my husband first got injured, our youngest one was two months and our oldest at the time was almost two years. We did everything together. We went places; we took care of our kids in shifts. It was a huge life-altering change just to have him gone for a year, which he kept telling everyone, "Oh, no, no. I'm going to be back in 180 days, 180 days." I guess there's something equivalent about that. You get benefits after 180 or something. I don't know how it works. [laughs] But early on, we were an '03 injury, so we thought just stepping into this it was going to be quick, 180 days, we're going to be back. And I'm telling him, "Oh, no. You're going to miss the first birthday." I'm laying the guilt on. "You're going to miss Christmas." "Just stay home." I guess I should rewind just a little. His position was almost a voluntary position. There were some other people in his unit that could have taken his place, and he said, "Nope. I'm going to go. I signed up for this. This is my job." "This is what I'm going to do." I on the other hand was saying, "Yeah, we can find a new job." [laughs] "Stay home, please." It didn't work out that way. And so before he went, I also said to him, "I want to have more kids." "We should have a boy. What if something happens?" There was an even bigger rewind, I guess. Gosh, such a hard topic. We weren't married at the time. We had always been together. Our girls were together. We decided that things worked the way we were. Let's not try and fix anything that's not broken. So he begs me to marry him before. And I'm like, "Oh, no. We'll get married when you get back. Everything will be the same." And he says, "Well, no, because if something happens, it won't be the same." "I need a next of kin. I need my benefits to go to the girls." "I need this leadership from you." And I said, "Oh, all right. But you've got to promise me when you come back "we'll get remarried and I get to have my bachelorette party and everything." When you're a young woman, you plan your wedding your whole life. I said, "Okay, I'll give this commitment to you." "I'll go ahead and marry you." We got married in two weeks, the fastest planned wedding, I think, in our history so far. And so we get married and I'm thinking, "I want more kids." "I want a little boy to carry the name on." And he says, "Oh, we'll do that when I get back." And I'm like, "Well, wait a minute." "We just had to get married before you left in case something happens." "'What if you don't come back?" I said, "How am I going to get the boy if you don't come back?" Things kind of didn't work out that way. [laughs] And so he says, "No, we're just going to get married." But we get to the injury, and I receive a phone call and I'm thinking, "Oh my goodness, a whole other life-altering change." "How am I going to get to Brooke Army? How are we going to be there?" "Who's going to watch the kids while I'm there? How long am I going to be there?" And so the doctor says to me, "Oh, just a week or so, "and it's warm here; bring nice clothes; you can leave the children at home," which at the time I should have known was a reassuring thing. He says, "If we get to a point where we feel like your husband won't make it, "then we'll send for your children." So I had a little bit of knowledge going in that, okay, he's at least well enough that we're not going to be saying goodbyes. But the only information I knew was that they weren't sure where they were going to send him because he was both burns and amputations. And so he was in Landstuhl, Germany, waiting to determine whether burns were going to be more a precedent or his amputations were. We ended up at Brooke Army Medical Center, wonderful care and staff. And so before I get to enter the room, the nurse says to me, "Maybe we should go over some medications that you could possibly start taking." "This is some of the things that we've been through." And I'm thinking, "I just flew straight through the night." "I really thought I was going to see my husband." "Can we go in? I just want to see my husband." I don't think they thought that I was prepared, but I was prepared. I mean, it had been almost six months, and I missed him. I just wanted to see him. I didn't care what he looked like, I didn't care where we had been, I don't care what machines are going on. "Can you just open the door, please?" "Let me in." And so they opened the door and here is my husband. He's laying in the bed and he is, like Dave said, very burned, very charred. The image always comes to me of barbecued chicken on the grill. I don't know why. I cannot eat barbecued chicken on the grill anymore because every time I see it, I think of all the burn patients that I've seen. And for those of you who have not seen it, that's very much what it looks like. And so I go in and he's got tubes everywhere and they have him tied down. They had his legs in casts, which I think was the biggest surprise for me. I didn't expect to see casts; I expected to see amputations. And it wasn't that way. And so I walk over to him and I take his hand and I'm holding his hand. And my husband is very feminine, very feminine. He has fingernails, and I'll have him show you. But he has always taken very nice care of his fingernails, much nicer than mine. So I'm very jealous, I guess is the problem. I would love to have his fingernails. But we're standing at the edge of his bed, and I'm holding his hands and his fingernails are dirty, they're black, there's a couple that are broken, and I turn to the nurse and I say, "Do you have a fingernail filer?" And she looks at me kind of funny and I said, "My husband would be devastated to know his nails look like this." [laughter] I don't know if I was just oblivious to everything else that was going on, but I'm thinking he's probably going to be devastated to know that he's an amputee and other things, but I was concerned mostly about the things that I could fix and I could deal with to make him feel like the person he once was. I still to this day, I think, kind of baby him that way. What can I fix? And it's really not about fixing, it's what can we do together to make a new relationship, a new start, a new beginning because nothing will quite be the same as it was or will be. But that's for an everyday change for everybody. I think everything in everyone's life changes, and the adaptations are made so much more easier when it's not a traumatic injury or something that is just like one day you wake up and your whole life has changed. For us, usually change takes time and you progress slowly. We have a little baby out here, and if you took pictures and looked at his birth to where he is now, I certainly wouldn't have known those changes. But I know for my husband to come home and leave at the same age that the one right out here is and to now come home to an almost one-year-old, the changes were drastic. And so I think we have over time learned that for us things change very quickly, and we just try and help each other be there that way. And I'll let him tell you a little bit more about where we're going. I think we're kind of running out of time too. Like she said, she was right there when I woke up. That was the biggest thing for me. When I talked to the guys in my unit that were with me that day, it was a lot later on, almost two full years after the injury, they said, "All we can remember is you yelling for your wife and kids." They said, "You didn't yell in pain, you didn't yell, 'Why?', "you didn't ask why, you haven't asked why yet." "All you yelled for was your wife and kids." It truly is your wife that gets you through it. It truly is your loved ones that get you through it or your friends. My kids were a big part of my recovery. For the single guys, another guy that beat me to the hospital, so to speak, he got injured in Germany. He was on orders to go to Iraq. He was rail loading our vehicles for us. He was an amputee. My wife saw him in the parking lot. He was down there by himself. He had nobody. He was, what, 22 as well and had nobody. One of his biggest things when I talked to him for the first time, just us two sitting together kind of doing our male bonding thing-- being in the military you build that camaraderie pretty quick and have a lot in common, I guess. But one of the first things he said to me is, "How do I get a girl?" "What do you mean, how do you get a girl?" He was like, "Well, I have burns all over my body, I'm an amputee, "half the time I have to sit in a wheelchair, half the time I limp." He was missing one leg below the knee, but if you know anything about rail loading the vehicles in Germany, it's electric rails. He stood up on a tank, the electric line hit his head, which burned him from the head down. He is now married. He has two children. It didn't last too long. He was outgoing, but he didn't know how to act in front of girls. He would go out to the nightclubs or the bars or the restaurants or church trying to pick up women, and he would find that he was more self-conscious of himself and his body and his image than he had been before. He was an outgoing guy, a great guy, but that was his biggest challenge is, "How do I relate back to the opposite sex?" "How do I relate back to other people?" There was no real thing set up in the hospital when we got injured saying, "Here's how you get from point A to point B dealing with the outside society." All we had at that time was each other. I know the VA has improved a lot on this topic and the DoD has improved a lot on this topic, but there's a lot more to go. I know for us that are married and have the spouses already, it's how the spouse deals with it because you at the time, as they mentioned earlier, are saying, "I don't want nothing to do with it right now." "I don't know how you're going to accept me." The biggest breakdown is the communication of it all. You're timid to communicate with your loved ones on a particular topic, especially myself. I'm from Des Moines, Iowa. We're pretty reserved when it comes to sexuality or finances or politics or anything else. [laughter] For my wife early on, I had PTSD, a small brain injury that they're just now starting to diagnose. Early on it was just I didn't learn past the sixth grade for some reason, is what they thought. But I guess my wife was up front with me. She said, "Here, we could wait, we could wait." I would ask questions, I would say, "How do you expect me to be intimate "when I have no legs, my arm is in a cast." I guess for me ripping out the tubes, it was my catheter tube. I ripped it out three or four different times. So I had other complications, on different medications that kind of don't help the intimacy as far as your sexuality and your personality and all that. But my wife was willing and open and honest to communicate with me and kind of coached me through anything of how to communicate back with her. And if it wasn't for her and the coaching and, I guess, respect of we can wait and we need to communicate. When she went to the doctor and asked the doctor, "Well, he's having problems and he doesn't want to get into a sexual relationship yet," the doctor she asked said, "Oh, it'll come in time." He didn't offer any advice. That's all he could say is, "It'll come in time." So I appreciate everyone coming out and really looking at this subject and taking it not just as a grain of salt, taking it full-blown. And hopefully you could be the mouths and eyes and ears of this cause and move forward with it. Go ahead. >>He's so much more natural at this than me. He does this all the time, and I'm just kind of the opposite. Not this topic. >>Not this topic. [laughter] I'm better at the topic. [laughs] He's better at the public speaking, and I do the topic. Just roughly, I think that as a spouse and being in the hospitals and dealing with some of the things that come outside of the hospital and in the bedroom, I guess we could get to, it's definitely a subject that's not brought up. In fact, I think maybe his recovery would have went a little bit faster if I thought I could climb in bed with him or I could hold his hand or touch him in a way that a wife would touch a husband. But you have nurses that come in and out, you have med techs, you have physical therapy, you have everything that's going on outside of that, and the relationships are being built new with physical therapy and occupational therapy and people that can't climb in bed with him either, I guess. At least that's what they say. [chuckles] But I didn't know. I didn't know if I could, like Dave said, close the curtain. Are you allowed to do that in the hospital? >>[off camera speaker] She did. Yeah, I know, but so here's me and I'm like, "Where is that doctor? I better not shut the curtain right now." And so I think that maybe that needs to be something that we could address a little bit better, and hopefully that's something you could take back from this because you don't really know what the boundaries are or the lines. And I know now in Iowa, we are behind a little bit on some things, but my recent hospital stay, they now actually have double beds for the husband to sleep with the wife while they're in the hospital. And they're starting to do some of the same things in caregiving facilities and stuff, which is nice because had I known there was room for me, I would have climbed right up in there, and maybe that would have helped us a little bit more too. I think that's about it. A lot of it, I think, with the young service members it's not sexuality, it's sex. And they don't look at the mental aspect of sexuality. We're 18 to 24 years old. Our hormones are running and we want to get back to sex, not sexuality. So the more education in sexuality and not just sex would help a lot of the younger service members. I mean, like I said, the best physical shape, the prime of their life, they're wanting to get out to the nightclubs and the bars to meet the opposite sex, and they're not looking at sexuality as-- Mitch enlightened us a few years ago, the first time speaking on the panel. How do paralyzed individuals approach sexuality if they're paralyzed from the waist down or the chest down? A lot of that isn't public knowledge to a lot of us, especially being in those states that don't talk about sex or sexuality as much. [off camera speaker] Welcome to Texas. [laughter] Yeah, welcome to Texas. The thing about does it still work that she said over there, it took a few years. My unit was underneath General Karpinski that was in charge of the prison scandal thing, so it took a few years for the guys that pulled me out to get their Bronze Stars. And the few of them that got injured in the incident that I was in, it took them a few years to get their Purple Hearts awarded to them. And it ended up to where we went out and she was pregnant with our third child, our boy, and it was amazing how blown away the guys were from my unit, just the fact that I could still have children even though I'm a double amputee. I never understood that. But a lot of general knowledge of disabilities needs to be brought more to the forefront, and it is with the more disabilities coming back from this war with the amputations, the burns, the head traumas, the paralyzations. A lot of it I think could be taught earlier on, even in your schools of different disabilities and how to react with different disabilities. I was a little hesitant to even ask him more. I was kind of unsure, like, "Did he just say that because he doesn't know "what else to tell this crazy lady to get out of his room?" So I went back to my husband and I said, "Well, they said it was going to take time." And he was a burn patient--I have just a little bit of medical background-- and I think that maybe possibly ripping the catheters out could have caused some damage. We were on some antidepressants, which can cause sexual delays. We were also dealing with burnt skin. And so just the point of getting an erection to me, I'm thinking that would be like when you scrape your knee and you don't want to bend it anymore and then you have to straighten it out sooner or later to walk. I'm kind of thinking, "Well, sooner or later we're going to have to stretch that skin back out." [laughter] I don't know what else to tell. And so I'm telling him, "We'll just get"--and this is funny-- "we'll just get half-hard and if it hurts, then we'll stop." And then we would each time just go a little-- And I said, "Eventually it's going to be like bending your knee." "You're going to be able to straighten it right on out." But so we continued to just slowly take our time. And I mean, it was great advice. I don't know if that's what he wanted me to take home and do with it, but that's kind of what we did. And I think it was very generic. I think it was my first real eye-opener, like, "Okay, they don't know either." And you can't ask somebody who doesn't know themselves. I see you like that answer. But they don't. I didn't know, and my husband says he's going to write a book called The Many Positions of a Double Amputee just so people will know. And I think it's a very serious statement that you don't know and you just really have to trust your partner and talk to them and say, "How do we do this?" [off camera male speaker] As you tried to reestablish a sexual relationship, was it more important to first have the conversation about, "How do we get started? Is this okay?" or was it more important just to reestablish some physical contact and just kind of go for it without talking about it? I'm a counselor and I work with injured soldiers and their families, and so I work with folks on how to do that. So I'm interested in how you guys were able to negotiate that, if you're comfortable talking about it. [BJ] Communication was basically the biggest part. But like she said, and I kind of mentioned it, after being away from your wife for six months and being 18 to 24, you first want to get to the physical aspect and then worry about the rest later. So after realizing the communication and I guess talking through different scenarios, talking through my pain level or my being comfortable or anything, it kind of came with more, like the doctor said, it takes time. But they didn't allude to what aspect he was talking about would take time, and I think that was the hardest thing for her to understand. And with me even being injured at all, not only in the sexuality, just in any aspect at all, I didn't want to talk about any of my injuries with my loved one. For us early on, someone that's been there and done that is the best person for us. Not a psychologist or psychiatrist or anybody that has a degree on their wall. It's the person that's laying in the bed next to me that's going through the same thing. And it does take us a while to understand that maybe that psychologist or that psychiatrist with the degree on that wall could look up in their books or through their knowledge of how to help us with this aspect, taken that we could fully talk about it and communicate to them what we're experiencing or our problems. We definitely adapt and overcome real well being in the military. And going through this with our brothers and sisters in arms, we learn from each other. But communication at any level or in any recovery is the key. [Abby] Really quick, I think the problem that we've seen a lot was I wasn't in the military, and I didn't know how to adapt and overcome very quickly. I knew that I missed my husband, I knew that I wanted to be intimate again, I knew that I definitely wanted to have more children and I knew that he wasn't interested in me. And so a big red flag to me was, "Well, what did I do?" "Why doesn't he want to have sex?" >>"Who did he sleep with overseas?" "Why doesn't he want to touch my hand?" "Why isn't he asking me to get in the bed?" "Am I the only one that's feeling like I want in the bed?" And so I think I've realized while at Brooke Army Medical Center, a lot of wives or girlfriends or others do tend to feel that way. There's an automatic almost rejection from the soldiers for themselves that they put off a rejection towards the spouse or girlfriend or significant other that they're not sure how to adjust or adapt to that themselves. Like Dave said, "Are you rejecting me because I'm rejecting myself?" Or, "What is exactly going on?" And I think a lot of young people get so wrapped up in that they're like, "Look, I'm great. I look good. I've got both my legs." "I'm going to go get me a man tonight. Forget you." And I think that happens all too quickly, very often. I say that lightheartedly, and my husband knows that I love him and that wasn't my intention, but you've got to look at the statistics and the reality. There are young people who do think that way and they operate on that level. And that's what a lot of the problem I think is happening. And then you're left with the soldier who is in the bed by himself thinking, "Great. That was what was going to happen." I think the communication really has to be there.
Posted on BrainLine February 3, 2009.