It was almost eight years ago that retired corporal Joseph Rustenburg took all the sleeping pills and medication he could get his hands on, drove to a farmer’s field and laid down, hoping for the end.
“I didn’t understand what was going on with me and it seemed everything I was doing was hurting people around me, especially Mel,” said Rustenburg from his home in Warman, Sask.
“I felt if I were to be able to end it, that would end everything I was causing, not thinking about the bigger picture and that eventually this may subside and get better.”
Rustenburg suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Canadian soldiers may have officially left Afghanistan years ago, but an invisible war still rages among those in the Canadian Forces now living at home. After being deployed in 2006, Rustenburg returned home early to support his wife, Melanie, through a medical diagnosis of her own.
While home, he received a soldier’s worst news.
“On Aug. 3, 2006, four guys on my platoon were killed and about 15 were injured. I felt like I had left them behind even though me being there wouldn’t have made any difference,” said Rustenburg.
After being home with Melanie for three years, Rustenburg said he was able to fake his answers on a mental health questionnaire in order to go back to Afghanistan for a second tour in 2009.
It was upon his return from this tour that Melanie knew something was seriously wrong.
“His night terrors were bad. He would patrol the house at night. He was very hyper-vigilant,” said Melanie.
“He wouldn’t trust anybody. When we walked into a room he would have to scan everywhere just to make sure he knew how to escape.”
The couple moved to Warman and Rustenburg started seeing a therapist for the second time. But it was the Wounded Warriors weekend in Nipawin, Sask., and a special therapy dog named Vixen that made all the difference.
“They’ve made a huge difference in my life,” said Rustenburg. “I didn’t know I was getting her and then to get her and be shocked … she’s helped me get out of the house, doing stuff when I have anxiety or when I have a panic attack, she’ll know and nudge me and bring me back to reality.
Melanie calls Vixen the key to “saving her marriage.”
Symptoms of PTSD include flashbacks, avoidance of places that trigger bad memories, depression and emotional outbursts, making for a rocky road to recovery.
Now with Vixen and her own coping methods like working out, Melanie is feeling a lot better about things these days. She hopes by making their story public it will help others who are going through the same thing.
“Sometimes it gets scary for me, because I think he’ll relapse further. Being on the journey as a spouse weith someone who has PTSD, it’s a roller coaster. So his highs always change, and his lows always change,” said Melanie.
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Today the couple just takes it day by day.
Rustenburg is training for the Invictus Games being held in Toronto this summer. It’s a competition for veterans suffering from both visible and invisible injuries, spearheaded by Prince Harry.
To the nine per cent of Canada’s Afghanistan veterans diagnosed with PTSD, Rustenburg has one message.
“Never give up. It may be hard at first, but as long as you want to live and move forward, it will get easier. It just takes time. It’s not a day thing…it’s a lifetime thing.”