The dog lay at their feet as the two women, one older and one younger, stretched in an empty space between the weight machines crowded around on the gym floor.
The spaniel was white and brown and was wearing a blue ‘Support Dog’ vest. Her head rested between her shaggy paws and there was half-busted tennis ball in her mouth. She watched Diane, her master, and Poppy, the hospital gym trainer, bending from their waists until their heads almost met in the middle.
“You wonder what she thinks about all this. Like do they understand us,” Poppy offered her client. As she reached for her toes, Poppy’s blonde pony-tail came over her forehead and plonked over her eyes. Her movements seemed seamless like water running down a swift river, Diane noticed.
“I know this one probably does. Bloody mind reader. But for her sake I sometimes hope she doesn’t see the insides of this FUBAR head at all,” Diane said and knocked her knuckles on her short-cropped, female-standard military haircut.
Poppy laughed as she brought her left leg across her right leg and then put her elbow where it pressed to stretch the glutes. She told Diane to do so too.
“FUBAR. Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition. Haven’t heard that one for a while. Mostly the older guys. The Vietnam guys, and there’s less and less of them. Sweet guys,” she said.
“Yeah, I have plenty of friends in low places. The first time Army put me in the nut house they sent me to America. Programs allegedly more advanced there.”
“Push further into the glute. Feel it there? So, were the programs better?”
“Dunno really. I was pretty messed up at the time. It was only a few months after the shit so PTSD was just a bunch of letters to me then. Now it’s a fucking lifestyle, isn’t it, dog?”
The spaniel dropped the soggy ball from her mouth and picked her head up toward Diane, as the women stood up.
They each leaned forward on one bent leg, put their hands on each other’s shoulders and pushed. Poppy’s expensive workout pants stretched tight against her toned legs. Her legs looked like they’d been designed by a Ferrari engineer sitting in an immaculate white studio looking through a huge window out at a Shinto garden. Diane’s faded cotton rugby shorts, with her unit insignia’s embroidery fraying on them, pulled against her broad rump.
Diane felt the younger woman’s strength pushing through her lower back and down into her hamstrings. It was the first human touch, she recalled, that she’d felt in months and she breathed deeply into it.
But, just as she breathed out, the constant tingle in her spine switched gears into piercing pain. It was just to the left of where a piece of shrapnel from the IED had hit her in the back and caused two vertebrae to instantly rupture. “And hello Dolly,” she thought to herself. To try and ease the pain, she closed her eyes and imagined a zipper being opened and closed.
The dog shifted position and crawled in between the mismatched archway of the women’s legs.
Open and close, Diane said to the zipper in her head. Keep breathing. These were the card tricks Diane had picked up along the way in wards and clinics. From shrinks, physios, other vets, the fucking Internet. In-patient, out-patient, in-and-out patient, in-between patient, out-of-bounds patient. Anything but patient.
Self-awareness. Mindfulness. Acceptance versus challenging when it came to past traumas, present negative thoughts and future fears. Breathing. Visualisations. Role plays. Dousing her face with cold water when her distress levels were rising.
There was also the endless array of acronyms. From CBT to DBT to IMPROVE to SUDS – each some psychological Rosetta Stone dreamt up by an academic to deal with the pain, calm the constant chatter, and help move forward. Card tricks to baffle the brain away from what it wanted to always do: hurt her.
It was like taking one acronym – PTSD – and putting it in to fight another in a no-rules cage match. A Battle Royale for the Brain. But, Diane knew, that PTSD always knew the ring better, had fought many more bouts, and could take a storm of punches from any opponent.
“FUBAR,” she laughed as Poppy pressed harder. It was the acronym she remembered over all others. The dog stood up and her thick tail happily wagged between the stretching women. It made a hollow thumping sound as it smacked into the shaft of Diane’s prosthetic leg.
“It’s like she know it’s the end of the session. Places to pee, people to see,” Poppy said and backed off the stretch.
As the trainer’s steady hands left her shoulders, Diane felt like she was falling out the back of a C140 aircraft. She took a step sideways, steadied herself and then reached down for the dog’s lead.
“Me included. Mum’s crook with a cold so I need to go see her. But tomorrow right? Same time?” Poppy continued.
“Yeah that’d be good. Hope your mum feels better,” Diane said and looked directly into Poppy’s blue eyes. There wasn’t a single red line anywhere on them.
Diane realised just then it was the clearest she’d felt in weeks. And it hadn’t been about some kind of therapy or some kind of framework or model. It hadn’t been about anything going on in her head at all.
As Poppy turned off the gym studio’s lights, Diane organised her gear, picked up her regimental sports bag, and told the dog to lead on.
As they went into the hallway, she heard the trainer’s cheerful “Hooroo”. The kid knew her old Aussie stuff too, Diane thought.
“Remind me, dog of support. Let’s ask the nurses for the okay to use the hospital kitchen to make some chicken soup,” Diane said to the spaniel.
Pete Shmigel, January 2020