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Wounded warriors have their own heroes at home. There are 5.5 million caregivers looking after a former or current U.S. military member, according to a 2014 RAND study, which also found that 17% of them reported spending more than 40 hours per week providing care. In honor of Memorial Day and Mental Health Awareness month, Yoga Journal is kicking off this series, which features the unique experiences of caregivers finding—and sharing—well-being through yoga.
Pamela Stokes Eggleston hadn’t heard from her then fiancé in three days, and had a terrible feeling in the pit of her stomach. Charles Eggleston, a computer engineer and a U.S. Army reservist, was summoned to Iraq a year earlier. And sure enough, Pamela’s intuition that Charles’ radio silence was a sign that something was wrong proved to be true: An improvised explosive device (IED) had struck his vehicle. The accident was so serious, Charles was initially pronounced dead. Thankfully, he survived. Though today—15 years and 60 surgeries later—his wounds are still debilitating.
Pamela, now executive director at Yoga Service Council, recalls the three-and-a-half years her husband spent at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in D.C. as a difficult eternity. “I had to navigate a system I wasn’t used to navigating,” she said. “If you were engaged to a service member, you were treated differently because you weren’t a wife. I didn’t like it, and I wasn’t conditioned to fall in line.”
They eventually married, and Pamela, along with fellow military spouses, cofounded Blue Star Families (BSF), an organization providing resources for families and partners facing the unique challenges of military life. (Charles, a Purple Heart and Bronze Star recipient, still sits on the board.)
Acronyms like TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) and PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) became part of her vernacular. “But we weren’t saying that Charles had PTSD, because the military would have snatched up the security clearance he needed to continue working. We had a good psychologist who said he had ‘anxiety.’” It wasn’t until he was transferred to Washington D.C. VA Medical Center that Charles was formally diagnosed with PTSD, which manifested as extreme insomnia.
From Secondary PTSD to Self-Care
Taking care of Charles took a toll on Pamela, who says she didn’t reach out for the help she needed.
“I didn’t want to burden people, so I took it all on,” she says. “When things happen, we’re supposed to get on our yoga mats. And I didn’t do that; I didn’t do anything. I was fostering illness instead of wellness.” As the daughter of an Air Force veteran and granddaughter of an Army veteran who served in WWII, Pamela also had transgenerational trauma that was triggered by Charles’s PTSD, and she began to mirror his symptoms. What Pamela was dealing with is called secondary PTSD, and it’s common among caregivers. Plagued with sleepless nights, Pamela took low-dose, snapped-in-half Ambien pills—and still felt exhausted.
That’s when she picked up yoga again. “Asana helped me process and move energy through my body,” she says, “and pranayama helped as well. I started doing a lot of yoga nidra. But meditation was the answer. I was like, ‘If this works for me, it has to work for other people.” Over time, Pamela completed her 200-hour, 500-hour, and yoga therapy certifications. In 2012, she incorporated 5-minute movement and breath sessions into the caregiver program she co-created for BSF.
That same year, Pamela launched Yoga2Sleep, a program offering yoga sessions to help veterans, caregivers, and families overcome sleep deprivation. In 2014, she partnered with Hope for the Warriors—a national community-based organization supporting post-9/11 military service and family members through transition services, art therapy, and more—which started using Pamela’s therapeutic yoga protocol in its curriculum.
The Evolving Roles of Caregivers—and Why They Need Self-Care
Caregivers face a variety of challenges. At first, they navigate an unfamiliar bureaucratic system to find the right medical care for their wounded warriors. They may have to physically look after partners. Even after a decade, they may have to cope with invisible wounds, turbulent emotional states, and “soul” injuries that surface in veterans as their TBIs worsen or as they process what happened in combat and what it means for the future.
As a result, it’s even more important for caregivers to take care of themselves with nourishing foods, movement, and breathwork, says Pamela. “It’s selfish not to take care of yourself and run ragged, because if something happens to you, then everybody else has to deal with that,” she says. What you don’t want to do is give so much energy that it becomes a badge. “When you get too enmeshed with another person, even if it’s your spouse or son, you stop having your own life. I don’t believe the universe wants you to live that way.”
Urging caregivers to hold space for themselves is at the heart of Pamela’s teaching. Most caregivers are sleep-deprived, so she teaches a lot of yoga nidra. “I also teach Yin Yoga because it’s good for sleep. I’ll pick one or two postures, like Child’s Pose to help caregivers drop into themselves, and Mountain Pose with arms extended overhead for strength. And I focus on teaching breathwork.”
Many caregivers in her classes love her practices but say they don’t have time to do them at home. Pamela insists they can fit it in—even if it’s taking two minutes in the shower to do a standing meditation.
Reclaiming the Soul in Order to Heal
Doctors used to say that PTSD couldn’t be cured. Yet these days, there’s a lot of talk about post-traumatic growth, which excites Pamela.
“I believe in the power of mindfulness and meditation to get back into your body, breath, and soul,” she says. “Resiliency is an overused word in the military, but it means having agency in your life. The only way to do this is to practice radical self-care every day. It’s critical.”