March is Month of the Military Caregiver. In honor of this month, we wanted to share some stories with our readers from military caregivers within our Warriors at Ease tribe. This article features the story of Robin Musselman, a Warriors at Ease Level 1 Certified teacher and a caregiver for her spouse. Below is our interview with Robin on how she became a caregiver and what she would like others to know about this important role.
WAE: Let’s start with a little background on you. Where are you from? How did you meet your spouse?
Robin Musselman: I’m originally from Cedartown, Georgia. Cedartown is very much your typical small southern town where everyone knows, or is related, to everyone else. Family is very important in the south. It is not unusual for several generations to live within a ten-minute drive of each other. In many cases, you are literally born into your support network. Of course, I had to go and buck that trend by moving to Seattle to attend the Art Institute of Seattle two short weeks after my high school graduation. As it turned out, at 18 years old and an entire country away from my family, I wasn’t the best or most focused student. Several years and several states later, I made my way back home to Georgia for a job as the economy slowly began to rebound. It was through that job that I met my spouse.
As a bartender for the local American Legion, I had the pleasure of interacting with many of our local veterans and participated in many of the various events in which the Legion gave back to our local community. One weekend evening, a regular patron of mine brought along her son, an active duty Marine, and his buddies to celebrate the night before he was to get married. At that time the Legion was one of only two establishments allowed to serve liquor. When my now husband, Tony, walked through the door my immediate first thought was, “Who is that?” I knew he wasn’t a local so I was immediately intrigued. Thankfully he had the same reaction. Over the course of the night, we chatted and eventually the family of the groom, whom I had known most of my life, invited me to attend the wedding the next day as Tony’s date. I attended and, as they say, the rest is history.
WAE: What event/situation occurred that made it necessary for you to become a caregiver?
Robin Musselman: My husband was in the Marine Corps for eight years and is now medically retired. He served four combat deployments during those years, serving in both Iraq and Afghanistan. As part of his job, he was always on the front lines. Over the years he incurred countless concussive blasts and multiple traumatic brain injuries. There were also other physical and moral injuries which eventually took their toll on his physical and mental health. During his final deployment to Afghanistan, the vehicle he was in drove over and tripped an IED. My husband was in the turret of the vehicle and by some miracle, his tether managed to keep him from being ejected. Unfortunately, he somehow ended up bouncing around inside the vehicle, landing in the lap of the front passenger once the vehicle came to rest. Once the dust settled the convoy immediately came under fire. A quick scan to make sure no one was critically injured is all they had time to do as they began returning fire.
The convoy eventually made it safely back to their forward operating base where more thorough physical examinations ensued. My husband was able to pass his initial Military Acute Concussion Evaluation (MACE) and due to the kinetic nature of the events directly following the blast, no one was able to verify if my husband had lost consciousness or not. This may seem like a minor detail but when it comes to injury ratings and awards, that small detail can be incredibly important. My husband maintained active status and continued on to finish the deployment. It became very apparent to me through our limited communications, however, that something serious had happened. And whatever it was, it caused immediate and noticeable changes in my husband. He returned home from his deployment two weeks before we welcomed our first child into the world. I became a caregiver to my husband at the same time as becoming a first-time mom. To say that the learning curve was steep is like saying Kilimanjaro is merely a rolling hill.
WAE: What are some of the daily/weekly responsibilities that you take on as a caregiver?
Robin Musselman: Over the years my role as caregiver has changed dramatically in a good way. Those first two years post-injury were incredibly difficult. I was the keeper of appointments. I was the pharmacy technician — managing medication refills, their interactions, their side effects, their effectiveness or lack thereof. I was the bad guy informing the medical staff of reality under our roof versus the heavily edited or flat out fiction that was being relayed to them when I didn’t have the means to attend every appointment. I was the personal chef; my husband’s brain injury greatly damaged his short-term memory, making everyday tasks like cooking, difficult. On many occasions a pots or pans were left on the stove top either empty or completely torching their contents. Thankfully, a few ruined pans was the worst of it.
Now my role is much more hands off. I’m more of an external monitor for him, taking notice of every small change in temperament and analyzing the possible causes. Is he stressed from school and work? When was the last time he went to the chiropractor? Has he followed up with pain management recently? Is it time for another nerve block? Is he regularly attending his mental health appointments? Has he spent some much-needed decompression time fixing broken things in the garage? I’m essentially my husband’s version of Baymax from the Disney film Big Hero 6. “Are you satisfied with your care?”
WAE: In what ways do you prevent burnout as a caregiver?
Robin Musselman: If I’m being honest, I don’t feel that there truly is a way to totally prevent burnout as a caregiver. Whether you’re a caregiver to a service member, elderly family member, child with special needs or a chronic medical condition (like what our girls have), or just a regular parent, being a caregiver is at times all-encompassing. It’s incredibly difficult to make time for yourself and to make sure that you aren’t drinking from an empty well. Admittedly, I am not the best at it. I have my own health issues which require attention, yet often go unattended until the situation can no longer be ignored. After years of symptoms, an endless supply of dismissive medical professionals and months of testing I was finally diagnosed with epilepsy and began treatment this past fall.
What I do find that works well from me is acknowledging that self-care doesn’t have to be some grand gesture such as a spa day.
My self-care often looks like staying up an hour after everyone else is asleep so that I get some much-needed quiet time to myself. I know that I don’t function well when I don’t have dedicated time for my brain to revel in silence and stillness. Another small gesture of self-care that I practice is an occasional cup of really good espresso with deliciously frothy steamed coconut milk. Sure, a spa day would be incredible, but realistically the logistics of coordinating that for myself are monumental.
I find my personal practice of yoga, mindfulness and meditation are also a wonderful retreat from the demands of life in general. Lately, my physical practice is somewhat on the back burner, but I still make time to listen to recorded iRest sessions which I feel are an amazing resource for anyone willing to try. I certainly reach the end of my rope more often than I’d care to admit but feel very strongly that it is important to acknowledge even small gestures of self-care have the ability to fill your cup and give you the resilience necessary to rise up and greet each day. Beyond all that, the biggest key is being patient, forgiving and kind to yourself.
WAE: Do you use yoga and/or meditation practices to support the health, healing and wellness of your spouse? Why?
Robin Musselman: As a certified yoga teacher, I absolutely have many tricks and tools I use to support my husband’s mental, emotional and physical health and wellbeing. His physical injuries cause him a great deal of chronic pain. Thanks to my knowledge of anatomy and yoga poses, I’m able to adapt and modify a practice to suit his needs, which in turn provides him with relief until he can address the underlying causes with his medical providers. Another phenomenal resource we both use is iRest Yoga Nidra. We were fortunate enough to have access to not one but two certified iRest teachers during my husband’s recovery at the Wounded Warrior Battalion East. We continue to practice thanks to the Exalted Warrior Foundation’s live practices and their library of recorded iRest sessions. I probably share this amazing resource at least once a week. Yoga, mindfulness and meditation is the gift that keeps on giving. For me, it’s a drop in the vast ocean whose ripple grows infinitely. I am eternally grateful for the continued healing and growth it affords my husband.
There is no way around it, being a caregiver is a tall order. Most caregivers are not paid or reimbursed in any way for caring for their loved ones. Caregivers come in all shapes and sizes. If you know someone who is a caregiver to a spouse, parent, child, etc., love on them. If they make it look easy, love on them extra hard. They are carrying a workload unimaginable to most. Don’t wait for us to ask for help — show up in our lives. I promise you there’s always something we could use a helping hand with. It may be something as small as listening while we unpack the weight of the world off our shoulders. We aren’t necessarily asking for anyone to “fix” things.
What we do need is validation that life as a caregiver is not a cake walk and that our contributions matter.
It’s very easy to feel invisible when you’re the keeper and knower of all the things. We are a force like gravit; ever-present, unseen and oftentimes taken for granted. I truly feel there is no one who could provide better care to my husband or family and I am honored to be their advocate in all aspects of life. I think being a caregiver and nurturer is quite literally in my DNA. Had I been born centuries ago, I imagine I may have been the village healer. We are each other’s keepers. Perhaps that’s something we can all strive toward, advocating for others and the greater good of humanity. One can dream, right?
Robin Musselman is a Warriors at Ease teacher who serves as the caregiver for her spouse.