I was so fortunate to meet Theresa Piasta a few weeks ago when she interviewed me for Puppy Mama. We had such a fun time talking about being a dog mom, how much I love Rooney, and my dog-friendly work place! Theresa is an incredible person on an amazing and honorable mission, and she is also an Iraq War veteran. Today is the day that we take the time to honor our veterans, therefore, I want to share Theresa’s story in honor of Veteran’s Day.
Theresa’s story is part of the Woman Warrior Project which was founded by Amber Mae Bailey. All photography provided in today’s post is from Amber Mae Photography.
“Military service has always been a big part of my family. My grandfather fought in the Battle of the Bulge in WWII, my father is a retired Colonel in the U.S. Army, and two of my brothers are Army veterans as well. After 9/11, I joined Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) and started active duty after graduating from Wellesley College.
Four years of active duty in the Army and 14 months in Iraq did a lot of damage to my health and well-being. I left the military and immediately transitioned to a Wall Street sales and trading job in the aftermath of the financial crisis, which frankly compounded the issue. Those who know me would agree that I wasn’t the same. I struggled with severe abdominal pain, relentless and debilitating migraines, physiological issues, depression, anger, and struggled to find a new purpose in my life.
Seeking escape from the ‘concrete jungle’ stress of New York City, my husband and I moved to a serene neighborhood of San Francisco in 2014. This was the first step in my health journey but there was a long road ahead of me.
My ‘fight or flight’ response was on a hair trigger and my adrenal gland would pump cortisol into my body without much provocation. Occasionally, but far too frequently I’m afraid to admit, I broke down and my family and my husband helped put me back together.
After countless appointments, different doctors, medications and treatments, chronic stress seemed to be the only consistent diagnosis. After almost ten years of trying my best to hide my “weakness”, San Francisco Kaiser Permanente’s Intensive Chronic Pain Management Program encouraged me to finally accept that I had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Acceptance was a therapy that I had yet to try. As I look back, my healing journey truly began once I acknowledged my illness and listened to my doctors’ requests to make my health my first priority. I left my job and immediately started to plan how I could try to calm down my nervous system.
Out of all of the various therapies I tried, surfing, traveling to tropical beach paradises, and spending time with Waffles were the most significant moments of self-reflection and growth. After speaking with a close mentor of mine in the finance industry regarding my departure from JPMorgan, he was thrilled to hear that I was taking time to heal and told me, “sometimes you need a catalyst event to push you to achieve your fullest potential…and you definitely have to focus on health. You have to take care of you so that you can be the best ‘you’ for others.” I was beyond touched.
Throughout my healing journey, I have reflected on his thoughtful and kind words of wisdom often. He was absolutely right. This healing journey transformed not only my health, but my entire life. I found my passion in helping others deal with similar invisible suffering. In turn, I became healthier and stronger for myself and as an advocate for them.
My hope is that by sharing my story and my struggle to find a cure, I will help instill strength and courage for those who are also struggling to recover from PTSD — you are not alone. In fact, according to the non-profit organization Stop Soldier Suicide, “every day 20+ Veterans and 1 Active Duty Soldier take their own lives. Burdened with the stigma associated with mental health issues and the military ‘shame’ surrounding PTSD, they instead turn to suicide as their only option to relieve suffering.” The statistics for women veterans are even worse. In June 2015, the LA Times reported government research that highlighted, “female military veterans commit suicide at nearly six times the rate of other women.”
Veterans fighting to recover from PTSD need more help and resources. And, from my experience, stress disorders, chronic stress and PTSD, insinuate that PTSD, depression, anxiety, etc are a choice — encouraging the shame aspect towards those who a) have the illness and b) can’t recover despite all of their efforts; they feel that they are failing. I believe more people, including veterans, would seek help if PTSD was titled differently, something that highlighted the need for repair.
Summer 2015 is when I met an angel who has helped me survive the most painful year of my life. Waffles, a 13-pound ball of furry puppy happiness, has been there every moment to help me get through significant suffering and sadness. She comforted me when I needed it most, and never failed to put a smile on my face. Her love is contagious — she spreads laughter and happiness to anyone she meets. She reminds me every day to embrace life and search for love and joy.
Throughout the past year raising Waffles, I discovered that I wasn’t alone in this love that I felt for her — that there were other women that were as passionate about their dogs as I was, who wanted to include their dogs in their daily lives. I’ve also learned that canine therapy is very helpful for many illnesses — not just PTSD.
In Spring 2016, I was thrilled to be accepted into the Stanford Ignite program for entrepreneurs and it afforded me the opportunity to build out my initial concept and develop it with the incredible business school faculty at Stanford Graduate School of Business.
Puppy Mama, Inc. was born. Our mission is to advocate for a pet-friendly world and for those in need to discover canine therapy. At Puppy Mama, we are developing a community — a safe place for women to share their stories how their dogs have saved their lives and we will encourage this community to rate businesses, restaurants, bars, transportation, and workspaces according to their dog-friendliness. Through power by numbers, we believe businesses will change their policies to enable our ‘best friends’ to join us in our daily lives.”
Quote from Amber about the Woman Warrior Project: “Working with women like Theresa has inspired me as a photographer and as a fellow woman. Women face sexual harassment and inequality on a daily basis, we should be striving to work together to create a better future for each other, not pitting ourselves against one another. I plan to continue this project in hopes of sharing more stories about the struggles women have faced in their life.” – Read more from Amber on Medium.
I want to thank Theresa for sharing her incredible story with us and for starting Puppy Mama! Additionally, I want to thank Amber for allowing me to share about her project and her photography.