It’s Veteran’s Day, the day where we acknowledge and thank those who have served our great country. To many who haven’t served, the issue of mental health isn’t in the forefront of our minds. However, the mental health issues that stem from serving overseas are not addressed enough. PTSD is a huge discussion that effects many war veterans daily. Women veterans are also more likely to be homeless than our male counterparts, and 7 times more likely to commit suicide than women that have not served. Today the Woman Warrior Project shines a light on an inspirational Iraq-War Veteran named Theresa Piasta who has and is still struggling with PTSD in her daily life.
I met Theresa on a rainy Seattle day in the heart of Fremont. We met for lunch at Norm’s Eatery, a dog-friendly diner with fantastic food. She flew in from California to share her story with me for my project. At first glance Theresa has it all, she’s beautiful, blonde, highly intelligent and driven. She has accomplished so much in her life and yet, she has a story that most of us wouldn’t guess. She has been fighting PTSD for quite some time after serving in Iraq. Her overall health had diminished because of it and she was ready for a change. She quit her intense 60+ hour a week job and focused on her health. Remedies didn’t help, until she brought home a fluffy dog named Waffles. Waffles helps calm her during panic attacks and transformed her life entirely.
During our lunch, which turned into an entire Saturday, Theresa shared her experiences with me. My goal as a photographer for this project is to capture the beauty and strength of these women in my photos to share with their story. Many of the women I have featured in this project, including Theresa, were sharing their story for the first time with anyone, let alone social media. It is a way for them to heal as well as ask for support. The way these women entrusted me with their stories was overwhelming and humbling.
This brings me to Theresa’s story. The following is written by her:
“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.”
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.
If you are interested in my project and want to see more Women Warriors as well as more photos, please feel free to follow it on a few different social media channels!
Before founding Puppy Mama, Inc., Theresa Piasta was a Vice President at JPMorgan, spending six total years in the Investment Bank and Sales & Trading businesses at two Wall Street banks. Prior to that she served as an Army Captain in a Field Artillery Brigade. During her 14-month Iraq deployment in 2008, Theresa led a large team to defend thousands of soldiers and contractors residing on Forward Operating Base (FOB) Delta near the Iranian border. She was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for her service.
Theresa attended the Stanford Graduate School of Business Ignite program in 2016 and received a B.A. in Economics from Wellesley College in 2006. She also studied military science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a ROTC scholarship recipient and was a collegiate soccer player for two seasons during her time at Wellesley College.
Puppy Mama, Inc. is working toward launching their technology start-up in 1Q2017. Please join their pre-launch community Puppy Mama, Inc. and Instagram @puppy.mama and stay tuned!