Home 9 Team Stories 9 Todd & His Service Dog Ivy “I Am Not Broken”

Todd & His Service Dog Ivy “I Am Not Broken”

by | Jan 10, 2023

I am now six months free of my self-made hell and have been given an opportunity to look back, reflect, and share with others about the time leading up to my nightmare. It’s interesting that on
the day I finally decided to put my experience down on paper, I received a text from friends with whom I went through an intense PTSD residential treatment program together. It was sad news. One of the fellow sufferers in our program had taken his life. This was not the first, and even more tragically, I knew it wouldn’t be the last.

In case you haven’t read my amazing wife’s article in the last newsletter, my name is Todd. I am an Army Vet from the 10th Mtn. Division and a firefighter/paramedic from a city with over 100,000 people that is home to Arizona State University. I forced myself to retire because of PTSD and where self-medicating had left me after 27 years. During my life, I have been the son of a wonderful mom and an incredible father who passed away when I was twenty as well as a big brother to three incredibly loving siblings. I’ve fulfilled roles as a rescue diver, tactical rescue person, and hazmat tech, been in charge of members’ welfare for my department, and served as a president and board member of several city programs. I’ve also been the recipient of firefighter awards, I tell you this information not to boast, but to help you understand that it all means nothing when you suffer from PTSD. I felt unworthy and alone. I isolated myself and spiraled to the depths of my own anxiety and depression.

Just six months ago, I was on the brink of ending my life, feeling like I could not go on anymore. I was tired of trying and failing and couldn’t stand thinking of the possibility of disappointing one more person, especially my family members. The only way to stop that would be to stop “me”. I look back now and can’t believe who that person was and what he was doing to his life. I look in the mirror today and I can see “me“ again. I know I don’t have to be perfect, and I can function amongst the living. I have just now started to be able to talk about what I was feeling then. I am learning to accept help and most importantly, realize now that I am not “broken”. I understand that bad things can happen to good people. I don’t have to live looking back in shame for the things I did during those dark years. I am now able to recognize and accept that I did do some good for others. This didn’t happen overnight. It started with one person who knew me for less than a week and cared enough to say “don’t give up; there is hope.

I was told by Eric, who I met at an amazing Mighty Oaks Program, that I should try to get a service dog to help me cope with my PTSD. The fact that Eric was there as a client, and not a facilitator, shows you where his heart was. I started applying and was promised that I would be able to get a service dog. I began to feel hopeful. But I was quickly disappointed when the facility I contacted refused me a service dog because I lived out of state. You can only imagine what went through my head. It was validation that I was not worthy of such a gift. They did give me the number to another facility, but I told Eric that I could not face another disappointment and was not going to call. He continued to beg me to call. He was not going to give up on me getting a dog. And it was because Eric did not give up on me that I was introduced to one of the most amazing individuals I have ever met, Mary Cortani. I did not know it at the time, but Eric had called ahead and spoke to Mary about my situation.

I remember vividly the day when Mary and I first talked. The call was one of those forever moments. It gave me the first light of hope I had seen in years. Not only did Mary exude such confidence in me but she offered me hope to save my marriage, which I knew I no longer deserved. The call ended with Mary asking me if I was willing to put in the work, and if I was, she would teach me
how to train a dog that she would choose to become my new battle buddy. She also told me to invite my wife to come to the facility so she could help her understand the complexities of PTSD. For the first time, I was giving my wife the ammo to go on with her life with or without me but knowing I would never stop loving her. I was hopeful that there was a small possibility that she could give me one more chance. But Mary emphasized my job was to work on me. Little did I know what kind of journey Mary was about to send me on.

I cannot count the number of speed bumps on my journey that Mary and my new partner, Ivy, helped me to negotiate. These obstacles would normally have spun me
off the road and sent me crashing again. First, I didn’t get to choose my dog. It was obvious at this point my decision-making skills were lacking. Mary uses dogs
pulled from shelters or rescue groups to match up with the clients. Who knows what magic she uses to choose your partner, but it’s perfection. I think she has a Harry Potter-type sorting hat in her office.

My first introduction to Ivy was out of a movie. In my mind, I needed an incredible, strong, courageous K9 type. But Ivy is a sophisticated, stunning, loving, headstrong soul. She came out, ran up to me, and gave me an actual hug. This was not the jumping up and licking you type of scene you are probably imagining. Instead, it was a gentle, actual wrap her arms around my waist, bear hug, and she would not let go. It’s exactly what I needed, and Mary and Ivy knew it.

There are so many lessons and situations that came up that helped me claw my way out of my hell, but I would like to focus on what I would call my first miracle. Before PTSD, my family and I would go on vacation to Virginia during Halloween and enjoy all the scary things it had to offer. The pinnacle of the trip was always Busch Gardens when they would turn the theme park into a giant haunted house. And at this point, besides me tearing my marriage apart, my relationship with my daughter was very strained, to say the least. I was six weeks into a 48-week program and my bright idea was to take my family along with my new untested partner, Ivy, to San Diego for that same kind of Halloween thrill. We got there at dark and were waiting for the gates to open. I was looking around and kept thinking to myself, “Where are all the dogs?” That’s when it hit me, “What was I thinking bringing a dog to a scary place where zombies jump out of bushes with chainsaws and there is yelling going on everywhere?” I had to trust that Mary would not have allowed me to go if it wasn’t possible. Hours into it, Ivy was doing amazing by keeping me calm and confident while I was enjoying my family again. Then I made the mistake of leaving Ivy with my wife so that my daughter and I could go on a ride together. It was an incredible bonding moment for my daughter and me. It was only possible because of Ivy and the lessons learned at OFP.

After the ride, we met back up with Ivy and my wife. Ivy was quite upset. I had made a bad decision and left my battle buddy with someone she didn’t really know. I was not able to confidently calm her down afterwards and felt it best to leave my wife and daughter at the park so I didn’t ruin the rest of my family’s time there. Ivy and I went back to the hotel. During that long drive home,
all I could think about was how I let Ivy down and ruined the possibility of reconnecting with my daughter. I felt that, yet again, I had failed and disappointed my loved ones. But what really happened, according to my daughter, was that Ivy presented the opportunity for her dad to show her that he was willing to take a chance on being her dad again.

That event started a dialog with my family and allowed me to open up about what I had been feeling during my dark years and be totally honest and vulnerable. I was able to talk about my suicidal thoughts, how scared I was and how much I loved them. It also allowed me to genuinely apologize for my inaction as a husband and a father. My daughter opened up and allowed me to once again feel I was needed for the first time in years. I was able to ground myself and not run away because my battle buddy wouldn’t leave me. Ivy didn’t judge me; she placed her head in my lap and loved me. That was the breakthrough I needed. When my family drove home, I received a text from my daughter reading, “I have my father back.” The floodgates opened; I could “feel” once again, I was no longer numb to life.

Sure, during the next five months, there would be ups and downs, but Mary and Ivy were always there to let me know they loved, supported, and believed in me. So, I was able to get up after every fall. I imagine I feel like what a terminal cancer patient might feel like who is living every day past the day they were supposed to die. I now cherish every minute of every day since the day I chose not to leave this earth. I WANT TO LIVE. I know Mary would say it was all me, but I know Mary and Operation Freedom Paws have given me a second chance at life – a chance for my daughter to still have a father and for me to stay happily married to the love of my life, my incredible wife. I have a ways to go still and I know there will be more obstacles, but I have the confidence to keep going and not give up. Please if you are reading this and you are suffering, do not give up. There is hope. You can be happy again. You just need a dog and the will to put in the work.