A Thousand Voices: One Warrior’s Call to Arms

Reading Time: 8 minutes
VFW logo copyright Veterans of Foreign Wars.
VFW logo copyright Veterans of Foreign Wars.

I am not a hero.

The real heroes—the ones fallen in battle—haunt me. Yet, I bow my head and still my breath, wondering who will tell our stories? The stories of the warriors that bore pride in their iron-sharp battle fatigues and finely pressed service dress uniforms. The warriors that ran miles in combat boots with blistered heels and bleeding toes, shuffling their duffel bags from one shoulder to the next, transitioning the weight of their combat gear so they can continue marching forward. The warriors that never questioned right or wrong but fought, sacrificed, and survived—only to separate or retire from the military—yet continued carrying the weight of your freedom on their backs.

As warriors, we are taught to look extreme adversity in the face and rise above. However, the savage scars of our service, whether in combat zones or supporting our troops from home, weigh down on us and our families.

Asking for help is not easy. Nevertheless, we push through the pain and continue marching forward.

I accepted the call of duty and fought my battles. Now, I stand before you awaiting my resolve. I stand before you alone, raw, broken in spirit, and wondering how the language of warriors—of my brothers and sisters—a language that once embodied strength, liberty, valor, courage, and respect– mutated into haunting wails, bleeding scars, and tormenting agony. My language.

I feel the cost of your freedom in my legs; it is a constant fire that burns my muscles and paralyzes my tendons with conscious arrest; it is a gripping pain that echoes through my bones and when the burden of freedom becomes too much, I fall on bended knee waiting for this wave of pain to flush through my body and leave me in tears.

The cost of freedom is a hefty price, but I would never go back and change a thing. However, there is no victory when looking your son and daughter in the face and trying to explain to them that you are sitting in the ER because the burden—the pain of bearing that burden—called Freedom has become too much, and all I want to do is end my life and put everyone out of their misery.

I made the mistake of asking for help. Help came in the form of Percocet, 5 mg every six hours as needed for pain; Cymbalta, 30 mg twice a day; Flexural, 10 mg: twice a day. I became enraged and grieved; I was unaware that the pain tore through three major muscles in my back due to a hairline fracture in my left hip.

After a year-and-a-half, help came in the form of Percocet, 10 mg every six hours as needed for pain, Valium, 5 mg twice a day; Prozac 40 mg. And so many other medications that I can’t pronounce the name of. Yet, I choked back each pill thinking it would kill the pain for one more day. Then the barometric pressure dropped below 30 for almost two weeks straight. With every step, I struggled with my moral compass as the demons of my pain tormented me.

I asked for help again and again, and then help came in the form of two needles: Toradol and Morphine.

My husband normally drove me to my doctor’s appointments, but he was in Afghanistan for his annual deployment. So, I drove myself home while high on Morphine. I had only minutes before the drug kicked in and I started seeing pink elephants. I made it home in time to unlock the front door, write a message for my kids to feed themselves, and collapse on my bed as a euphoric wave washed over my aches and pains.

I had fallen into the dark, damp rabbit hole known as morphine.

I have been on an array of narcotics that would make Walter White—from Breaking Bad— jealous. Most of my days were spent in bed with heating pads and ice packs.

Too young for back surgery, but too weak to continue down this path of masking the pain, I continued praying for relief. Over time, my weekly visits turned into every-other-day visits. A sense of relief flushed across my doctor’s face as she typed up the referral to pain management. I could tell she wanted to help, but there wasn’t anything more she could do to ease my pain. We hugged and parted ways—temporarily.

After my first meeting with the pain management doctor, he instructed me not to take my narcotics the day of my fluoroscopy—a procedure where a live x-ray guides one of several needles into your back, stalking the nerve causing constant pain. After six shots of lidocaine, the nerves are temporarily paralyzed. If successful, the nerves are then burned off during a follow-up surgery. The doctor explained that the narcs would make it difficult for them to replicate my pain since my daily dosage causes consistent numbing. The process seemed harmless, until the morning of the procedure. Unknowingly, I agreed to a hopeful pain-free future—no matter the circumstances. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I would face my greatest enemy: myself.

Surgery one: Med free. I awoke the morning of my fluoroscopy with continual panic attacks, heavy sweats, twitching hands, uncontrollable tremors and tears, nonstop rage, and an endless pit of depression.

I felt EVERYTHING.

I was conscious of every inch of pain tormenting my body, so much so that, unknowingly, I convulsed and vibrated as the first needle stabbed the skin of my lower back. It took two nurses and the surgeon to hold me down and keep me still. I tried to remain statuesque enough so the doctor could guide the needle to its target displayed on the overhead monitor: “Just a few more seconds. You are doing so well.” Nothing could prepare me for that kind of pain—not even childbirth. One wrong move of the needle and the thought of pain would be the least of my problems. Whimpering, I gritted my teeth as my tears soaked that stupid medical-blue face rest. A color that would trigger tremors throughout my body every time I saw it.

I begged them to stop. The nurses attempted to soothe my pain by placing ice packs on my neck, to prevent me from hyperventilating while someone rubbed my calves and whispered soothing words of encouragement. The surgical table trembled underneath me. Unable to keep the needle steady, my surgical doctor granted mercy and retracted the third needle, ending the procedure entirely.

I left the building feeling even more defeated than upon entering. I couldn’t go on another day living with this much pain, and now my back stung from the bite of each needle gnawing at my spine.

So, I asked for more help and it came in the form of another cocktail of narcotics that would numb my pain for one more day.

Second surgery: Success—if you can call it that.

Family was not permitted in the back room where curtain walls fluttered from a patient or nurses’ movement. My kids were on Spring Break, so they spent the passing time in the waiting room until I emerged upon completion of the fluoroscopy.

These fabric partitions separated each patient from the next. All of us conveying a similar story to the doctor as he passed through to chart the next patient’s upcoming procedure and then place a small mark on their back where the needle would enter. All of us anxiously awaiting our turn in the operating room.

My immunity to narcotics surpassed my understanding, but I did as my doctors instructed. I took what was needed, bared down, and gritted my teeth—once more—for what felt like an eternity. One-by-one, six needles penetrated my lower-right back. The surgery was brief and successful, in the eyes of my medical team. I waited and waited, hoping that my body would stop trembling from the intense pressure of the needle entering my back one-by-one. A pressure that continuously pushed my spine downward in several failed attempts to escape the pointed edge of the next needle.

“Try to stay perfectly still. Last one, I promise.”

My hips ground into the surgical table while the nurses bore down on my limbs in an attempt to keep me motionless. As the needle dug its way under my skin, I waited for those words of relief: All done. By the end of the procedure my palms were bruised with fingernail ringlets as I clenched my fists. Sweat clung to my brow and every muscle in my body ached from tension and exhaustion. Yet, I attempted to remain motionless. My time on the surgical table left me depleted from screaming, crying, and begging for them to stop—all while being heavily medicated enough to sedate a small animal.

After the procedure, I drove myself home. My back remained rigid throughout the drive as I choked back every tear in my body in order to continue pushing forward. After all, that is what I was trained to do—continue marching forward through the pain.

I spent the next three days in bed, all for a test run. A test run that would see if six needles could stop my pain with numbing meds. If successful, I would have to return two more times—three needles per procedure. I can only assume the surgeries are broken into two parts because patients are required to remain awake throughout the procedure and the amount of pain and stress from the puncture wounds would overload the bodies’ sensory response in a negative way. But I’m not a doctor.

So, I did what I was trained to do: Shut my mouth and do as I am told, even though nagging feelings of defeat constantly flushed through my thoughts.

I can’t go back there again.

I don’t have the strength to bear this burden of freedom that tore through my body. I don’t have the strength to grit my teeth one more time and listen to the words: “Stay perfectly still. This is the last one. I promise.” I don’t have the strength to face an unknown pain while a surgical team burns the nerves on the right side of my back and then wash, rinse, and repeat the procedure for the left side of my back. A therapy process that could span over the next several months, possibly years.

The burden of remaining strong in the eyes of my family, while silently shifting the pain from one shoulder to the other, was too much for me to carry by myself. I could muster up every last drop of courage in my body and I would, still, never find the strength to power through for the sake of my kids; they needed me to be strong, but I was tired.

That night I texted my parents and my in-laws: “I’m in trouble. Admitting myself to ER. I want to die.”

I wanted to be strong for my kids. I wanted to be strong for myself. I wanted to be strong—like the warrior I was trained to be. Yet, I couldn’t discover where I hid my strength in times of suffering and despair. I spent a night in the ER reliving my past as a new doctor came in every couple of hours to collect my history for a different chart. A close friend came to the ER and took my kids home with her. So, I waited, alone. All night.

After driving all night, my in-laws arrived at the ER the next morning. My mother arrived shortly after. All the while, my husband was in constant contact with my mother, as well as his own parents; he took care of me from afar because that is what military families do best—rally in the face of adversity.

I am still suffering. I am still hurting. I am still looking for help. And I am not alone.

To those who are willing to turn an ear and listen to our story: We are not standing in line at Disney world. We are standing in front of you waiting, watching, hoping that someone will step up and carry this burden of freedom that tore through our bodies. We are asking for your strength—for you to pause and hear our voice.

I have done my duty and put my service before self. Will you help me?

Hello, my name is Melissa Rininger and I’m a drug addict. This is what asking for help looks like for a military veteran.

To help a veteran, start by listening. Then write your Congressman and continue the dialogue for veterans that need your support. Or contact your local VFW or Veteran’s Affairs office and offer to volunteer. Everyone needs someone to listen. Will you?

If you are a veteran in need of help, contact the Veteran Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255 (Ext 1). Or text 838255.

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