The picture above was taken a year ago May. The last time I got to see Hollis, and spend a few days giggling, talking, shooting portraits (that you all know as her 22 Portraits), and just ignoring the outside world. She and I had no idea what the outcome of the Portraits would be, but she insisted that we had to give it a try. To let those out there struggling know that others are struggling, too.
Fast forward to now, and I look at this picture, and I don't know what to think. This was the last time that I got to see Hollis. She went back to Florida, I came back home to Philly...both having lives in different areas of the country. However, what I didn't know, was that not only would this be the last time I would see her in over a year, but it would also be one of the last times that we really talked. When she returned to Florida, she began to shut me out. Little by little, of course, but the isolation began. It started out as days between phone calls, then it turned into days between text messages. Then from there it turned into months. I would try to reach out, but wouldn't get anything back. And, when she would write back, it was vague messages, and a lot of the time very cryptic messages. See, she was in a really REALLY bad relationship (we've all been there in some form or another), and while she wouldn't always tell me what was going on, she would give me cryptic codes and messages where I was able to piece things together.
The day of the Gallery Show (yep, the one I mentioned below this post) was the last time I would talk to her on the phone before she left Florida and moved in with her mother in Tennessee. It was a frantic phone call, nothing was making sense, and she only said that she could talk for a moment before she had to go. But, she told me she was leaving the relationship and going to live with her mother. I have no idea what happened, but a huge part of me was finally relieved that she was leaving.
Fast forward again....no communication for a while, and out of the blue she calls and tells me that, sadly, her mother had passed, and she was waiting for her brother to come in from CA (where he lives, as well as her father), and that she didn't know what she would be doing from there. I told her she should come to Philly, but she said no. It was crickets again for a couple weeks, then I got a text that said she was moving to CA. Again, I wasn't given any details or reasons, and I had no ideas what was going on, just that she was moving all the way across the country. I assumed it was to be near her family, but when I asked, I only got silence in return.
It's been a few months now that she's been out there, and I can count the number of phone calls, text messages, and facebook messages on one hand. She's admitted that she's isolating, and falling back into her old habits, but promises me that she's getting help. I don't know if it's true, and I want to believe more than anything that it is. But, she goes off radar with no communications, and that leaves me clear across the country and worried. I reach out and get silence.
Having PTS is difficult, but I have to say that being the one on this side isn't easy either. It's taken a toll on my mental and physical well-being as well. Trust issues develop, anger and frustrations run high, and fear that she'll regress even further all plague my life now, too. And, where as she has resources available to her to turn to for help dealing with things...outside of using my own insurance, I don't. I'm left dealing with many of these things in my own way, and in the time that I can find free. And, at what point does a person say, "I've done all I can? What more can I do?". Can you truly help a person who doesn't seem to want it?
I'm not sure how she'll like this post. I've told her a few times that I needed to update this blog, asking her each time if there was anything I should or shouldn't say. Each time I ask, I'm met with the same thing....silence. I think that is the worst part of it all. The silence.
Back when I started this project, Hollis and I sat down and talked about what we wanted to do with these images. We knew that we wanted to start this blog to get the word out, but we also knew that we wanted so much more. We wanted to get the word out to as many people as possible. A book idea has always been our ultimate end goal, but we both know that's going to take a lot of time, and a lot of patience (good thing I'm good at that!). The other goal we had with this project, was to get into a Gallery. That way the pictures could reach others who might be interested in the concept, and the message.
Well, an opportunity to enter some of my images into a Juried Art Show at the Philadelphia Sketch Club's PHOTOgraphy 2015 contest presented itself, and I jumped (albeit hesitantly) at it. I entered 4 of Hollis' images into the contest, and played the waiting game. When the notification of acceptance came, I was over the moon!! This was my second gallery show, and one of the most awesome ones I've been in! The Philadelphia Sketch Club is America's oldest Art Gallery, and has had some VERY talented artists for members (such as Eakins, Anshutz, and Wyeth to name a few). Talk about an honor!!!
The Gallery Reception was so much fun, and the fact that I got to spend time with my friend (and mentor) Caitlin (who was also included in the Gallery for her United We Feed images) and her beautiful family, as well as some fellow Photographer friends who came to support us only added to the level of fun and excitement. Not to mention, I got to take my wonderful husband as my amazing date!
All around, it was such a great experience! For those who are local, the PHOTOgraphy 2015 show runs until August 15, so head on down to the Sketch Club and check out all the amazing images! And, in the meantime, I'm playing the waiting game for a few other things, too!
When I started this journey with Hollis, I had no idea where it would take me. I honestly didn't know where I wanted it to take me.
The PTS journey itself has been a rollercoaster, filled with ups and downs. Not just for Hollis, but for me, too. Being an outsider and trying to help her has proven to be a struggle for me...especially when we're separated by so much distance. I will never stop being there for her, and helping her in this fight, because that's what sisters do. But, this isn't something that they prepare anyone for. Sure, they don't really equip our fighting men and women to deal with the effects of PTS and TBI's, and they certainly don't help them. But, they really don't do anything for the family members in this struggle, either. No resources...no one to talk to...nobody other than those that we can seek out that maybe have gone through something similar. And, when you're far away from your family member, the "isolation" is even greater.
I can't be there on her worst days. I can't be there to help her fight the VA when they treat her terribly. I can't be there to help her confront her therapist when she says that Hollis' "emotional state is exaggerated" (yeah, that really happened). I can't be there to help her through her lonely nights, or her worst days. And that really wears down a person. If I didn't have my amazing Husband around to vent to (and he has caught the majority of my anger and frustration!), then I truly wouldn't have any outlets available to me.
When Hollis and I started the 22 Portrait Project, I felt that we both finally had an outlet for some of the pent up emotions of this journey. And a healthy outlet, too. One that we could both connect through, no matter how far apart we are. I didn't have lofty goals of changing the world, but perhaps of bringing awareness to the struggle that many of our Veterans face. More importantly, I had the goal of helping Hollis heal, and find a sense of peace for her anger and hurt.
Once everything started to come together, and people began jumping behind us on this, I was happy and excited. It seemed our little project had a lot of people intrigued. But, slowly, somethings just started to not feel right. I started becoming overwhelmed by people rushing at me with their thoughts of how things should go, and people I didn't know being brought in on it. Before I could blink, everything started getting out of my control, and spiraling away from anything that I had envisioned. I kept trying to convince myself that it was ok, and this is the direction it was "supposed" to take, even if I wasn't comfortable with it.
Then, it happened. Someone had taken my idea, and gone their separate way with it. A person that I didn't know, but had consulted with about something....even offered to partner with. Before I could brush it off, it happened again. This time they wanted me to collaborate with them....on my idea. By the 3rd time, I was becoming an expert at just starting to ignore all the people who were copying me. It's supposedly flattery, right? Isn't that what they say? I had just decided that I was going to keep doing what I was doing, because I was helping my sister. And that's the whole reason I was doing this to begin with.
Well....I've finally hit my breaking point. I had a bad blow, and I'm not giving details, but it was enough for me to sit down, and re-evaluate this entire project. I hope that those who have taken this idea and run with it can help so many people. It's a story that needs to be told. But, I'm going to tell the stories the way I want to tell the stories. I want to do them the justice that they deserve.
I still believe in this project with my entire being....I believe that this can be an amazing outlet for those struggling Veterans who want to tell their stories. But I finally know where I want this journey to go, and I don't want to have it any other way. Hollis' story isn't done being told, she still has so much information, and I'll always be there to help her, and to tell her story....but I'm not going to keep having my emotions stomped on through this, by others who think they know how I should do it--or those who want to take it. It's enough of a rollercoaster ride without having all of this on top of it. So, until I have more of Hollis' journey complete, and the stories of other Veterans who want to get their stories and experiences out....I'm just biding my time patiently.
In the meantime....these are the remaining images that I have of Hollis' story. They're powerful and emotional...and mean so much more when you can see them all. I hope that they give you cause to sit, and reflect on the toll that invisible wounds can take on a strong and brave person.
I do have a couple people lined up for future 22 Portrait Stories, and I will let you know as soon as their stories are ready. If you want to tell your story, then please email me, I'm always willing to be a listening ear.
(And, as a side note, I'm going to be leaving Hollis' GoFund Me page open for the remainder of July, then I'll be shutting it down. THANK YOU to those of you who have helped us raise $450! That's just about halfway to the goal. She and I are so grateful to all of you for your donations, and your willingness to share the story. We can't thank you all enough. If you haven't seen the page, or would like to donate/share, you can view it here. Thank you again!)
In just a little bit over a month, Hollis will officially be retired from the military. She's come to peace with this decision, and knows that she will have to continue to fight the VA....but that doesn't mean that she doesn't hurt. Giving up the uniform that she worked so hard for is not an easy task. She loved everything about being a Flight Medic, and an Airman.
"There's a sense of failure thinking that I'll never get to do the job that I trained so hard to do. The job that I wanted to do more than anything. It gave me a sense of purpose, and there was nothing more rewarding than helping our wounded."
Click HERE to visit our 22 Portrait Project GoFund Me page to share or donate
"The loneliness....the isolation. It's a game changer. People tell me that I should just "suck it up" and "be happy"...."just soak up some sunshine"...I WISH it was that easy! I wish that I could wake up one morning and say, "Guess what, I'm perfectly normal. I'm happy!", but I can't. I will ALWAYS have these memories with me, even after I've exhausted all the therapy available to me. The best that I can hope for is that one day, I will be able to function again. I may never be completely healed, but one can hope that I can find a way to be the new me in a happy way."
Click HERE to go to Hollis' GoFund Me page (whether to share or donate is up to you!)
Education is key to understanding anything...including PTS! Make sure you educate yourself. Especially if someone you know, and care about is struggling.
Here are some resources if you're interested in learning/reading more:
The Lone Survivor Foundation
Wounded Warrior Project
Department of Veteran's Affairs (I'm not a fan of the VA, but it's always a good place to start when looking for information)
Know any other resources? Feel free to list them in the comments for others to see.
This is my dear Mama and Sister, Hollis, and she suffers from PTSD and various other Invisible Wounds of Service. This is a struggle we share—her in her fight to heal, and me in my fight to keep her from becoming a statistic.
Hollis and I enlisted, trained, and served together for a while. She deployed 4 times—3 times with Security Forces (as a cop), and once with AES (as a flight medic). 2 tours to Iraq, 2 tours to Afghanistan. She’s never been one to shirk away from any duty—always the first to volunteer for anything and everything. But, like many, she was fighting a battle with herself, fighting her own demons.
Circumstances beyond her control led to choices and actions to try and alleviate the pain, and erase the horrible memories. She tried self-harm by cutting, but feared getting a disease in the desert. From cutting she moved on to non-active Bulimia as her coping mechanism. But it didn’t help drive out the hurt.
Even returning home between deployments didn’t ease the suffering, and the thoughts of self-harm. She felt weak—like she had somehow betrayed her warrior ethos. Warriors, soldiers, they aren’t supposed to feel moments of weakness, right??
She managed to hide most of her illness from me for years, but I knew. What sister (or spouse, or family member, or best friend, etc.) wouldn’t recognize the changes? But no matter how many questions I asked, or how much I pressed the issues, she would just push me away. Isolate herself, and me, even more.
We were both lost.
Finally, in 2013, while on her AES deployment, I got a frantic phone call from her. “Mama, I need help”. Her story finally spilled out through the phone, then through Skype. A painful story for her to tell, and for me to hear. But it felt good to finally hear the truth. We knew we could work on the "what's next", from there.
She knew the path the military would take once it came to light what was going on—she would have to give up her many years of stellar service…her uniform…her way of life…and the only thing she wanted to do, serve. But she had realized that her life was so much more valuable than all that. She finally wanted to live. So, together, we got the ball rolling on what would prove to be one of the most difficult journeys of her life.
It’s been 2 years full of ups and downs—from trouble with certain policies, to the many troubles with the VA. Everyone has heard the stories, and read the news articles—but, together, we’re living them! And they’re all true, and then some! I can’t even begin to tell of all the horrible instances, and the awful stories that she’s called near hysterical about. It’s enough to make anyone’s blood boil. And it isn't getting any better!
It wasn’t until last year, though, that I finally heard the fight come back in her voice. “Mama, we HAVE to do something about this. This struggle and fight is for a reason”.
If there is one thing that has always sparked life in Hollis, it’s art. So, through various ideas and brainstorming sessions, we came up with the 22 Portrait Project. It started as a way to show the many Veterans who are struggling with Invisible Wounds that they are NOT alone. That there are people out here willing to fight with them, and for them. That they ARE MORE than a statistic. It’s a project to show the Families and Friends fighting for their loved one, that they, too, are not alone. Family is such an integral part of this fight, but we are so often forgotten. We, too, struggle with their PTSD.
But, from there this project has grown to so much more. It is now a drive and a desire to tell a story…HER story, from start to finish. And in doing so, giving others the courage they may need to tell their story, too. The courage they may need to understand that admitting they are struggling isn’t an admission of weakness…but the most courageous thing they could do for themselves.
One goal with this Project is to have enough photographs, stories, and support to compile a book, as well as a travelling gallery show. Crazy, yes. But what is a dream if it isn’t crazy??
But, even more than that, a GoFund Me was created to raise money, so that Hollis can get her amazing story out there. For her to be able to travel to the people who want her to tell it. Because I believe that she is the voice that can finally bring these terrible stories out of the shadows, and give hope to others.
One thing I’ve told her from the beginning is that I will do ANYTHING to help her. To see and hear her speak about this project (and journey), the light comes back into her eyes, and the determination I’ve come to know and love from her, returns. For a little while, she’s the old Hollis. I would do anything to bring that back permanently.
She’s still working on her healing, but she’s come so far in the last 2 years. We both have. Because this struggle is NOT fought alone.
If you would like to donate or share with others, this is the link to the campaign:
**Shortly after I wrote this, Hollis voluntarily entered an in-patient facility for the next month. I miss her terribly, and hate that I can't talk to her...but I know that she's doing what needs to be done to heal and recover.**
The weekend of May 16th and May 17th I had an open 22 shoot. Not a lot of people showed up, but the ones who did could not have been more amazing! I'm so grateful to them for taking the time out of their day to stop by. 3 AWESOME USO Volunteers (one who just moved on to the Red Cross), My Amazing Hair and Makeup Goddess and her 3 Beautiful Daughters, and the her fun Aunt! We had a great time, all showing our 22's for the Veterans.
Thank you Ladies (and Young Ladies!)!
Getting by with the support of some of my Best and Dearest Friends. If I didn't have them, or my amazing Husband and Children, I don't know how many times I would have quit!
Not to mention, the wonderful, and brave woman who started it all. I love her so much, and would walk through hell to help her heal. (There is SO much more to her amazing photoshoot.....so stay tuned for those images)
My AWESOME Big Brother has been amazing at reaching out to people to show their support! One of those Amazing People, is Tim Kennedy (and his newborn son!). MMA Fighter, and SF Army Ranger Veteran.
© 2021 MaydayMayhem Photography All rights reserved