Elle’s Story: How She Used Her Military Mindset to Overcome Trauma Caused by the Very Institution Who Taught Her Strength and Discipline | All Points North

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Elle’s Story: How She Used Her Military Mindset to Overcome Trauma Caused by the Very Institution Who Taught Her Strength and Discipline

Written by Samantha Carter

Elle grew up in a military family and was no stranger to the militaristic mindset. However, she never thought she would end up joining the military herself. When she saw the armed forces as an opportunity to reach her dreams of becoming a news anchor in a competitive field, she took it. However, she could have never predicted how that choice would change her life forever.

While in the military, Elle was sexually assaulted and then dismissed by the very institution that caused her harm. What she learned later was that this was no unique circumstance. In fact, Elle went on to participate in an award-winning documentary, The Invisible War, which follows the story of women who have been raped in the military without retribution. Elle even filed a lawsuit against the US Department of Defense.

As one might expect, Elle’s mental health took a turn for the worse. After years of unresolved trauma, Elle finally decided to come to the All Points North (APN) Lodge and seek healing. While she wasn’t expecting much at first, she left with some tools and meaningful relationships to last a lifetime. To learn more about Elle’s story, check out the full APN podcast, I Broke the Cycle of Military Trauma: Recovery x Elle, or continue reading the article below.

Childhood Trauma

Before discussing her time in the military, Elle opened up about her background, childhood upbringing, and unresolved family trauma.

“I come from a very long line of alcoholic, PTSD military officers,” Elle said. “There wasn’t a word for it. It was just [a] don’t bother him kind-of-thing. [While we] now know [about] PTSD, [it wasn’t] a formal diagnosis in the ‘80s. Three tours in Vietnam, they didn’t know what it was. Like, both of my grandpas [fought and we didn’t] have a word for it other than, ‘oh, it’s shell shock.’

Elle went on to further talk about how coming from a military family influenced how she was raised.

“I was raised militant–not the Boulder lifestyle people think [of],” Elle said. “I think unresolved trauma on behalf of my parents was a perfect storm for growing up in chaos and an alcoholic environment … I really wish they would have done some trauma work, honestly, but that’s why I’m here. So, you know, my kids don’t have to go on [with this trauma]. [I was] just raised in a very [unloving] household. People raised on survival are different than people raised in love … so I didn’t really know I had childhood trauma or negative [core beliefs] until I got here. I just thought it was everyday life.”

Military Mindset

Like most people who are unaware that they’re walking around with unresolved trauma from the past, Elle continued on with her life.

“I went to college [and] everything was great,” Elle said. “[Then], 9/11 happened and I was particularly affected by that. [It was] the first time I’m like, you know I think I could kill someone, which is weird because it takes a lot for people to get to that point and then takes more to talk about it.’”

Elle went to college to pursue broadcast communications with a future aspiration of attending law school. However, she quickly realized how competitive getting into anchoring could be, so she started to look at the military as an option to both channel her emotions around 9/11 while also getting ahead in her career.

“[I thought] I would be drawn to that environment,” Elle said. “Coming from chaos, you look for order. Also, it’s not a bad thing to join the military [if you’re] still running off 9/11. I mean, that’s what a lot of people did. A lot of people felt the way I did. A lot of people still do.”

Elle began researching her options. She looked around at all the different branches and ended up joining [the] Marines in a moment of hot-headedness to prove a point.

“[There was this Marine officer and] he’s like, ‘So, do you want to join the Marines?’ I was like, ‘Absolutely not! You guys are freaking crazy!’ And he’s like, ‘Get out! You wouldn’t last a second in here!’ And I was like, that’s it. Sign the papers. So kind of the hot head mentality didn’t pay off, but I did join the Marine Corps and [was] later selected as a public affairs officer of Marine Barracks Washington … [at] a very high visibility job. It was stressful and it was there that I learned I maybe didn’t want to be an anchor.”

Sexual Assault in the Military

Unfortunately, joining the military wouldn’t lead to the career jump Elle was initially after. Not only that, but it would end up causing her a trauma that would take years to heal.

“I was sexually assaulted in the military,” Elle said. “At the time, I was told I [was] the only person that happened to and ‘this is why boys, girls, and alcohol don’t mix.’ I thoroughly believe that I did everything right in terms of [following protocol through] military police, NCIS investigations, [and] contacting your congressman. I sought help … [but the response was] like, ‘we don’t have time for mental illness.’”

Even though the military wasn’t showing up for Elle, she was still trying to show up for herself in a very difficult situation.

“I got written a diagnosis with PTSD and major depressive disorder when I came back and reported to my command,” Elle said. “My commander ripped it up and said, ‘well [that doctor’s] not operational, clearly.’ So that was the mentality in 2004 through 2007 when I was in [the military]. I think a lot of people suffered … but now we’re in a better place where you can ask for help.”

Being Part of an Award-Winning Documentary, The Invisible War

Later, Elle was contacted by a PR team to ask about being part of a documentary about military survivors of rape.

“[The] PR team had been in touch with the second female marine who they’d sent after me who had a similar situation [happen to her],” Elle said. “She knew who I was because [she was] told, ‘don’t be a lieutenant Helmer.’ That was kind of the warning of don’t get assaulted or don’t put yourself in a bad position.”

The documentary, The Invisible War, went on to receive several awards, including two Emmy Awards and a Sundance Film Festival Award.

“I didn’t realize I was going to be one of the eight subjects of it, but I felt relieved when I found out that sexual assaults happened to other people,” Elle said. “[Before], I’d just been told, ‘You screwed this up. This is your fault. We’re never sending another female here again ever–it just doesn’t work.’”

Not only was Elle surprised to have been featured in the film, but she also ended up being more involved with the topic than she thought she would.

“Because I’m a media officer and trained, I got to do a lot of speaking for it,” Elle said. “So opening at universities, like Conference of World Affairs, any sort of women’s organization–those really picked up. I filed a federal lawsuit [with] the Department of Defense. [That] was dismissed ultimately saying that rape is an occupational hazard. I wasn’t aware that rape was incident to service when I joined, as most people aren’t. So my lawsuit was focused more on the retaliation and the reprisal and that it’s even worse than the incident itself in a lot of [cases].”

Continuing to show up in such a brave and bold way was admirable, but things still took a toll on Elle.

“I know now I completely dissociated. I didn’t have a word for it because I was numb,” Elle said. I did it very well. I’m fine to talk on live TV about what happened. I’m grateful. That’s why I did it–to help people, right? I mean I knew the lawsuit wasn’t going anywhere. There’s no money associated. It’s to raise awareness. Altruistically, I love that [it] gained momentum and [that people] knew that this happened and that it’s highly prevalent in the military. Maybe [others] thought twice or maybe a commander acted differently. I’m not sure. But yeah, speaking about it, I could totally numb out, talk to you like I’m talking to you now, have zero emotion. And that definitely caught up with me.”

The Warrior Said, “I Am The Storm”

After years of trying to do all the things she knew to do to overcome this trauma, Elle found herself running out of speed.

“The slightest thing bothered me,” Elle said. “It was just a vast explosion of all the emotions. If you’d ask me what’s wrong I would say, ‘Oh, it’s the Zoloft. I’m getting off the Zoloft.’ But if I really sat and thought about it, it was stuff from decades ago. I [was] like, why is this [still in your] head? Your mind is racing.”

Years after her assault with a family now of her own, Elle struggled with making the decision to seek help at APN Lodge, a mental health, trauma, and addiction treatment facility.

“I didn’t want to go,” Elle said. “I had a lot of guilt and shame about leaving my toddler child [and] three kids. But I also … remember[ed] a statement like, ‘Everyone will die for their kids, but very few will actually live for their kids.’ So I remember thinking, I have to do that. I mean, I’m very stubborn as a lot of veterans are. Like I refuse[d] to live like this for another 42 years. I [wouldn’t] do it. My quality of life [was] awful. I [felt] sick. [I was] getting brain zaps. I lost 10 pounds … in three days.”

Finally, Elle decided to take the leap.

“It was a lot of every emotion possible,” Elle said. “I didn’t feel excitement. I felt guilt, shame, nervousness, anticipation. I had no idea what to expect and then I think having no expectations was probably the best thing because what I found was greater than I could have even imagined.”

This time, her militaristic mindset had worked out in her favor.

“I think a lot of people – especially veterans – love the quote, ‘the devil whispered, ‘You cannot withstand the storm,’ and the warrior said, ‘I am the storm.’’ That was an embodiment [for me]–like this is my last-ditch effort to save my life. So what does that entail? I don’t know. But I know what I’m doing isn’t working.”

Coming to APN

At first, Elle came to All Points North for medication management. What she got ended up being so much more than she bargained for.

“The antidepressant [I’d] been on [wasn’t] working [and] I had maxed out at 200 milligrams” Elle said. “So okay, let’s get off the Zoloft and let’s try something else, [I thought]. What [my VA healthcare providers] didn’t say is you should taper. [Also], I’m still on a wait list for a counselor with that organization. There was no follow-through. The medication just came in the mail. I got really sick withdrawing cold turkey [and it] was probably the worst thing I could have done. But I’m grateful it happened because it did lead me [to APN]. I finally just reached a point where I [was] like, I know I need to take something, but [it’s] not going to be this haphazard willy-nilly [thing]. You’re not going to send it to me in the mail and say, ‘Figure it out. We’ll see you in three months.’ So that’s what led me [to] the medication management aspect here.”

The Lodge wasn’t Elle’s first attempt at seeking help. Because of her previous unsuccessful efforts, she was particularly relieved to learn how differently things are done at APN.

“I got very lucky finding APN,” Elle said. “I feel like I almost found it too late because you shouldn’t be in crisis. I did have to call the suicide hotline with the VA. I did have to leave a message on there and they still haven’t called me back … I feel like you get in these patterns in life where you’re like, I’m checking the box. I’m going to counseling. [But it] wasn’t doing anything–wasn’t even scratching the surface … there wasn’t a challenge [like I] experience[d] at APN. There weren’t assignments, or digging deep, or root causes, which I appreciated so much.”

Elle began to notice the difference between going through the motions and actually showing up to do the deep healing work it takes to be well.

“I’d liken it to you’re going to the gym and you’re doing the elliptical every day,” Elle said. “But then you’re asked to lift a lot of weights after two years and you can’t. You’re like, ‘but I work out every day. I show up.’ Sure, you can. But if you’re not focusing and you’re not really digging deep … then how do you know you’re making success if you’re just going in and doing the motions? Is it enough?”

Settling Into Community

The APN environment was a pleasant change from the previous attempts at seeking help that Elle had made.

“I came straight here and then I did check in to detox a day later,” Elle said. “It was wonderful … if you go through health care – which a lot of veterans take that route – you’re sent a lot of medications that aren’t necessarily explained to you. So I had been taking six milligrams of Klonopin. Fortunately, I didn’t get addicted to it, but the withdrawal that did happen here was significant and no one [previously] explained the effects of a benzo to me … [But] detox was not as scary as I thought it was going to be.”

After her detox period, Elle had another experience that helped her settle into her new surroundings.

“The very first person I met walking in the building was another female veteran who had experienced sexual trauma,” Elle said. “So that was relieving almost to know that somebody else had gone outside of the system and that we could talk about it without those feelings of like this … weight [is] on my shoulders.”

Slowly, Elle began opening herself up to the possibility of a community she wasn’t prepared for.

“I had a great roommate experience,” said Elle. “I went to all my groups [and] felt a very strong sense of welcoming … [I initially] wanted to go to my room and be by myself, which we call isolation … but here it’s so encouraging to play a game. I remember meeting Brian, [an APN therapist], and he said, ‘The best therapy you will ever get here is not in any single room or any single group. It’s going to be from a community.’ And that is the truest statement I ever heard. I’m still in touch with about 35 members [and it was] the first time in my life I actually felt like I could have girlfriends too.”

Part of the benefit of being in this type of community is having people to resource who also get how hard the regular difficulties of life are when you’re dealing with trauma on top of it.

“If you’re spending time with people who have been through what you’re going through and we’re all struggling, we’re all on this journey … we know there’s no magic pill … it’s going to take a lot of work and it’s a commitment,” Elle said.

APN Veteran’s Path

The All Points North Lodge, a holistic treatment center for trauma, mental health, and addiction in Edwards, Colorado offers many different plans and programs to suit individual needs. One of those programs is the Veteran’s Path, which Elle spoke more about during her APN podcast interview.

“I did the veteran tract with Brandon,” Elle said. “Our group was helpful in the sense that [it] felt really good and really safe because we’ve all been through it …sharing and listening to people’s stories helped me a lot. [Even though] I actually never fully told my story in the veteran’s group (I did in process group), listening to people talk about moral injury or being lost in the system [was] just a common denominator … We all would give a blank check to the government for our lives and it didn’t work out so well.”

Within the Veteran’s Path, Elle was able to find other people with similar stories to her. While she would never wish what happened to her on anyone, it was comforting to know she was not alone.

“While I was here, there were eight female veterans and our stories were almost identical with regards to sexual trauma,” Elle said. “So that felt good–I mean, horrible. [But], if you can drum upon your worst moments but then find a way to laugh in it too–that is bigger than suffering in silence.”

Life Post APN

While Elle spoke about how coming to treatment wasn’t a “magic pill” that could fix everything, she also highlighted the difference that APN has been able to make in her life.

“It was very helpful having a text chain or making myself call people that I didn’t even necessarily want to call and talk to,” Elle said. “[After leaving APN], the lifeline’s not totally cut. [Also], I probably would come back here [again] to focus on the smaller things in a smaller increment of time because it’s a triage [situation with my mental health]. So I left and I immediately started [hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT)]. I just decided the fight for my life still continues. I got a credit card. I’m calling it my ‘mentee B credit card’ – mentee B’s mental breakdown. But I put HBOT on it. I put ketamine. I put acupuncture. I put IV. I put personal trainer. I mean, the things that I did well here and the things that were part of the piece of the puzzle that led me to not feel like I was in a crisis anymore needed to be continued at home.”

Still, Elle didn’t stop there.

“Then I feel like [it’s important to] look at people who are doing something well and copy them, but do it your way,” Elle said. “So I felt like the people who got out of APN who did it well, I would emulate. [I’d ask them], ‘What are you doing for this? Are you working out? What books are you reading? [Are you using] the Meetup app? Like, are you meeting new people? Because I think most of us would agree our community before wasn’t necessarily the best environment for us.”

Elle’s life also changed in other unexpected ways.

“A byproduct of me being here was stopping [drinking] … so filling the gap of loneliness and isolation [became key],” Elle said. “Continuing [my] APN journey … and pushing [myself] every day just to get one percent better [became a driving force].”

Elle’s Message to Veterans

Being a veteran herself, Elle carries a specific experience and trauma that may resonate with other members of the armed forces. In her podcast episode, she shared a few messages for other veterans like herself.

“You’re not alone,” Elle said. “You’re not alone. Statistics support what you’re going through … I personally believe in you. I’ve been part of an organization that’ll chew you up and spit you out [and] I still have a great revere and esteem for it, as we all do. But it’s hard when you get out–it’s the loss of identity, it’s a loss of brotherhood/sisterhood, of mission, of structure, so I fully understand.”

Having gone through it herself, Elle urges other veterans to continue seeking support outside of the traditional VA healthcare system. It’s also important to note that Elle’s insurance benefits at the Lodge were still covered by her VA benefits.

“The way the system is designed is to put all of your health care into an organization that didn’t expect the bow wave of what’s happening now with mental health claims,” Elle said. “The number one inbound claims for the VA are all military sexual trauma, PTSD, anxiety, [and] depression, so people are listening. Like, the culture is changing. But I would encourage you to take things into your own hands … you’re in charge of your own life. You’re the warrior. That was your storm. You’re stronger than it, and absolutely don’t quit … you can [always] get one percent better and that’s still better than you were.”

As individuals willing to fight for their country, Elle poses a compelling question about what else a veteran might be willing to fight for.

“Much like ‘mission accomplishment,’ you do anything it takes, right? You’d call in the big guns. You’d call in naval fire. You get some snipers on it. Get some artillery. Why aren’t you doing that with your life? Your life is worth fighting for! You just have to get to that point and then call in every avenue in your arsenal that you can. I’m a veteran. I know [the benefits aren’t] great. That’s why I’m putting [my self-care needs] on a credit card. If I can make payments on a car, why can’t I make payments on my life? … We’re willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, but are we willing to sacrifice vulnerability, [comfort], and doing the hard work?”

Even though doing the hard work doesn’t make all the pain go away and certainly doesn’t make the healing journey stop, it does turn a life of pain and suffering into a life worth living.

If you’re interested in learning more about All Points North and our addiction, trauma, and mental health recovery programs, submit our confidential contact form or call us at 855.934.1178 today. You never know how good your life can get until you deal with the things that are hard.

More From Elle

Listen and watch Elle’s episode of Recovery x APN below, and find more episodes on YouTube, Spotify, and Apple Podcasts.