Post Mushing Stress Disorder or PMSD is a serious illness. Its symptoms are nearly similar to those from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; however where the two illnesses differ is in their origins or causes.
According to the Mayo Clinic, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a type of anxiety disorder that’s triggered by a traumatic event. You can develop post-traumatic stress disorder when you experience or witness an event that causes intense fear, helplessness or horror.
Post-mushing stress disorder (PMSD), on the other hand, is a type of anxiety disorder that’s triggered by participating in a sled dog event. You can develop post-mushing stress disorder when you experience or witness a sled dog event that causes intense joy, excitement and adventure. Mushers that must return to some form of civilization outside of their kennels after a sled dog event are most commonly afflicted.
My husband and I have been suffering from PMSD for 9 years and it has nearly disrupted our lives. Here is our story and how we came to the conclusion that there was a strong need for Musher Decompression Training to help re-integrate mushers back to civilization after the race season.
I can still remember the first time I realized I was having a hard time assimilating back to civilian life. Surprisingly, it was not the overwhelming feeling of dread that washes over most of us as we travel home closer and closer to our final destination; reality. No, it didn’t really hit me until I was actually done traveling and at home.
We got home that first evening, unpacked and went to bed. I awoke in the middle of the night sweating and alarmed from a nightmare that I had forgotten to drop the dogs for over 24 hours. I was so freaked out I woke Bruce up and said, “Did you drop the dogs?” He flew out of bed in his underwear and ran outside in 0 degrees to check on the dogs only to realize they were not in the truck. At first we laughed and we laughed hard. However, on day three when Bruce woke in a startle because he had just driven off a cliff with a 16 dog team, we knew something might be a little askew. On the 5th and 6th day when I could have sworn I heard the dogs barking and ran to the door alarmed they would disturb someone in the next room only to discover there were no dogs, let alone someone in the next room, I knew I needed to take action.
I started to immediately do some research on the internet and found information on PTSD. As I began to research the symptoms of PTSD I learned I was experiencing them. According to Mayo Clinic, the signs and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder are commonly grouped into three types: intrusive memories, avoidance and numbing, and increased anxiety or emotional arousal (hyper arousal).
Undoubtedly, we were both suffering from intrusive memories and flashbacks. As I started to reflect on that first week I realized we were experiencing symptoms from each of these categories. Every year, the sequence of events and symptoms are nearly the same. Upon returning we experience what I would call a complete energy drain. We are so accustomed to a regimented schedule; up at 6:30AM to drop and water dogs, re-drop 2 hours later, feed at 2:00P, re-drop 2 hours later and, finally, drop before you go to bed. Everything revolves around dropping the dogs. So imagine how this messed us up when we had to return to a civilized schedule. That first day the alarm went off at 4:30AM and it was damn near impossible to get out of bed. My brain kept telling me it was 2 hours too early to drop dogs and my body was agreeing, but that damn alarm kept going off and some small part of my brain finally remembered I must get up. I hate that part of the brain. Getting out of bed was nothing short of torture for days.
When I finally managed to crawl out of bed, I was barely functioning. I had been used to having a Red Bull within arm’s reach to help clear the fog in my head. However, there was no Red Bull and the fog was thick. I got up and reached for yesterday’s dog clothes lying on the floor and began to put them on when I remembered that I needed to shower. Going without a shower for multiple days in a row and wearing stinky dog clothes is just not acceptable in civilization. This realization actually pissed me off; I was in no mood to bathe. Reluctantly, I drug myself into the shower with my glasses still on and when I was done I actually almost administered toothpaste under my arms. I needed Red Bull in a bad way. On the bright side, at least I could see through the newly clean glasses and minty fresh is not a bad smell to start the day with.
After the dreaded bath, I usually start the process of determining what to wear. This activity always causes major feelings of anxiety and irritability. There isn’t a damn thing in my closet that is as comfortable as the ski pants, comfy polar fleece tops and slipper like Lobbens that I’ve been sporting around in for the past few weeks. I angrily flip through the closet full of “professional” clothes and reluctantly settle on some dress pants, a blouse and some shoes to match. In civilization you must be matchy, matchy; why do you think they invented the Garanimal Clothing line for kids? It was to start them young. People cannot be walking around in purple shoes and green polka dot pants unless you are in the mushing world. If it’s warm, mushers don’t care about matchy, matchy. I had been wearing red lobbens with army green pants and an indigo blue coat with a red hat for days and I was ok with it and no one even stared. Anyway, back to the clothes. So if the matchy, matchy doesn’t make you crabby then the fact that you’ve gained a pound or two from all the roadside dining will certainly blow your mind. Gosh, cannot wait to put on my matchy, matchy outfit that is too dang tight. I pour myself into my civilized get up and realize it itches and it’s not even remotely warm to boot. My feet feel like they’ve grown two sizes and are crammed into these tight little shoes. I am major crabby and feel the need to cry. I am most definitely suffering from the increased anxiety and emotional arousal symptoms.
As if the clothing is not enough to send me over the edge, I must put on makeup for the first time in weeks. I can hear my pores screaming as I drown them in foundation. It takes twice the amount of foundation as normal due to the fact that my face is so wind burn it feels like a dried up desert. I have nearly forgotten how to apply the shadow, liner and mascara as evidenced by my overdone clown appearance. Within minutes my eyes are watering from the onslaught of the chemical applications and I now look a little like Raggedy Ann. The hair is not an entirely different matter. It has grown significantly since I left. It looked fine under the ski cap, but trying to blow dry the overgrown dried out mess looks like something in a science experiment as it stands on its ends. Bruce’s situation is no different as he shaves for the first time in weeks to discover half of his face is white and the rest is tan. He is out of practice in the shaving department which results in several nicks covered by tissue paper.
All dressed up with our ridiculous hair, my clown makeup and his tissue dotted face we jump in the truck to drive to work and I still do not have a Red Bull. I am foggy, uncomfortable, itchy and bitchy. I’m also as hungry as a Polar bear because my feeding schedule is totally off wack. When you are racing you eat what and when you can and the last meal is usually late at night. There is no food in our house since we’ve been MIA for a few weeks. So I do what every musher would do when hunger strikes. Like a dumpster diver I start digging through the back seat looking for remnants of snacks we bought along the way. It’s like hitting the jackpot when Ifind some leftover chocolate muffin I purchased in Nebraska. I’m so hungry the darn thing still tastes good even if it is crunchy and stale.
The drive to work furthers the anxious feelings. One of the first things I notice is the traffic. Where in the hell did all these people come from and where are they going so fast? For weeks I’ve been on two lane mountain highways with minimal traffic and now there are four lanes with hoards of cars and trucks. 50% of the drivers are chatting carelessly on their cell phones. Only days before I was dreading the steep, icy grades and now I’d take them any day over this chaos.
We stop at the gas station on the way into the office and are hit with the lovely odor of CITY; I practically hurl in disgust. Oh, how I long for that fresh, northern mountain air. Then we notice that every time we stop we are the subject of many looks. You’d think I was still wearing my purple, army green get up. Some of the looks are disgust, some appear to be total disbelief, there’s a few curious stares, there is always fear and then there is, my favorite; the completely dumbfounded look. Those are fun because they look around to see if anyone else is witnessing what they are. I half expect them to smack or pinch themselves. They always look around to see if they can find help to decipher what they are looking at. We just spent several weeks where folks admire the dog box and want to see inside. Spectators are in awe at the dogs and how they travel and now we get blank faces and the ever constant question, “Are you the dog catcher?” PMSD symptoms are very strong at this point as you clench your pants trying hard not to smack the dumbness right out of them. “No, we are not the dog catcher. See the logo “Magnusson Racing LLC”, we are a sled dog racing kennel.” “What’s a sled dog?” I know, I know it’s important that we are friendly and educate the public, but someone suffering from PMSD should just walk away at this point.
Before we start the truck to drive away, we discover ourselves circling it not once, but twice as we check for the dogs and other stuff that isn’t there.
Typically, when you’ve been racing most mushers are out at their trucks dropping/watering dogs in the AM. Most say, “Good Morning”! They are generally happy standing around with their caffeine in hand as they take care of the dogs. The return to civilization is much less civilized. We are greeted with unsmiling faces and instead of good morning you receive either a nod or a grunt of some sort. It immediately begins to suck the energy and happiness right out of our bodies. We start to experience avoidance and numbing symptoms.
Upon arrival, the ringing of phones almost drives us out of our minds. Three weeks without a single phone ringing and then you are inundated with ringing, ringing, ringing………….”Monica, why are you sitting on the floor, rocking and holding your ears?” “It’s the ringing……THE RINGING….STOP THE RINGING!!!!”
We’ve spent 3 weeks living an adventure. Our heads are full of tales of excitement; lost dog teams, crashing, dangerous roads, wildlife in the trail and dangerous weather etc. We’ve spent hours with people that truly live life; mountain climbers, Iditarod finishers, deep sea divers, endurance horse races, Iditabikers. They’ve filled our heads with exciting adventures. When we return to civilization we find socializing very difficult and very boring. Folks try to catch us up on three weeks of visiting the mall, cleaning their houses, the doldrums of work and the horrible cold and all the snow they shoveled. It is almost too much to bear. We begin to check out and get what they call the blank stare. Conversations at the lunch table find us completely checked out. We’ve spent weeks discussing dog stools and other gross subject matter that would go over like a fart in church at the work lunch table. We have nothing to contribute so we continue to eat and stare.
It seems as if everyone walks around with nothing else to say but, “I hate the cold!” “It’s so damn cold.” “When is spring going to be here?” “This sucks, it’s snowing again.” The weather forecasters are doom and gloom, “Another chilly day for Detroit folks and no sunshine on the horizon. Spring will not be here soon enough.” I envision myself running through the office, “Cold is good, it is invigorating, snow is beautiful and I love it. Get off your lazy butts and find something fun to do in it or move to flaming Florida where it is hot and humid otherwise just SHUT UP!” I don’t though. Instead, I hold it in and become more numb.
The return to civilization brings to the forefront how far society has become removed from our roots of survival and self-preservation. We are now a land of gun less, non-meat eating, non-fur bearing folk. Many don’t know the difference between an elk and a moose and have never seen one outside of a zoo. They are grossed out by the totally kick ass beaver mitts that we bought on our trip. “Did the person who made these kill the beaver?” as they skew up their face in disgust. “Noooooooooooo, I’m not going to put my hands in there?” They do not understand that some folks carry guns due to the threat of wildlife on the trail. “What would you do? Kill it? Why? It’s just minding its own business and you are on their trail?” I accidently wear my fur parka in public and hear the yells, “Animal killer”. I see all the prima-donnas in their shorty, short coats with fake fur and fake fur boots with skin tight pants running around talking about how they are freezing their butts off and realize I’m near the edge.
We’re in the door five minutes and are greeted by the employee that feels since we’ve been away he/she now deserves a raise. “I’ve been here for 6 months and I feel I’m worth more.” “You do, heh? Well guess what? We’ve been training and preparing a dog team for a whole fricken year and we thought we were worth more too, but we found out otherwise. So I guess you’re out of luck too buddy!”
By this point in your day, we both must find an escape. We cannot socialize and are numb. So we seek escape on the internet. Yes, on company time, we are checking race stats, reading blogs and constantly searching for the next big race. We must get away soon!
Finally, we’ve killed enough time and the day is over so we can head home. We’re so used to going to banquets that we’re pissed when we arrive home after a long day only to realize that our fridge is empty. “Maybe, I have something left over in that cooler,” I wonder out loud.
After years of going through the above symptoms over and over, we finally realized we needed help. I contacted an expert in PTSD who referred me to a doctor he knew that used to run dogs, Dr. Mushnomore. After extensive sessions and meetings with Dr. Mushnomore he determined that we were actually suffering from PMSD; a non-documented illness. He felt he had tapped into an undiscovered illness not yet researched in the medical world. We worked with him to thoroughly research this new psychological problem, its causes, symptoms and cures. We wanted to help our fellow mushers. We thought there might be some sort of Decompression Training to help ease us back into civilization. We were so excited about the research and the hope for a cure. The day Dr. Mushnomore called us into his office to share what he felt the cure was we were like giddy teenagers. We sat down on the edge of our seats in anticipation as he told us the following:
“Broosh & Moneeka, it vould appear afta da many years of research dat dere is only vun cure for dis ailmend. You must move to the voods TODAY!”