Sit, Stay, Heal: One Student’s Journey to Overcoming PTSD

Felipe Marin had been out of the Marines just four months when he met Daisy outside of a Wal-Mart in Miami, FL. To hear him tell the story, it was love at first sight.

“From that moment on, she followed me everywhere,” he says. Small and blonde, Daisy sits beside him as he recalls that day, a look of pure adoration reflected in her big brown eyes. As he speaks, her tail begins to gently beat against the pavement.

“She’s part of my family. She’s awesome.”

Felipe, a 2004 graduate of Full Sail’s Digital Media (now Digital Arts & Design) program, Enlisted in the Marines in 2005. He volunteered for two tours in Iraq before leaving the service in 2010. Soon after, he started experiencing symptoms of extreme depression and anxiety, often accompanied by behavior that was alarming and self-destructive.

“I got into some bad [stuff],” he says. “At that point, PTSD was an epidemic that had just come on the radar of mainstream media. So [the VA] started testing us.”

Felipe was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, commonly known as PTSD, and defined as any anxiety disorder that develops as a result of experiencing one or multiple traumas. His doctors put him on medication, and he started therapy. That wasn’t enough to stop the depression, though. He began isolating himself, paying friends to go out and buy him groceries so that he didn’t have to leave his apartment. Once in a while, he’d make a rare trip to Wal-Mart in the middle of the night, when the store was at its emptiest.

Enter Daisy.

“I remember I was so depressed that day, nothing could make me feel better. A dude was selling puppies out of a cardboard box in front of the store. I bought her off him for $20.”

Caring for Daisy brought a new focus to Felipe’s life. It wasn’t just about him or his depression anymore—he had to remember to walk her, to feed her—she depended on him, and he couldn’t let her down. In return, she served as a calming presence, a soothing antidote to his omnipresent anxiety.

Felipe enrolled Daisy in a beginner obedience course. She passed with flying colors. Same with the intermediate and advanced courses. He started taking her everywhere, positioning her as a sort of buffer between himself and the world.

“What she gives me is a center point,” he says. “Without Daisy, I can’t focus. I get stuck. The other thing is, when we’re out, people look at her instead of me. This allows me to relax, to be more myself, because when people pay a lot of attention to me it brings on a lot of agitation.”

Which isn’t to say that it’s always been easy. Despite the fact that Daisy is well behaved, there are simply some places dogs aren’t allowed to go. So Felipe started looking into getting her licensed as an service animal. That process presented its own challenges. People with PTSD don’t always present outward symptoms, and the effects of the disorder might not be felt until months or even years after a trauma occurs.

“People sometimes look at me and go, ‘You don’t look disabled.’ They don’t understand that I have nerve damage and brain damage in addition to the emotional stuff.”

Because PTSD is hard to qualify, it’s also difficult to quantify. Recent studies estimate that over 30% of veterans suffer from some form of post traumatic stress disorder, but because it’s difficult to test, that number may be much higher.

Daisy completed her service animal certification a little over a year ago. Today, she dons a red vest adorned with patches commemorating Felipe’s time in the service: one bearing the gray and gold emblem of the U.S. Marine Corps, another denoting his time in Iraq. An I.D. card hangs off to one side.

Though he still feels the effects of his PTSD—and likely always will— Felipe is in a better place than he was five years ago. Newly married, he’s a father to a 10-month old baby boy. He’s an active member of several non-government agencies devoted to empowering veterans, including the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), and he recently enrolled in Full Sail’s Sports Marketing & Media program. So far, Daisy has attended every class.

“With networking and things like group projects, getting my foot in the door can be difficult. She makes it easier, because people are more likely to initiate a dialogue with you when you have a dog.”

“She brings happiness to everybody,” he adds.