8-30: Parrots and PTSD (6/7)

By CHARLES SIEBERTJAN. 28, 2016

nytimes.com | Jan. 28, 2016

Part 6

One afternoon at Serenity Park, a white pickup truck roared to a stop behind the work shed. Lindner emerged from the passenger side with a wooden box containing the ashes of her first parrot, Sammy, who died last March after living with Lindner for 27 years. Sammy was to be buried at the park later that day. The truck was driven by Serenity Park’s manager, Matt Simmons, a tautly built, square-jawed 43-year-old, who came to the sanctuary in 2006 after making little progress as a patient in traditional group therapy at the V.A. When his therapist first instructed him to visit the aviary down the hill, Simmons thought he was going to be ‘‘dealing with chickens,’’ he later told me. What he found instead was himself, through the eyes of the park’s winged trauma victims. He began devoting his days to caring for the parrots, forming attachments that gradually drew him out of his sense of isolation and mistrust and allowed him, in turn, to start connecting with people as well. He and Lindner grew increasingly close, and in 2009 they were married at the sanctuary. Sammy was flower girl. Lindner held a bridal bouquet made of fallen parrot feathers.

Simmons built his first computer in grade school. He joined the peacetime Navy right out of high school, he told me, to spite his father, who wanted him to go straight to college and then law school. He scored so high on his recruitment aptitude tests that the Navy wanted to assign him to a nuclear submarine. Simmons managed, instead, to secure what he believed would be a relatively easy tour as a yeoman — essentially an administrative and clerical position — on an aircraft carrier, until that ship made a sudden turn in early 1991.

‘‘We’re told we’re headed for Puerto Rico,’’ Simmons told me at dinner one night with Lindner. ‘‘And the next thing I know is the sun is behind the ship and the announcement comes that we’re off to the Persian Gulf. I wound up in Bahrain, in-country, on a top-secret mission, tethered to the belt of Navy SEALs. My secretary job was now to document beneath the thick smoke all the slayings and how many targets the planes had accurately hit. For months it looked like night during the day. I saw a lot of killing, and things I wish I hadn’t.’’

Upon his return from active duty, Simmons enrolled at the University of Cincinnati and studied literature and philosophy. He started his own software company while still in his junior year and starred at quarterback under Rex Ryan, now head coach of the Buffalo Bills, until being permanently sidelined by a knee injury. At first, he attributed the night terrors and cold sweats he began to experience in his last two years of school to the stress of course work and managing his new company. But he soon started drinking heavily, and by his late 20s became addicted to heroin and prescription drugs. Growing increasingly estranged from his first wife, he eventually was divorced, sold his company to LexisNexis and then hopped in his B.M.W. one day and headed for California, where he ended up spending a year in jail for assault after nearly killing a man in a bar fight.

The PTSD stemming from his time in the Navy wasn’t formally diagnosed for another two years. A friend suggested that he visit the West Los Angeles V.A. for help. Simmons told me that until then, he had no idea that what he was experiencing had to do with his military service. The regimen of new drugs that were prescribed by a psychiatrist there proved ineffective, and he grew increasingly closed off in therapy sessions that were dominated at that time by long-ignored Vietnam veterans with issues entirely different from those associated with the Gulf War. ‘‘I told my therapist this,’’ Simmons said, ‘‘and he basically said that if I didn’t go down and help out at the sanctuary, he was going to stop treating me.’’

Simmons instantly connected with the yellow-headed Amazon, Joey, who had adopted and raised from infancy two other birds at the sanctuary — a pair of female lilac-crowned Amazon parrots that had fallen from their nest — regurgitating his own food to feed them. For a male parrot to raise two females from another species is a rare display of altruism, Lindner told me, a behavior long thought to be exclusive to humans and other primates.

‘‘Joey came to Serenity Park around the same time I did,’’ Simmons told me. ‘‘That’s the first thing we had in common. I had learned that yellow-headed Amazons are not that friendly, so when Joey made an effort to befriend me, that meant even more. We were different species, but we got each other. I was shy, burned by humans, isolated, angry. Joey had what seemed to me the same attitude. So we bonded. He let me touch him. Only me.’’

Within weeks of his arrival at Serenity Park, Lindner told me, Simmons had pretty much taken over the place. He was up at 3 a.m. every day in the New Directions kitchen, preparing breakfast for all the veterans. Then he came down to the sanctuary and worked there until 6 in the evening, clearing out the compound, building new aviaries and expanding the existing ones.

When I asked Simmons to describe what happens to him when he is with a parrot, he instantly went into one of his signature high-speed soliloquies. ‘‘Here we go,’’ he said. ‘‘Write it down. There are things I have seen that will never leave me. There’s this huge sack of guilt and shame and pain that I carry with me, and I got it when I was 18 years old in Bahrain. Now, when I’m with a parrot, it’s not a total time-change thing, but I do have to act like a 12-year-old boy again. And here’s why. Because parrots are not domesticated animals. They haven’t been bred for hundreds of years to be at my feet.’’ Simmons paused for a sip of Coke, the third one of the night. ‘‘So in order to have a relationship with a parrot, that parrot has to select me. In order for that to happen, that parrot has to be comfortable. I have to come in open and quiet and calm. Much like that 12-year-old boy that met the mean dog next door and never had a problem. Much like that 12-year-old boy that went hiking and saw a mountain lion. I’m acting like the 12-year-old boy again around the parrots, and what that does is help me confront my trauma rather than carry it around. Because now I’m with a psychiatrist, and I’m talking about how this bird didn’t feel so good today and wasn’t very comfortable and was kind of hiding in the back of the cage, and the psychiatrist goes, ‘Hmm, you’re starting to talk about emotions.’ I’m talking about how the bird was feeling, but I’m also transferring my own emotions. So being with the parrots allows me to take that third-person look at my own trauma, which you can never do when you’re whacked out on Vicodin and Budweiser and living under a cement highway bridge.’’

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