The Giving Arts

Lauren Monroe

LAUREN MONROE | A LIFE DEDICATED TO HEALING

Photo by Carol Oliva

Lauren Monroe is a mother, an accomplished musician and author, a fierce advocate for animal rights and social justice, and for more than 25 years, a practitioner and teacher of energy healing.

She is also a wife – married to rock musician Rick Allen of Def Leppard – and together they founded the Raven Drum Foundation and Project Resiliency, two highly acclaimed undertakings that promote healing and growth for veterans, individuals and families who are facing difficult life circumstances, trauma in particular.

We recently had a conversation with Monroe to discuss the delicate task of working with trauma in others, and the interesting methods she employs to heal it.


The Giving Arts: Lauren, you utilize many different modes of healing to help Wounded Warriors, some of them less widely known than more traditional methods. How did you become so equipped in these areas?

Lauren Monroe: I studied a lot of anatomy and physiology in my undergraduate work when I was a dance education major, and while studying all of the aspects of the body, became fascinated by it. In my graduate work I brought my dance background into exploring psychological archetype and would later receive various certifications in massage therapy. My foundation is from having learned what the body itself does with trauma and how entwined our emotions are with our physical nature. But honestly, I think the thing that gives me greater insight into this area is all of the work I have done with people. In my own private practice, I’ve worked in clinics, hospitals, and chiropractic offices, as well as spas, and sports environments. I later went on to work specifically with people who had serious illness and injuries such as HIV, cancer, heart conditions, and car accidents. Trauma runs through everyone, so in many different ways I was able to hone in practices to help people, but it was really my intuitive work from knowing trauma myself and working on myself for so many years that gave me the deeper insight to do the kind of healing work that I thought people needed.

The Giving Arts: You’ve had a wide breadth of experience with people who have experienced trauma…do the Wounded Warriors present your toughest challenge when it comes to helping people who suffer from PTSD, or do you find that they share similarities with other types of people who endure traumatic experiences?

LM: I think there are similarities. One of the things we often say is that ‘trauma is trauma’. It’s the story of the trauma that is different, but the way it is inside the body is the same. Your nervous system is responding to outside forces. What happens is that it gets stuck in the way a record gets stuck on a record player, and keeps skipping over and over. That’s what happens to us when we have a situation where we experience a traumatic event. It’s a dysregulation in the body, and it doesn’t matter how your body received the trauma. That being said, combat related vets who do experience this are trained to be extremely guarded and not show their vulnerability. So working with military in general, and teaching them how to access that vulnerable part of themselves…to be able to see their trauma and start healing it…is more challenging, especially for women.

The Giving Arts: Why is that?

LM: In my experience, female Wounded Warriors internalize trauma a little bit differently. Many of these women have acquired a double layer of protection in regard to guarding themselves. Like all soldiers, women in the service have the external trauma that goes on around them, but many of them also have had experiences of sexual abuse from their superiors in the military, which is something we don’t really hear about. So, when they eventually look at their trauma, it’s not just about their combat trauma. It’s about being violated in ways that many men don’t experience.

The Giving Arts: When you engage a group of people who are experiencing PTSD, is one of your responsibilities to decide which of these healing approaches would be a good start for each individual who is suffering? I’d imagine it’s not one size fits all.

LM: I think it’s up to the person as to what modalities really speak to them. I think it’s my job to educate people on what these complimentary approaches can offer them, and then give them an introductory experience. The gift I bring to this process, I think, is obviously not teaching them how to work with a horse during equine therapy, or being the practitioner who gives them neurofeedback. My expertise is showing them how to be mindful and how to connect with your body, and I feel like that’s the baseline. Once they learn a few of these tools and are able to be mindful, they can begin the process of opening up to other complementary medicines that can help them address their wounds and feel powerful and empowered.

The Giving Arts: Achieving mindfulness is a challenging aspiration for many people who haven’t experienced trauma. I’d imagine it is significantly harder for someone who has experienced it and is often feeling anxious or unsettled. What is usually the biggest obstacle in the way for someone suffering from PTSD who wants to obtain mindfulness?

LM: Generally speaking, I believe the biggest obstacle is the same for anyone trying to obtain mindfulness – our own mind. But, I do think that someone who is living with combat trauma has a greater challenge to come out and ask for help and do the necessary work to heal. Once you understand that PTSD is not a lifelong disorder and can be a temporary dysregulation in how your brain and nervous symptom communicate, it helps take away the dark cloud and allows you to see your life as being normal again one day. When you’re in a state of trauma, you’re wired differently. Your whole system is a little bit amped up, where someone who is in a normal state has a baseline that is more calm. Giving them the experience of having them identify what’s going on in their bodies is an important start. We all feel separated. We have our mind, our emotions, and our bodies, and we treat them all separately. So in helping Wounded Warriors or anyone else overcome the challenges of being mindful, the first thing that I do is bring them back to their body. I have them look at the physical cues that are happening, and look and make note of what’s occurring when they can’t be mindful. Is it because they have their listening turned on too much, or are they too fidgety, or is their body feeling anxious? Having those awareness’s is a big part of being mindful and can be the first step towards healing.

The Giving Arts: I’ll ask you about some of these methods now, as all of them are interesting, but some are not so commonly known. What are the benefits of playing a drum or drums for someone who has trauma?

LM: From a physical standpoint – and this has been studied so it’s nice to have some research around this – being in an environment where you are playing a drum affects your body significantly. Your respiration changes, your blood pressure can change, and your overall being starts to resonate with the dominant frequency, which is the rhythm of the drums. It is called bio-entrainment. People can actually experience it just by standing near the ocean, or being in the middle of the woods where those dominant frequencies are greater than your own thoughts or whatever is going on in your body. That’s why we often feel relaxed in nature, because nature is the dominant frequency. After a day at the beach it’s common for you to feel relaxed and calm. It’s the same thing with the drums. If you’re in a group of people who are drumming and you’re guided with your breathing…able to be in the moment, even if your just in the moment for a minute or two…that drumming will become the dominant frequency, and that alone can take you to a different level of being calm and grounded. There’s also the element of listening and coming out of yourself. When you’re playing a drum in a group the tendency is to listen to what you’re doing, and becoming critical of yourself when you make mistakes. What we ask people to do is to not listen to themselves, but listen to everyone else as a whole. Once you have awareness of that sound, it takes you out of any awareness of your internal chatter and relaxes your mind. 

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Wounded Warrior project

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The Giving Arts: In regard to the goal of getting people to engage themselves and others, I would imagine that equine therapy is somewhat parallel to the drums?

LM: Absolutely. In equine therapy they’re not riding the horses, they’re interacting with the horses. Many of the horses we work with are actually traumatized animals, so they’re experiencing their own trauma. It’s very interesting how they operate. I find that whether they are traumatized horses, wild horses, or riding horses, they all operate through energy awareness. They have an extreme sixth sense. So, when you pair a Warrior with a horse they are operating on a completely different communication system. For the Warrior to be successful in interacting with a horse they have to calm their insides, stay grounded, and tap into their intuition…which they are masters at in combat but haven’t had the experience of using it for healing or in the ordinary world. In the military there is a certain persona and many of them are leaders and strong willed people, but you can’t strong arm a horse. You can’t make a horse come to you. You have to figure out how to get into that side of yourself that is more nurturing, and honest, and vulnerable. And when the horse experiences that, you’ll see a complete change in how he relates to you. We often call horses live biofeedback machines because whatever is inside of you, the horse will reflect.

The Giving Arts: Neurofeedback seems like something that might be a little more internal than drumming or interacting with horses. How would you describe it?

LM: Neurofeedback is pretty much a passive experience that I would describe as a higher grade therapy for your brain. It’s where a computer is actually talking to your brain and nervous system, and your body creates a new pathway. Say you have a trigger where you usually respond with anxiety or a heightened sense of awareness, or nervousness. The neurofeedback experience begins to retrain your brain so that you have a moment to find a place of calm, and you have a moment to make a decision about how you want to act or behave. If you hear a car backfire, your body might have immediately responded by thinking it was back in a combat zone, but now you’ll have more time to think and say, “ Oh, that was just a car.” Your body won’t immediately go towards a place of trauma, and tell your nervous system it’s ‘fight or flight’. Neurofeedback interrupts that ‘fight or flight’ process. Siegfried and Susan Othmer are a couple who founded and direct the EEG Institute in Southern California. They do amazing work, training psychologists and practitioners of neurofeedback that disperse all over the country and offer free neurofeedback therapy to veterans. They agree to do that as part of their training. As a result, their non profit ‘Homecoming for Veterans’ is able to facilitate neurofeedback for vets all around the country, free of charge. I think veterans receive 20 sessions at no cost to them, which can be enough to really reset someone to a place where they can begin to get their life back together again. Neurofeedback addresses many things; addiction, suicidal tendencies, heightened arousal states, and anxiety among them. Both Rick and myself tried it out first before we would recommend it, and we saw the amazing work that it did. We believe in it so much, and we want the Warriors to experience it.

Monroe and husband Rick Allen (top) lead a drum circle during a Warrior Women's retreat at Life Savers Wild Horse Rescue in Lancaster, CA - Photo by Seth Murray

The Giving Arts: What can you tell us about energy healing?

LM: Energy healing is a very broad term and it encompasses many different modalities. Most commonly known are acupuncture, Reiki, or therapeutic touch. It’s a holistic practice that works with the bodies subtle energy systems to strengthen weak areas or to remove blockages that can affect people in their physical, emotional, and spiritual health. The type of energy healing that I do is integrated, so I look at the person and what they need, and go inside my toolbox so I can give them the best treatment I believe they require. Energy healing has been in use since ancient times and science is slowly catching up, and being able to define it through new innovative technology. Humans beings use subtle energy to communicate with one another 24 hours a day, but most of us are unaware. Like right now, you and I are are connecting with our energy. When you become aware of your personal energy, your thoughts, your emotions, your intuition, you can begin to recreate your entire life experience. Energy healing can be done anywhere, with a practitioner in a massage therapy setting, in a group setting or even from a long distance, halfway across the world. Energy healing can also be experienced through music and art, and that’s where I am currently focusing my practice. It’s amazing work in all of its forms, and I’ve seen it transform people’s lives over and over again.

The Giving Arts: Considering the general makeup of a serviceman or woman, and taking into account what they’ve gone through, I’d imagine that Warriors make their way slowly to a place of trust and openness. Do you find much resistance from the Warriors for some of your more challenging techniques?

LM: On the retreats that we’ve done they actually come in knowing it’s more of a complementary medicine approach to working with their trauma. They have already tried a more allopathic, medical, or traditional psychological approach without success. So they come to us willingly and a little bit more open. It’s interesting…the resistance is probably there for the first 20 minutes or so, and then they start to experience the genuine knowledge and care in the room and begin to understand the approach. I find that the next day they are more comfortable and feel optimistic about their journey. I think any resistance to any type of modality is usually because they don’t understand the work…it seems too alternative or ‘out there’. “What? Drumming is going to help heal my trauma?” But once they actually experience the work and how different they feel afterwards, they really get into it. I think that most people who come to these retreats are ready to heal and that’s a big part of it.

The Giving Arts: What is guided imagery?

LM: Guided imagery is where a practitioner will use their voice to guide a person who is in a mindful state to access and look at various parts of themselves, or lead them to look at places outside of themselves where they may feel safe, or a sense of healing, or a sense of being loved. There are so many different ways where you can use this. I’ve used guided imagery to help people look at their own cancer or their own depression and help them see themselves healthy and happy again. It supports the theory of ‘energy follows thought’. Through guided imagery a person can reconstruct their health, their state of mind, and how they impact their future. It’s an effective path to healing.

Monroe playing a djembe during a community drum circle at the Chumash Interpretive Center in Westlake, CA.

The Giving Arts: I’ve read that you champion many of these methods not because you believe they’ll simply provide a little bit of relief for someone now, but rather because you see them as sustainable ways for the sufferer to experience post traumatic growth. Is that a distinction between the methods that you embrace, and most of the approaches that the medical community employ?

LM: I think this type of work can go hand in hand with allopathic medicine and typical talk therapy. It will be different with everyone, but I do believe wholeheartedly that complementary medicine is for everyone. I think you can delve further into it when you have certain traumas because you can be very specific with these techniques, and go in and treat wounds and recover from them, and have a more powerful recovery. But there is a very specific formula for everyone, and they all have their own path. You just need to find the specific things that resonate.

The Giving Arts: Unfortunately, history teaches us that there will always be more Wounded Warriors to come. Is it a present concern of yours to make access to these techniques more widespread and readily available for those who will need them?

LM: Yes. I would like to be a spokesperson for all of these things, and of course I love to teach and I love to mentor. Some of these modalities, like neurofeedback, are actually being used in the military now for active duty and should be available as standard practice for returning soldiers. I have a lot of personal opinions about serving our returning soldiers and how we’re helping them. I want to scream from the rooftops because they’re not being served in a way that is beneficial to them or their families and we are losing so many of them to suicide. I feel like the focus is on the active military and not the Warriors that have served and come back and may be wounded. I feel that Wounded Warriors could be the next generation of healers and leaders in our country, because they have so much to offer. They’ve seen the dark and the light, they have discipline, they have an innate desire to serve others, and they are loyal. They are just amazing human beings. The ones that I’ve met, and I’ve met many, are just some of the greatest people that I know. I really get behind their healing because they have a lot to teach us, and if we leave them behind, our country will be less great for it.

Helpful Links

Project Resiliency – Click Here

Homecoming for Veterans – Click Here

Stand in Balance – Click Here

Veterans Yoga Project – Click Here

Mindful Warrior Project – Click Here

The Simonton Center – Click Here

Lauren’s Personal Site – Click Here

John Roberts | The Warrior & The Rock Star

JOHN ROBERTS | THE WARRIOR & THE ROCKSTAR

Credit - Ilya S. Savenok

In 1992, while on a mission to safely remove American civilians from Somalia, John Roberts found himself in a helicopter accident that killed 4 of his fellow Marines, and left him severely injured with burns over the majority of his body. After a long and difficult road back, Roberts rededicated himself to the service of others, and to his fellow wounded warriors in particular. Today, as the national service director of the Wounded Warrior Project, Roberts helps injured soldiers acknowledge and manage their symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – challenges that he is all too familiar with himself. It was his unsolicited recognition of a rock star’s trauma however, nearly a decade ago, that created a unique bond that continues to pay dividends for the sufferers they come in contact with today.

By John Roberts, as told to Robert Ferraro:

Like many young men and women I joined the military right out of high school, back in 1983. In ’92 I was on a ship for a normal 6-month deployment with the Marine Corps when we were diverted into Somalia, which at that time was becoming very dangerous. We were on a mission to go in there and take our civilians out, but the aircraft I was on blew up mid-flight. In the process I nearly lost an arm, was burned over 80% of my body, and spent the next year in a burn unit in more pain than I could ever describe to you.

When I got out, I was struggling with a lot of different things. What happens – and I think this is very prominent in the military world – is we tend to deny the fact that we have these types of injuries. Mental health stuff. The invisible injuries. In the military mindset, we’re not supposed to be like that…it’s a sign of weakness, and we think we can deal with everything.

My wife kept telling me, “You’ve got some issues from the accident that you’ve got to deal with, John.” And I would say, “No, I’m fine, everyone else has the problem.” It wasn’t until years later that I said, “Oh, shoot, she may be right.”

Finally accepting the fact that I went through something that most people won’t have to experience, was like having a weight taken off my shoulder. I can say now that I was pretty well messed up and acknowledge that I was dealing with trauma, and in a very unhealthy way.

The way that I got involved with the Wounded Warriors was that I received a call from one of the guys I got blown up with who was working with another veterans organization at the time. He asked me what I was doing, and I told him, “Well, it’s 9, so I’m drinking.”  He said, “Well, do you want to get off your ass and actually get back into life?” I told him that would be nice, so he got me a job representing veterans on their VA claims. That was when I finally started to move forward in my recovery…when I began helping others and started to contribute in a way that wasn’t all about me. Before I took that position, I was feeling sorry for myself.

So, I started to give back. I went to the VA and the same guy I served with was one of the founders of the Wounded Warriors Project. He kind of recruited me back in the day when the organization first started. I had experience because I was running around Walter Reed in the early days of the war, working with the newly injured guys coming back from down range in combat, right at their bedside. And being injured myself, I saw that maybe I could make a difference with the younger guys. I’d already been working with old WWII vets, Korean war vets, Vietnam vets, and of course, First Gulf war guys like myself, so I saw a chance to make a huge difference with the new generation.

I met Rick Allen in 2009. He was inviting warriors to come backstage at Def Leppard concerts, but at that time it was more along the lines of a, “Come to a rock show and meet a rock star.” situation. I grew up listening to Def Leppard’s music and he was doing a very nice thing for us, yet the first thing I chose to say to this guy – who I was meeting for the very first time – was, “Hey, I know you were severely injured. How much PTSD did you deal with in your recovery?”

He just looked at me like I was an alien.

I thought, “Oh man, I just offended this guy severely. He’ll never invite us back.” But he sat and talked to the Warriors and during the show someone from the tour walked out and handed me a phone number and said, “Rick wants you to call him.” I just thought he wanted to yell at me in person.

I let a couple of days go by and gave him a call, and he just said, “No one’s ever asked me that. No one’s ever approached me with that. How did you know?” I told him, “I didn’t know anything. I simply assumed that you went through a lot of trauma with your accident, and like with all the Warriors I deal with, probably had some PTSD related issues. I just took a wild guess.”

I was a veteran who had military trauma from a helicopter crash and was severely burned, and he was a civilian and a celebrity figure who lost an arm in an accident that anybody could experience. But the more we talked, the more we figured out we had a lot in common in how we dealt with – or didn’t deal with – our trauma.

What really became clear was that we both believed that the impression the American public had of combat veterans who were experiencing PTSD was very negative. You see a lot of movies depict combat veterans as crazy and dangerous individuals, which I can tell you is far from the case. There are so many cases of civilian type trauma, whether it’s from an abusive childhood, or abusive marriage, or car accidents, natural disasters, rape survivors, etc. Trauma is trauma, no matter how you experience it. The trauma that veterans experience due to combat may be different, but how we deal with things is pretty much the same way. We are on a mission to normalize what people think of PTSD.

Are there times when all of us veterans have looked at other veterans and thought, “Why are you whining about this and complaining about that when you don’t have any visible injuries?” Sure. At the same time, I don’t know what they’ve experienced that led to their PTSD. I haven’t experienced nightly mortar attacks or been waiting for a roadside bomb to go off every time I’ve stepped inside a vehicle. I’ve never been near a blast where I saw my buddies blown up in front of me. Trauma is trauma.

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Wounded Warrior Project

Every warrior has a next mission. We know that the transition to civilian life is a journey. And for every warrior, family member, and caregiver, that journey looks different.

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The Raven Drum Foundation that Rick and his wife Lauren Monroe founded has taken more of a holistic approach at helping these men and women. They both introduced me to more of a mindset of, “What are you doing to deal with your injuries?” At one time I was self-medicating with alcohol because of the flashbacks and the dreams and all the other triggers that existed for me out there. I also wasn’t eating healthy, and they showed me, “Hey, healthy body helps the healthy mind.” And it’s funny, because we all know how to work out in the military. It’s kind of beat into us. But when you get out of the service, you begin to get out of shape, you start to eat bad, and you need those physical types of activities again and nutritional help to get you back on the right path. You must be willing to do things a little differently.

Part of what these warriors are looking for when they come home is they want to get connected. So, the Wounded Warrior Project has a saying: ‘We connect, serve, and empower them’. The first thing you must do is get a Warrior to engage again.

We invite them to events nationwide – some for family, some for alumni only – where we’re just hoping to get them out of their house, so they’ll come and talk to us. Once they’re there, we can find out what their needs are, whether it’s mental health or help with their VA benefits or employment, etc. I’m not going to say we have all the programs, but if you look at our website you’ll see that we have a lot to offer.

In 2007 I got involved in Project Odyssey, which is something Rick and Lauren have worked with me on in the past. It’s a PTSD retreat-based model. It’s not clinical in nature, it’s more of a peer support type program. We go out during the day and do a lot of fun activities and get everybody engaged so that they can feel more comfortable, and then at night it’s more everyone just sitting around and sharing what they’re dealing with. Sure, from time to time I will see someone or hear them talk, and think, “Yeah, they might need some extra attention.” I also see a lot of what I was struggling with in some of the things that they’re saying. I relate to it.

We also make policy efforts to change legislation, so that we can help the greater population of Warriors. Our most recent cause was in vitro fertilization. A lot of these injured service members are coming home unable to have children due to their injuries. You go to war, you get injured, you come home, and discover that on top of your injuries, you also can’t have kids. It’s a serious family matter, and at the time, the VA was not paying for in vitro fertilization. So, our push was to provide help for these men and women that couldn’t have children, and we wanted the Federal Government to pay for it. We got it done, and that is one of the many legislative changes the Wounded Warrior Project have had a hand in getting passed.

Ultimately what I’d like to see for all the people I’m helping now is for them to get on the path to a better place. I’d like for them to start to enjoy life again and be good spouses and parents and friends. Some of them, like the Vietnam guys, have been struggling for such a long time. I also think there needs to be a lot more education for the public regarding what PTSD is, so that we can change some perceptions.

The VA does a lot of evidence-based treatment for PTSD, which means either group therapy or they’re handing the Warriors a bunch of medication. I’m not a fan of either approach. Even the one on one counseling I’ve done with the VA, I didn’t feel real comfortable with. I wish they would be more open to holistic types of treatment opportunities.

Lauren is a very spiritual person who is very attuned to people’s emotions, and some of the things that her and Rick were talking about, in my mind, seemed a little too California-hippyish for me. I’m a guy from Texas, born and raised here, and I’m a Marine. That’s not a good combination for having an open mind towards energy therapy or mindfulness or drastically changing my diet. But they were able to open my mind up to explore different things. They even got me to do a couple of Neurofeedback sessions. I had no experience with it and quite frankly, it seemed like a bunch of hooey to me, like fake science. But I went through three sessions of it and slept like a baby, which never happens.

So, there are holistic approaches that I think the VA and the mental health professional world must be open to, so that we can educate the Warriors and the public as to what’s out there, as far as healing opportunities.

Roberts and Monroe (middle row left) and Allen (center) among friends at a Wounded Warrior gathering in Seattle last Summer (Ryan Sebastyan)

In a perfect world, I wish people didn’t have to go through trauma, whether it’s combat related or civilian related. But it’s going to happen. That’s why I’d like to see Rick write a book about what he’s experienced, and what helped him manage his own trauma. He has a lot to offer, and with his celebrity status he could potentially reach a larger part of the population who are suffering in silence. People relate to him and are inspired by him and I think they would benefit from what he learned in his healing journey. They do it now when they meet him through Def Leppard or through his artwork, but I think he has a bigger message to tell a bigger audience. He and Lauren have so much between them to share.

Like I said, those meetings with Rick started more as a “come meet a rock star” type of thing, but they developed into these mental health group sessions where, within an hour, people will be crying and opening up and just letting loose of their emotions. You’re listening to people’s thoughts about suicide, or their marriage falling apart, or not being able to communicate with their kids, or other struggles that they’re dealing with. We’ve had many moments at these gatherings where you just go, “Wow, that was intense.” 

Rick and I both come out of these things drained, but he is at his job and still has to go perform. I feel bad for him, because emotionally he just took on a lot of people’s issues in a very short time frame. Then, he has to go out and put on a good show. I can just go chill out, but he has to pull it back together and get on with it.

I think Rick and I make a good combination for the Warriors. They will listen to me because I’m honest with them about my mistakes and my trauma. When you can tell someone, “I have PTSD, I screwed up my marriage, I screwed up my relationship with my kids, I screwed up a lot of other things, but I was able to come out the other side.”, I think they’re more willing to listen. And I did all those things.

On the other hand, Rick is honest about a lot of his issues, which you don’t see from a lot of celebrity types if they’re not getting publicity or paid for it in some way. He is definitely not getting paid for it and I think they listen to him because he is a genuine person. He admits everything that he went through. They listen to him, but he listens to them even more. The Warriors open up to Rick in a way that I have not often seen with non-military individuals.

So, we both have our ways, but it’s all to get the same message across. We call it the “Rock Star & The Warrior.” We hit them from both ends.

Robert Ferraro is the senior writer at Of Personal Interest, where he profiles and interviews pop culture figures.

WOUNDED WARRIOR PROJECT – https://www.woundedwarriorproject.org/mission 
 
PROJECT RESILIENCY – http://project-resiliency.org 
 
VETERAN CRISIS LINE – 800-273-8255 PRESS 1 
 
NATIONAL SUICIDE PREVENTION LIFELINE- 800-273-TALK (8255)  OR TEXT TO  838255 
 
RICK ALLEN – https://www.rickallen.com 

Rick Allen

RICK ALLEN | THE HUMANIST

Photo by Ross Halfin

No sooner are Rick Allen and I seated upstairs in a midtown Manhattan restaurant, than the affable drummer of Def Leppard is indulging me on topics ranging from Thomas Dolby (who played keyboards on Pyromania under the pseudonym Booker T Boffin), to our mutual approval of the Rolling Stones’ recent set list in Ireland, to Joe Elliott’s home being a venerable Rock n’ Roll museum. He’s a charmer, warm and inviting with an infectious laugh and a healthy curiosity in you, and from time to time he’ll punctuate a good point – yours or his – with a wink of an eye.

But when I ask Allen a casual question about a tour rehearsal he and the band took part in the night before, his reply immediately takes the levity out of things. “Well,” he says, using his lone arm to pull himself closer to the edge of his seat, “yesterday was a bit of a hit to my nervous system”.

I am here to discuss resiliency with Allen, and the role it has played in his life, his music, and the valuable work he does on behalf of wounded war veterans, many of whom suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

But what might get lost amidst the laughs and winks and his general good nature – not to mention the wave of adulation he receives when he is introduced by Elliott on stage each night – is that one of the reasons Allen is so well equipped to work with sufferers of PTSD, is because he is one of them himself.

I start off by asking Allen what was difficult about the night before…

It’s just the process of putting the production together…the amount of energy that was going on. I mean, there’s no audience. All it is, is just the pressure of knowing that we’ve got to get this right. Meanwhile, I’m looking at the crew and everybody, with just mountains of equipment hanging above my head. It’s like I was catapulted back into this crazy world again, after having spent all this time at home. Yesterday was very mental.

I wondered if that was something that would go away completely once he got settled in on the tour.

When all the details are taken care of, and I’ve got all the right balances and can hear everybody on stage and the drum kit’s playing nicely, then sure, it does go from anxiety and tension before I play, to just being in the moment. And when you’re completely in the moment, you’re in your heart, and when you get in there, you just play. You don’t think, ’hit drum’. You just hit drum.

I was curious to know how bad things could get for him in one of those settings

Being in that rehearsal situation yesterday, with all the production and everything, could have been potentially bad, in terms of a trigger. Just the anxiety of it all, and the sort of jangling of my nervous system. I had to walk off for a bit. I’ve learned the art of healthy retreat. Healthy retreat is very important for me.

Are the guys in the band aware of what’s going on with him when he has to step away for a while?

Oh, yeah. And you know, it’s not just me. Joe will go spend a fair amount of time on the back of the bus, and I’ll do the same. Maybe I’ll put some music on, or maybe just go sit and think of all the people I love. I’ll do anything other than become stimulated by the world I find myself in, in terms of Def Leppard world. I just need to get away from that sometimes. Once I get away from it, I can be appreciative of it. I can be grateful for it. But sometimes it’s the thing you’re in all the time that pisses you off, you know what I mean?

I commented that it probably helps that his bandmates saw firsthand what he went through decades ago, and asked him if he could bring me back to Dec 31, 1984.

I was with my girlfriend at the time and had just had a falling out with my family. I was a little bit angry when I left the house, and I think that kind of set the tone for the day. And the fact that I encountered some jerk in front of me…I don’t know whether he was jealous of my car (a Corvette), but this guy just wouldn’t let me pass. This kept going on, and going on, and going on and I lost my temper. My car was a left hand drive, driving on the opposite side of this winding rural road in England, and I didn’t see the corner coming up. When I finally did, I knew I had a problem and that I wasn’t going to make it. That was really the last thing I remember.

I asked him what he remembered once he regained consciousness.

It’s interesting, it’s almost like some protective mechanism comes into play and you just blackout. I think when you experience extreme trauma there’s an incremental shut down of your senses and the first thing to go is feeling. I couldn’t feel anything at all. I actually stood up out in the field after I came to, and I remember saying something about being a drummer, or “I lost my arm”. The arm was still in the car. I flew through the sunroof, and that’s when I lost it. I’m still not sure whether I said or thought those things about drumming and the arm. It was such a dreamlike state that I couldn’t discern what was real or not real. I just knew something really bad had happened.

Since there were no cellphones at the time and he was out in the middle of the country, how was he found?

I was very fortunate. Two people pulled up behind me, an off duty cop and a district nurse, in separate cars. What are the chances, out in the middle of nowhere, that they both just showed up? They were those angels on earth that people talk about. I really believe they saved my life. Until that moment, I didn’t know them, and they didn’t know each other. They actually became a couple through the thing, and ended up getting married. It was a whole love story.

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The remains of Allen's Corvette after his horrific crash on December 31, 1984 - Photo from Newswire

Doctors reattached Allen’s arm shortly after his accident, but his body rejected it. Since he didn’t remember much about the crash, I wondered what he remembered about his first conscious moments at the hospital.

It was horrible. There was a period where I not only didn’t want to be seen, I didn’t want to exist. When you first come around, your mind tricks you into thinking that there’s nothing wrong. I was able to feel my left arm. My brain had been developed that way all my life, whereas if you were born without an arm, you would have never experienced that two way street – that sensation, and information being sent to your nerve endings. It was really surreal, you know? I couldn’t quite believe that this had happened. But then, as I started to come around to the realization that it had, I just wanted to curl up in a ball and go away. I really…

Allen pauses for a moment to play with the napkin resting on the table in front of him.

…it was horrible, you know?

Who or what pulled Allen out of that emotional state?

I think one of the biggest helps to me, was Mutt Lange (recording legend, who has produced several Def Leppard albums). He is stupid talented and a real genius, but he is also just an all-around incredible guy, and a huge influence on me as a person. He’s very spiritual – had his own Guru that he looked up to – and he was very proactive in helping me. He came to visit when I was in the hospital, and set me up with a Hari Krishna couple who would come into my room and cook food for me. There was a lot more to it than that, but when they were making the food, there was a certain intention, you know? Almost like using food as medicine. They would pray over the food and all of that and the hospital eventually said to me, “You know you’re going to be here for months, right?.” But they kept coming back to the hospital every night to cook, and ended up feeding everybody in the process. The whole ward smelled like an Indian restaurant. It was fantastic!  [laughs] Even more fantastic, is that I was out of there within a month.

Does he attribute getting out of the hospital so far ahead of schedule, to their visits?

Yes, a good bit. My brother Rob was also very instrumental in my well-being – he worked with Def Leppard right from day one, when I joined up with the band in 1978. He ended up coming along with me and doing the sound and becoming my chaperone. I was only 15 at the time and couldn’t drive, and he’s 4 years older than me, so he made sure I was safe. I said, “Rob, could you go home and get my stereo system, and set it up here in my room? I want you to bring all the records that inspired me growing up.” And that’s what he did. It got me out of my own way. I was able to listen to something and reflect on that coming of age period of my life, and it helped me tremendously. I was able to really dig in. It helped to feel the power of the music, and experience gratitude for having it.

I was curious as to what persuades a man confined to a hospital bed, missing an arm, that he can play the drums again?

I broke my right arm very badly in the crash, but there was this piece of foam at the bottom of my hospital bed, and I was able to start tapping my feet on it. I realized that I could play simple rhythms, you know? Then a guy from Sheffield whom I had known for years called Pete Hartley came to visit me. He was always the electronics guy – he knew the Human League and all of the well-known Sheffield bands – and when he saw what I was doing with my feet, he said, “Rick, I can have you playing.” He started developing foot pedals for me while I was still in the hospital, and that was the beginning.

Once it was time for him to leave the hospital, I wondered what Allen’s feelings were being in a car for the first time since the accident.

Oh, God. I remember my brother Rob picking me up to take me home, and I got as low down in the seat as I possibly could. I was on the brakes before he was the whole way, you know? I was also hunched down because I didn’t want any of the people out on the street to see me. I remember first waking up in my hospital room after the crash, and the room seemed cavernous. It felt like this giant space. But over the course of that month, the room started to get smaller and smaller, to the point where it was kind of getting on top of me. When the day came for me to go home, the outside world suddenly seemed like a giant place. It just felt wrong.

I begin my next question by saying, “So you went straight home, and then…” before Allen politely corrects me.

I actually didn’t go straight home. I asked Rob to stop off at Peter Hartley’s electronics store so I could check out the pedals he’d been working on for me. My brother understood my willingness to play again, but he must have thought I was nuts! Pete had this tiny little store with no apparent order…he had keyboards and guitar amps all stacked on top of each other…but at that time, the seeming lack of order actually felt comforting to me. As I walked towards the back of the store, I saw the electronic drums and pedals for the first time, and my heart lifted immediately. I just sat down and played until I was exhausted. That meant less than five minutes in my condition, but I was just so happy that a new horizon had suddenly opened up for me. I thanked Peter profusely, and then I finally went home. [laughs] I needed to continue my recovery. On the way back I told my brother how that experience was exactly what I needed. It really gave me a sense of hope for my future, you know? History in the making.

He had mentioned his brother a lot, but hadn’t discussed his parents yet. Allen’s mother famously answered Def Leppard’s ad looking for a drummer, on her son’s behalf, when he was a young teen. I asked him how his parents reacted to his return home.

They were proud of me. My mother became the warrior though, and I saw the really protective side of her come out. [winks]

After a pause, I gently prompt Allen to discuss his father by noting that most mothers are more expressive than fathers.

Yeah, he just seemed to retreat a bit. It was like, “Where’s my daddy?” you know? I could tell that he didn’t quite know how to engage me.

What was Allen’s relationship with his father like?

It became better leading up to his death, about six years ago. We said everything we needed to say, and it was really good because nobody sweated the small stuff, you know?… 

Allen reaches for a pack of gum that I left sitting near the middle of the table, and begins to occupy himself with it, opening and closing it while searching for words.

…he was going through cancer, and his generation…they are very reluctant to go to the doctors for anything, so by the time he got to the doctor he was already Stage 3. At that point it was good for both of us because…yeah….

At this point Allen stops playing with the gum, places a finger over each of his closed eyes, and quietly weeps.

I stay respectfully silent for the minute or two it takes until he is ready to engage again, and then change gears by asking him what life was like after he returned home from the hospital.

I threw myself quickly back into work. In hindsight, that was not the best course of action. I got out of the hospital within a month. A couple of weeks later I was on a plane from Manchester to Amsterdam, to rejoin the band. This is within six weeks of the accident. I asked Malvin Mortimer, my manager, to meet me at the airport, and he said I just looked gray. I didn’t look well at all. Still, I jumped back into being with the band, just trying to learn songs, and pedals, and trying to figure out how I could do this.

And how did he do it?

I became obsessed with taking the information that was already in the part of my brain that worked my left arm, and rechanneling it. And it happened. Some sort of natural phenomena occurred, where all that info just started going out to my right hand, and then out to my left leg, and then out to my right leg. It was really interesting! People asked, “How long did it take you relearn drums?” I didn’t really have to relearn drums, I just moved the info around. I’m not sure if it’s an ancient brain sort of thing that happens, where you adapt because you have to take care of the tribe, but it happened. I was always right footed when I played soccer as a kid, and all of a sudden I could kick with my left leg nearly as well as my right. That is unusual. And I could spontaneously do things with my right hand that I could never do before. So I thought, “That’s kind of a good deal.” [laughs] It propelled me into my next phase as a drummer.

In regard to getting all the way back to playing at a professional level, what was the biggest turning point?

The turning point for me was when I stopped comparing myself to how I used to be and stopped comparing myself to others and just embraced the uniqueness of what I was doing. I finally said to myself, “Yeah, I can’t do it the way I used to do it, and I can’t do it the way my favorite drummers do it, but I do it my way.” As soon as I came to that realization, the weight lifted. It became a blessing, and everything I was doing became a blessing. I discovered the power of the human spirit, and that’s when you become unstoppable. “I can do this, I can do this”, you know? It was like something woke up in me and motivated me to be the best I could be.

The culmination of Allen’s efforts came on August 16, 1986 at the Monsters of Rock festival in Donington, England when Allen played his first major show since the accident, and the massive crowd gave him a deafening reception after he was introduced by Joe Elliott.

Joe and I had the conversation before the show, and he said, “I’m not going to say anything.” I said, “Good! Let’s just get through this, let’s just do this.” But throughout the show Joe was feeling an energy from the audience, and it pushed him to say something. He basically just went, “Ok, I give up.”, and went into a spontaneous speech. Meanwhile, I’m sitting back there with tears just rolling – they were tears of grace, really. I was feeling that I was being supported not just by the band at that moment, but by the whole world. It really felt like that.

Allen's drum solos continue to be one of the emotional high points of Def Leppard shows. Photo credit - Ryan Sebastyan

I suggested to Allen that despite the feeling he got from the cheers and outpouring of support, he still might not have been well.

Oh, I wasn’t. Some of the painkillers they gave me in the hospital were very strong, and that didn’t help me when I got out. When I was there I was having intense dreams and hallucinations, and I remember one night, sort of being in a twilight…just being overly aware of the room. It was like I was in a World War II hospital room, you know? There were really dark elements that didn’t sit well with me. So going on from that, rejoining the band so quickly, and then being in the proximity of Amsterdam of all places, was probably not a very good idea. It was easy to self-medicate. To keep it going. What you say is true, I was fighting demons.

How did he stop abusing substances?

I was obviously searching for something, because I wouldn’t have been self-medicating like I was. But I’d done a lot of work on myself, even before I began meeting with the Wounded Warriors. I am fortunate because I was always aware of when I was headed towards that point of no return, you know? I knew where the off switch was. So, that kept pulling me back to the good side. It kept pulling me back to the light. I’ve met a lot of musicians who don’t have that. 

Since he eventually had a hold on his use of substances, I asked him when he started to address the deeper problems he had been experiencing

Actually, I think a lot of my healing really started years later, when I met my wife Lauren. In fact, when I first met her, she took me to the Boulder College of Massage. It was the first time I experienced intention. Subtle energy. She was running a class at the time, and had me lay on a table in the middle of the room, while some beautiful piece of music was playing. Nobody touched me, they just stood around me, sending energy to me with love and compassion, using their intention. The exercise took maybe 20 mins, but by the end of it, there wasn’t a dry eye in this room full of people. It was such a wonderful connection. Feeling that kind of nurturing energy affected me, and I think it led me on a bigger path of discovery.

What was Lauren’s impression of him when she first met him?

She felt that I had a big heart, and she thought that I was…well, we all are special in our own way. But right off the bat, she just felt that she knew me, you know? Like she’d known me forever. We’ve actually sat down and figured out where and when we had nearly met years before. One time we were both in London – she was studying dance at the time – and I went to a place that I’d never previously been. And she was there, on the stage! I didn’t know her at the time of course, but we realized it later. And we figured out there had been other instances as well. I guess it’s just whatever the universe dishes out. It’s like, “Nope, now’s not quite the right the time for you guys, you aren’t ready for each other.” And then all of a sudden, the planets line up, and it’s our time.

Having had a meaningful experience with nurturing energy, I asked Allen if he was always open to new and challenging ideas, or if he felt strange doing them?

I was always open to it. I always tried to read thought provoking books and listen to challenging and spiritual music – like indigenous music. I also wasn’t opposed to using therapeutic mind expanding substances to help open me up and give me new insight. It eventually led to a place where I can just sit down and be in a place of gratitude.

Allen with his wife, Lauren Monroe, leading a drum circle at the Chumash Interpretive Center in Westlake, CA

I wondered what role Allen’s multiple journeys to India had on that mindset?

I call all of it my healing journey, but going to India was a huge part of it. I think what going to India did, is show me the totality of the human condition. When I went for the first time, I saw myself – I mean, really saw myself – and I didn’t like what I saw. I hated it, and I hated being there.

What made him feel so bad about himself?

There were lots of things, but my impatience was a big one. I was always argumentative with my father. He had this perfectionist thing where whenever I tried to do something, it was never good enough. So, that is a part of me as well, and I upset my family with that part of myself. I’d be looking over somebody’s shoulder, watching them do something, and I’d snap like, “Argh, come on, let me do it!” It’s something I’m not proud of. But I was seeing all of the bad stuff, and the disparity between me and the people we were with. The monks, you know?

What were the disparities?

I saw their reverence. I saw how high the vibrations were coming from them. And they had standards, you know? They had standards and beautiful rituals, and it was just such a contrast. We worked with some wonderful people who had a tremendous dedication to their own growth. But I did have glimpses of my potential, which is the reason I think I went back the next year. We spent about a month there and then returned the next year around the same time. We went three times total, and it eventually started getting easier and easier for me to be there. I felt myself maturing and growing – accepting the negative, and embracing what my potential was. I remember turning to one of the monks that we were working with and saying, “I don’t want to leave.” I mean we were out in rural, southern India. There’s nothing but donkeys and farmland, and it’s a simple, simple, simple life. We were sleeping in two single beds, constantly getting bitten by mosquitos. The most luxurious things we saw were mopeds, and an entire family would be on board. Still, I didn’t want to leave. But the Monk said “Rick, it is not your path.”, and he sent me out into the world. He said, “Don’t worry, you will spread happiness and joy through whatever you do.”

I ask him when it first occurred to him that he had PTSD

I always knew there was something wrong, and Lauren knew there was something different…not wrong, but different about me. You know, having a short fuse, or maybe not being as tolerant as I could be. I also had certain triggers. If somebody changed the routine, or if I was going to be late for something, I would have a tendency to sabotage whatever it was I was going to do. And I’d always aim it at the family, which was horrible. Those were the parts I didn’t particularly like. But in 2006 I visited injured troops at Walter Reed Medical Center and just saw terrible, terrible, suffering. I held it together while I was there, but when I got back to my hotel, I totally lost it. I called Lauren up, and said, “We have to refocus what we’re doing with the Raven Drum Foundation because I’m seeing a level of suffering that is like a reflection of where I’m at”, and I believe she already knew that.

And that led to action that had Allen acknowledging his own PTSD?

Yes, we started to refocus our attention on our wounded warriors, and that’s when I met John Roberts. John works with the Wounded Warrior Project and is a wounded warrior himself and he has become a really good friend. I started to do these gatherings at Def Leppard shows, where a group of warriors would come to meet with me and see the show. I met John backstage in Houston at one of the gatherings, and within moments of meeting me, he said, “Have you addressed your PTSD?” And I said (showing surprise), “Is it that obvious?” Keep in mind, I’m meeting this guy for the first time. And he said, “Well, yeah, I see something.” So from that moment, I’ve kept in touch with John, and I think between he and Lauren both, they encouraged me to open up about my own situation. And then, once I started to talk about it, it became one of those “Ah Ha!” moments where you go, “Oh, so as soon as I start to talk about this, I don’t have to hold onto it anymore?” It was a weight lifted.

With that being the case, I suggest that Allen probably is on the receiving end of plenty of difficult stories when he meets with the warriors.

If you create a safe space like that, and you get a group of traumatized people together, you then create the right environment for everybody to open up, and it’s amazing what comes out. 

I ask Allen if he ever felt out of place around the warriors because his injury came from driving a sports car recklessly, and their injuries came while fighting on behalf of their country.

That’s a really good question. Yes, I did. But what I eventually discovered is that trauma is trauma, and it doesn’t matter what you went through. Mine isn’t combat related, but my brain doesn’t know that, and combat isn’t the only cause of PTSD. It could be an abusive relationship, an alcoholic background, a car accident, falling off a horse, you name it. I always say that we’re all traumatized, but some of us more than others. [winks] So, yeah, at first I felt that way. But now, I walk into a room full of warriors and none of us see any differences between us.

I wondered which one – his injury, or his celebrity – does Allen think helps his relationship with the warriors more?

I think it’s a little bit of (the injury) but also the fact that they feel like they know me. Because of the history of the band, I know that’s my in as soon as I walk in the room. They see me and they say, “I feel like I’ve known you forever.” It’s great because it opens up a dialogue immediately, and they know they can trust me. I meet so many people, it’s like an antennae grows. You really learn how to listen to someone, and get in tune with what that person is feeling, regardless of what they are or aren’t saying, you know?  [winks]

[In the following days, when I speak to John Roberts, I ask him about Allen’s gift for enticing strangers to reveal parts of themselves that they had been holding on to for so long – without him ever asking them to. Jokingly, I call Allen the ‘Human Whisperer’.

John Roberts: That’s a good way to put it. When we have these warrior meetings and Rick jumps in with his struggles and stories of recovery, (the warriors) feel comfortable enough with him very quickly and they just unload. I don’t know exactly why. Maybe it’s ‘The Whisperer’ thing like you said, or maybe it’s the celebrity thing. But warriors usually get very quiet about their personal feelings when they are around someone who is not a combat veteran. What amazes me, is that with Rick they don’t stop talking.]

Allen meeting with a gathering of Wounded Warriors before a Def Leppard show. Photo credit - Ash Newell

I ask Allen about certain activities that he advocates for the warriors, particularly Equine Assisted Therapy. I wondered if he had ever tried it.

Of course. I’m always the guinea pig for these things! Everyone says, “Rick’s messed up, let’s have him try it.” [laughs] Working with horses is a huge deal. I mean, you’re working with a wild horse, so you can’t go in there and be about you, or you’re going to get hurt. You have to walk in there, and soften. My strategy is to stay away from the horse, and allow the horse to become curious about me. A great trick that somebody showed me is to reach out gently with the back of your hand – especially when the horse is kind of skittish – and let him smell it. The amount of information that the horse takes in about you just from that little interaction, is massive. It’s like instantly, he sort of knows you. Then you walk away from the horse, and the horse says, “Whoa, hold up. I thought this was about me?” and they start to follow you.

I suggest to Allen that the confines of a warrior group might be one of the few places where he doesn’t draw prolonged attention for his physical appearance, and I ask him if, his work with the warriors aside, he sometimes wishes he could just go out one day and not be recognized.

Hmm…

Allen lowers his head and contemplates this for a few seconds, while his hand revisits the napkin. Then he cheerily snaps up.

…no, I’m fine with standing out. I think it helps people figure out who I am when they meet me, you know? Authenticity. They get the whole package. I wouldn’t be where I am today without that life experience, so, I’m cool with it. It helps people know me.

Robert Ferraro is the senior writer at Of Personal Interest, where he profiles and interviews pop culture figures. 

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