Walking away from PTSD

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My Q&A on ex-Marine Sean Gobin’s Warrior Hike program, in which American war vets thru-hike the 2,180-mile-long Appalachian Trail to come to terms with the traumatic sights and sounds of battle, ran as the Big Idea feature in the Focus section of Saturday’s Globe and Mail. Considering how Canadian soldiers returning from Afghanistan are struggling with PTSD and other mental challenges, could a program like Warrior Hike work on this side of the border? The therapeutic benefits of hiking don’t only apply to members of the military dealing with PTSD, as Gobin says. Other groups (police officers, firefighters, victims of domestic violence) are contacting him about starting similar initiatives.

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2 thoughts on “Walking away from PTSD

  1. A Healing Hike on the Pacific Crest Trail – 2013

    December 3. I left the Trail about two months ago, after facing bad injuries and worse weather. Looking forward to returning in August, 2014, for the final 400 miles. For now, I’m trying to make sense of it all…to process the experience. Here is just one example of how the Trail has changed me.

    I headed to my favorite restaurant in Squamish for dinner after a day of presentations. It was crowded, with only one seat empty at the sushi bar. I sat next to Ben who was thankfully engaged with his cell phone. I had talked all day and, frankly, just wanted some quiet time. But an hour earlier, I had been reading “Buddha’s Brain,” borrowed from a friend, including the part about being open to strangers as a way of building compassion. So I said hello a bit reluctantly. He seemed to want to talk, and we danced lightly around where we live and what we do. Ben was beefy, with light sandy short hair, glasses, about 50 or so. He now works for a power company after leaving the fire department in a big city. And before that, he was in the Canadian Forces….Bosnia. Now he works as a trainer for company staff, which keeps him busy throughout the province. He stuck with describing non-important surface stuff about his job. But I wondered if he would share something deeper.

    How does your wife respond to you being away so much, I asked, knowing it was a difficult issue for Nicola when I used to travel a lot. “Well,” he said quietly, “That’s no longer a problem. We separated and then divorced a few years ago. It was the fire department job, 99% boredom, 1% life-on-the-line urgency. Happens to a lot of first responders. We are difficult to live with. Most of my fire and police friends are divorced.” Because we were sitting side-by-side at the sushi bar, I couldn’t see his face directly. But I imagined the rueful grin that often comes with such an admission…the smile that hides the pain.

    He quietly offered that he had been directly involved, at least present, in 29 deaths. He didn’t say if that included Bosnia. The fact that he was so precise, that he had kept count, told me how he felt about it. “Yeah, I’m messed up,” he said with a light laugh. The way an alcoholic jokes that there is so much beer and so little time. As he paused, staring at his cup of green tea, still nodding to himself, I reflected on my own experience. I was never a first responder, didn’t come close to the events Ben had been through, but there were definitely stresses being in EOCs and taking on the roles I had in emergencies. I could relate.

    “I saw a couple of shrinks,” he continued. “And one flat-out told me the truth. If I stayed in the fire service, I would never recover. So I left about a year ago and started working for this power company. I’m okay, really. I run. I’m a triathlete. I like challenging myself,” he said brightly. Then, perhaps because he was talking with a stranger, with whom you sometimes share secrets you don’t tell your friends, he slumped a bit, staring at his hands around the tea cup in front of him, adding, “I sometimes see the faces of people…,” and he paused, suddenly drawn deep within himself.

    ”There was one house fire… I should have trusted my gut. I was the captain on a fire company and our truck pulled up to an address on a 911 call. Nothing showed from the outside. But reflected off the back neighbour’s window, I saw bright flame. As my crew started to lay out the hoses, I had to judge if there was anyone inside. Just the mother, a neighbor insisted. But I saw a bag of soccer balls outside the front door and my gut said there were kids at home. Maybe the father as well. The inside was dense with grey smoke, and you don’t just open the doors in those situations. It’s not safe for my crew. But I should have done something…”

    He trailed off with a series of phrases that didn’t quite make sense to me. I just waited. “And get this,” he added after a long pause. “On the sidewalk stood my neighbours…an older couple who lived on our street. Turned out this house was where their daughter lived with her family.” Gently shaking his head. “I still see their faces at night sometimes.” Neither of us said anything for a long minute.

    Thinking about his pain and grasping at anything that might help, I spontaneously asked, “Do you meditate? I’m reading a book now that claims meditation actually changes the structure of your brain.” I was hoping he would get the connection that perhaps, just maybe, there was some hope for him. “Oh, I’ve tried off and on. Doesn’t work for me. I feel better when I am out in nature, though. I ran to Calgary once (about 600 miles from Vancouver). That felt good.” Hmm, a long-distance runner. That triggered a thought. I launched into a description of my PCT trek.

    “Yeah, it can feel good to get outdoors for long periods. Nature heals us. I just finished hiking from Mexico to Washington…Did about 2,200 miles.” He turned to directly face me for the first time in our conversation, obviously eager for more information. “Where did you start? What is this trail again? Did you go through the Mojave Desert? I have some friends who live near there. What did you do about food? Did you take a good camera?” His questions showed more than a spark of interest. It was like he had been waiting for some idea of what to do with his life.

    We talked some more, and I led him to the Pacific Crest Trail website on his phone, showed a few mountain pictures from mine. He added, “You know, I am beginning to believe that some things were meant to be. I mean, here we are, just happened to sit next to each other, and now you are telling me about this trail. Amazing…” We chatted a bit more about the trail and, as Ben became engrossed in the PCT website, I took my leave, wishing him well.

    I walked back to the car, thinking about Ben’s story, when a very distinct memory surfaced. Before my trek, I felt something of the stress he carries with him every day. I too had developed a physical condition, a permanent tremor in my body. There was a nervous vibration, not unlike a caffeine reaction, that permanently lived in my core. It was there when I woke in the morning, and it kept me awake many nights. No amount of exercise or medication or talking seemed to disperse it. I just took it as part of the job and unavoidable, although I could trace its beginning, if I was honest. It went all the way back to 2003 when I attended so many EOCs over a four-month period to help with the bad fires that destroyed much of BC’s forests that year. I knew my tremor was a response to stress, but assumed it would go away eventually. It stuck with me for ten years, and was with me when I started my hike in April.

    A second realization suddenly struck me in that moment…the tremor was now gone. Standing in the parking lot of a Squamish restaurant, I checked my innards for any sign of the stress. Nothing. There was a calm where there used to be tension. I held my breath and released it to really sense what was inside. I found a peace where there was once turmoil. I no longer felt that constant buzz. Whoa. How could I have missed that change for all the months I have been home? My PCT trek had been a healing experience in more ways than one…better than any pills, any spa, any amount of time on a shrink’s couch. No wonder I value the hike so much. No wonder I am loathe to return to work mode, to risk reawakening that somatic distress. Only by meeting Ben, and being reminded of my former self, did I put the pieces together. I am healed. I probably got more out of the evening than Ben did. Perhaps some things were meant to be.

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