Like the childhood monsters that lurked under our beds, Sprague Theobald found that PTSD, too, is terrified of the light.
This is how it happened for me.
Two summers ago my dear friend Julie and I were leisurely driving down a back road in central Maine, killing time before we were to take a passenger ferry out to an island I’d spent the better part of my youth’s summer days on. A mid-summer’s clear, blue-sky day framed us while the wind was it’s usual prevailing 10 to 15 knots from the southwest. We were enjoying a sensorial surround that I’d intimately known for just about every summer of my 62 years. Up ahead on the road was a thick stand of pines. Through those I could see glimpses of the Atlantic, lazy waves gently breaking on the familiar granite rocks.
I asked Julie to drive us up to the end of the road as I’d like to get out, take a sniff of the fresh ocean air and perhaps take a picture or two. We pulled over onto the road’s sandy shoulder and turned off the car. Getting out I took one step towards the trees and ocean beyond. I froze, my stomach cold, twisting steel. With a forced slowness I turned to Julie, “Get back in the car. Get me out of here.”
I love and trust Julie, the woman I’ve known the better part of 43 years now, yet she looked at me with wide, watery eyes of confused fear and concern.
“Just, please… just leave”, was about the best I could offer her.
We drove the car back down the pine-dusted road we’d just driven up, but the trip wasn’t what it was moments ago. From behind us I felt the weight, the press and burden of something bearing down on me, the car, Julie.
My joy and anticipation of getting out to the long-familiar island was now being pushed away by the ocean I saw through the pines not half a mile back. I wasn’t in a panic but could smell it from where I was sitting. We drove on in silence. The weight was no longer coming from behind us but welling up from deep inside me.
Three summers earlier, almost to the exact date, I was in the Arctic, leading my family and crew on my 57′ trawler, Bagan, to and hopefully through the area’s infamous Northwest Passage. For two years prior I had been preparing to try and do what very few in the scope of maritime history had managed to accomplish; to find and transit the Arctic’s Holy Grail which in theory connected the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Since the time of Columbus man has been trying to find this theoretical shortcut. Few have found it, hundreds have died trying. That summer, not only were we lucky enough to do it but we were the first production powerboat in history to do so.
It was three summers ago, almost to the date, that our fate aboard Bagan was swiftly grabbed from the safety and security of my hands as we fell victim to bad ice “intel”. We were a few hundred miles above the Arctic circle in The Central Passage, in a squeeze play with solid pack-ice to the south and massive, six-foot thick, “old” ice bearing down on us from the north at an alarming rate. We had nowhere to escape to and by the end of the Arctic night were hopelessly caught by the converging packs, slowly being driven toward a rockbound shore that lay not a quarter of a mile away. The ice and currents had us at their mercy. I felt the fate of my 24 year-old son and two step-children in their 30s quickly slipping through my frigid fingers. One thought and one thought only rolled through my mind, “Have I brought my family together only to lead them to their deaths?” It got worse, but, as they say, that’s another story.
Three years later, now on that back road in Maine, what I was facing was a squeeze play inside of me that was leaving me very little room to breath, think rationally or stop to realize that I was on the other side of the continent in a safe, comfortable car with the woman I loved, on our way to spend a wonderful month on the island which, since my youth, comforted and taught me so unconditionally.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: WebMD says, “…once called shell shock or battle fatigue syndrome, is a serious condition that can develop after a person has experienced or witnessed a traumatic or terrifying event in which serious physical harm occurred or was threatened”. A prefect definition for what many of our returning heroes, our Vets had come home with from all of our wars. It best describes what many victims of child abuse leave their childhood and enter their adult years with. But none of this applied to me for though our almost being crushed by the ice on that trip wasn’t the worse we faced, there were no—in my mind at the time—“terrifying events”, no explosions, no one killed. No physical harm had been afflicted on any of us.
Once Julie had driven us far enough away from what it was I saw, “felt” in those woods she again pulled over to the side of the road and stopped. She wanted to know, if I was comfortable discussing it, what had just happened. I remember looking across the seat at her, trying to give a smile and say simply, “Well that was interesting.” but what came next was as odd as it was unexpected; tears, and lots of them. A release of something I didn’t know needed releasing. Yet for three years now, my nightly dreams had been trying to tell me, but I chose not to listen. Dreams of my trying to keep a boat from grinding it’s keel to powder as I blindly drove down city streets looking for the ocean. Dreams of my kids, blue, laying silently in their bunks; frozen due to my selfish want to explore. Dreams of being a stranger in a stranger land, trying to find a doctor for an answer I didn’t know the question for. I believed that these were simply dreams and what happened on my pillow stayed on my pillow.
Julie and I stayed on the side of the road as I talked and she listened. I rambled; I rambled about the ice, rambled about the 50 knot gales that we had to go out and face every day if we were to make it home before the Arctic winter locked us in. In no order I told her about mechanical breakdowns hundreds of miles from nowhere and not knowing if I, we had the wherewithal to fix them. I told her about the hired crew who had to be tossed from the boat in Anchorage due to abusive drinking and three months of disruptive behavior. I told her about the guilt, the shame, the burden of putting my three beautiful children in harm’s way time and again. I tried to rationalize to myself that they were grown adults and they asked to come along on the trip, that it was their want, not my pressing invitation. But that was about as lame as lame could get. I was the parent, the parent who was divorced from them 15 years earlier and this was the first time we’d all been together. Peachy family reunion Sprague.
In the car, that day in Maine on the side of the road, I continued to babble and cry. It was all there, I just didn’t have the time, truth be told I guess, I didn’t have the strength to look at what had been plaguing me since the night we docked in Seattle; having successfully completed what very few ever had, that we had gotten into and out of death traps several times over the course of that five month, 8,500 mile odyssey. As any who have been in the Artic will attest to, death stalks 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If the 28 degree water doesn’t get you, the brutal Siberian gales will. If the crushing isolation knocks you to your knees, a bored polar bear will surely finish off the job. Yet it was all there, in the car that day.
When the Northwest Passage trip ended in Seattle and after a few days of clean up and rest, we went our various directions as a newly connected family, to deal with and reflect on what we had just managed to accomplish. I had no time to think, feel, for immediately I fell into trying to carve a documentary from the 300 hours of footage we shot, and sell it. A book opportunity fell into my lap. Two months prior to the start of the trip I had lost all my funding due to the lasting effects of 2008’s economic crash. It was three years of constant work, hustle which is only now starting to clam down. All kept me busy, so busy that I didn’t stop to realize that the sight of water and boats repelled me.
I had put Bagan on the market because I needed to raise money to pay for the trip. I was broke. I was invited to give various talks around the country about the trip, but I was too busy trying to meet these obligations that I didn’t realize that after them I’d swear through damp eyes that I’d never, ever give another talk about that summer. Even though I’d had about 40,000 offshore miles and many transoceanic crossings under my belt I turned down invitations for simple day sails with friends. I was purposely numb, “conveniently numb”.
Julie asked how long this had been going on, this shaking, crying, fear. If there’s one person in my life I’ve ever trusted completely it’s Julie. We’ve known one another since college and the thought of hiding something from her was unacceptable. I took a deep breath, gathered myself up and said, “Since the day we broke free from the ice.” The irony of it all was that yes, we broke free of the killer-ice which had sent so many ships and men to their deaths but I still held it and it’s power in my heart and soul. It still controlled me and my dreams. It had me making excuses where none were needed.
Once the monster was out from under the bed it was impossible to dismiss. Summer passed and that fall I started working with a councilor back here in New York. He confirmed what Julie and I both had uncovered, that I was in the grips of PTSD. That I wasn’t the same person I was before departing for the Arctic from Rhode Island. In fact I most probably would never again be that person. A fact that has it’s good days as well as bad.
That fall in New York I learned that by sharing, acknowledging and trying to desensitize—at first I would go to the East River to watch the boats for five minutes or until the panic started to give voice, then 15 minutes, than an hour—I could gain my life back. I went to the river every day until that glorious day that I summoned up all my courage and emotionally smiled at the water. I learned that time and nature is a far stronger force than the echoes and memories of what it is that PTSD tries to constantly awaken and reinforce in us. Through lots of help and loving encouragement I managed to bring my PTSD out into the light and once exposed, saw just how weak it could be, such a bully and a wimp you are PTSD.
I learned that PTSD is a ghost, a menace, a demon from our past that like any invasive species, once it takes root in your mind, soul, heart will continue to grow, showing no mercy but thriving on its hidden control over us. But as I found out two summers ago, in Maine, with Julie, it does have one very powerful enemy which will drop it to its knees every time—talking.
But… and here’s where it gets tricky… the catch is; so insidious is PTSD that I, we who have met and harbored it may not know we’re doing so. But we certainly know that something is wrong, that deep down inside something is just not right. And that’s where our healing begins. With fear of making it sound far too simplistic—for PTSD is anything but—once we acknowledge, open up and start talking it moves PTSD into its death throes. To acknowledge that “something is wrong” and telling a trusted friend, a councilor or most importantly, yourself, is the start to dragging that monster out from under the bed and meeting it head-on, in your terms, not its.
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Photos courtesy of author.