August 9, 2013

(Thriving) The Stigma in Me: Remembering that My Strength Ultimately Caused My Disorder

My climb includes 5 total climbs and 6 of the lower section.

I have very little patience for people who believe that lessor people suffer from mental illness, especially scholars, but if I am honest with myself then must I recognize how my shame has shaped my homecoming. Lately, I have been working really hard to reintegrate the training techniques I used prior to going to war. For the last four years I'd been avoiding my old training regimen as if there was something wrong with it. A good friend of mine turned me onto ultra/mountain runner Anton Krupicka's blog and it reminded me that I was at my fastest when I lived and ran in the mountains everyday. I used to run hills exclusively, do a lot of two-a-day workouts, take few supplements, I did very little with my nutrition, save for good wholesome meals, and run in the worst environment possible, like rain, heat and cold with as little cloths as I could stand. I've never been faster than with that mentality, yet I was reluctant to re-embrace them because, at least subconsciously, I felt like my invisible wounds were the result of my weakness. I also felt like after three tours in Iraq, Ranger and Jumpmaster school that I had nothing to prove. I might have nothing to prove to the world, but I still have a lot more to prove to myself. Recently, I have been employing those older strategies and I am beginning to see some of the chains that were holding be back on runs fall off, and, more importantly, it has reminded me how my courage, strength and determination brought about my PTSD: not my weakness.

Care of Maine Running Photos.
As a kid I was always happiest playing sports. I especially loved summer street hockey and soccer because I had games on the same day. I was a halfback in soccer and forward in hockey, so those days included a great deal of running and skating. My soccer games would come first, so the first few minutes of the hockey game were the toughest. All the fresh skaters were difficult to keep up with. I could usually hold my own until the heat of the day wore on every player. Georgia summers are particularly hot, and the black top courts amplified the heat significantly, yet every game I would get a surge of energy when sweat began to cloud my eyes. Though I was certainly suffering, this would signal to me that others were as well and that is when I played the hardest. I came to remember this on Monday the 15th of July. It was the day after a PR finish (despite two pretty shitty panic attacks) at the first race of the Bradbury Mountain trail running series. Proud, but unsatisfied with my performance, I was climbing the Alfond Stadium at the University of Maine. When I began my workout no one was there, but as I continued the football team started to do some sprints.

The heat was incredible because the aluminum bleachers absorbed and reflected the sun's rays as if I was running in a sauna. It was one of the hottest couple of days in Maine this year and many people were hospitalized at races the day before. When I looked down at the all the younger football payers I was impressed with their vigor, youth and ability, but I was most captured by their impression of me. All of these athletes, in their prime, looked at me at me with respectful head nods, and were questioning why this crazy thirty year old asshole was climbing the stadium during the hottest hours of the hottest day of the summer. These were all stronger, and in most cases tougher athletes than me, but not that day. Again the reflection of the sun off of the aluminum, the salty sweat and sunscreen combined to blur my vision, but I was on cloud nine. I was the kid playing hockey again. I began to love every minute of that misery. I became even more confident when the football team, left and I was still climbing stairs. On my last lap, I was wiped out, tired, and what I like to call wobbly (ultra runners more commonly refer to this as bonking because when your body runs out of fuel you start feeling loopy and hypoglycemic, but I think wobbly better captures how I feel), but in that almost delirium haze I knew that I'd gone as hard and as long as I could: then a little bit farther.

Somewhere in all the diagnoses and medical treatment I'd lost some of the key aspects of who I was. Sure I have been running ultras to reconnect to who I am, and in many ways I am tougher than I ever was, but I'd lost my old mentality. I just remembered running ten milers at Bragg, full out the whole time at sub seven pace without recognizing what philosophy and training regimen brought that ability. I thought I was tougher after war, but I was tough because of who I was preceding war and my mentality is what brought me through. For some reason I'd come to believe that I was weak before war and that is why I was taken out by invisible wounds. Nothing could be further from the truth. I was tough and that is why I endured so much trauma and still sought to be on the line fighting the war. My resilience is helping now, but it also caused a much more severe syndrome. I realized that I have PTSD because I am tough, not because I am am weak. It stems from my character not my weakness.

One handed summit pic with 2 liter hydration pack.
It is at the juncture between who I was before war and who I am now that I can see the nuance in my life that has changed. Recognizing this change is a vehicle for my growth. I still like to run as minimally as possible, but I sweat more because of PTSD and dehydrate faster because of medications. I carry a lot more water now, and I use sugar to to keep my muscles going in ways I wouldn't have when I was younger. This is a disadvantage sometimes that also helps me stay more self aware when I run. Now I am more in the moment, and that helps me appreciate doing something I love as long and as hard as I can. This is more than a metaphor for my writing, it is the same, it is fuel, and a constant reminder of who I am. More specifically, the elevated heart rate and heavy breathing triggers panic attacks, and my quest for longer runs at a faster pace forces me to stay on top of my treatment.

I get better at managing my PTSD with every improved time, longer and harder run because it helps me face the panic attacks that I suffer on runs, and it has also been my mechanism for grief. Most importantly, it reminds me of how, who I was before and who I am now, are different, yet my mentality prior to war has had a lot of bearing on how I survived. After seeing all the death and loss I have in Iraq I'll never fully regain that child I once was, nor would I even want to be that naive again. However, because of PTSD I'd abandoned all of who I was because I felt like I'd done something wrong to have mental illness. In remembering that sweat in my eyes, the love of climbing everyday, and wearing as little as possible I've been able to reconnect to a mentality that will surely help me grow with PTSD. Probably the mentality that saved my life in Iraq and at home.

Honeymoon Piton summit with Piton Lager. My wife has the same drive to climb mountains and run races together.
I'd ask all the readers to try and remember those moments in the time prior, to your service in combat or traumatic experiences, that inspired you to push on, work harder and generally be a better person. Though our younger naive selves may have been lost to the battlefield, at the hands of rapists or in experiences that rocked the very nature of ourselves, that doesn't mean we must lose the aspects of ourselves that helped us survive those terrible days. In our process of grief we all tend to blame ourselves, and we lose sight of what we did right. While re-embracing my own mentality I've come to realize how valuable it has been to my survival, and I would urge you all to find your stadium at the heat of the day, your mountainside, or canvas. That thing that makes you want to feel the pain of becoming better and put in the time it takes to be great. By recognizing the strength you abandoned because of PTSD you might see the ways that stigma has seeped into your life as well. Shame and blaming yourself is natural stage in growth that we'll continually deal with, but by understanding it we can find a way to climb past it when it impedes our progress. Just don't be ashamed of who you were, because those who have PTSD have suffered and survived. The aspects of your life before PTSD helped you survive and there is a lot more merit in our pre PTSD selves than naivety. Re-embracing the positive aspects of your life, before trauma, that you have abandoned afterwards will help you move forward by helping you to recognize the stigma that has creeped its way into your own outlook. At least that has been the case for me.


  1. I ran for 30 years thinking it was just good exercise, keeping me physically fit. As a college teacher, I spent many hours reading and writing at a desk; so running got me outdoors and got the blood flowing to the rest of my body. Now I know that mental health was a benefit of that routine. Whether my experience in Vietnam helped me run or my running helped me process my experience in Vietnam, I can't say. But I am now convinced that the physical regimen was critical to a balanced and productive life. As I approach 70, my legs can't do what they once did; but I am outdoors and using them every day.

  2. I hope mine last that long! That is truly inspiring. I am going to get every moment I can out of the though.


Please share your comments, stories and information. Thank you. ~ Scott Lee