Equilibrium: Overcoming PTSD with Paddleboarding
By Josh Collins
It might be the shear enjoyment, requisite focus, cutting loose, or marriage of physical and mental balance that makes the stand-up paddleboard such a sanctuary for me. Whatever it is, there is no better drug and I take it every day. It is a place of peace, and I hope every veteran can find his or her own.
After dozens of surgeries, and three months in the Tampa VA Polytrauma Unit, I was still not well. In fact, the dread of regression to the confusion and crazed state of mind that landed me there was my constant fear; functional insanity isn’t functional for very long — the prescribed pharmaceutical cocktail began to seem like a daily chemical lobotomy designed to quell the demons and dull the sharpest pain, but there was no cure. These medications are not curative.
Instead, it’s palliative treatment designed to suppress the madness. An already damaged brain from multiple concussions, traumatic stress, and years of continuous operation in a poisonous combat environment cannot heal by mixing in chemicals and neurotoxins. I needed to find a better solution because I could feel my own death creeping in. I could feel the damaging effects of the drugs, and how it added to the confusion and frustration after the numbness wore off, or how I felt as the medicine diluted my psyche and its effects lasted less and less. Naturally, I added fuel to the fire by way of alcohol. This was the recipe for disaster, the road to my potential suicide.
I am a 20-year Veteran who retired from the Special Operations community at Ft. Bragg, NC. After retiring, I spent another half dozen years as and independent contractor in the same community working overseas and instructing stateside. It seems to me that no matter the amount of time served, 4 or 24 years, and no matter the number of tours in combat and in what units, that a person’s response to combat stress is completely independent on all the variables that make each of us who we are as individuals. It could be one event, or hundreds, or the addition of brain trauma that adds injury to insult and further aggravates the issue. For me, it was the latter. It seemed that the growing frequencies of damaging my brain, though, “mildly,” each time, was adding to a sum of damage that would inevitably become a larger problem. Further, that this complicated the findings, as my struggle with several past “traumatic” events that previously hadn’t bothered me were beginning to creep in. The music in my head began to skip and repeat, and there was no telling if it was the scratched albums from the incidents, or if the “needle in the Jukebox” was broken…my brain.
I was fortunate to find balance again figuratively and literally in the most unexpected place. While at the Tampa VA, a Recreational Therapy event on stand-up paddleboards led me to find some much needed answers. Further, I discovered mission and purpose again — probably something that every veteran needs more than anything else after separating from the military. My balance issues from a past TBI, cervical spine compression, inner ear and vestibular system damage, and right eye nerve palsy have created day-to-day disequilibrium and vertigo.
Somehow, the movement of the water beneath a paddleboard suppressed all of that and the horizon became level again and still. As I focused on nothing but my own physical balance and the water and its mysterious world beneath the surface, it calmed my mind. The sound of the ocean, the warmth of the sun, and the wind against my face captured intoxicating and healing therapy I was giving myself. Not only had I found my new drug, but also meaning, and a mission with this as the vehicle to accomplish a new purpose. This was the first step of my journey to total recovery–my passage to a place of stability at least, and victory in the end. This is my “Veteran Voyage 360.”
SFC (R) Josh Collins spent 15 of his 20 years in the Special Operations community at Ft Bragg, NC, and also 1/75th Ranger Regiment out of Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, GA. He was a widower, and who found true love again and married to Tonia Collins with a family of 4 college0aged children. They are now living in Florida and spend time volunteering for the Task Force Dagger Foundation and working on Veteran Voyage 360 to assist others. www.veteranvoyage360.com.