Sailing for Life and Surviving PTSD
Ask someone to describe their depression, and they’ll tell you it’s like waking up every morning with an anvil on their chest. Ask someone to describe a panic attack, and they’ll tell you it’s like the walls are closing in around them, that they’re struggling to breathe. Ask Taylor to describe his PTSD, and he’ll tell you it feels like he’s about to get in a fight.
Taylor was still in the military when we conceived our plan to circumnavigate South America by sailboat. He was close to being discharged, and his anxiety about returning home undoubtedly played into our ambitious aim to round Cape Horn. One of the things we didn’t anticipate, though, was how rough things would get between his military discharge and our cast-off date.
I lived in Scotland then, finishing a PhD that researched the narratives of combat veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. I’d been conducting interviews for five years when Taylor cleared out of the military. After reconnecting in Guam, I started sending him my writing to check for inconsistencies. Taylor was one of my authenticity buffers, and we worked well together because he’d never hold back. “There aren’t sergeants in the Navy,” he’d say; or, “It’s a galley, not a mess hall. Nobody says they’re going to eat ‘mess’.”
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Once he got out, though, our roles reversed. Whereas I had looked to him for confirmation, he now looked to me. Taylor would call from his car, after a party, or from home, sitting in his bedroom. His heart rate would be through the roof, as if he were in the middle of a rescue or about to leap from a flying helicopter. Only, he’d been doing nothing of the sort. Talking to a girl. Listening to the radio. Watching television.
“Have you seen this before?” he’d ask. “The guys you interviewed, did they experience this? Is it normal?”
My answer was always “yes.” I’d heard similar variations from every single veteran I’d interviewed. But what struck me most were the similarities between Taylor’s experience and those of combat veterans.
Taylor had been a rescue swimmer in the Navy. His station was Guam in the South Pacific, so he deployed to some of the worst areas of conflict in the world – the Philippines, the South Korean DMZ, and on a number of typhoon/earthquake disaster relief missions.
Taylor’s job, meanwhile, was to jump out of helicopters: midflight, into the ocean, in some of the roughest seas in the world. Anyone who wants to argue how that doesn’t compare to being shot at hasn’t spent a lick of time in gale-force winds a thousand miles offshore. It’s terrifying. And most of the time, when their search-and-rescue party located the target they’d been sent to rescue, all Taylor would find was a lifeless body. Or worse: pieces of one.
Despite all of this, Taylor hadn’t technically deployed to a combat zone. So while he was being discharged, PTSD wasn’t even mentioned.
I guess it shouldn’t have come as a surprise, then, when he’d call me at three in the morning, blind with rage. No matter the stimulation—or lack thereof (he could be sitting at home and staring at a wall)—his adrenaline would start pumping, the muscles in his back and neck would contract, and blood would rush to his face.
For Taylor, this was all incredibly foreign. And scary. Having no control over your body when your profession relied on absolute control, over the course of 16-hour days for months on end, is terrifying. It feels like you’re losing yourself.
What Taylor couldn’t know is how natural this reaction was.
People like to pin down PTSD as a mental disorder. This makes it easier to address, because if we’re talking about a chemical imbalance in the brain then all we need to do is prescribe medication. Describing PTSD as mental also makes it easier to dismiss – because, if it’s mental, then you should be able to control it. Not having control of your mind, we’re often led to believe, is a sign of weakness.
The reality is the opposite. The brain is physical matter, the body and the mind are irrevocably entwined, and what happens in the brain—and because of the brain—is physiological.
The endocrine system is where the mind and the body meet. It’s a collection of glands that release hormones into the blood stream. Few people would describe these as “mental” over physical, and yet the entire endocrine system is controlled by the brainstem. The catch for Taylor is that PTSD can measurably change regions of the brain. Chronic stress and the prolonged presence of cortisol, for instance, can physically shrink the hippocampus and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis: two regions of the brain that are instrumental to the production and regulation of hormones.
The explanation for Taylor’s experience of PTSD, however, is far more intuitive. Taylor and his fellow rescue swimmers had adapted to working 16-hour flight schedules; they were frequently denied more than four hours of consecutive sleep; and their job was jumping out of helicopters. They ran off endorphins, epinephrine, cortisol, and supplements that simulated their effects. Taylor’s adrenal and pituitary glands had adjusted to producing excess amounts of “fight-or-flight” hormones, so when he left the military those glands didn’t just stop producing. They kept right at it, and when Taylor couldn’t provide an outlet for those pent-up hormones, they would release of their own accord. The result was Taylor, staring at a wall, seeing red.
The largest retrospective military study ever conducted shows that soldiers are at the highest risk of suicide during their first year out of the military. Taylor himself compares his discharge to a freight train coming to a sudden halt after traveling at a hundred miles per hour. The result was exactly what you’d expect. A crash; an explosion; a bang. Without any in between, there was no outlet for the pent up epinephrine and cortisol that Taylor’s body was producing just to get by. But, as it turned out, the best solution for Taylor wasn’t drugs or counseling – it was sailing.
Taylor grew up in Galveston, Texas. During his pipeline period in San Diego, he went sailing to decompress. He was comfortable on the water. He could relax and unwind and steer the boat by muscle memory. But even the most weathered seaman gets a healthy dosage of fight-or-flight when the weather turns.
Sailing to Cape Horn initially served as a kind of exercise for Taylor. It offered an ideal mixture of serene reflection with adrenaline-packed fights for survival. We overcame hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and gales at the bottom of the world, but there were also moments of profound beauty and tranquility – from the sublime, raw grandeur of Patagonia, to the ripple of bioluminescent plankton in the wake of dolphins diving at night. But as our trip progressed, sailing became much more than an adrenaline outlet or finding the balance between the highs and the lows – it was a reminder of the value of living.
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For a long time, I avoided weighing in on Taylor’s progress. The first half of our trip was rough. We battled storms, bureaucracies, and each other. There were moments when I worried that Taylor was getting worse, not better. But the changes happening in him were subtle, gradual, and it’s taken me time and a step back to recognize them.
Is Taylor going to be “fine”?
I have much to say on that end, and I’ve got even more invested in him being so – but now, over two years on, the reality is I don’t know.
What I can say is that he’s survived the most dangerous period of a rescue swimmer’s life—his first year out of the military—and that, by all points of evaluation, he’s doing better. Most of this progress came from learning to live with PTSD, rather than trying to overcome it. But the cost of his service will continually affect his body and mind. Taylor will always have his demons: no measure of therapy or sailing is going to change that.
But there were some intangibles that neither of us anticipated. Like how, after all that we’ve been through, it wasn’t rounding Cape Horn or achieving our goal that aided Taylor’s transition home. It was the journey, the adventure, and the excitement of re-discovering the world – of recalling that there will always be more for us to experience and to explore.