A New Beginning – Living With PTSD
By Nicholas Jansen, Team RWB Member & Athletic Director, Lock Haven/Williamsport Chapter
My name is Nicholas Arnold Jansen. I am a U.S. Army Veteran who struggles daily with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I honorably served my country as a cavalry scout for 14 years before being medically retired from the service in 2013. I was preparing for my 4th deployment to Iraq. In total, I spent 39 months deployed and was exposed to a lot of combat and some really terrible things, but until recently I did not talk about any of it.
The training the Army provided me could have never prepared me for what I experienced in war. The paper targets that I trained on were nothing like the flesh and bone of the human lives I took. I intimately experienced death, destruction, and inhumanity…leaving me traumatized and racked with guilt. These feelings manifested themselves in flashbacks, nightmares, sleepless nights, anxiety, depression, anger, fear, and withdrawal. I didn’t know how to deal with the profound feelings of loss, sadness, and anguish so I isolated myself and tried to stuff away my emotions. In the process I destroyed relationships with people I loved and nearly lost myself. Just like someone who suffers from alcoholism or drug addiction, I was unwilling to acknowledge I had a problem. But I did have a problem. I was suffering from severe PTSD. And it took me 10 years to admit it.
Many people experience traumatic events in their lives that can alter their mood, their response to stress, and the way they go on living, and not everyone who experiences trauma has PTSD. Trauma and PTSD are not uniquely veteran…they’re human challenges. However, as veterans we often believe we’re superhuman, incapable of feeling pain or being affected by events. I refused to acknowledge my PTSD for so long that I had myself convinced it wasn’t really there. But it was. I was plagued by thoughts and emotions that I couldn’t place. I felt the world owed me something. I was angry and frustrated. I acted out, saying and doing things I would later regret. I blamed everyone else for my problems and feelings. In my mind, nothing was ever my fault; it was always something or someone else that was the problem. I went so far as to admit myself to a local hospital four times, only to sign myself out each time. The hospital didn’t help me, so why stay? I took the medication I was prescribed but not much else.
On October 14th, 2014, I sat in my recliner chair in my living room. I was done dealing with the nightmares, anxiety, depression, survivor’s guilt, anger, and mood swings. I had been awake for months and no longer saw a reason to fight. I had the means and planned to take my own life. But I didn’t. To this day I can’t explain exactly what happened but something stronger than me told me to go on fighting, to go on living. I immediately drove two and a half hours through the night to a psychiatric center in Clarion, PA and admitted myself. I told the medical staff I did not want to be able to check myself out and that I would stay as long as necessary. The next day I spoke with a psychologist and told him what I had done and how I was feeling. However, I never explained to the doctor the why. See I knew the “why” but wasn’t yet able to face it myself let alone share it with others. I was afraid of being judged or how people would react. So I remained in denial.
I also remained in the psychiatric center for four weeks. My stay started with my doctor stopping all my anti-depressants and mood stabilizers. It was a painful and horrible process. My insides hurt so bad that for two weeks all I wanted to do was lay in bed. Once my system was purged I began a new medication regime and it started to work. While I could physically get out of bed and leave my room, I didn’t want to do much. Time went on as I ate a little, slept a ton, and dodged interacting with others. But soon group activities were introduced to my daily regime. I learned journaling, breathing techniques, and a number of other tools to deal with my triggers. I still didn’t want to associate with others, but I found myself thinking about what I was going to do when I left the hospital. So I tried to put up some goals in my mind. My stay in the psychiatric hospital was certainly not pleasant, but it provided me the space and support to begin to process what I had experienced and how it was making me feel.
I was transferred from the hospital in Clarion to the VA in Pittsburgh where I met my new medical team. They assured me that my treatments and medication had been working and that I was stable enough to re-enter society. Before discharge, I saw a social worker, psychiatrist, psychologist, and case manager. It was the week of Thanksgiving and all my providers were concerned about where I would be and what I was doing for the holiday. I spent that Thanksgiving with my dad and stepmom in Indiana. Yet it was the check-in call I received from my social worker the day before Thanksgiving that proved most impactful. That simple phone call changed the way I felt about myself and showed me that someone else cared enough to fight with me.
Following my visit to Indiana and the many therapy appointments that followed, I still did not feel particularly healthy or happy. While the medication was working, it also left me feeling sluggish and drowsy. I only went out at night. I still felt withdrawn and didn’t want to be around people. I wanted to feel something more; I wanted to feel healthier. It didn’t hit me how unhealthy I had become until I weighed myself during a therapy visit…the scale read north of 300 pounds. I was embarrassed of how far I’d fallen.
In March of 2015 I went to a local gym and started to work on my fitness. I had not been physically active since my medical retirement two years earlier. Working out was like a breath of fresh air. I started to feel better and eat healthier. I dedicated myself to getting fitter everyday. I also met new people but found that I was still anxious and hesitant to trust others. I found myself telling others the “short story of Nick”, like I was building a new self rather than being a better version of my real self. After three months of working out I felt significantly better physically. My psychologist noticed it too and was so thrilled with my weight loss and energy gain that he decreased my medication dosage.
While I was improving physically, I still struggled mentally. I went to counseling but felt as if we were getting nowhere, talking but never really getting at my core problems. Why was I mentally and emotionally still off?! I finally had enough of the superficial “chit chat” with my counselor. She needed to know what was really eating at me inside. So I wrote it all down, literally putting pen to paper in what became a detailed, 20-page narrative…my story. At my next appointment I sat down read every word of my story to my counselor. I was scared and vulnerable but resolute. When I finished reading, I looked up to see tears in my counselor’s eyes. She hugged me and said, “now we have a starting point.” I felt as if a weight had literally been lifted off my shoulders. The thoughts and feelings and everything that I had buried inside for so long were now out…and I could finally start to heal. Over the next six months of counseling I slowly but surely started to work through my experiences and my feelings. And in doing so, something I almost didn’t recognize stirred inside of me. I was feeling HAPPY!
I found Team RWB shortly after my breakthrough with my counselor, and this organization, this community has provided me the final missing piece to my puzzle…people. I didn’t know what to expect walking into my first Team RWB event. I was still standoffish and meeting new people was difficult. But I was welcomed immediately and felt like I belonged. I soon learned that the members of this Team invested their time in getting to know the real me. It’s somewhat ironic that I found my people, my Team in a cemetery…cleaning up headstones and giving back to their community, while also giving of themselves to each other. Since that first event I’ve hiked, trail run, biked, bowled, watched movies, and enjoyed social outings with my Eagle family, all while making countless genuine relationships. I am now the Athletic Director of the Lock Haven/Williamsport Chapter and each day I strive to engage and recruit new members throughout Central Pennsylvania. I do not know where I would be today without Team RWB. The combination of veterans and civilians, along with the amount of support from all types of people with different backgrounds is simply amazing.
I have PTSD, but I’m not PTSD. I’ve learned that it’s what I do in life and how I handle situations that define me. I now tell people of all backgrounds struggling with PTSD they can get help from a family member, peer, pet, doctor, or even an inanimate object (yes, I’ve talked to an empty chair to get something out…try it!). I hope that my story shows others that with some dedication and effort you too can begin to heal. I’m soon setting off to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. I’m hiking to fight PTSD. And my hike, like my fight with PTSD, will undoubtedly see some long and difficult days. But I’ll keep hiking, just like I’ve kept fighting, one day at a time. While I’ll spend a number of days on the trail by myself, I’ll never be alone knowing that my Team is with me…and true to form, many Eagles have already reached out offering lodging, rides, or just to walk with me for a few miles. Wherever your journey takes you, know you’re not alone…and keep on fighting.
Editor’s Note: This blog was taken down after its original posting due to safe messaging concerns. It has since been edited with the author’s input. Team RWB encourages everyone to share their story, but we also want to ensure such stories do not unintentionally endanger others. We’re proud of Nick for all he’s endured, the steps he’s taken to heal and grow, and having the courage to share his story. Nick is currently on the Appalachian Trail, somewhere in Georgia…moving forward. You can follow his journey on Facebook here: Hike to Fight PTSD.