Here is a map which will show our proposed stops and our progress to date.
Here is a map which will show our proposed stops and our progress to date.
Yes, it was another good sleep and I enjoyed a relaxed breakfast watching through the windows the squirrels feel on scraps in the garden. I lingered in the dining room watching the wildlife – one of the other vets had offered me a lift to Inverness so I had time to enjoy the scenery. Squirrels exerted their chain of command with the food on the lawn – there was an obvious hierarchy with the dominant one taking the lead and getting the best of the feast. The rest had a chance to grab food as the alpha squirrel munched on its current mouthful. It reminded me of a scene by Kirkwall harbour when we were feeding chips to the gulls: there was one gull that appeared to be dominant but it spent so much time shouting at and chasing the other gulls that it missed most of the chips that we threw; dominant, perhaps, but not the most intelligent. There was one gull that was quiet and calm and just walked close to us and calmly picked up its fill. Brain sometimes baffles bullshit then.
It was good to drive and thereby miss out on the large mad sprawl of Glasgow bus station. Hypervigilance really kicks in when I am in places like that. So many people, lights, adverts, signs, timetables: overwhelming.
Hypervigilance is an enhanced state of sensory sensitivity accompanied by an exaggerated intensity of behaviours whose purpose is to detect threats. Hypervigilance is also accompanied by a state of increased anxiety which can cause exhaustion. Other symptoms include: abnormally increased arousal, a high responsiveness to stimuli, and a constant scanning of the environment for threats.
In hypervigilance, there is a perpetual scanning of the environment to search for sights, sounds, people, behaviours, smells, or anything else that is reminiscent of threat or trauma. The individual is placed on high alert in order to be certain danger is not near. Hypervigilance can lead to a variety of obsessive behaviour patterns, as well as producing difficulties with social interaction and relationships.
People suffering from hypervigilance may become preoccupied with studying their environment for possible threats, causing them to lose connections with their family and friends. They will ‘overreact’ to loud and unexpected noises or become agitated in highly crowded or noisy environments. They will often have a difficult time getting to sleep or staying asleep.
It was such a relief to be surrounded by sympathetic people in Ayr – I felt I could relax without being seen through the eyes of ‘normal’ people. PTSD is often seen ‘just’ as a curable disorder but how can you close Pandora’s Box once it has been opened? Survivors have seen what horrors humans can bring to bear on other humans; whether it is during war or in hospitals or at crime scenes. We have seen how so called normal rules of society are just arbitrary in some situations, and, when national security is threatened, anything can be justified.
How can we be expected to worry about forms in triplicate; overtaking to gain a minute in our journey to a nine-to-five job? How can we not be vigilant when we perceive that we are surrounded by threats? We are surrounded by threats: adverts trying to convince us we’re the wrong shape; that we should buy a sofa to have a happy family; people feeling sorry for us or trying to ‘cure’ us. We don’t need a cure, we just need to learn to reassess the level and types of threat that is around us; and we need to learn to communicate with people who are ignorant of the real world outside their comfortable lives – without fearing them. I am slowly learning a kind of indignant dignity and a new self-respect; and a new peace. In reassessing the threats around me I realise that a bullet is just as dangerous as a politician; a bomb just as dangerous as a council bureaucrat; and chemical warfare just as dangerous as a marketing campaign. But I can dodge a politician or a bureaucrat more easily; and I can see through an advert or a spam email. However, the problem now is that I don’t really feel motivated to be a part of this world of politics and consumerism – I want something real. That is my next task: to find something to fan my burning heart. Maybe it is getting involved in canoeing in Canada, or creating an organisation to encourage youth exchange (both?). I’ve yet to catch the bug though… as long as I keep trying things I’ll find something to fire me up.
Here lies the truth of
The Dragon’s breath
Burn the soul to bring
Forth the hidden heart
Another good night’s sleep, what is going on? Got up to porridge and a sausage roll for breakfast; I declined the roll because it seemed too dry and my appetite wasn’t good enough to eat it. Some of the food has been really good here but there are one or two meals that I find too sweet or too salty. It’s not a problem because there is plenty of fruit and I can ask the cooks to make something else for me. Most of the others seem to love it all though – perhaps its the meds that are affecting my appetite.
After my post breakfast chat and fag I decided to attend the art workshop: I had a plan so I did my own thing and started to have an idea of what I wanted to do. It started off with wanting to portray an ex soldier amongst ‘normal’ and judgemental people but it turned into a squad of soldiers and their commander stood by a mass grave. I combined a collage of adverts and headlines from some glossy magazines. Freaky how it just changed itself and transformed before my eyes. Judge for yourself. The time just shot passed and it was lunchtime in a blink and I had a finished painting in front of me.
After lunch of mushroom soup and bread I read a little in a cool book that the therapist has given me to read while I am here (must get it when I get home): The Compassionate Mind, Paul Gilbert. It explains anxiety in a way that appeals to me and uses Buddhism as an example for some of the concepts. The second part of the book is full of practical exercises and meditations to help you to work on yourself. My eyes got tired just as it was time to join the walking group; as this was my last day I felt motivated to join most of the activities. There is a daily timetable of activities such as cooking, art, walking, cinema, quizzes, knockout pool, etc. I felt no compulsion to join in anything and could have easily sat in my room all day (but I’m sure someone would have checked up on me to see if I was alright) or watched non-stop TV. I wanted to get out of the house for a while so I went with three others in the minibus to Ayr Park for a walk around. It was lovely to be around trees again after so long (not many trees in Orkney) and to see and hear a wide variety of wildlife. We strolled gently on the path and chatted and enjoyed the scenery. We also had a quick look in the garden’s gallery but it didn’t hold our interest for long.
Back to Hollybush again just in time for a tasty fish and chips dinner – I wolfed it down. I went back to reading my book in the warm central hall until it was time for knockout pool: you have five lives and take turns trying to pot a ball. If you miss a hole, you lose a life. The last one ‘in’ wins. I won the first but not the other three. Seems a pretty boring game but it was good to be with others and not feel forced to make conversation or to aggressively compete.
So, in all it was a pretty plain day. However, I felt calm and peaceful; and in good company.
Now, off to watch a film and head off for, hopefully, another good night’s sleep.
Woah! A good night’s sleep. I wonder whether it is the anti-depressants or just exhaustion from the sleepless nights of the journey and last night finally catching up. I did feel a little anxious and paranoid for the first couple of hours but, apparently, that is a normal side effect at the beginning of treatment with anti-depressants. I was offered some valium to ease the anxiety but declined, preferring to ride it out to see where it went. It did improve and I became more at ease again.
Today I had a session with a therapist – not so much for a therap but just to record some initial base scores. Some kind of questionnaire to measure my present state of mind, how I felt etc… She did recommended, however, based on my answers, that I join a six-week intensive program soon but because I’m going to Canada in May there’s not enough time before then. It would be good for me to come down once I’m back. The six week stay is, according to the therapist, pretty hard work and includes lots of activities; and ‘homework’. I look forward to some real work on my personal think tank.
The rest of the day was taken up with friendly banter with fellow inmates and lots of just sitting quietly in company. Food was plentiful and I almost overdosed on caffeine but controlled my hyperactivity enough to watch another couple of films – carpet bowls didn’t appeal to me so I took residence in front of the TV and alternately read and watched the idiot box until I was tired.
I tried to sleep but, as usual, couldn’t and just lay there trying to relax. At about one am one of the rooms personal alarms went off but I thought it was a fire alarm and got up to find the place deserted: the staff had, of course, responded to the relevant room and were not in the reception. They apologised, unnecessarily, when they returned and realised I was up. Hearing an alarm like that when you are in a half asleep state is quite shocking and I was transported back to Northern Island for a moment – a place where alarms like that meant it was time to shelter under the nearest structure (usually a bed or a table). In this case there was only about an inch under the divan bed so I decided not to risk the squeeze. Thus again in a state of wakefulness I went back to bed and wrote this on my laptop. Tomorrow, well, later today, I’ll be seeing the shrink – I was nervous yesterday about dragging up the past but after my talk with the nurse I feel hopeful that the usual bureaucracy will not be evident.
The night dragged on and with only a few small pockets of sleep interrupted by the creaks, clicks, and hisses of the house, my fellow inmates and the heating system. Eventually my alarm sounded and I got up for breakfast. It’s good that breakfast is at 8 here because it is just early enough to push you to get out of bed but not early enough to be aggressive. It’s not like hotels ‘breakfast served from 7 to 9’ it’s breakfast at 8 or nothing. There’s no rush but if everyone has finished eating, and the staff have cleared up, you will have to ask the catering staff to knock up something for you (they will do that without a problem, though). Breakfast was good – not up to bed and breakfast standard but sustaining and more than enough. I felt awkward and nervous being sat with people I didn’t know – more so because I knew they were all ex-military: an unwanted reminder of being in the army. New faces were always treated with a kind of distrust, I remember, and you tended to stick with your own squad members. This time it felt as if I was the new face. After breakfast I went back to my room to have a lie down until my appointment with the shrink in the hope he can help clear up the tangled weeds of my mind.
The talk with the psychiatrist was good, very good, unlike my experience with the NHS shrink – he was only interested in watching the clock above my head and fobbing me off with a printed handout about the risks of drinking too much. However, with this man I felt respect. We talked in depth about my experiences from childhood to the present, with lots of juicy bits in between and he, more or less, said ‘damn, you need antidepressants’. Well, artistic licence etc. I said I’d give it a go and left his office feeling hopeful and with a freshly weeded garden.
I feel much more comfortable today and chatted to a number of the other vets. There was an air of mutual respect and even signs of care and protectiveness amongst them. Conversations never became pushy or forced, the silences were comfortable, and the humour wholesome. Meeting their eyes was a shared acknowledgement of the experiences we’d all been through in varying degrees. It makes me wonder how many people there are out there who have nobody to share this with. It takes a kind of courage or desperation to openly come to a place like Hollybush House and reveal your vulnerability. Hopefully someone reading this blog might be motivated to get in touch with Combat Stress. Rest assured, you don’t need to talk in detail about anything if you don’t want to, but the peace and respect alone is worthwhile experiencing.
Off to watch a film or two. More tomorrow.
Monday 17th February
Yesterday I began the long trip to Ayr to attend HollyBush House – a centre that treats ex forces people who are suffering from PTSD. I was diagnosed with PTSD a couple of years ago and, finally, things were right for me to attend the centre for an initial assessment and treatment. I made plans to travel down in the hope of finding some relief for my anxiety and sleep problems – this is my account of that trip. Perhaps it will help others who are suffering.
The journey took more than two days, including a stay at the Weigh Inn at Scrabster, bus from Scrabster to Inverness, bus from Inverness to Glasgow (a mercifully short stop), bus from Glasgow to Ayr, and one more to Hollybush House – I asked the driver of the last bus to drop me off at Hollybush House and to tell me when we were there: he dropped me off about a hundred yards from the driveway, I thought he was being awkward but realised in retrospect that he was probably being discrete. I remember he talked quietly when he announced that this was my stop, I was sitting close, and went on to point out the entrance to the drive ahead. I suppose it could be embarrassing to be seen to walk down the drive which is well sign-posted and no doubt known locally for harbouring ‘crazy’ veterans.
It was a long walk down the drive to the house, which was good as it gave me time to assess the place and to get used to the fact that I was, actually, going to do this. I plucked up courage to introduce myself at reception after a preparatory fag outside. The introductions went smoothly and I was first shown my room so I could drop my kit, then a quick tour and then given some food that had been saved for me. Hollybush House is a huge listed building that sits in the middle of a wooded garden area: lots of trees, birds, and squirrels. There used to be lots of rabbits wandering around the neat lawns but myxomatosis has killed them off. Unfortunately the weather never dried up enough for me to explore further. The house itself has lots of alternatives for activities; or simply solitude if you want it. Three TVs, a library, games room, activity room, gym, common room, dining room, and more. The bedroom is comfortable but simple with a big bed and a radio but no TV. The bathroom is well equipped and my room was very warm.
I was told that I had an appointment with the psychiatrist tomorrow at 10.30 and that the duty nurse would have a talk with me later tonight.
After my meal I spent a little time on my own in the room, then went down to watch a film in the activity room on the Xbox. I paused the film to have a chat, a risk assessment, with the duty nurse. He went through a series of questions in order to assess whether I was at risk of coming to harm, either by my own hand or due to my health – but the questions soon turned into a relaxed session and the formality fell away as I began to talk a little about how I felt. It was a little emotional to find a professional who actually seemed to care and who seemed not to treat me as having a disease.
Went back to my film after supper: toast, cakes, and hot drinks; chats with people if you fancied. No one pushed themselves in my face and they were sensitively friendly. After the film I went to my room and connected my laptop to the wireless internet. I sent a message to my partner to let her know what was happening and then went to bed – how will I sleep after such a day?
Up at 5.30 frosty, loading cold and stiff bags into the back of the truck and then off to Tim Horton’s in Williams Lake for coffee and a wireless connection – it all seems so normal again. We have to meet up with the rest of the crew and get back to the normal life we all had previously. But just how do I do that? If I am cold, where is the wood for the fire and the hot stones to warm me; where are the dry leaves to cushion my bed. Where are the fish to catch and where is the water to drink. There is no wood anymore, just paper – and pens to write our applications for electricity to power the storage heaters. There are king-sized divans and Land of Leather sofas; frozen farmed salmon and fish fingers. And pipes, thousands of miles of pipes dug into the Earth to deliver water; and all manner of other chemicals. How do I make sense of all this now?
And where is the humanity; the connection; the tribe? There is no one tribe here; there are arbitrary groups of people gathering together for scheduled moments to imitate a real family. People passing through for a coffee and a fix of togetherness. The crew, the canoe family, although still high on the natural experience we have share, all seem a little lost in their own impending worlds. We are surrounded by a complex and interwoven complexity – a twisted intricacy of conflicting desires. Surely we all desire warmth, food, and shelter. Why do we make things so complex in our search for these simple things? Or is it that we are subdued into a complacent acceptance that these simple needs cannot be simply met.
Dare I believe that I could find a spot of un-civilization where I could find the simple solutions without being moved on for vagrancy or persecuted by bureaucrats? No, I doubt it.
Perhaps I am meant, by whatever power is guiding my present change of mind, to simply reintegrate into society somehow and find my feet and continue to follow the status quo. No, I doubt that too.
I do, however, feel a greater confidence in my own voice; and a surge of insurgency armed with my new connection with the Earth. I feel a greater connection with others and their painful disconnection from the naturalness of our species. I also feel the weight of the overwhelming mass of humanity and its detrimental effect on the Earth.
What to do about this? Think I’ll join a monastery… well, perhaps not yet.
Chris got us all up at 5.30 as his feeling for the weather dictated – it was a go for the trip North. We packed the camp in a record 2 hours and the Spirit Dancer was proudly carrying our lightened load. In the sheltered water between the small island and the camp Chris set sail while I took the helm to steer us clear of the shore. The wind caught the sail and gently pushed us round the West of the island with the help of the crew’s paddle-power. Then we left the lee of the land and the water hissed past as we sped North. I felt kind of sad leaving the camp that had been home for so many days. I looked down at my grubby hands and cold feet and remembered the calm sanity: the place my mind arrived at when I accepted the uncertain future in the camp with the knowledge that we could have survived for a long time. Now we were rushing back to civilization, electricity, and everything man-made. Still, I was yet again a changed man – nature had taught me valuable lessons: a continuation of the shattering revelations of last year on the West Coast.
We left behind the snow covered (it was clear that more snow had fallen during the night) mountains and cold South end of the lake. The day was crisp and we were moving on – I realised that I had moved on in more ways than one: another evolution. A peace had settled in me regarding my fellow humans. I had been taught how to be alone, and therefore how to tolerate the faults of others around me and my own faults, how to love, enjoy in the company of others, and relax without feeling threatened. We are all animals; and all part of the Earth who is the source of all. All of our faults are natural: animals lie, steal, kill, and fight for territory and power. It’s just that we as a species have become arrogant – and, not to forget, overwhelming in our numbers. The Earth is bending under our demands.
I thought of all this and how I would relate to others once I got back. I concentrated on steering back to Nemiah to clear my mind. The wind was stiff and unpredictable making it important that I didn’t lose concentration. The gusts would try to push the canoe around: dangerous if the wind caught the sail sideways on – a capsize would almost be inevitable. I needed to apply quick and strong corrections to keep us downwind. The paddle was buzzing most of the way with the speed of the canoe through the water. It was exhilarating but tiring. I was aching all over, and grinning all over.
Finally we reached the gap between Canoe Point and : a high piece of land that juts out from the mainland. Canoe Point causes the wind to strengthen just to its West and the canoe picked up even more speed as we turned into the channel between the point and Duff Island. Docking at Nemiah was hard due to the strong cross winds and miscommunication. It took about a half hour to get the canoe onto the trailer with two of us holding a rope connected to a submerged post to keep her straight, and the rest of the crew pulling from land.
Wasted no time securing the trailer and driving to Nemiah, first stop was the Band Office and the shop then we sped off to have a ‘normal’ dinner at Lees Corner: Chicken burger for me, and for one of our crew: pizza with cream and jam (Yes, pizza with cream and jam – back to the real world).
As a gentle easing into civilization, me, Chris, and Marylin camped in the truck at Becher Pond camp site before the bright lights of Williams Lake to meet the others who would be roughing it in a hotel.
I woke early again in case we had to pack quickly, my hot rock was still a little warm and I reluctantly pulled my feet away from the comfort. The weather? More of same: strong winds, descending snow line, and dropping temperatures.
Today I finished book in one go – the first time ever. I just got stuck in and sat reading by the fire for most of the day, glancing occasionally at the deceptive water. There were some patches of pleasant sun to further deceive us into thinking that we had a chance to cross over the lake but the kitchen canvas reminded us of the truth of the matter: it was blowing like a hang glider wanting to take to the wing.
Brandon starts on another paddle – this time for Bob. Brandon makes it seem so easy to create these First Nation designs. There was an artist of a different kind at work by the shore: Bill caught a trout that we cooked and ate with delight. We had fire, food, and shelter – we could have survived for ever here. No worries. I was looking forward to getting stuck into living off the land/water.
We had to let people know that we were stuck so Chris tried to fire up the Sat phone – he realised, however, with disgust that the batteries didn’t hold a charge and the phone was down to one bar. The phone just managed to get a short call to Barbara to let her know that we were a few days overdue and that if she hadn’t heard from us in a couple of days she should call for a helicopter evacuation.
With a comfortable resignation I inspected the rocks around the fire to choose my night-time companion; or should I take two of them tonight?
I was up at 7 am just in case we had good enough weather to escape this beautiful haven – but it wasn’t. The wind was still strong and the pressure was down again, which meant that the winds would strengthen further. The peaks were now snow covered.
The water seemed quite innocent from the lee of our camp but a quick walk over the ridge confirmed that there was even more of a swell developing. It would have been very dangerous to continue and try to cross the lake in these conditions. We would have had to cope with a large beam sea and high winds while towing the small, less seaworthy, canoe. The waves were about a meter high and the random catabatic winds could easily have swamped it; not to mention the effect on the supplies stored in the centre of the Spirit Dancer II. I decided to head back to my maggot (an army term which seems quite descriptive of somebody in a sleeping bag) have a nap, which turned into a long sleep. I was lulled to sleep by the sound of the wind spirits walking on the treetops.
Later, over breakfast we talked about options. We talked about the possibility of going south to a point where the lake was narrower and from which it would be easier to get across; and there was a sandy beach further down on this side where we could at least set up a camp if we couldn’t get across. There was also a creek near the beach which would be better fishing should our supplies run out; and, of course, it would also give us a change of scenery. I quite fancied this option as it would get us a little closer to a natural way of living: water (and perhaps bathing opportunities) from the creek and fish from the lake. However, the wind would be a tough opponent and the safest option was to stay here. The wind was blowing from just west of south: in the perfect direction to take us North all the way from the super camp back to Nemiah but the problem was that it was still too strong and it would be a risk to try to get over the lake. So – yet another day at the super camp.
We had plenty of time to relax and follow our own currents: Brandon finished the design on Bill’s jacket and started painting a paddle for Alice. Chris and others got to work assessing rations and the availability of medications.
The day was cold and sporadic rain battered the canvas over the kitchen area, and the fire struggled to keep us warm. I read and ate lots.
Just after noon there was the sound of a small plane in distance, I idly wondered whether it was looking for us – not likely as it would only have needed to fly North to South to find the Spirit Dancer moored beside the Super Camp. I also heard an avalanche tumble down a slope in the distance behind us. What would tomorrow bring?