Angola war vet recounts struggle to cope with post traumatic stress disorder

Dear editor,

I remember the first 500-pound bomb falling 100 feet away and the whistling of flying shrapnel overhead.

GARY AND CINDY Fort own and operate Freedom Now Yoga Studio in Courtenay.

GARY AND CINDY Fort own and operate Freedom Now Yoga Studio in Courtenay.

Dear editor,

I remember the first 500-pound bomb falling 100 feet away and the whistling of flying shrapnel overhead, as if they were calling for their prey.

Suddenly my foxhole was filled with uncontrollable laughter, the first of many symptoms of ‘shell shock’ or as it is better now known as PTSD or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. As the days went on and so did the bombing and fighting, the violent assault on my nervous system was eased by the release of appropriate hormones to numb the shock.

My gaze slowly shifted from jittery and darting to the ‘1,000-yard stare.’ Thanks to the ‘fight and flight’ response, that was now less of a response and more of a state of being, I was as alert as a coiled spring but oblivious to the immense strain that it was placing on my body and mind.

And then I was in a helicopter heading home, 45 pounds lighter and my heart so heavy that it felt as if it was sinking into my belly to be protected by my abdominal muscles that were now always in defence.

My stare had not receded nor had the release of adrenalin subsided. I was still fighting, but now the battle had shifted within. The aggression and anger that were my assets were now made redundant; but their momentum was so strong that instead of surrendering they sought out new enemies.

Perhaps I had become addicted to the hormones that had surged through my body every day and now I craved their release and subconsciously created situations to accelerate that release. My war was far from over and it would be some time before I really returned home.

I seldom spoke of my experiences in the years that followed, as each time that I did my heart raced and I physically relived the horror. The program that was responsible for the joyful interaction in everyday life was overridden by a program of self-defence that had identified everything as a potential threat, including its host.

This violent coup d’état could not be reversed overnight and it became apparent that tactics of psychological warfare had to be implemented and so the gradual process of brainwashing myself back into the present moment began.

I travelled for years, seeking out joy and freedom from this dictatorship and avoiding stress at all costs until one day I tried a yoga class and momentarily shifted my brain back to the safety and simplicity of the present moment. I began to practice yoga regularly as I instinctively knew that I had stumbled across a pathway home.

The constant centring and bringing awareness into my body awakened my body’s power and intelligence enough to slowly usurp this unwanted ruler and re-establish balance.

My endocrine and nervous systems were slowly realigned with my real environment and even though the memories were not erased, they became more of a referral to the past rather than a reaction to the present. The defence hormones were put on standby and the ‘feel good’ hormones flowed again; and I strode, taller, stronger and more open to life, back home.

The regular practice of yoga has not only cured me of PTSD but has allowed me to consciously evolve my body to better cope with stress.

You do not need to be a war veteran to suffer from PTSD. Anyone who has been involved in an accident, been the victim of an attack or abuse or witnessed anything traumatic may suffer from the disorder.

The symptoms of which would include:

• The most noticeable signs are introversion and joylessness.

•    Having trouble sleeping is almost inevitable in this syndrome.

• The inability to keep memories of the event from returning.

• An attempt to avoid stimuli and triggers that may bring back those memories.

• Hyper arousal, which is similar to jumpiness. It may include insomnia (trouble sleeping), a tendency to be easily startled, a constant feeling that danger or disaster is nearby, an inability to concentrate, extreme irritability, or even violent behaviour.

• Depression is very likely to go hand in hand with PTSD.

It is ironically in trying to protect our innocence, vulnerability and joy that we step aside from it; but remember it never left you. You are not lost.

Gary Fort,

Comox Valley

Editor’s note: Gary Fort was with the last massive operation against Soviet-backed forces in Angola in 1987/88. He became a yoga instructor in 2001. Gary owned a yoga studio for 10 years in Cape Town with his wife Cindy where he also taught at various clinics, helping people with mental disorders and alcohol and drug dependencies; which are so often related to those suffering from PTSD.

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