Meet Todd M.
“The world will give you what you need, if you allow it to,” he said, “My life shifted wholly and completely.”
From: Victoria, BC
Canadian Army, Medic
You have to understand the system before you can make it work for you.
After two years of college in Victoria, BC, Todd M. knew that he didn’t fit into the traditional post-secondary education system. His family’s long lineage of military service had halted at his parents and was never a part of the conversation growing up. But when Todd decided to drop out of college, his adventurous spirit and raw athleticism prompted him to take a ‘shot in the dark’ in the truest sense of the term; he took aim at something that he’d always known was there, but had never seen for himself.
Todd joined the military and flew across the country, landing in Nova Scotia and entering a military milieu that was a full 180 degree shift from his west coast world. With no particular expectations, he kept an open mind that allowed him to adapt easily into the new structure. He learned the system quickly and, while he didn’t always agree with it, he found his place within. This deep understanding enabled Todd to see where the system was malleable, where the holes were, and how he could best be of service. Somewhere within this understanding, he also found a way to be true to himself while participating in something much larger. He was well-respected, strong, and confident. He didn’t just fit the role, he was the role. Todd’s shot in the dark had landed.
“I enjoy seeing someone who is able to bring smoothness to the chaos,” Todd said, reflecting on the leadership style he modeled his career around. As a medic, Todd was able to personify this style. Colleagues frequently called on him in moments of chaos, looking for answers that they knew only one member of the team would have.
Todd consistently had the answers, and he rose through the ranks at a rapid pace while remaining true to himself and never, as he described it, “at the mercy of the system.” Todd served for nearly twenty-four years and reached Chief Warrant Officer status, a rank that must be appointed by the Prime Minister of Canada
His role, his commitment to that role, and his first-to-arrive, last-to-leave work ethic, kept Todd constantly in the midst of the action. He experienced upwards of 75 traumatic incidents over the course of his career. Nine years prior to his retirement, the unprocessed tower of trauma memories reached a tipping point. Todd received a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder diagnosis after meeting with a psychologist to discuss a series of incidents that occurred in fairly quick succession: the first Gulf War, Croatia and Bosnia, a sudden death in Bagot Ville, and tours in Kuwait and Iraq. Todd had been so busy that the memories and multiple accident scenes associated with those places didn’t sink in until the pace of his work slowed enough to allow it.
Todd went back to work, and slowly but surely he found himself gradually feeling detached, separating himself from the military personality that was once his. But he could still play the part. “After twenty years I’d gotten pretty good at it,” he said, “I knew what was expected of me and how to do it, so that’s what I did. But I put everything into it and sacrificed other things.”
The energy and authenticity expended by playing a role in this way takes a toll, and there was little hope of rejuvenation. Nightmares stole the majority of Todd’s military nights before bleeding into his daylight hours. He estimates he slept an average of four hours per night for a fifteen-year span. “I was successful—if you could call it that—at pushing them away.” The cumulative trauma that Todd had experienced had first exhausted his emotions and his mind, before moving to his body. He ended up using pain pills to manage the physical symptoms, but he was running out of places to push the pain. Total exhaustion had become his new normal.
In 2007, after returning from a tour in Turkey and while preparing to return to Afghanistan, Todd requested a leave of absence—knowing he was performing at a level nowhere near that which had earned him his rank. He took an operational breather and returned to Victoria where he took a job as a reservist. He took on far less responsibility, and went from someone who could barely get any sleep to someone who couldn’t get enough. He’d hit the mat and was down for the count… with no more lines of defense. Todd was finally alone with that which was haunting him.
Less work, more sleep, and a weakened physical state meant that the nightmares were free to return, this time unobstructed. Slowing down seemed to exacerbate the symptoms of PTSD: tormented nights, dysfunctional days, inability to focus, fear of entering public spaces, hyper-vigilance, coupled with a hyper-awareness of his own ‘weirdness.’ A military man returned to a ‘normal’ city, feeling far from normal himself.
Those nights consisted primarily of sitting in his Victoria basement with a bottle of scotch. If he left the house, it was only to get his most basic needs met. Trips to the grocery store were taken intoxicated, minutes before the store closed, in order to interact with as few people as possible. Some nights he would put on a movie, but just stare blankly at the screen, seeing a series of flashing lights rather than any coherent narrative. On other nights, a loaded gun lay next to the empty scotch bottle.
By now, Todd was barely making it to his military desk job on time. And what arrived every morning was only a small part of him. He was hardly accomplishing a thing, and feeling like a fraction of the man known to routinely arrive 90 minutes early for his commitments. Simple tasks, like replying to a few emails seemed daunting. Again, he just stared at a screen. He has a memory gap of several months, a period for which he has almost no recollection.
The attempt to ‘portray a different person’ took everything out of him. A colleague encouraged him to take a one-month release, to meet with a Cognitive-Behavioral Therapist. In the therapy room, however, his act had continued. Todd kept his rigid military swagger intact as he spoke, blocking any authentic connection, and leaving the therapist assuming he’d never be back. The mental health system operated differently than the military, and Todd didn’t understand how to make it work for him.
“If you step out [of service] for PTSD are we gonna call you a pussy? I’ll be the first person to call you a pussy,” Todd said before clarifying in the present something he may have benefited from in the past: PTSD-related ribbing is a professional attack, not a personal one—it has more to do with a breach of service than a breach of character. “There is work to be done and you are supposed to be here doing it. So, if you’re not, we’re going to cut you down for it, but, if you return, there will be no malevolence. It’s back to work.”
Todd returned to therapy, and this time he did the work—hard work—of a very different kind. His therapist slowly but surely taught him ‘the system,’ told him what the therapeutic process would be and what Todd’s role in it would consist of.
Todd would have to fully commit. He would have to take a leave from work and consider this his new full-time job. The title of his new assignment—Making Myself Better. He would have to write out and work through each of the traumatic incidents that were haunting him. He was told that this process would not move at a military pace, that it would move slowly. However, he would not be alone with it anymore. “We’re not doing magic here, we’re working,” Todd’s therapist told him.
The nightmares began to calm, and with them, the idea of returning to war. Gradually, Todd was coming back to life, and experiencing an expansion of self-awareness within a new system.
Letting Life Hit Him
I’ve done this for almost 27 years now, I want a different life, Todd thought. But if I’m not a soldier, what am I?
This was the question Todd was looking for clarity on as he entered the VTN program. Todd joined the familiar team environment and was “stunningly impressed” by the ability of the group leaders to control the room. Handling difficult conversations while allowing everyone the space to speak, and to smooth out feelings that had become chaotic. There were people from a wide range of military backgrounds, but “everyone was speaking the same language.” In the VTN, Todd had found a hybrid of both the military and therapeutic systems. Thanks to his one-on-one therapy work, he felt well-positioned to take full advantage, and to regain more control.
Now that his traumatic memories had eased their pursuit, Todd was able to work with the VTN leaders to better define what he was chasing: hope that there was something better for him out there, faith that he could get to that better place and be supported there, and a new beginning. As it turned out, the call to his new beginning would come before the completion of the program.
He was supposed to fly home to Victoria on the Sunday evening after the final VTN group concluded. On that weekend the world news was focused on the impending conclave and change in Pope. All roads lead to Rome, Todd thought, Hope, faith, and a new beginning. Where better in the world to find a lot of people searching for the very same things.
First, Todd would have to find his passport. He looked everywhere, even sending out a search party and finally decided that he’d lost it. Deflated, he returned to packing up his room at the VTN retreat, accepting that his next flight would be home to Victoria after all, and not Rome. He stuffed belongings into his bag with frustration. It was then that a solitary item inexplicably fell out of the bag and slapped onto the floor. Todd knelt down and picked up the item… his missing passport. He walked with it to the nearest computer and searched for a change in flights. He found one last seat left on the last plane that would make it to Rome in time for conclave.
In St. Peters Square, along with hundreds of thousands of other people, Todd looked on as Cardinals were marshaled into the Sistine Chapel for sequential voting until the black smoke emitted turned white, signaling that a new Pope had been chosen. Change was in the air, and every bell in the city rang.
For what felt like the first time in his life, Todd was listening to the world rather than imposing himself on it. “The world will give you what you need, if you allow it to,” he said, “My life shifted wholly and completely.”
Todd left the military and returned home to Victoria, only to find that his definition of ‘home’ had changed. He rented out his home and traveled down the west coast. The road felt right to him, he was “rolling with life,” he hasn’t been ‘home’ since.
Sometimes, when a cemetery tour is over, Todd will stay back. He will take off his bike shoes and walk alone through the rows of graves, reading the names on the stones aloud. Freedom is something Todd would have given his life for, on any tour. Saying the names of those who laid down their lives is a small ‘thank you’ for the “exceptional sense of freedom” he feels now.
Todd was able to work with the VTN leaders to define what he was chasing: hope, faith, and a new beginning.
The VTP helped Todd cement what he’d worked on in individual therapy, consolidating his last 18 months of making himself better.
A sense of freedom
For the first time, Todd was able to listen to the world rather than imposing himself on it.