Wind chimes were ringing the day Trevor Petersen first tested his paddleboard at Balmy Beach. The east wind pushed against the military veteran as he stood and paddled for Bluffer’s Park – stop one on what would be a month-long trek to Ottawa.
But Petersen is no stranger to a headwind.
Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in 2007 after he served in Afghanistan, Petersen spent years in a sometimes deadly struggle to recover a normal life.
Today, his Paddling with PTSD campaign is helping others – military and civilian – who face the same challenge.
“When I was sick, I didn’t see anybody out there who said, ‘I’ve got PTSD, and this is the road I’ve been down,’” he said, standing on the sand at Balmy Beach.
“Straight up, it’s got to be said – it’s hard work to get there. But if you put in the effort, it’s very rewarding.”
Born in Edmonton and raised in a military family, Petersen enlisted in 1993 and later served in Bosnia with the Princess Patricia Light Infantry. He worked on CF-18 fighter jets in Alberta and, by the time he was first deployed to Afghanistan in 2006, on unmanned aerial vehicles.
Petersen says there is no single event that triggered his disorder. In Afghanistan, he was on-call 24 hours a day, the only tradesman in his field, says his mother, Marie-Paul. The base would come under rocket fire. Several of his friends were killed.
By January 2007, Petersen knew something was wrong, but he didn’t return to Canada until the end of March. His first suicide attempt came just two days later.
Marie-Paul took him to the base in Edmonton, and Petersen began to see a psychiatrist. But things got worse before they got better.
Frustrated by his inability to work, he got hooked on gyms, lifting weights until he got sick. He started binge drinking and spending wildly, blowing $30,000 in a single weekend. Rock bottom was a violent spell when Petersen found himself punching up his apartment, losing control again at the military hospital.
Released from the military in 2010, Petersen finally started making headway at Homewood, a health centre in Guelph, Ontario that has one of the country’s only inpatient programs for people with PTSD.
At Homewood and elsewhere, a lot of counsellors spoke to Petersen about practising mindfulness – “being in the moment” – to calm his anxiety.
But it never really clicked until he happened to try a stand-up paddleboard. Pushing through the water, he said, the background noise of his PTSD just slipped away.
Last summer, Petersen launched Paddling with PTSD with a trek down an old fur-trade route from Edmonton to Winnipeg, supporting the veterans’ charity Wounded Warriors.
Now, as he paddles across Lake Ontario and up the Rideau to Ottawa, Petersen is broadening that support by raising funds for the Canadian Mental Health Association.
Marie-Paul will be piloting a motor home just ahead of him, heading to the legion halls and beaches where she has organized meet-ups in towns from Cobourg to Kingston.
“Honestly, I’ve got the easy job,” said Petersen. “I stand on the board and paddle.”
He and Marie-Paul are a mother-and-son team joined by more than a common cause. After years of struggling to help her son, and twice averting his suicide, Marie-Paul developed the same disorder.
“There isn’t anything pretty about it,” she said. Caregivers need to mind their own health as they try to help their family.
After watching her son paddle off from Balmy Beach and out of sight, Marie-Paul picked up the family dog and got set to drive ahead and meet Trevor at the next beach.
The wind was still blowing, but the sun was out and the seagulls calling – a scene that, just a short time ago, she could not imagine the two of them would ever enjoy.
“I’ve seen such improvements in him,” she said. “I tell him as soon as I see something that’s really developed – ‘I’m proud of you.’”