Thursday, September 1, 2016

Boarding School and Mental Health- 25 years later

In the past years this time of year I have been focused on Paul's Dirty Enduro and it has not been about myself. But last year I mentioned I would be stepping back from what I had been doing but never said exactly why. At the time I was beginning to deal with issues and mental health stuff that began over 30 years ago.

When we talk about  mental health there is frequently the mention of triggers. In my case it occurred in a class room last summer taking the mandatory training to foster and adopt.  Watching and listening to what they described affected the foster kids. The descriptions of loneliness, neglect lack of family, to name a few. All the anger and bad blood re-opened....more than once I was in the hallway trying to get it together.

 I won't elaborate too much on the early history but it began in the Vancouver School System where I was labelled ADD and a hyperactive problem child. Because I was considered odd I was ostracized to the point where I was kicked out of school and required to spend 3 weeks in the Children's Psychiatric Ward at BC's Children's Hospital you know to make sure there wasn't 9 voices in my head. Understand that back then mental health was not something discussed at all. And medication was pretty much the only solution offered. There was no internet so parents who loved their children had no internet to help research into what they where hearing. Everyone was doing it the best they could.

It was 30 years ago that things rapidly changed and in some ways for the better and a lot not so good. I had an interest in the military since 82-84 and being a naive 12 year old  kid agreed to go to a boarding school with a military theme. How does one explain to others what I entered at 12 years old? The closest I know of would be Royal Military College of Canada to describe the Robert Land Academy aka RLA experience. I say that because of what I have learned about RMCC and what I see going on. RLA is as far as I know the only school of it's kind in Canada which is a boy's boarding school that is military. Which only has 80-100 students per school year from Grade 6 to OAC when I was there.

Robert Land Academy

 With the exceptions of 2 months during summer, Christmas, March and  Easter breaks and 4 days in November for me life was RLA. I didn't have my own clothes as they where issued. We wore the schools cadet uniform with boots for the majority of the day. Every moment of my life was scheduled from wake up till bed. Let's not forget drill twice a day during the week, within 3 weeks I knew how to do open order march, slow march, and so on at the age of 12. I could do it to Reg Force drill levels....guess it helps when the Academy Sergeant Major is ex RCR. Might explain why I cringe when ever I see cadets doing a parade.And yes, if one whistles the Smurf theme from the command quick march in advance in review order it ends exactly at 15 paces.

To put it simply I had very little individual control over stuff that most normal high school students did. Discipline came in the form of laps that came in multiples of 5 with the option of 40 pound pack if you warranted it. And of course everyone's favourite push ups. In the mess hall discipline came in the form of public shaming in the form of  stand up at attention and don't move for a period of time or in an upping of the anti - face the wall at attention style punishment. If you swore or deemed to have done so congratulations you get to chew soap. While it worked for some looking back it did more to my already damaged mental health but I didn't know it at the time.

And while I compare RLA to RMCC there is one huge difference that being the ages. I mean there is a level of maturity and experience most 18 year old's have going in that a 12 year old doesn't. 

Sure there are some positives, learned mental toughness, was pretty good at endurance sport, and gotta say doing a forced march from Queenston Heights via the Bruce Trail to Stony Creek then straight inland through Smithville to the school near Canborough. With a 50 pound pack at 12 years old in 2 and a half days.

Yes while I was interested in the military and initially things where okay. It was as the 5 years progressed it began over time to go downhill mentally. Not one big thing but little bits at a time. Being the only kid from BC with no family in Ontario nearby looking back fueled this. The harassment and bullying about being the only BC kid was wonderful for my self esteem.Even was told by one staff that I was there because my parents didn't love me. I didn't know at the time I was beginning the feelings that it turns out are what kids in Ontario's Foster system feel. Loneliness, feeling of neglect, lack of family, and so on. And let us not forget the anger. This added on top of all the crap the Vancouver School Board put me through would looking back lead to my downfall.

And as the pic at the top states I developed wonderful mental coping mechanisms., built up mental walls, interacted with less people which is real easy to do when you have lost contact with others at home, locked down all emotions, trusted no one, and ultimately developed an unhealthy involvement in endurance sport. The endurance sport part will come up again in a bit. I also need to add that after 5 years of a view of the world being black and white. I developed a serious lack of trust in others, if I felt you let me down you where gone and never interacted with again. Add into this a environment that does nothing to help one's social skills.

  Lovely Accomodations

The week of October 20th 1990,  looking back at the time was the final nudge of mental health damage and when the realization of how alone one could feel.  Got the news that Dave Murray a ski hero had died and while I wasn't aware of it at the time. Part of me realized how alone I was at RLA and sad, that I had to that point been able to keep it going. But that was the week that I mentally pretty much cut my emotions and such. And the anger came out....too bad back then punching out 3 double pane windows wasn't deemed a mental health concern. Back then it was the usual lack of self control, discipline, and you need to work harder verbal bullshit. Yeah like I wasn't working hard enough.  And that year a buried myself in running and endurance which turns out allowed me to somewhat manage things .

While I have mentioned RMCC there is one huge difference between the two and that is socially within the facility. Part of RMCC is team work which is a part of military culture. The students at RMCC are required to work together in various areas to get through. And when they leave they have relationships. RLA did none of that, it was every student for themselves with minimal to no team work, making the situation even more isolating.

While that was bad little did I know the worst was yet to come in 1991. When I say that it was the transition in June 1991 from RLA to the rest of Canada. When I left RLA there was no job, no guidance of how to interact with society, no friends and so on. One of the most painful was trying to socially interact with normal people in a normal setting. What the fuck? I step off a plane into a world with 100's of people to interact with who have social skills that I don't have. I was expected to walk away from interacting with maybe 120 people for 5 years to everyone. How many times was I treated like shit because of this transition? Too many. Was told all the crap that was still spewed today, work hard and you will get over it. Bitch Please. If feeling isolated at RLA was bad try interacting with people who have never been through this. And don't care to accept me with no social skills for me.

And this situation was made even worse when I wanted to talk to women and ask them out. You know, like everyone else around you. But I was  to afraid because of all the worthless crap bouncing around in my head.

I buried myself in Triathlon and riding bikes because it was easier than people. Bikes don't judge and are always there for me. And meanwhile I felt lonelier. And knowing what I know now, if it wasn't for bikes and endurance sport I more than likely would not be where I am now. Because there was no such thing as counseling like there is now. And this is where the bikes came in. As riding bikes and the stuff I did tinkering with them allowed me to manage my mental health issues just enough to keep it under control. Because there was no help or guidance coming back then. Back then it was how I wasn't trying hard enough that was the problem. But it didn't matter how hard I worked I know now that I was and am broken. But the problem on top of this is no one wanted a broken person around. And no girlfriend I had lasted long because no one wants to see past the broken guy after 6 months with no social skills. So it was pretty much me against the world. And with all this damage employment habits would best be called a joke.

Fortunately a series of decisions the fall of 1995 led me to meeting Rick Finlayson and working at Fitness Quest. Thanks to  this I met the right people who gave me some of the guidance I needed. Basically took me under their wing and treated me like I mattered. One of the things I keep saying when it comes to mental health is part of the equation is finding the right people to be around. This group allowed me to socially dig myself out of the hole I was in because contrary to all the talking Jack Asses I wasn't going to able to do this by myself and yes I still fucked up and burnt many a bridge trying. And thanks to Rick and the guys this led me to eventually meet the woman who I married. This woman did many things but there is one thing she did give me the one thing I needed. Looking back now it was the one thing that no other woman I had a relationship ever said. "We will do it together", she somehow could see more than the broken me.

"We will do it together" 4 words that had the greatest impact. But how do you explain what that means to me? I can't

Which brings us back to the children's Services building and me trying not to cry and say the wrong things as it is starting to boil up inside me. I mean come on, it's been 24 years and I am supposed to have walked this off. I am an adult now and not supposed to be broken now. Right?  There are two 2 couples with husbands from the near by base in the class who went to Afghanistan. And they have seen shit and are the one's supposed to be broken. So on top of all the anger, hate, resentment, and so on that I am reliving I am now angry because I feel weak and can't stop all the emotions from coming back. I feel anger of course because being broken is bad in our Canadian society. Anger because I know how mentally tough I can be and here I am cracking.

But it turns out....being broken is ok.  Because of last August I went the next step because my bike riding  reached the point where it couldn't manage what was coming out. Because for years our society didn't want to talk about stuff like this. So why would I? Because as I found out from the counselor I have been talking with since New Years. Many of the mental health issues I have are identical to what many of the kids in the Foster system have.

PTSD and Foster Care

 The problem is when I came through all this no one was there to tell me that you know is okay to be the way I am. Being broken doesn't make me a bad guy it just makes me human. For years I have been told I needed Ritalin or something because compared to everyone else I was considered odd. When in reality what I needed was someone to talk with who had been to where I went. But how can you talk with anyone when such a small percent of students went to RLA?  As my counsellor pointed out, somehow I connected to the right people to make my life better. I am fortunate. And that it is okay.

As I have learned in the last few months I will never be rid of the bad times and believe me there have been very dark days. And even now there are and will be those days when it all comes out to visit. I can never erase it nor having the bad dreams periodically years later. But as I have learned everyone of us is a little broken. And that is okay. And yet during all this I learned a few things that most will never learn the greatest toughness. And when I say toughness I don't mean let's do a half IM toughness. I mean the kind where when everything has gone south, body is not co-operating will not drop out keep fighting. This was seen in July 1993 when I made it through the last 2 weeks of my infantry course puking fluid out of my lungs and should have been in the hospital, no way I was going to quit. And it was seen in 2003 by Barry Shepley during the C3 big training days when there was like 5 hour trainer session followed by the swim. And he shook his head when I was the only one who kept riding with no break. I mean really...after all the shit I have been mentally through doing that shit for 5 hours was going to break me? And thus is where Shepley began the Endurimil. I may not be the fastest but you pretty much are going to have to do a lot to make me quit an endurance event.

In the last few months have learned that there is no right way to deal with this. That some of it is trial and error in learning to manage it. For me it was and still will be riding bikes and endurance sport. 

 There always will be bad parts. I have no grey areas, everything is black and white. Absolutely no tolerance to bull shit and it doesn't take much to make me angry. While better I still don't have the right filters for social situations and get shit from the woman I married for it. While it doesn't happen as often I sometimes still want to sit in places where I want to see everything. Being in large public social gatherings is hard.  And when it is those days when it sucks sure I wish I could go back in time and pull me out of it.

But as my counsellor told me I wouldn't be where I am now if I hadn't been down this path. I wouldn't have the people and family I know now. Yes I am broken. But I am more okay with that now.


Cassie Hepburn said...

Oh Chris, thank you for sharing this. I am sorry I had no idea this was what you were going through and I am not sure with my own journey how much support I could have been and yet I would like to have been there more.
I have learned that it is actually our vulnerability that makes us stronger and also gives those others who in their own way have experienced so much, the ability to share their own journey. There is something in knowing that we are not the only ones....and regardless of what our individual experiences are, their is commonality we share.
Thank you for your courage to put this out in the world, how many others will draw strength from what you share?

K Jacobson said...

Had no idea you went to RLA - I was engaged to a man who'd been through that hellhole, and he bears similar scars from the experience.

I'm so sorry that you were treated so shabbily, and that you had to wait so long to find a helping hand. I'm awed by your strength to endure for so long, and glad that you were able to find what you needed to keep on going...even if they weren't the healthiest behaviours, they got you through until better options came along.

Stay strong. Keep fighting. Keep moving forward. I'll be behind you, glad that you're still here to share the fire inside you, your bravery, and all the love you have to give.

Wishing you ease of mind and happy days ahead!