I remember the day the first bottle of pain meds showed up in my mail box. I couldn’t believe how big the bottle was and I thought “I don’t need all of these pills”. The first month I had so many pills left over that I sold them to my friend. With each new month I had less and less at the end of the month and by month six, I was addicted.
The meds weren’t just for recreation. I had a bulging disk in my lower back, some condition called “spinal stenosis”, and I was developing arthritis. The meds did help with the pain but I really fell in love with the “high” from the opiates. The “high” became my coping mechanism for anything difficult or stressful in life. Get stressed out over a bill, pop a pill; get into a fight with my wife, pop a pill; have a rough day at work, pop a pill.
At my height, the VA had me on about 15 different meds. Sleep meds, anxiety meds, benzos, opiates, meds for my various PTSD symptoms; the list was ridiculous. I used to carry the meds around in a grocery bag and I never went anywhere without my bag of meds. I looked silly walking around with this shopping bag everywhere but I didn’t care because I was an addict and the drugs were my top priority.
The opiates turned me into a shell of a man. I was always either in a state of mental hallucination of extreme pain or I was high. So you either got a guy that’s miserable and grumpy or you got a guy that was really relaxed, cool about everything and was very chatty. I was always high or chasing the high and that didn’t leave me much energy to engage with my family, do well at my job, or even function as a normal member of society.
Somewhere around the five year mark of my addiction, the VA started piss testing me and started suggesting to me that I was an addict. I said “No fucking shit I’m an addict. You got me hooked on this shit you kept feeding me and you have been my dealer for the past 5 years…” The VA didn’t like that response but that conversation got me thinking about my life. I knew I was an addict and I knew that my family and my job were both paying the price for my addiction.
Over the next few months I started thinking about my situation. At one point I considered elective back surgery that didn’t have a high rate of success. Then I thought, “Either they will fix the problem and the pain goes away (I really didn’t want this to happen) or they will fuck my back up even more and I can get stronger meds and stay high for the rest of my life.” Nonetheless, I was thinking about my life and my addiction and I knew things couldn’t continue on like this forever.
In late June of 2015 my family was planning a vacation to Yellowstone National Park. I was counting my meds in preparation for the trip and realized that I didn’t have enough drugs to get there and back. The idea or running out of meds on a cross country, 12 day vacation was unacceptable. I had already been thinking about my addiction and knew the time had come to make a very tough decision.
A week or two later I walked into the VA for an appointment with my primary care doctor with my shopping bag in hand. I placed the bag in front of her and told her that I was done. She asked me what I meant and I told her that I was quitting all my meds today. She told me that I couldn’t do it. She said some of the meds take years to be weaned off of. I told her I didn’t care and I was done putting this shit into my body. I got up and I walked out.
It was bad enough to quit all the pain meds (I was on four different ones when I quit) all at once but I also quit the benzos, high blood pressure meds, sleep meds, anxiety meds, and everything all at once. It would be a gross understatement to say that things got dark. For the next two weeks I felt like I was dying and at several points I wished for death. I had to get through it because in two weeks I was loading my family in the car to drive from Massachusetts to Wyoming. Keep in mind I planned this trip when I was high…
The trip out to Yellowstone was very rough but I was determined to make it and be engaged with my family. None of us had ever been that far west and it was remarkable. The beauty of the plains and the Rocky Mountains were breathtaking but nothing prepared me for what I would encounter at Yellowstone.
There is a reason the native people venerated Yellowstone. It is a beautiful and other worldly experience. The animals, the vistas, the geological activity, the size, literally everything I saw there blew me away.
It is possible that my experience there was intensified by the fact that I had just gotten clean two weeks earlier. It is also possible that Yellowstone has some sort of magic quality that spoke to me on a very deep and primitive level. Whatever it was, it left a strong indelible mark on me that I could not shake. There was power in that green space to help me clear my head and understand what I needed in my life.
When I returned home from Yellowstone something had changed. I knew that I need that time in the wilderness to start the road to recovery for myself and it was just what I needed. I also knew that I have many brothers and sister that I served with that have struggles just as bad as mine if not worse. If the green space worked for me, maybe it would work for them.
It was at this point in my life that I decided I would build a nonprofit organization that would help provide green space rehab to veterans and service members and their families but also to me too. They say that within a few minutes of arriving in a green space your blood pressure can be reduced by up to 15%. In green spaces, you are free to breathe deeply and be introspective. In green spaces, there is a liberty to be real, honest and connected. I needed this kind of therapy more than anything else.
As I sit now and think about some of the beautiful places and green spaces that I have had the chance to connect with I am amazed at where my life is and I am humbled to be a part of so many veterans’ lives. It’s been the green spaces that have made the difference in my life and in the lives of the hundreds of veterans we serve on an annual basis. Some people like group therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy but for me and many of the men and women I work with every year, we prefer our green space rehab…
Founder & President