In September 2014, I completed my goal to kayak the 277 miles of the Grand Canyon as a blind athlete. However, the six year learning process of flailing, bleeding, slamming into rocks, and flipping over, was the hardest thing I’d ever done. I learned that growth didn’t happen like the movies, in a sweeping arc upward and a dramatic crescendo. Growth is messy, more like a volcano spewing lava, and it is way too easy to get stuck along the way. I wrote No Barriers to illuminate this murky process – to show how similar we all are. Guess you could say, we’re all in the No Barriers club. But I also found there is a map, although a messy one. And if we open our hearts and surround ourselves with the right people, that map can lead us forward in crazy, spiraling, unexpected ways, often towards new discoveries. Here is an excerpt adapted from the chapter, Eddied Out.
“The next morning, I did force myself back into my kayak. Rocky said that three of the largest rapids still lay ahead, and from the moment I started downriver, I felt so nervous, it translated into a sluggishness. I couldn’t get my muscles to fire, and I felt like I was about to vomit. The first rapid I encountered was appropriately named, Whirlpool, and it took every ounce of skill and fitness I possessed to stay upright in the chaos. Rob was doing his best to call out shifting river features, but he shot past me as I caught the edge of a big vortex. It spun me around as I managed to escape and I wound up paddling up-river. I had no clue where Rob was through the muffled radios. I swept my hand across the earpiece, shoving it away from my ear. Then I heard Rob faintly calling from far behind me and far to my left. I turned but caught a boil that lifted up my bow and spun me again. Where was Rob? I heard his distant call from my right, and turned around again, trying to paddle through the submerged fingers grabbing at my boat.
Suddenly, I felt an enormous whirlpool gurgle up just behind me. Rob was about a hundred feet in front of me, calling, “Paddle E, harder, harder.” I could feel the whirlpool as it reeled me backwards. I cranked it up, paddling as hard as I ever had. I could actually feel my consciousness beginning to slip away, into some kind of primeval instinct for survival. I was hyperventilating, oxygen no longer absorbing into my lungs and blood vessels. I was going anaerobic. My thinking mind was reduced to a sliver, only enough room for the sound of my ragged breathing, my muscles that felt on fire, and the roar and suck of the swirling cauldron behind me as it hauled me into its mouth. I could feel the stern of my boat hovering over the hole as I dug and churned with my paddle blades, but to no avail. I honestly couldn’t remember whether the vortex simply vanished, or whether I was able to paddle away, but I somehow broke free, made it through more tempest, and busted through a fierce eddy fence, sinking over my boat, safe for a time in the semi-calm pool.
I heaved myself out of my boat and flopped on to a rock, weak and dizzy. I could barely lift my head as I poured sweat and tried to slow my labored breathing. My arms and hands shook uncontrollably. It felt like my nervous system had broken, like a wire that had been frayed and exposed to the elements. I leaned over. Waves of nausea sent me into a series of convulsive dry heaves, and I could taste bitter acid rising in my throat. Rob sat beside me and tried to convince me to get back in and give it another go, but even if I’d wanted to, I knew I couldn’t. No pep talk or motivational speech could get me back in the water.
I rode in a raft for the next day and a half until the takeout, and tried not to bring everyone else down, but emotionally, I was shattered.
Once I got home, I tried to put on a tough façade for Ellie and the kids, but inside I felt flat and damaged somehow. My only strong emotion seemed to be fear and a vague dread. I often found myself lost in thought, fighting the boils, or lying on that rock trying to convince myself to get back in my boat. The doubt and questioning began to eat at me like roiling tentacles reaching out for me from the dark water. In my typical dreams, I could see the way I did before I went blind, with rudimentary shapes and images. It was pleasant to revisit wonderful places from my childhood like the forest behind my house, the trees blazing with vibrant fall colors. But in my new dreams, I was totally blind. In fact, more than blind. Everything was thick suffocating blackness with the overwhelming roar of the rapids engulfing all sound. Rob was nowhere to be found. I was totally on my own as I rushed headlong downriver, twisting and turning, into a raging tumult that I knew would drag me under and consume me….
I thought about the different veterans I’d worked with over the years who struggled with PTSD. I didn’t want to be presumptuous and give my nightmares a name. No bullets were flying at me; no IEDs were exploding, but it sometimes felt like I was responding in a similar way, like my brain was an old scratched vinyl record skipping at the same musical notes, playing over and over. It wasn’t a song I liked either. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t shut it off. I hoped my brain wasn’t scratched, doomed to repeat an endless feedback loop.
There was one veteran I’d met on our last Soldiers to Summits expedition named Captain Ryan Kelly. While guiding me down the trail, I’d learned a lot about his life. He had served as a Black Hawk helicopter pilot and company commander in Iraq and had come home with PTSD. He lived in denial of the symptoms for seven years before finally giving in to pressure from his family and seeking help. Now retired, he had a Masters Degree in playwriting from Columbia University and he wrote plays, all of them revolving around our nation’s wars, and the characters were all struggling with the aftermath as they tried to heal.
I thought Ryan might have the insight to help me with my own challenges and especially with those reoccurring dreams. Ryan was kind enough to meet me at the public library. After catching up, I tried to broach the subject but hesitated. Then I went ahead and told him about my experience on the Usu. “This may sound weak,” I said, “but I think something’s wrong with me, maybe something wrong with my brain, like it got broken somehow.”
“You’re talking about PTSD?” he asked. I nodded my head, embarrassed.
“When I came home from Iraq, I had those same perceptions,” he said. “I was pretty messed up and didn’t even know it. I wouldn’t go see anybody about it because I thought I could deal with it. I hadn’t been blown up. I came home with all my limbs. In my mind, I was a man, so I should be able to conquer anything I set my mind to, especially this imaginary problem. But after a lot of support from my family and after counseling, I know now, there’s no such thing as a weak man or a brave man; there’s just a man. That’s all.””
“But you served our country,” I said. “With a ton of combat missions. I’m just trying to get back in my kayak.”
“This isn’t just a soldiers disease,” he continued. “In fact, that phrase clouds the issue. I think that everybody sooner or later will experience some degree of trauma, the process of being crushed and having to rebuild.” He laughed ironically. “Hell, we’re born into trauma. It’s all blood, tears and pain. Whether it be a fear of getting back in your kayak, or losing your house because you’ve gone bankrupt, or being in an abusive relationship and not having a clue how to get out, or being a doctor in an emergency room, or trying to help somebody and they don’t want to help themselves; maybe you watch them dwindle away and die. They’re gone, yet you have to live with it. That’s trauma. That’s part of being human.
“But when does trauma become PTSD?” I asked.
“The question becomes, how it affects you,” he answered, “how you process it, how you adapt or redirect, or change with it. And sometimes that trauma feels so overwhelming; you get stuck for a time, maybe forever. I don’t know a lot about kayaking but maybe like being stuck in an eddy and you want to get back into the current; the current is where you know you should be, but there’s a barrier that you can’t get through. I believe all our experiences are recorded in our subconscious. Nothing ever gets left behind. And those experiences, negative or positive, are who we become. Sometimes those events are so overwhelming, they get embedded in our souls like a vibration that you feel – no matter what. The trauma becomes part of you. It melts into you.”
I also wanted to be in the current, but the fear and uncertainty felt so palpable, I thought it might crush me. To have a chance to make it through a rapid, so many factors had to come together. A subtle paddle stroke, the timing of my reaction, or pure dumb-luck, all determined whether I’d be high-fiving at the bottom, or smashing face-first into a rock, or swimming through the rapid and having to be rescued by one of my team. And most of that depended on me. Just one mistake would throw me into even more mayhem and danger. Then I’d have to respond in kind to those new threats.
It was a lot to carry and I felt the weight. I didn’t want to let down my guides, my team, my family and myself. Often, I found myself questioning whether I had what it took to rise to those forces. If I had stopped after climbing Everest, I could have always remained, “Super Blind,” the illusion of myself fixed and eternal. But I was starting over, and the past didn’t matter. What if it had been a mistake, a fluke? What if I wasn’t the person I thought I was, or hoped to be? That realization wouldn’t just scratch the vinyl record of my mind, but would shatter it.
“But I believe there is a way to rebuild,” Ryan began again, fortunately interrupting my thoughts. “If trauma is about powerlessness, about a loss of control, then, maybe overcoming it is trying to prove that you’re not insignificant, that you have an ability to impact your life, to be able to move forward or sideways, or even backwards. People often say, be brave, but I don’t really know what that means. Fear and courage – they’re not a permanent state of being. They’re just choices. If you choose fear, it leads you down a path until it owns you. But the opposite is also true. Every day, I try to practice small insignificant acts of courage. You decide to wear that shirt that you love but you know everyone else hates, or you have a coke instead of a beer, or you push down your pride and decide to ask for help, or you decide to get back in your kayak one day—even if it’s just in your garage. Those also lead you down a path, and soon it begins to build. Then when the moment comes that requires great courage, you’re ready.”
Erik Weihenmayer is a co-founder of No Barriers USA, a nonprofit organization with a mission of helping people with challenges to break through personal barriers, tap into the light of the human spirit, and find purpose in their lives. In 2010, Erik and his team conceived No Barriers Warriors which leads veterans on transformative expeditions around the world. These programs combine mentally, physically, and emotionally challenging experiences with personal reflection and team interaction. To learn more, go to www.nobarriersusa.org