PTSD recovery through triathlon

Occasionally the Slowtwitch community of triathletes finds people teaching out for help and support. A short while ago, Stephan Moreau wrote to Jordan Rapp to thank him for telling the story of his near fatal accident and the process of his recovery. As it turns out, many other members of the Slowtwitch Forum had offered help and support to this former member of the Canadian Navy who had been suffering from PTSD for nearly five years. Recently, Moreau wrote to thank everyone for their help – and how the sport of triathlon had been instrumental in his return to mental, emotional and physical health.

Here is an email he sent to Slowtwitch to thank everyone:

"I used to race on a regular basis but stopped 5 years ago when I had an accident while in the military which led to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression and addiction – all of which became out of control. During this difficult time I kept saying ‘I wish I could race again’ but couldn't just get up and do it. In the past two years I have been to a treatment center for addiction and another one for PTSD. In the past four months I started training again and losing weight and now I'm doing my first race in two weeks. All this time I never stopped coming on Slowtwitch and reading some amazing stories (including Jordan’s account of his accident and recovery) which gave me the courage to start training again. I now feel so good mentally and physically and that is the reason why I want to share my story. Hopefully, this might inspire those who are suffering from similar issues and promote that training does wonders for someone struggling with mental health problems.

Thanks Slowtwitch."

We interviewed Stef Moreau via email at his home in Victoria.

Slowtwitch: Where and when were you born?

Stef Moreau: I was born in Quebec City, Canada on March 5th 1973

ST: Tell us about your family - your parents and any siblings.

Stef: I don't have any siblings and was raise by a single mother who worked really hard as a waitress to provide me with a good childhood. My dad was a minor league baseball player and I see him more as a friend rather than a dad.

ST: What about your home town, home state, home country informs your character?

Stef: I now live in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. I have been here for 12 years and love it. I always liked the ocean and living next to it is such a blessing.

ST: What sports did you like to do growing up -- and why?

Stef: Like many Canadian kids, I grow up playing ice hockey. I also play baseball in the summer time. When I was a kid it was hockey all the time. Outside rink in the winter time after school and road hockey in the summer time.

ST: What sports were you best at from grade school through high school?

Stef: Hockey was the sport that I perform the best. I was shorter than most of the guys but my speed and my feistiness made up for it.

ST: What school subjects did you like best and why?

Stef: PE was my favorite subject, the more sports the better.

ST: From any part of life who did you look up to or admire and why?

Stef: Theo Fleury, a hockey player, was my hero when I was younger and even more so now. I like the fact that he was much smaller than the other guys but that never stopped him. When he shared his personal story a few years ago, I can now relate even more to him.

ST: What setbacks if any did you have growing up - whether illness, injury, personal loss, disappointment - and what did you learn from them?

Stef: Not having a father figure in the house was not always easy for me. My mom did a great job but something was missing. My mom was working so much that I had to learn to be independent and deal with my own problems.

ST: What event most shaped your character at a young age?

Stef: Looking after myself and taking care of myself.

ST: What sports up through high school were you best at? Why did you love them?

Stef: Hockey, the team spirit and the roughness of it.

ST: Did you go to college or University?

Stef: I am now going, but not back then.

ST: I see that you participated in sports and, I presume, triathlon before or during your military service. What led you to triathlon and why did you like it?

Stef: After suffering another major concussion, the doctors told me that I couldn’t play hockey anymore. I was devastated. Once I was OK to exercise again I went for a run with my wife at the local lake. That day a triathlon was going on and I told my wife, 'This is what I want to do to replace hockey.' The only problem was I didn’t really know how to swim properly. But I worked at it really hard and learned.

ST: Did you look up to any triathletes at the time or were you only interested in your part in the sport?

Stef: At my first multisport race, a duathlon, Peter Reid was on the starting line. On my second race Simon Whitfield was also racing. We are so lucky in Victoria as many elite triathletes are living and training here. I have the chance and honor to be friend with Jasper Blake. He is not only a great triathlete (now retired) but also an incredible person. I also have been inspired by Ryder Hesjedal [seen with Moreau in the photo below] who also lives near me in Victoria. But it was especially inspiring to see Jordan Rapp come back so strong after his near fatal accident.

ST: What led you to military service?

Stef: My uncle was in the military and he told me that 50% of the time he was playing sports for the military, so I joined!

ST: What was your training like?

Stef: The military training was easy for me, especially boot camp. I went to boot camp fit and I already had the discipline from playing hockey and team sports.

ST: What about your stint in the military was completely unlike anything you had anticipated?

Stef: Saying goodbye on the jetty to my wife before every deployment was extremely hard.

ST: What branch of what military service did you join and where did you serve?

Stef: I joined the Navy and spent my entire career in Victoria, British Columbia.

ST: What ship did you serve on and where were you based?

Stef: HMCS Algonquin.

ST: What was your rank and responsibility on the ship?

Stef: I was a Leading Seaman and a Naval Communicator.

ST: How did the accident happen?

Stef: During an exercise on board my ship, there was an equipment malfunction that I activated which caused a major accident where many people were injured. It was not my fault but I felt responsible for years.

ST: Could you recount the accident in more detail?

Stef: When I activated someone’s firefighting gear, the canister malfunctioned and the person caught on fire. The canister contained many chemical that produced very toxic fumes. Many people were trying to take the gear off this person and many of us inhaled extremely toxic fumes. Worst of all, someone died a few years after the accident because of the damage that the fumes created. The accident scene was horrific and many people ended up with PTSD. The person who was on fire was screaming like I never heard before. It was awful.

ST: Where did the accident occur?

Stef: At the time of the accident, we were not too far from home, which was good because many people had to be evacuated via helicopter.

ST: How many fellow shipmates were injured or killed?

Stef: One man died and maybe 8 were physically injured and I just found out that many ended up with PTSD.

ST: You say you felt responsible. But did any official ruling assign blame to you?

Stef: Two separate investigations ruled that the equipment was defective and the automatic emergency activation for the gear in question was removed and not possible to use anymore.

ST: Did you, do you still, have nightmares about the accident?

Stef: I used to have them a lot. Now I still have them but less frequently. Talking about the accident is helping me a lot in that way.

ST: Were any close friends injured in the accident?

Stef: Shipmates are like family, so everyone injured was my friend.

ST: It is clear that PTSD does not have to be triggered by an experience in combat. But were you ever in combat? If so, what was it like?

Stef: Our ship was deployed after 9/11 to patrol the Gulf of Oman to intercept terrorists who were traveling on water from country to country. We were the first warship to intercept terrorists. I will always remember the buzz on the ship when we caught them.

ST: You mentioned you had serious problems with addiction. What about your personality or experiences left you vulnerable to that?

Stef: I learned at a young age to deal with my own problems so that carried on as I grew up. I never told anyone on how the accident affected me (until recently) so I chose alcohol and abused medications in order to help me cope with the PTSD.

ST: When did you start to experience symptoms of PTSD?

Stef: My life went downhill in a hurry after the accident. I was a very outgoing person who liked hanging out with friends and family but that all changed. After the accident, I didn’t want to see anyone and I was trying to avoid social activity. I was lying to my wife about being sick and not being able to go and she had to carry on alone. I just locked myself with alcohol in my sports room and watched TV and spent hours on Slowtwitch (true story).

ST: When you started to feel overwhelmed by those feelings, were you still in the military?

Stef: In the end, just before going to treatment, my life was out of control. My addiction and PTSD where getting the best of me to a point where I tried to end my life a few times with overdosing.

ST: If so, did the military have any treatment or counseling?

Stef: I am very grateful to the military and veterans affairs. They sent me to the top treatment center for addictions and for PTSD shortly after.

ST: If your PTSD was combined with addiction, were the drugs or alcohol a means of dampening the pain?

Stef: Absolutely, I drank and used to numb the pain.

ST: Did your PTSD lead to your being drummed out of the military? Or did you resign or were given honorable discharge?

Stef: I received an honorable discharge due to medical conditions. The military is now supporting me by sending me to college and giving me a salary while I go to school.

ST: You mention you were unable to fully function in life for 5 years after incurring PTSD. What was that period like? And what were you doing?

Stef: It was awful. I don't wish what I have been through to my worst enemy.

ST: What led you to stay in touch with triathlon? What was it about the Slowtwitch Forum that drew you back into the tribe of triathletes?

Stef: I always liked bikes. I can say that I also have an addiction for bike and bike gear. My wife kept saying, "You don't even race anymore. What are you doing on Slowtwitch all the time?" I really like it. There are very nice people on the Forum and I always found support in there.

ST: Did you make any friends - or Internet acquaintances - that you shared opinions and values with?

Stef: Being open about my addictions in the Lavender room, I was contacted by a few people who were struggling and I was able to share my experience with recovery and helped them out. Emilio DeSoto and I also exchanged many emails over the years. He knew about some of my struggles and he's always been supportive. There are so many people, good people, on Slowtwitch. It’s amazing.

ST: What about Jordan Rapp's story of his near fatal injuries and his recovery did you identify with? How did it help you?

Stef: It helped me a lot. He was as broken physically as I was mentally and he managed not only to come back but also be at the top. He could easily have said, 'Screw it,' and quit. But he was very courageous and fought back.

ST: What finally got you out of your shell of depression and inactivity to start training again?

Stef: I felt much better after completing the PTSD treatment and I regained some energy and desire to start being active again. I read the post about the Alcatraz lottery opening and I thought that it would be a good way to come back to triathlon and, luckily enough, my name came up.

ST: What about training made you feel better physically, emotionally, psychologically and, perhaps, even spiritually?

Stef: I feel so good and relaxed after I complete a hard training session. My body being tired allows me to just relax and be less tense. Being tired from training also slows down my racing mind and I stress less and sleep better. The weight loss due to training is also great.

ST: What would you like people who read your story to understand about PTSD and addiction? And about the role of sports in recovery?

Stef: PTSD can happen to everyone and doesn't mean that someone is weak. An event may affect someone more than others and it’s not fair to compare. Sports in a great way to help to release stress.

ST: Was there a military ethic that makes men and women embarrassed or reluctant to declare they suffer from PTSD?

Stef: The military are more educated about PTSD now that they were in the past. They are now very good in offering support. It sounds easy for someone to declare that they have been affected but it’s a really hard thing to do, military or not.

ST: Which was harder to treat - PTSD or addiction?

Stef: For me PTSD was by far way more difficult. Even in treatment I took me a long time to be able to talk about the accident. Also, addicts have a great source of support in Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous which have meetings daily.

ST: How long have you been training again?

Stef: Approximately 5 months. A fellow Slowtwitcher, Davis Sohor, generously offered to make my training plan in order to help me.

ST: How fit have you become compared to five years ago?

Stef: Since I don't drink anymore and I eat better, my training is going so well. I never trained hard in the past, just enough to get by. I now train very seriously and I love it.

ST: What will be your first race back? Any special emotional preparation for your return to competition?

Stef: I will be racing the Escape from Alcatraz in March. I'm already emotional just as I type this answer. To be honest I just can't believe that I will be racing again in two weeks after everything I have been through in the last five years.

ST: What doors have triathlon and sports re-opened for you?

Stef: I feel much better mentally and physically since starting training again. I received tons of support since deciding to come back. A program called Soldier On (they help physically and mentally injured military people to stay active) are now helping me with support and they are sending me to race at the New Orleans Ironman 70.3. Soldier On is a great nonprofit organization and they are helping a lot of people.

ST: How hard has this been on your wife?

Stef: When I was struggling it was hard for her to try to understand what was going on because I didn’t mention anything about the accident for years. During this time, I was telling her to leave me she would respond that she loved me too much and that we were in for the long run. She did a lot of research on depression, addiction and PTSD and was able to help me out. She was very patient and supportive during my struggle. I’m so grateful that she stayed with me. I didn’t think I deserved her.