Johanne’s final story

Soldier PTSD Psychological Trauma Mental Health Treatment EHN Canada

Johannes never expected to be in jail. He wasn’t counting on smoking pieces of fentanyl patches either. And he hadn’t envisioned dealing with ethnic cleansing in Bosnia or being on patrols in Afghanistan.

In fact, growing up in a small Nova Scotia town, all he wanted was to be outside. Fishing. Swimming. Hanging with his buddies.

Addiction had another plan.

Fit, rested and relaxed as he sits on his mountain bike looking out at the gloriousness that is Queneesh, a massive glacier on Mount Washington towering over the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island, Johannes’ face breaks into a smile.

“I’m very happy,” he says. “I wake up every morning and, when I open my eyes, I’m automatically happy. So, there ya go.”

He’s come so far.

Born in 1977, raised in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, Johannes is a minister’s son. His mother stayed at home raising Johannes, his brother and two sisters. He had no trouble with faith. Higher Power was all around them.

“I was raised in the church. We lived in the back of a church, actually, in the church parsonage,” he says. “We went to church twice on Sunday, Tuesday night and sometimes Friday night.”

“I was close to all my siblings. I had maybe two or three really close friends.”

There was no drinking or smoking in the family home. No wild parties. No television, even.

“I was kind of a quiet kid — an introvert, if you will. I was always out in nature. Always out with my friends in the woods, building camps, swimming in the creeks, fishing, boating.”

By high school, when friends began experimenting with cigarettes and alcohol, Johannes began to see the differences between himself and his strict, God-based upbringing and the lifestyle his adolescent classmates were beginning to explore. Though he remembers sneaking a taste of fermented grape juice at 14 behind his dad’s pulpit and “feeling a little bit funny”, Johannes would buckle down and stay focused on his career path — one in uniform.

“In high school, I was wanting to be an RCMP. So, I took the co-op program for RCMP, doing ride-alongs, even getting into a couple of high-speed chases,” he says. “When I was in Grade 12, they hired me as a jail guard to watch the drunks when they would come in on weekends, or whenever they would call me on my pager. I wasn’t getting into any trouble at all.”

He also made another move — into the Canadian Armed Forces as a reservist at 16.

As he finished high school, Johannes was in love with his high-school sweetheart and working for the Canadian Forces and the RCMP. His life was going swimmingly. He proposed to his fiancé, they married and began planning for a family. He applied and was accepted into the military Regular Forces and was posted to the Third Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment – one of the nation’s most decorated and respected army units, based in Petawawa, Ontario. The outfit had served at Vimy Ridge, in Sicily, in Korea. Johannes had joined an honorable, historic family and life was good.

“We were both living a spiritual life. I still had God in my life at that point. We’d go to church at least once a week, sometimes twice a week.”

His wife was soon pregnant; a boy was on the way.

But the storied “3 RCR” was about to get involved in the simmering conflict in Bosnia, and life would change forever.

In the early 1990s, the break up of Yugoslavia had percolated into a cauldron of inter-ethnic conflicts. Yugoslavia, which had been set up as a federation of six republics after the Second World War, had split apart following the death of its president in the 1980s. By the time Johannes and his new bride arrived in Petawawa, Serbs and Croats were just three years removed from the Bosnian War, a horribly complex and vicious conflict which basically ended in a stalemate. But, along with over a million refugees, over 100,000 were left dead, many as a result of the first case of genocide in Europe since World War II.

The capital city of Sarajevo, which had hosted the Olympic Games in 1984, had spent four years under attack before the siege was lifted in 1996. Civilians were targeted and massacred in many parts of the Bosnia and Herzegovina. NATO, of which Canada is a key and active member, was involved during and after the conflict, attempting to establish long-term peace. In fact, over 60,000 soldiers from over 30 countries were eventually deployed under Operation Joint Endeavor as peacekeepers. Twenty-three Canadian soldiers died in that war.

Once the war had ended, stabilization peacekeeping forces continued to get between tense and hostile pockets of resistance to the ceasefire. This was the environment to which Johannes and his brothers in 3 RCR were deployed in Bosnia in July 1998 as Rotation 3 of Operation Palladium.

While his wife was at home, selling Mary Kay and looking after their baby boy, Johannes was thrust into a world in which he had no experience.

“I guess you could say I was pretty innocent, ignorant of the world. I was raised in such a closed environment,” he says quietly.

Johannes was dispatched with medics, going on calls with military and civilian first responders, transported in armored personnel carriers converted into ambulances.

“We’d go pick them up and bring them back to camp.”

As well, there were regular patrols, going from town to town.

“I felt a lot of threat. I was scared for my life many times. It was a whole new side of the world I had never experienced before.”

Not one to speak about the horrors of what he saw and experienced, suffice to say coping was a challenge in the tinderbox of post-War Bosnia.  Three months into his six-month deployment, he was given two weeks’ leave and went to Croatia for some R&R. It quickly deteriorated into something else.

“That’s where I really got into the drinking. In Porec and Bled. I barely remember them. Blackouts. Trying to cope,” he recalls. “My spirituality was non-existent at that point. I didn’t have God in my life. Praying was non-existent. So, I started drinking to fill that hole.”

Peacekeepers have an interesting perspective on what they are called to do. With the war ended, there were progressively fewer incidents of breach of the terms of the ceasefire. Johannes downplays the anxiety with which he and his colleagues were living.

“Danger? Well, that’s the way I felt at that time. It wasn’t a constant threat. 1998 was a little bit different from past tours … but I still felt threatened.”

The consuming of alcohol soon wasn’t restricted to R&R leaves, either.

“Oh, a couple of times a week I’d get drunk. Some Bosnian moonshine stuff they would give us. I forget what they called it, but it was pretty powerful stuff,” he remembers.

And the innocence of a maritime boy, a preacher’s son, was quickly fading.

“It was a combination of being scared and it’s a whole new world. I was excited for this whole different experience. Trying new things. I never really got to party growing up. So, I was liking this drinking thing.”

“It felt so normal. Everyone that I knew was doing it. Everyone was smoking cigarettes, smoking cigars. That’s where I started smoking cigars too. I remember buying some Colts, so now I was smoking cigars too.”

He returned to his new baby, his high school sweetheart bride, and attempted to reclaim his pre-deployment life.

“I would call it a slow climb because, after Bosnia, I came back to Petawawa and didn’t really carry that drinking lifestyle on anymore. I slowed down, maybe had a drink once a month or so. It hadn’t got its claws into my life yet.”

Everything changed two years later when, on a night airborne jump exercise, his parachute malfunctioned. Johannes injured his back and broke both legs.

“I came home from that in two casts and a wheelchair.”

Confined to the chair, on low-dose medications for pain, he would still go to work every day – a military van would pick him up and take him in. But, between his ears, his mind was in a battle.

“The whole accident itself played in my head a lot. I had nightmares steady about it. It really affected my sleep. So, I started drinking a lot.”

The accident, the drinking, the nightmares all took their toll on the marriage. His legs would recover. The marriage would not.

“One day I came home and she was, basically, cheating with the landlord. So, I packed up my truck with some clothes, my uniforms, and that’s about it. I moved into the shacks [barracks].”

His addiction lifestyle blared. The slow climb was over.

“Drinking takes on a life on its own. It gets out of hand. I’d buy 40 pounders, rum or vodka. I’d try to down it. I remember playing music really loud, crying in my room, isolating and drinking.”

He didn’t isolate entirely. He took the show on the road.

“My first night living in the shacks, I went to the bar. I drove back and got my first DUI. A week later, I got caught driving my truck around base again. I got into a cop chase. I had no insurance and was driving while under suspension. So, due to that, I got a little bit of jail time.”

He also discovered ecstasy and cocaine.

“The first night I did them, I loved them. I found my drugs.”

As the needle climbed on the addiction speedometer to oblivion, Johannes passed all the criteria, from abstinence to drinking moonshine to impaired driving to jail time.

“I met all the right people. All the drug dealers in town, [gang] affiliates. A month after first doing dope, I started selling dope. I’d be the guy that everyone would come to.”

He was banned from seeing his first son, but even that wouldn’t wake him up. Johannes’ addiction, fueling the choices he was making, began to rule his life and career.

“Even during training, I was still doing lots of drugs and partying. It was very much a big part of my life. I would be a functioning addict.”

In September of 2001, two planes hit the Twin Towers in New York City. Two years later, as a serving member of the 3rd Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment, Johannes was part of Roto 0, Canada’s initial deployment to Kabul, Afghanistan.

As part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the main purpose was to train the Afghan National Security Force and help them rebuild, while securing Kabul and surrounding areas from Taliban and al Qaeda insurgents. From the summer of 2003 to the winter of 2004, Johannes served in a theatre teeming with tension, fire fights, and constant threat of roadside bombs.

“It was a lot hotter,” quipped Johannes, deflecting from the seriousness of his journey into Afghanistan. “It’s really different from Bosnia. I was a lot more scared in Afghanistan that I was in Bosnia, I can tell you that. In Afghanistan, I was in a section, so we were doing patrols non-stop. Night patrols. Day patrols. Going on missions. Walking on foot. In vehicles. Roadside bombs happened. I felt vulnerable.”

Things got real, and really fast.

By October 2003, Canada had 1,800 soldiers deployed in Kabul. That month, Johannes was in camp when word got back that a friend and fellow New Brunswicker, Sgt. Rob Short, was killed in a bombing that also claimed the life of Ottawa’s Cpl. Robbie Beerenfenger. Three others were injured. By the end of Canada’s engagement in Afghanistan, 158 men and women had been killed. It’s not something Johannes, nor any military member or family, for that matter, can shake easily.

The loss of Sgt. Short was particularly difficult. Though his superior in rank, the two were buddies. They had even run an Iron Man together four years prior.

“Yeah, we had trained all that summer together. I remember at the 43-kilometre point, I passed him, and, at the end, I got 19th and he got 20th,” Johannes says quietly. “I still remember the look on his face when I passed him.”

In the war zone of Afghanistan, it was the drugs and alcohol that kept the ghosts at bay for the 25-year-old minister’s son.

“I was numbing myself out. Still carrying on. Doing drugs when I was there [in Afghanistan]. Cocaine and ecstasy was brought over. I wasn’t into the opiates at that point, thank god. They were everywhere. Poppies. Opium.”

As he counted down the days before his Afghanistan deployment ended, Johannes broke his ankle in a charity function. His war was over.

“I got operated on over there by a German doctor and got sent home about two weeks prior to my six months [service]. I made it back safe. It was meant to be, I guess.”

For the next 12 years, his addiction rampaged, however. The alibi of wartime trauma makes sense. The actions did not.

“Back home, I got harder into the drugs. I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I was a different person when I came back. Numerous people say that. I remember feeling different, too. I had a lot of adrenaline in my body and I just couldn’t stop moving. I felt different. I needed more drugs to fuel the adrenaline. It was the only thing that made me feel safe.”

He was living a double life. Working for the military. Working for drug dealers. Collecting debts. Kicking down doors, beating people up. Splitting proceeds with the dealers. The military police, the OPP, judges, became unwelcome-yet-predictable players in his dangerous lifestyle choices.

Johannes spent most of 2004 behind bars in Ottawa. Assault. Kidnapping. Drug charges.

“It’s another level of fear. A lot of shanks. [There are] a lot of Somalians in there and they’re all packing shanks. Almost every day, I’d see bloodshed. People stabbed with shanks or pencils. Definitely knocked out. Every day, there’s violence. I was included in that sometimes.”

The next year, the military had had enough. Johannes was released, but not before being sent to treatment at Bellwood.

“I was pretty defiant. Very angry. Violent. I got kicked out of Bellwood after 25 days or so for violent behavior. I met a girl in rehab who gave me her condo keys. So, I went AWOL to her condo for a few weeks down by the CN Tower.”

After a few weeks, Johannes decided he’d better go back to Petawawa. He showed up to work and was arrested immediately.

“I did a couple of days in their cells on suicide watch. Somebody watching me all day, all night. I was that dark.”

He was released from the military and discovered needles.

I hadn’t done [needles] before because I don’t think I’d felt that desperate or dark. But, by that point, I was so helpless, I didn’t care about nothing, myself, or anything. I didn’t care if I died or lived.”

He was shooting cocaine, drinking every day. Smoking crack. Crystal meth. Couch surfing.

“Sometimes I was sleeping in hallways. Running from the cops. Doing crime. Busting into houses. Getting in fights. It was just chaos,” he recalls.

The army sent him $13,000 as compensation for his contributions.

“I blew all that on drugs in a month or so. So, [that was] all gone.”

A few more month-long visits to the crowbar hotel later, Johannes was a shell of himself, 40 pounds under his Afghanistan fighting weight. Yet, he soon found another relationship and got off the needles.

“She got me off the needle, so I was just snorting cocaine. I was just doing lines now,” he chuckles, emphasizing the “just” word. “Yep, I was getting better. I was just drinking a lot and doing lines. Everyday. I couldn’t go a day without drinking or doing drugs or something.”

On a doctor’s visit, he was introduced to morphine. Then OxyContin and Percocet. His OxyContin habit alone began at 80 mg a day. By the time he finished, he was at 800 mg per day. Add the Percocet and alcohol on top of that.

In 2013, he was back in prison for a car accident while impaired, without insurance and in possession of drugs. He reached out to Veterans Affairs and asked for help. He had every intention of getting sober for good. He was again sent to Bellwood and completed its two-month, cutting-edge PTSD/OSI program. Johannes got off the drugs — to some degree.

“It didn’t click in that alcohol was a problem, just drugs,” says Johannes. “So, I stopped the drugs. I was off the drugs for a good eight, nine months. But, as soon as I got out of Bellwood, I was drinking the same day. I thought I was sober. I was telling everyone I was sober.”

Anyone who believes they are sober when they are drinking alcohol is destined to revisit their addiction, it seems. At least, that is the way it was for Johannes. Within a year, he was back into drugs, all of it, except for the needles.

“Of course, my doctor at that point cut me off my meds [from] the car accident. So, I had to get all my opiates from the street. I got into heroin. Heroin is cheaper. I was doing lines of heroin and fentanyl patches. Smoking fentanyl patches. What a big mess.”

“I’d reached a point in my life where I was now stealing from big-box stores. Going into Walmart with a shopping cart and coming out with two big 60-inch TVs, going to get a fast $500 bucks from dealers [who] buy them. At that point, my habit per day was a good $400-$500 I needed just for myself.”

Another prison sentence. Another year in jail. Johannes received visits from ministers, and he began trying to get his head around changing his life. A fellow veteran-turned monk visited him weekly and got him into meditation. Again, he intended to stay sober and reclaim his life. His pension contributions were banked while he served his prison time. He got out to $30,000 – a powerful reason to lose, or not lose, control.

“The very first day I got out of jail, one of my drug connections met me at the parking lot and drove me to town. Everyone was doing drugs. I said, ‘Okay, just give me a little piece of the fentanyl.’ I smoked a little piece of the fentanyl, and 25 days and an overdose later, I’d spent $30,000. I got arrested on my birthday. There I was, back in jail. Really, really coming down off the fentanyl like you wouldn’t believe. For about two weeks, I couldn’t sleep. All that good stuff that goes with it.”

He spent his final month in jail, in hell. He had no reason to live.

“That was my ultimate bottom. I was in there for a month. I was trying to hang myself in the washroom with bedsheets. I just wanted to die. I just didn’t want to be in my own skin.”

He reached out to Veterans Affairs one more time, and to Vets Canada. He was given another reprieve, put up in a hotel and fed while a bed was readied for him, one more time, at Bellwood. His third and final kick at the can. He knew it.

He completed six weeks at Bellwood and was offered an opportunity to come to Edgewood for Extended Care. Understandably, his Ontario clinicians thought leaving the province would be a wise move. He had also just finished an anger management course at Bellwood and was practicing meditation daily. Johannes agreed, and, in May 2016, he arrived in a province he’d never been to, in a town with literally hundreds of alumni, sober, connected, and supportive. He has never looked back.

First off, his counselor was a fellow veteran. Ryan Tompkins served 23 years, retiring as a Chief Petty Officer First Class.

“I felt like [I was at] home right away. A fellow vet in authority. I felt comfortable,” Johannes says.

And, the Extended Care program was exactly what was needed, he says.

“It gave me the structure which I so craved. It helped me plan my life. I learned how to live. I didn’t know how to do that before. I didn’t know how to wake up at a certain time and to actually get things done. To live. To actually plan my day. And to socialize and not isolate.”

He was recommended to take up yoga, which he did with vigor. He learned more about what makes him tick, all the while attending Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings five times a week in and around Nanaimo.

“I had a lot of anger. I had used anger all these years to hide every other emotion. Now I know why. To hide my fear and what have you.”

He got himself a sponsor. Lived in a sober house. And, finally, after 10 months, two treatment centre programs in two provinces later, Johannes moved out to a small town within an hour or so of his most recent alma mater rehabilitation centre. Later this month, he expects to attend Edgewood’s monthly Cake Night celebration and claim his two-year medallion.

“I love Edgewood,” he says with an unmistakable sincerity. “I feel like they always accept me. I’m always welcome there. They’re just so nice all the time to me. They always give me compliments when I go in. They always say how good I’m looking. They always try to bring me up.”

These days, Johannes is keeping a low profile, but not so low he isn’t connected. To his friends. His support system. To Edgewood. To family.

He receives a modest pension for his military service, and the PTSD that came with it.

“They don’t foresee me working at all,” he says. “My PTSD level is quite high. They’re going to leave me alone right now, let me do my thing. Just stay sober.”

Living in a small town with one stoplight is right up the alley for this minister’s son.

“I love it. I’m a country boy, so this is right up my alley. I don’t have a driver’s license as of yet, so there’s a city bus that goes right by my house to town,” he says.

“I got a mountain bike, so I’m always on my bike. I got lots of sober friends that will drive me around. I get around just fine.”

There are good days and bad days, he says, though, “the bad days are very few and far between now.”

“A bad day? Well, it might just look like I sleep in. Feel angry. I want to isolate. I might go into mental relapse. It’s moreso [that] the anger comes back. I’ve got to keep my anger in check because that’s old behavior.”

But he doesn’t want to dwell on the negative days when there is so much peace in life now. He practices yoga and meditation daily and is always looking forward to the next local meditation workshops.

“I’m always out in nature. On my paddleboard or on my kayak, mountain biking. I got a ski pass, so I spent almost 40 days up on the mountain this season. I go to yoga all the time. I’m now dating my yoga teacher. She lives down the road,” he says with grin.

He makes coffee for his 12 Step groups, puts away chairs, and is volunteering for their annual rally. Like Bellwood, Edgewood recently launched its own Concurrent Trauma and Addiction program for first responders and military men and women. This pleases Johannes, and he is obviously highly recommending it for those who have worn uniforms, and who have seen and endured more than can be expected without residual effects.

“If I’m coming in with trauma and I’m a soldier, that C-TAP program is very important. It’s important to have people around me who can relate to me. Who are on my level. Especially being a soldier with trauma. We relate to each other much more than civilians. I feel comfortable talking to you because you are a veteran yourself. That’s the way it is.”

And, if at first you don’t succeed, remember to keep at it, he says.

“Well, for me, three tries is quite a magical number. So, I say to anyone there is hope past the anger. There is hope past the isolation. I was isolating too much. There is comfortability after isolating. It comes easier after time. Have patience. It’s all about the patience. Little bits. Little bits at a time.”

In the end, Johannes has come full cirlcle. A quiet life. A handful of good friends. The outdoors. Love. And a returning, deepening faith with a power greater than himself. He’s never been more at peace.

“You don’t need to fight addiction all alone. You just need to ask for help and get curious about a higher power.”


By Jeff Vircoe

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