Petersen still smiling

Justin Crann
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PTSD-afflicted vet travelling for awareness, fundraising

Trevor Petersen was driving when he felt a strange sensation creeping across his face that nearly sent him into a panic.

For years, Trevor Petersen (left) was unable to smile because of his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Now, since recovering his smile, he has been paddle boarding from Edmonton to Winnipeg to raise awareness for the condition and funds for Wounded Warrior Canada. His mother Marie-Paul (right) has been his support driver

Surrounded by traffic, Petersen said he couldn’t look in the mirror to see what was wrong, and so he suffered in silence for a few long moments until he could peek into the rearview mirror and see what was happening to his face.

“I looked in the mirror and I was smiling,” he said. “To actually be able to do it for no reason had me freaked right out.”

For Petersen, the experience was momentous because he has lived with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) since returning from the War in Afghanistan in 2007 and had been through residential treatment twice, in 2009 and 2011.

The experience stood in stark contrast to one he had in residential treatment in Guelph.

“We had to keep a journal about our feelings, but I didn’t have any except anger,” said Petersen.

“They gave us two sheets. One of them had a list of emotions. I threw that sheet away because I couldn’t deal with it.

“I’d be looking for a half an hour and trying to figure out what things felt like. I had numbness and I had anger. I didn’t know overwhelmed, happy, sad, all of those emotions other people could connect with,” he added. “For years, I was numb, and if I wasn’t numb I was angry. That’s all I had. So to smile, all of the sudden, it was like, ‘What’s happening? What’s going on?’”

The panic, eventually, subsisted. What Petersen was left with was “surreal.”

“I realized, ‘My God, I’m smiling. But what do I do with this?’” he said.

In Summer 2013, Petersen was told he couldn’t pursue regular employment because of his PTSD, and so he eventually decided he would take his rediscovered smile on tour from Edmonton to Winnipeg. When he coupled it with a hobby that had quickly become “therapeutic” for him — paddle boarding — Petersen created the Paddling with PTSD project, which aims to raise awareness of the disorder and funds for Wounded Warrior Canada.

“The purpose is to come out and say, ‘I made it, I’m managing it, and I’m smiling again,’” he explained. “We’re trying to raise awareness about PTSD … bringing it out of the closet, so-to-speak, because it’s not something people like to or want to talk about. It carries a lot of negative connotations with it.

“We want to work around that, bring it to the forefront, and as someone who has been through really dark times with it, show people I am able to smile again and that it can be managed,” added Petersen. “You can’t cure (PTSD), but you can manage it.”

He added that he was pleased to see the large number of awareness and fundraising campaigns for PTSD that have been going on recently.

“When I was going through my dark times, there was nobody out there saying they’ve done this, they’ve been there and they’ve done all of the hard work,” he said. “Apparently, there’s a lot of it going on this year, and that’s really cool to see.”

Trevor’s mother, Marie-Paul, said the best part of the project is seeing the impact it is having not only on others who have PTSD or know somebody who does, but also on Trevor himself.

“It’s nice to see he’s moving forward in positive ways,” she said.

“With that positivity, he is moving forward with his management skills, and that is good.”

For more on the Paddling With PTSD project and to donate either to Trevor’s journey or to Wounded Warrior Canada, visit the campaign's website.

Find Justin Crann on Twitter.

Geographic location: Afghanistan, Guelph, Edmonton Winnipeg

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