One of the absolute best things about starting this blog has been all of the inspirational stories I’ve heard. Everyday people from around the world are doing incredible things which challenge them to be the best they can be. To celebrate forgedbygeorges’ 1st birthday, I’m starting an ongoing series of guest posts from some of the most inspirational people I’ve come across. First up is Mike Ergo. Mike and I came into contact through a ProBlogger challenge, and his story was one which really got me in the gut. If you like what you read, Mike has a written an ebook ‘Mind, Body and Spirit’ which is free to download from his website at transitionsfromwar.com Over to Mike…
In the spring of 2001, I enlisted in the United States Marine Corps. I planned to be in the band (it’s okay, I laugh too), but the events of September 11th sent me on a different path – to the infantry. I deployed to Iraq twice, most notably to Fallujah in 2004. I fought in Operation Phantom Fury, the largest urban battle Americans have fought in since Hue City, Vietnam. Men I loved as brothers were killed.
I was honourably discharged in 2005 and returned to my hometown Walnut Creek, California. All ready to be a happy-go-lucky civilian again, I grew frustrated that it was not so easy. Anger, panic attacks, intrusive thoughts, nightmares, avoidance, isolation – all the symptoms of PTSD.
But more than PTSD, I was struggling to find a purpose in life. What could I possibly do after combat that would bring me fulfilment? This feeling of being stuck led me straight into the trap of self-pity. That turned into full-blown alcoholism. I blamed others for my circumstances and became someone I despised – a dishonest, flaky, mean-spirited drunk. The Semper Fidelis tattoo on my chest mocked me each morning in the mirror. I was anything but faithful.
A decision to make
After a few years of heavy drinking, I was 40 pounds overweight and felt terrible. My marriage was on life-support and I was barely making it through school. I lived to get drunk and high. In July of 2012 my wife let me know that I had a choice to make. Change my life or the marriage was over.
Message received. I quit using alcohol and drugs that day. A good friend brought me to the twelve-step recovery community and I spent time soul-searching and uncovering the inconsistencies and character defects I had not addressed. The truth was painful, but the change was worth every second of discomfort. I was liberated from the slavery of alcoholism and self-sabotage.
With no chemical aids, I faced the full storm of feelings I had avoided for years. Grief from friends lost in combat. Resentment towards myself. Resentment towards other people. And FEAR. Fear that I was not good enough and if people really knew who I was they would leave. A spiritual teacher helped me to face these fears head on and ultimately find that they were an illusion. In fact, I started to see fear as something to move towards. Fear became a helpful guide to my next steps in life.
A different path
Little by little, I reacquainted myself with how good it felt to work out and put more wholesome foods into my body. A good friend gifted me a registration to a half marathon. I started running again and noticed how good my body felt. I accepted a challenge to do an open water swim from Alcatraz to San Francisco. I started blending fruits and vegetables into shakes that tasted better and better.
And then one day on vacation in Hawaii I watched elite athletes compete in the Ironman World Championships. The shiver down my spine contrasted the oppressive heat among Kona’s lava fields. I didn’t know how I would get there, but the sport of triathlon was my next step.
I signed up for my first triathlon soon after that vacation. I chose a local Half Ironman, a 70.3-mile race. Twice a week, I found community with my local swim team. I surrounded myself with people who had similar values and goals. Most days I was running, biking, and swimming.
Dealing with the issues in a positive way
The grief of losing my friends in Iraq still ate at me.
But this time I used that grief as fuel. I decided to honour my friends by wearing their names on my triathlon jersey. It wasn’t just a race anymore. Now there was a purpose behind it. A chance to acknowledge the pain, but be proud of the men I served with. A chance to tell others about the Marines who made the ultimate sacrifice. When it came down to it, we were fighting for each other. Like the quote from the movie Black Hawk Down:
Once that first bullet goes past your head, politics and all that shit just goes right out the window.
No more hiding. No more numbing out. This was my path to healing.
Having a greater purpose for racing has changed everything. I love endurance sports, but the hours of training and racing can be selfish. It takes me away from my family. But the shift in purpose has turned it into a chance for me to both work on my mental health and use this sport as a platform to serve others. Sometimes it is raising money for a charity. Sometimes it is simply telling the families of my fallen friends that their sons are not forgotten. This, in turn, keeps me in a mindset of service to others, including my family.
Today my life revolves around family, healthy eating, and exercise. I work as a clinical social worker for the Department of Veteran’s Affairs. If someone had told me 5 years ago that I would live a fulfilling life without alcohol or drugs, I would have laughed. I didn’t think I could find satisfaction and fulfilment in sobriety. I could not imagine getting a break from the fear, panic, sadness, and anger that came along with PTSD.
Fortunately, I found my way out. And life is truly better than I could have imagined. This isn’t to prop myself up and brag about how great I have done. Firstly, I could never have done this without the courage of my wife to demand the real me. I could not have done this without the support of family, friends, spiritual teachers, and the community.
I write my blog, Transitions From War, to inspire those who are stuck in that same rut I once found myself. I am living proof that change is not only possible but that becoming our best selves is a birthright. The journey isn’t easy, but every difficult time has been worth it.
So how about you? Where do you find your purpose?
A massive thank you to Mike for this piece, parts of which have been taken from his new ebook Mind, Body and Spirit (free to download here). I’ve never been in the forces, and just cannot comprehend what he’s been through, cannot understand what witnessing all of that bad stuff does to a person. But I can relate to heading down a dark path in life, and fighting with every ounce of myself to get me off that path and onto a good one.
The role endurance sports play in helping to forge a positive mindset, healthy body and strong mind really cannot be overstated here. The repercussions on my life, and Mike’s, have been enormous. For me, ultrarunning has become my rock and my beacon. For Mike, triathlon has become his purpose. I love how he puts it at the end of his piece ‘I am living proof that change is not only possible but that becoming our best selves is a birthright’. Becoming our best selves is a birthright! Now there’s a line that gives me pause for thought. It makes me think ‘am I continually striving to be the best version of me I can be?‘ I’m trying. I really am trying.
Mike poses the question at the end of his post – where do you find your purpose? Ten years ago, I couldn’t answer that question. I’m happy and relieved to say that now, I can. We’d love to hear where you find your purpose.