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Veteran's Day Reflection

Those closest to me know that physical fitness is a big part of my sobriety and helps me stay balanced.  I’ve been a fitness enthusiast for most of my adult life.  The feel-good endorphins one gets when completing a long run, bike ride, or tough workout are like no other.  But not only is exercise a major part of my mental health program, it helps me manage chronic back pain and literally keeps my body from seizing up on me. 

When I was a kid in middle school, we learned I had scoliosis which is a curvature of the spine.  Although it is believed that many have some degree of it, my curvature was beginning to present itself significantly enough in the shoulders and abdomen that my parents sought treatment from a specialist.  If they hadn’t, it was believed I might suffer as an adult, and beyond just physical appearance.   

The treatment plan prescribed was bracing and exercise although as a kid I didn’t follow the exercises all that seriously.  

A cervico-thoraco-lumbo-sacral orthosis or CTLSO, also known as a Milwaukee brace, was a device made of metal, cloth, and molded plastic.  Specially designed for my condition and fitted to my skeletal frame, the brace went from the base of my skull down to my pelvis.  The doctor prescribed that I wear it 23 hours a day, seven days a week, throughout the rest of my growing years, with the hope that with periodic adjustments, the bracing would help to correct my posture and prevent further curvature. I was allowed one hour a day for personal bathroom time. 

Again, I was in middle school.  

There’s no looking cool when you’re encased in plastic and metal, when your clothes don’t fit right because they’re sized to accommodate the extra bulk--there was just no hiding it.  The pads attached to the metal ring around the base of my skull stuck out from the collar of my shirt, always giving it away to any passerby at just a glance.  I had to always wear a belt because my pants felt like they’d slide down and off the large molded plastic that wrapped around my pelvis.  Its edges would press and wear into my pants with every step or movement I made.  The plastic pieces were secured together with metal framing.  A metal collar was connected by a metal bar that ran down the front over my sternum to connect the plastic pelvis with two metal bars running down my back.  I would enter the back of the brace between these two bars by pulling its frame apart and slipping my arms through as it snugged my body.  With every periodic adjustment to its pads I would endure more discomfort.  Everything was a challenge.  Sitting, sleeping, walking--moving were all a challenge.  But the largest challenge was socially and the impact it had on my young fragile psyche.  I already had an unfair share of unwanted attention from bullies growing up as a child and wearing a brace just made my life all the more difficult.

It was a torturous transition into high school.   

The summer following eighth grade came with a lot of change.  Our family moved from the trailer park on the other side of the tracks and into a real house, a brand new house in a nice neighborhood.  I transitioned from a tiny parochial school to a large public school system with many kids that came from wealth and privilege.  I had zero friends—the four girl friends I thought I’d have from middle school were transitioning to the same new school themselves and I guess the freak with the metal brace was too much of a threat to their own social game of survival.  An easily perceived gay kid (Christian kids that are taught to believe they are broken, evil, and damned to hell, struggle with their innate truth), wearing a metal medical device made me an easy target for bullies.  And It didn’t take long for it to begin and intensify.    

The ninth grade bullying from non-Christian school kids was at a whole new level.  

It wasn’t just name calling, teasing for how I sounded, cruel jokes about my sissy mannerisms, an occasional finger-bipp on the back of the head, or knotting my shoes to the bus seat just before my stop—all done by “Christian” school children.  This level of bullying was much worse, it was intense, it was physical and traumatic.  “Hey Faggenstien!”  “Fag!” “Faggot!” Homework often ripped from my possession in class, crumpled or destroyed.  Teachers did nothing.  Books knocked to the ground at my locker.  Book bags torn and thrown at the bus stop.  My brace, with its many parts, made it easy for bully’s to grab hold and throw me to the ground, or into a locker, or against a tree, or to hold me down against the back of my seat so that I couldn’t turn or get away from the onslaught of physical blows.  It was mental and physical torment.  Every day.  I couldn’t go to my parents as I feared they’d see the truth in the words of the bullies.

This was when the darkness I had been battling for most of my childhood began to tighten its embrace against the backdrop of increased televangelism and the beginning of the AIDS crisis.  Faggot meant certain death.  Thoughts of wanting to die alternating with fear of dying and a late night ritual of negotiation in prayer.  All the childhood talk of Jesus and satan.  The saved and the unsaved.  The born again, speaking in tongues, the looming rapture, and my damned soul.  All together, it altered my psyche forever.  

I stopped wearing the brace to school and by eleventh grade all together.  The bullying did eventually taper off but fear, shame, and self-hate were my demons and I had become my worst tormentor.  It took everything I had to protect my secrets, to mask, distort, and hide who I was.  Anxiety and depression, my new invisible brace tightening its grip over the years that followed, would ultimately take its toll. 

The mental and emotional pain eventually manifested physical pain.

I will never forget the first time my body stopped working.  I was twenty years old, in the Navy living off base when a paralyzing pain tore me from my sleep.  I literally could not move from my bed.  The amount of fear in that moment was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before.  After many minutes I was able to roll myself to the floor as more waves of excruciating pain tore through my body.  I yelled for my roommates.  My roommate, DeEtte, helped calm me and my pain as she promised I wasn’t paralyzed; she would later in life become a doctor of medicine.  “Breathe,” she repeated.  Eventually, she helped me to the hospital on base.  

“Did you know you had scoliosis?” the Naval doctor asked.  

I acted surprised, “scoliosis, no, what’s that?” My adolescence helped foster great acting skills.  When I enlisted a few years earlier and my recruiter met with my parents because I wasn’t a legal adult, my mother tried sabotaging my enlistment by bringing up my scoliosis.  It didn’t work.  It was kept a secret and with some coaching from my recruiter, I passed the physical examinations and was enlisted without incident.  Up until that point, I had never experienced any pain from my condition and the bracing helped my posture so without the device, the secret of my crooked spine was easy to keep.

I was given pain medication at the hospital and the naval doctor prescribed muscle relaxers, rest for 48 hours, followed by physical therapy.  Less than twenty four hours later, however, I was feeling fine.  The pain was completely gone and I was back to normal.  

I skipped the physical therapy.

It would take a few more years before I’d begin to understand the connection of the mind, the body, and spirit as I continued to struggle with self acceptance, reconciling my childhood and my faith.  I was headed down a self-destructive path that had become increasingly dangerous.  Yet a desire for something greater still burned within me.  By the age of 23 I began to take steps toward accepting things I could not change and in doing so I felt lighter, more peaceful, joyful.  Facing my demons of fear, self-hate, shame, guilt, secrecy, and addiction I began to let them go.  I finally understood what it was to be born again.  In accepting my truth and coming out of that dark closet I was able to see the light.  My eyes were opened to courage, love, forgiveness, dignity, pride, and gratitude.

I was truly free for the first time in my life.  And sober.  

But I would continue to struggle from time to time with emotional and physical suffering as life would be filled with ups and downs, highs and lows.  And change.  But through it all faith and a will to evolve into the best version of myself moved me forward in whatever place I may be.  I’d come to learn later in life that spiritual and mental suffering eventually always manifests physical suffering. Exercise was an antidote to mental suffering and it became the pillar of my sobriety. My interest for physical exercise was shaped during my time in the service and I embraced this new passion. The focus, the training with every AIDS Ride, 5K, 10K, half-marathon or obstacle race, learning as much as I could about the biomechanics of the body and embracing each adjustment that time and experience so often brought.  With the help of talk therapy and my exercise regimens, I managed my anxiety and PSTD fairly well.

As a parent, I gained so much. It challenged and altered my perspective of my own childhood, it revealed a deeper understanding and relationship with my own parents. Parenthood gave me a love like no other and an ability to heal and continue to evolve into that better version of myself.


Following a trying period of a cancer diagnosis and the death of a loved one, at the start of the 2016 Presidential election race, I took a fall.  While working on a pool project, I fell, landing directly on my tailbone and thought I broke something. It turned out, I had ruptured a couple discs.  With my existing back condition, stenosis, and now the ruptured discs it was the beginning to an end for me.  I had a few months of physical therapy and was able to return to a new normal of running and exercise, it was, after all, the pillar of my sobriety program.  With the devastating election of the new administration, I struggled and eventually my back began seizing up, causing debilitating pain. I turned to the practice of meditation and renewed my commitment to the practice. I began meditating every day while continuing my physical therapy. I had to give up running outdoors completely. After injections and medication and physical therapy, doctors were now talking about surgery.  The thought if it scared me. I chose to continue with long term physical therapy, exercise and meditation but without running as an outlet, it was difficult. As a veteran and civil servant, watching the horrors playing out in our country were really taking a toll on me. My mind, body and spirit were out of balance even while I poured myself into my meditation-prayer practice and continued with my exercise regimen. Many days, I was just going through the motions, some days I spiraled. Eventually I discovered an alternative to running that got me back out on the road and lifted my spirit.  And in time.


We all carry emotional traumas, scars from our past.  We all have something, our own challenges, and demons that rear their ugly heads from time to time.  This past year I became reacquainted with many of my demons.  They tried to take a hold of me and may have succeeded if it were not for exercise, meditation, and even some help through medication.  During this pandemic period of isolation, I also became reacquainted with a little boy.  That little boy inside that was hurt by alcoholism, hurt family members, hurt by religion and its televangelists fanatics, hurt by the bullies on the bus in early grade school and the bullies in middle school, hurt from the loneliness and isolation, and secrets. Hurt by society, the media and its stories on television. I told him he was loved. He would be safe. He'd know joy. He was free.

We all just want to be loved. And safe. And happy. To be free.

All these years later, I can still recall the smell and feel of that Milwaukee brace, its sweaty and torturous grip and the pure relief and freedom I felt when I'd take it off.  On this Veteran's Day, and the outcome of this past week's election, it felt just like taking off that brace but after four, long-torturous years. Relief.   

It’s freeing.


You can find many other past posts here on my blog. Thank you for stopping by, we will all get through this together. Love, peace and light to you. ~ Greggie


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