OLD WOUNDS

The first time that Taylor and I fought it ended with all of my things in a bag at the door to the v-birth. I’d packed in a daze, headlamp flashing in the dark. Our boat was anchored off an island near the coast of Honduras, and a few hours ago everything had been fine. Now Taylor was ordering me off the ship.

            It was a small bag. My life before this trip had been condensed to clothes, books, and a few electronics. I hadn’t enough money to afford a plane ticket home, and hardly enough for a hotel room. My mind raced with logistics. I had the credit card and overdraft limits of a student, an exhausted bank account, and no reserves. But it could work. I could make it work.

            Taylor emerged a few minutes later. He wore the kind of expression that made me a stranger to him, now. “I’ll take you to shore in the morning,” he said, his voice flat. “That way you don’t have to sleep on the street.”

            Then he turned to his cabin and shut the door.

***

When I’d describe the journey that Taylor and I were undertaking to family or friends—circumnavigating South America, traversing the harshest waters known to man—the most common reaction was, “Wow, that’s a long time to be cooped up with just the two of you.”

            It was never the reaction I expected, and it’s the one I was perhaps least equipped to rebuke. It would be a long time for us to be that close, and the reality was that Taylor and I never had lived together. I’d only a vague idea of his living habits, or how those would translate to living on a boat. And he only knew of mine as being transient, having lived with over a dozen flatmates over the course of my time in Scotland.

            I knew that he was courteous and clean, and I knew from my stay in Guam that he was a good host. Of course we would butt heads on occasion, but I had confidence in our background—our friendship on the swim team, our similar work ethic and mentality—and I knew how he was. I knew that he had ups and downs (like anyone), and that, after years of living with different hosts and flatmates, we’d learn to live around each other.

            It was easy at first, especially with Kell there during the gulf crossing. And in many regards, there weren’t any real problems until Honduras. But after Kell left, something changed. I remember Taylor’s face when Kell climbed into the taxi and drove away. He always wore his mood on his sleeve, but here was the blankest I’d ever seen him - entirely removed from the farewell of just moments before. I grabbed his shoulder to cheer him up.

            “Just the two of us now, eh?” I said, a kind of obligatory remark that came out forced. “A true 'skeleton crew’.”

            “I guess so,” said Taylor, unflinching. I let my hand fall and receded a few steps behind. There was work to be done, provisioning and prepping the boat for her next leg. Taylor, it seemed, wasn’t wasting any time.

            We were ready to leave the following afternoon. Except that Hurricane Nate was spinning up the coast, and we got stuck in Cancun for the week, suffering overpriced slip fees at a concrete, resort-style yacht club. I was happy enough to edit videos and write during that time. There was also a resort nearby, with staff that let us lounge at their pools and on their private beach. It took Taylor a bit longer. This was the first time I’d seen him down and not bounce straight back up. He responded to my queries with one or two words, and he’d shut the door to his cabin when before it was left wide open. A full day passed and I didn’t see him once.

            Taylor didn’t take long to come out of his funk—two, maybe three days—and then we were crashing the resort next-door in Skeleton Crew fashion. We’d lounge at the pool while tourists panicked around us, clucking like scared hens at the approach of Hurricane Nate. We’d entertain tables of (much) older women on business holidays, handing out our “Skeleton Crew Sailing” business cards to confused and bewildered expressions. We even convinced a pair of hotel guests that we were “dolphin waxers” at Mexico’s version of Sea World. “How do you think they get the dolphins to swim so fast?” Taylor said, defensively.

            But in the midst of all this fun, something was amiss. And in a lot of ways, we weren’t back to our old selves until we cast off for Belize – surrounded by the vast Caribbean green.

***

Taylor was diagnosed with PTSD two months after being discharged from the Navy. He was given 60% disability for his back, which had required surgery during his time as a rescue swimmer, and he was given permission to register his pit bull, Alpha, as a service dog. For his anxiety and nightmares he was given prescription medication, which he never took.

            I wrote about his experiences in Guam for Lines in the Sand—a period riddled with horrors enough to haunt two lifetimes—but that post didn’t mention his deployments to the South Pacific or the Philippines (almost as brutal an “area of conflict” as the Middle East). But the worst part, according to Taylor, wasn’t the images that’d been seared into his memory – it was the change of pace.

            Taylor worked 12-to-18-hour days at 150% for weeks on end, running off adrenaline and caffeine to make it through the day. As a civilian, he was operating at 20%. Taylor would often find himself driving to the grocery store or sitting on a couch when, out of nowhere, a flood of adrenaline would crash his nervous system. He didn’t understand where it was coming from, or why it would happen under the most untimely of circumstances, and because of this all of that pent up energy would channel itself out in the form of rage. He was angry at his condition; angry at the confusion surrounding his return home; angry at the military, the Navy, the civilian world for isolating him with this condition and making him feel alone.

            There’s a lot of stigma attached to PTSD. Hollywood persists in portraying veterans who wake up with their hands around a girlfriend’s throat. Journalists, meanwhile, focus on the homicidal vets, jumping to conclusions whenever someone drives a car through a crowd or conducts a calculated mass shooting. Even in the weeks leading up to this trip, if I mentioned that my only shipmate had PTSD, the most common reaction was, “But aren’t you afraid?”

            The obvious answer is no. Taylor’s hardly a “dangerous” person—he enlisted as a rescue swimmer to save people, not harm them—but regardless, a huge motivation behind my research in Scotland was to disprove the stigmas surrounding veterans and PTSD. Because veterans aren’t dangerous. Rather, the vast majority of them suffer in silence, and even the worst off aren’t homicidal – they’re suicidal.

            Even in that regard, I never worried about Taylor. My interviews and research repeatedly concluded that the veterans who struggled the most were the ones who failed at talking about their experiences. Taylor wasn’t one of these. He’d found his outlet. He’s able to talk about what he’s been through—what he’s going through—so long as it benefits others, rather than burdening them.

            All that being said, I’d never actually seen Taylor’s PTSD. I’d never watched him staring with tunnel vision at a blank wall, his blood pumping, muscles tense, counting down each second until the spell passed. I’d never had him turn in an instant from loose and calm to tense and alert, coiled to spring at the slightest cue. So, despite all of my interviews and research and knowledge, when it finally happened—the two of us on a dinghy dock in the dark of a Roatán night—I didn’t recognize Taylor’s behavior for what it was: a symptom. All I saw was my best friend yelling at me. And so I yelled back.

***

Taylor and I set out on this trip for a number of reasons. There was the adventure, sure—the appeal of exploring uninhabited islands, uncharted waters—but we were also optimistic that this trip could serve as a kind of Odyssey: an opportunity for Taylor to process his experiences in the Navy, with the time he would need for adjusting to a slower pace of life.

            Taylor had always used the ocean as a medium to unwind. He’d learned how to sail during his SAR training in San Diego, spending his sparse weekends on the water as an attempt to let go. And in a lot of ways, it made sense. Sailing is the perfect exercise for varying pace. There are moments enough for the body to release adrenaline—our crossings of the Gulf and Caribbean confirmed that—but there is also a weighted balance of beauty and calm: moments to pause and process and consider how incredible a thing it is to be alive.

            What we failed to anticipate, however, was how the third-world contexts of Belize City and Coxen Hole, Honduras, could act as a trigger for Taylor’s PTSD. These dilapidated city-fronts and the poverty of Central America were uncannily reminiscent of his experiences in the Philippines and on disaster relief missions. The first red flag was in Belize, when Taylor wanted to leave the capitol city after just three days. Honduras took an extra day before Taylor was itching to leave, but then we got hit by a Tropical Storm. It delayed our departure and flooded the entire city beside.

            We went to shore the following day to find a city underwater. Houses had knee-high water slopping against headboards, shops were closed down, and islanders who’d lost everything were sitting on the curb, half-submerged, with their heads between their knees.

            It might’ve been a glimpse of the devastation Taylor’d witness on disaster relief missions, but to me it was something entirely new. “Some of these families,” I said, “they’ve lost everything.” But Taylor said nothing. He looked around for a moment and then turned back to the dinghy. “Store’s closed,” he said. “I’m headed back to the boat.”

            Taylor didn’t leave the boat for two whole days, leaving me to search fruitlessly for marine parts and provisions. I was upset and Taylor was on edge so that, when things finally came to a head, the last thing Taylor needed was a friend in his face, shouting to match his aggression and rage.

            It’s difficult, recalling how the confrontation began. Taylor remembers me criticizing him for being a recluse, and I remember him yelling at me for tying an overhand knot at the dock. What’s clear, though, is how it ended.

***

Taylor didn’t take me to shore the following morning. He didn’t kick me off of the boat, either. Our fight had been a great big mess of adrenaline and failed communication so that, when we finally forced ourselves to calm down, neither of us could give a good reason for it. I remember my eyes filling up at the thought of us splitting up, ending our voyage so early over some petty dispute, and I remember trying to say that much in so many words, but it came out sputtered and confused.

            In the end, it was easy to reconcile. We were more miserable with ourselves than each other, but we were also sick of weathering storms and island con-artists so that when a window opened a few days later, we set sail for Panama and didn’t look back.

            There in the Caribbean, blotched out by that great expanse of blue, you wouldn’t have guessed that we’d been at each other’s throats a few days before. That’s not to say we were downright chatty—there were follow-up conversations to be had, and rough times ahead that would strain our friendship to the very brink—but it was nothing that sailing couldn’t mend. Because any sailor will tell you that there’s no room for baseless drama on a boat at sea. There’s only your sails and the elements and, it’s funny, because—despite her tumultuous temperament—the ocean has a timeless knack for setting things right.