The July 2015 issue of Outside magazine has an article about an Oregon entrepreneur named Chad Brown. I liked the article and thought other readers here might find it useful and instructive. It’s about pain, recovery, and channeling your despair into productive work.

Brown had joined the Navy when he was 20 years old, and had been assigned to duty in Mogadishu, Somalia in 1993. Those who know their recent history will know instantly what that means. His official job description was that of a “combat stevedore”; his job was to provide security and logistics for equipment that was offloaded from the docks and trucked to various points around the city.

Mogadishu in 1993 was lawless. He described how he and his comrades were often shot at by snipers and trouble-makers of various stripes. “Mogadishu was nasty…a beehive,” as he describes it. He would have to take Somali men into custody every now and then, for security, and the job bothered him after a while. His role was a little too colonial for his tastes. One of his friends was killed.

Over time he thought about these experiences more and more.

He got out of the military in 1994 and then attended college on the GI Bill. After receiving a degree in communications and design from New York City’s Pratt Institute, he went to work in the advertising industry in New York City. The pace and intensity of life there kept his mind constantly active, with little time for melancholy or brooding.

But that was soon to change. Brown’s life took a nosedive in 2008 when he accepted a contract job in Oregon. He had always been close to his family, and the geographical separation from them cut him away from his psychological moorings. The people, the culture, and the climate were different from what he was used to. And slowly things began to unravel.

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First came the excessive drinking. This led to his losing his job. And once the income dried up, he found himself reaching rock bottom. “I was in a dark place,” he relates. “I had no one to turn to. I was borderline homeless.” He couldn’t reach out to his parents because they didn’t understand his experiences or frames of reference. For living expenses, he learned to sell his blood.

Things came to a head in 2009, when he bought a gun and headed to the Clackamas River to shoot himself. There was no other way out, it seemed to him.

But something stopped him. The peaceful quality of the river, the sound of running water which appeared to be the beating of some great invisible Heart, somehow rejuvenated him. He called his family, which advised him to contact the Veterans Administration suicide hotline. He checked himself into a psychiatric ward.

It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The few days he spent there were productive. He learned about PTSD and all its features: inability to concentrate, insomnia, irritability, anxiety, and depression.

One of the hospital orderlies took him bass fishing. It was one of those turning-point experiences in his life. The meditative quality of being in the outdoors, the direct contact he had with other species of wildlife, and the need to focus on the task at hand were all things that he found restful.

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The curative power of being around running water is something that has been documented. It seems to encourage a heightened state of attention in the human brain, and can counteract the negative effects of living in an overly-automated society. A 2009 study conducted by the VA found that test group of men experienced a significant reduction in their salivary cortisol, immunoglobins, and urinary catecholamines after going on a fishing trip.

Although he had no money, he took a leap of faith and bought some fly-fishing gear on credit. He learned to fish by watching videos on YouTube and by taking advice from anyone who would offer it. The act of fishing itself had restorative powers for Brown:

That was my healing. Fishing evolved me to a place where I was ready to get back in society and kick ass…I was standing in the water waist deep, and I thought, this river has basically saved my life. I’ve got to do something for others. It became about more than just me, and that’s when my design side started to kick in.

His goal was to start a fishing gear and accessories company that would help fund education and conservation efforts. His plan was to provide a resource that people might go to for donated fishing equipment and information about fishing. He also tried his hand at designing reels, clothing, and bags. Invitations came in for him to speak to others. His business, Soul River, combined philanthropic and commercial purposes.

Chad Brown found a way to channel his anger and pain into productive work. He said, “[I believe] in finding a way to radiate your pain outward to help others.” By any measure, he has succeeded. No matter what agonies of misfortune wash over us, we must find ways of converting the negative into the positive.

It may just save our lives.

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