Until he had a conversation with God, Al North ran from conflict…literally.
As a kid, he hid in the woods for hours and even days to avoid strife at home. Besieged by failing grades in college, he quit without saying a word to anyone and enlisted in the Air Force, a stint that landed him in Vietnam. And then, well into adulthood, he left his well-paying marketing positions just to dodge conflict with bosses and coworkers.
Until he had a conversation with God, Al hadn’t peeled back the onion to discover the reason for his fleet feet.
Unbeknownst to him at the time, he struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a mental health condition now being recognized during PTSD Awareness Month.
“Everyone has a hang-up,” Al said. Maybe his story will resonate with you.
The Root of His PTSD
Though veterans, like Al, are more likely to have PTSD than civilians, statistics show that about six out of every 100 people will have PTSD at some point in their lives.
When I first met Al at a local coffee shop, he told me that his experience in Vietnam hadn’t caused the disorder—at least directly. As a staff sergeant at the Cam Ranh Air Force Base, he’d felt successful for the first time in his life, which seemed to temper his compulsion to run when adversity struck.
No, the genesis of his condition came years earlier as a kid growing up in rural Massachusetts.
Research shows that one of the leading causes of PTSD is sexual violence. And indeed, Al could check that box…among other things. Al’s uncle violated him, and other family members and peers bullied him because of his small build. “I was the runt and never measured up to the big men in my family,” he told me.
His low self-esteem was further compounded by an undiagnosed learning disability that affected his ability to process information. Even a teacher once told him he’d never amount to much.
The Trip Wire
These long-hidden traumas eventually bubbled to the forefront after living through a major missile attack just one week before his tour in Vietnam was supposed to end. Huddled amid the sandbags stacked outside his hootch, he thought he was going to die.
The terror of that hours-long attack tripped something inside his mind, only to be further aggravated by events and situations when he returned to the states.
“Someone should have forewarned us,” Al said, recalling the attitudes he’d encountered in the late 1960s. Perfect strangers would approach him. They would curse him and call him a baby killer.
The verbal abuse continued at home. Among the brawny men in his family, his service in the Air Force hadn’t counted for much. He was a “sissy” for not serving in the Army or Marines.
“I felt alone, confused. I had no support. That’s when the panic attacks started.”
Reverting to the Default Position
So, Al behaved as he’d always behaved. He ran. He jumped in his Volkswagen and drove to Tennessee where he’d gone to college before enlisting. There, he reconnected with old friends, including Jackie, whom he married three-and-a-half months later.
“They accepted me,” he said. “And I really needed that.”
Though he “had the blessing of a very supportive wife,” he still suffered. “I was living in a state of denial,” he continued. “I’d never talked about what I’d gone through.”
His Conversation with God
But Al had a trump card: his faith and Jackie, his wife of 53 years.
Through his church, he learned about Celebrate Recovery, a Christian-based recovery program for anyone struggling with hurts, hang-ups, and habits of any kind. His pastor needed someone to run the program at Al’s church.
That’s when he had a conversation with God.
“You need to volunteer,” God told Al in the middle of the night. “I got up and told my wife I was going to volunteer for this ministry. Unbelievably, my wife had the same conversation, and she said, ‘we’re going to do this together.’”
Understanding His Life’s Purpose
Until that point 11 years ago, Al hadn’t considered the need for recovery. (This despite a major panic attack brought on by a graphic video and not remembering the drive home.)
But to run the program, he had to take the program and that’s when discovery began…all set in motion by a request from God.
Once he admitted, among other things, that he was powerless over his compulsive behaviors and had taken a moral inventory of himself—two of Celebrate Recovery’s 12 steps—Al began to understand that his life had been hobbled by PTSD.
These days, life looks a lot different. He’s convinced that the adversity he faced uniquely prepared him to become the man he is today, the state representative for Celebrate Recovery, a job that entails establishing ministries across Tennessee and counseling other veterans and prison inmates.
“I have a passion,” he said, “for being a voice for understanding trauma—the impact on people’s lives. I teach hope.”
Until he had a conversation with God, Al hadn’t understood his purpose in life.