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Stephen’s Story: Learning What’s Possible When You Open Your Heart

Written by Samantha Carter

Like many people who experience complex childhood trauma, Stephen’s life seemed relatively on track until his body and mind could no longer handle the weight of his pain. While he had started reaching out for help prior to working with All Points North (APN), he was finally able to tap into the culmination of his efforts while at the Lodge.

By allowing himself to finally open up and be vulnerable, Stephen’s heart began opening, which led to even greater rewards post-treatment. To learn more about Stephen’s story, check out the full APN podcast, I Found Safety on the Other Side of Anxiety: Recovery x Stephen, or continue reading the article below.

Paralyzing Panic Attacks and Fear-Inducing Flashbacks

Stephen was aware of his mental and emotional difficulties years before coming to APN.

“[There are] these things that I’ve been working through for a long time,” Stephen said. “When I got out of the military, I was about 26/27 and realizing how much anxiety and depression I dealt [with]. [After I got out], I got into outside sales and started having panic attacks before [my] sales calls. I’d be in a parking garage of a hospital about to go talk to a neurosurgeon and I would get that [I]-can’t-breathe [feeling] … From there, I started investing in therapy/coaches and learning how to box breath [and] different breath work that I could [use] to manage it. Over the years, through different trials and challenges, [I] ended up pursuing even more help. So it was years in the making to get here–years in the making.”

As he started to unravel his pain, things weren’t instantly easier for him. In fact, in some ways, his life was harder.

“2022 was a really big year for me,” Stephen said. “I went to a retreat with a group … and that’s where this journey kind of started to get me to APN. I came out of a workshop where [I had just done some] very intimate sharing with different people. I came out of it and I was weeping and sobbing–screaming. A woman there held me and I cried for like 45 minutes. I woke up the next morning and was having different flashbacks of things that happened in my childhood and was just having trouble regulating myself. I was just like, I can’t deal with this right now. I don’t have the time or the resources to go here. And I just had to kind of shut things off because [I had] to work, [had to] fly. I [had to] go train a salesperson next week.”

Like so many people who are experiencing a significant mental health crisis, Stephen felt like there just wasn’t space in his life to be able to turn off, so he kept pushing, while still trying his best to fit in spaces for healing.

“[Later,] I [got] into another Mastermind with some guys where we had a therapist,” Stephen said. “We did some different intense work together and through that, the same kind of things happened. I started having flashbacks, started shaking, started having trouble regulating my breath, and then the next week I had to go train a salesperson in Reno, Nevada. For three nights, I didn’t sleep. It was pretty brutal. It was like really going back to the past and being there and shaking.”

Stephen knew he was in a bad place. Fortunately, he found the courage and strength to reach out for help.

“I remember calling one of the guys that led this Mastermind,” Stephen said. “We were just sitting on the phone and we’re like, “we’re gonna do box breathing together; we’re gonna settle down; you’re gonna go take a shower, listen to some soft music, and be able to sleep.’” [Even after that], I couldn’t sleep. I ended up texting my brother saying, ‘hey, I don’t know what’s going on but I’m in a really bad place like I’m literally worried about even being able to just drive to the airport and get back.”

Despite his worry, Stephen got on the plane to come home anyways.

“Going through security, people were looking at me because I was crying and I was shaking–having trouble controlling my breath. I got back to the Denver International Airport and I couldn’t find my car,” Stephen said. “[I] found myself curled up in a ball in front of the airport, crying. There was a lady that works in one of my clinics for our company and I asked her to come pick me up. She came and picked me up, took me back to where I live, and stayed with me until my older brother flew in that night.”

Let’s Get Healthy

Jake, Stephen’s older brother, was a huge resource to him at this point.

“I was explaining to my brother what’s been going on the past year and he saw the condition and shape that I was in,” Stephen said. “He was like, ‘I’m not going to leave you here. I’m not going to leave you like this. Let’s go. Let’s go do this. Let’s get healthy.’ That’s when we got online and saw APN. By the next Monday morning I was here.”

While at APN, Stephen began to build on all the previous work he had already started from years past.

“I’d say most of [my mental struggles] comes from childhood things,” Stephen said. “I had no memory of [some of it] before then and [so I] was going back to those moments and having flashbacks and just being overwhelmed. Also, it’s the things that carried on that I didn’t understand [like] the level of stress that I was always under. I just kind of [got] to the point where I felt like this [was] just a part of me. Like I [would] get really anxious around people [but] I was getting paid to go talk to people in sales. I just thought that’s something that I [had] to deal with.”

By continuing to do the necessary work to manage his mental health, Stephen started to realize that his episodes were not normal.

“That’s really what impacted my marriage because it took all my energy just to work and then on the weekends I could barely get out of bed,” Stephen said. “I thought that was just going to be normal for me but it’s not. It’s not normal at all. It’s not the way we were meant to function or be.”

An Act of Faith – Coming to APN

Even though Stephen was able to open up at APN to do the deep work, it wasn’t easy at first.

“It was just an act of faith [coming to APN],” Stephen said. “I was kind of at a place where I was just desperate for change. It was like, I’m gonna tell the truth about everything. I’m gonna be honest, open about everything. Coming [to APN] was also [learning to trust] an institution. [It was] hard to trust that people here have my best interest at heart, [that] they’re going to try to understand me and we’re both going to trust each other. [For me], it was just really focusing on, I’m gonna trust. I’m gonna trust that people are here to help me. People are not here to judge me, shame me, [make] me feel bad about being here. It’s about me getting help and trusting that people are here to help.”

It takes bravery to take that leap of faith, but Stephen stepped up to the task.

“When I tell my story sometimes people are like, ‘you’re courageous.’ And I’m like, ‘no I just got desperate to live the life that I knew was possible.’”

Still, Stephen’s courageousness didn’t instantly kick in like a light switch he could easily turn off and on.

“The first day [I was] pretty standoffish,” Stephen said. “I was like, how are people gonna react when I’m a little standoffish? I [was] a little critical, asking different questions–just wanting to [know if this was] a place where I [could] feel safe.”

Getting Settled In

Slowly but surely, Stephen started to acclimate to the APN healing environment.

“It took me a good week to settle in,” Stephen said. “I had trouble sleeping the first week and there were just a lot of nights where I had to go downstairs in the lobby [to] just get that fresh air and breathe. There were nights where I was box breathing, being like, wow–what is happening? There were times when [I’d] wake up and I’d be like, Oh, I’m really here. Yeah. I’m really doing this right now. So it definitely took about a week to just settle in.”

Before long, the welcoming atmosphere of APN became overwhelmingly hard to deny.

“The caliber of therapists that we have [here is] amazing,” Stephen said. “Having that caliber of person and then seeing the amount of connection that was going on in [group therapy had me thinking], wow I’m gonna do some real stuff here.”

Even trying to remain closed off became difficult because of how open and accepting the other participants in the program were.

“In that first week people gave me a lot of love,” Stephen said. “I was standoffish in group initially [but] people open[ed] up their hearts and I settled in. [I] was like, wow–just the amount that I can learn from different people when I open up my heart, you know? What’s amazing is the different connections you can make listening to other people’s stories because it’s like, wow–I felt that way and I completely get that. It’s like something in your subconscious mind clicks [and you know] life will never be the same [again] because of this experience.”

Creating Connection, Forging Bonds

As Stephen’s experience at APN began to deepen, he developed bonds that would also have a significant impact on his healing journey.

“I’d say one of the biggest impacts of being here is the people that you meet that are going through common things,” Stephen said. “[They’re] just like my neighbors [and] the people I work with. Creating those relationships where you feel safe to share your life [is priceless]. When you’re going through that kind of stuff with people it [feels like] within a couple days, you’ve known [them] their whole [lives]. They become brothers.”

Like so many people report after their time spent at APN Lodge, Stephen got the most out of his group therapy sessions.

“I’d say [group therapy is] just as important or more [than individual therapy],
Stephen said. “If I had to pick one or the other [it would be] the group therapy. Every day, I would not miss that … it became sacred for me.”

Being a survivor of childhood trauma, Stephen wasn’t always intimately familiar with the positive experience of deep and meaningful connection with others. However, he was pleasantly surprised by the feedback he received when he finally decided to let down his walls.

“I think there was a part of me that opened up a couple weeks into it,” Stephen said. “Like, my heart was opening up. It was almost like feeling like a little kid again. I want[ed] to just connect with people and to take advantage of being around other people that [were] opening up their heart and healing.”

Speaking on the Professionals Path at APN Lodge

Part of the way through Stephen’s stay at APN Lodge, he switched tracks to professionals path. Stephen opened up about what that experience was like and what tools he walked away with.

“There’s been times where I get self-conscious about where I’ve been professionally and my trajectory with that and being around people that are operating at a high level,” Stephen said. “[In the professionals track, I worked on] some confidence building and being able to have conversations about the professional environment. Also, [to] be able to bring in struggles [and] challenges and just get comfortable in my own skin. [I realized just because] I’ve had this experience that doesn’t make me a bad person. It makes me a person that’s experienced some challenges, but it doesn’t mean anything about me. I’m not a flawed human being. I’m just like anybody else, you know?”

Another thing that Stephen learned about himself professionally was how it’s okay to ask for help when needed, even when that involves your employer.

“It was a real leap of faith for me coming here,” Stephen said. “One of the first things I did [was] called one of our executives at my company. I was like, I’m just gonna tell them what’s going on. Maybe I have to go find a job after this but that’s worth it. But I was blown away [by] when you tell the truth, where people meet you … I was here a couple weeks and I got blown up by different executives at our company and they were like, ‘Man, we love you. Get well. We want you back. You’ve built businesses for us and come back when you’re healthy.’ It was just another [instance of] feeling safer in my body.”

Being More Present in Everyday Life and Finding the People Who Are Safe

As Stephen became more accustomed to this sense of “safety,” he started to shift more of his mindset and choices to continue building on this internal buffer he was creating.

“[Now], when I’m around my son … I just feel more present,” Stephen said. “It’s like I’m really there soaking up the time. So there’s definitely a new feeling of safety that enables me to be more emotionally present with people.”

Part of cultivating that container of safety within himself was realizing what other things he needed to let go of.

“We tolerate so much stress, so much being disconnected from other people,” Stephen said. “It’s actually amazing to me what we tolerate in our everyday lives when there’s so much more possible and available to us.”

For Stephen, he realized that a big part of his mental wellness was just being around people he could feel safe with.

“Sometimes it’s just finding people that you feel safe with and that you can be real with,” Stephen said. “[Now, I’m learning] what’s possible when we open up our hearts and lean into some uncomfortable areas, learn about ourselves, and stop judging and being so critical with ourselves.”

Still a Work in Progress

Even though Stephen continues to show up to do the work, it doesn’t mean the work is always easy.

“I still have a lot of challenges,” Stephen said. “When I wake up in the mornings– there’s some mornings where it’s like going back in time and feeling a little sadness, feeling a little regret. “For me, it’s being able to sit with it and be like, hey–this makes sense. It’s okay to feel that way too. It doesn’t mean anything about you. Then it’s like, yeah I can journal about it. I can write a little bit about it. And I’m finding most of it comes from shame … that I’ve held on to for a long time. But as I become more aware of it, I can sit in it and be like, yeah, that makes a lot of sense. But I don’t want that anymore, so what are we going to choose today?

There’s Nothing Wrong With You

A common reaction to childhood trauma is to believe there is something inherently wrong with you and that you somehow deserved all of the terrible things that happened to you. Like many people who are healing from complex childhood wounds, Stephen has had to dismantle this belief as a part of his personal work.

“[To others who are coming to APN for similar reasons], I’d say that probably anybody else that had been born like you and gone through the different experiences that you faced would probably feel the same way,” Stephen said. There’s nothing wrong about the way you feel. It just is. As much as you can, try to be objective with yourself and look at it without judgment. Open up. Share what’s actually going on.”

Through his time spent at APN, Stephen realized that it’s okay to ask for help.

“There’s nothing the matter with getting help,” Stephen said. “I think anybody in our society – in this country – would benefit from 30 days at a place like APN. I don’t care if you’re struggling or you think you’re struggling with anything–don’t feel like there’s something wrong with you. Being here, you aren’t weak. You’re actually really strong. Take advantage of the time to be in a space where you can cultivate what I think is possible.”

My Story Doesn’t Define Me – Sharing It Drives Connection

Even though it’s difficult for anyone to share their story in a public forum, Stephen now unequivocally knows that his story does not define him. More importantly, he’s found that by sharing his story with others, he’s actually inspired meaningful connections in his life.

“One of the most awesome things that’s happened as a result of me opening up with my older brother [is that] he’s also raised his hand and gotten help,” Stephen said. “It’s opened up some spaces that felt really good – felt really safe. It was like, wow … I never thought this was going to be possible to share these insecurities with my older brother and for him to vice versa share the things that’s going on in his life. … For him to [tell me], ‘Stephen–you opening up and sharing your story with me has inspired me to move into some places where I want to open up my heart more,’ [has] been awesome.”

Stephen knows that a story is just that–a narrative we have about a beginning, middle, and end in our lives. But that’s also where the truth diverges from our perceptions because our realities are constantly unfolding, changing, and evolving. By not remaining attached to his story, Stephen has learned how to share without fear and also understands the value in doing so.

“If I can share my story and somebody out there lands with [it] and they resonate with some of it, that would be incredible,” Stephen said. “It also feels really good for me to be able to share my story and it be a story. You know? It actually feel like a story–not my present reality. It’s things that happen[ed] to me but it doesn’t define how I feel in this moment or the way I’m going to experience the rest of my life.”

By unpacking his story, Stephen could finally learn to release it so that it was no longer blocking his heart from his true self and being. By doing so, he is now able to live his life on completely new terms.

If you’re interested in learning more about All Points North and our addiction, trauma, professional, and mental health recovery programs, submit our confidential contact form or call us at 855.934.1178 today. You never know how good your life can get when you open up your heart to what’s possible.

More From Stephen

Listen and watch Stephen’s episode of Recovery x APN below, and find more episodes on YouTube, Spotify, and Apple Podcasts.