Tina Bell is tough.
The retired Canadian Armed Forces Master Corporal has weathered storms of anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, deep grief, and PTSD and come out the other side. She attributes overcoming life’s struggles to exercise.
“It is hard to put into words how fitness has changed my life – it has been the single biggest factor in my recovery from PTSD,” says Bell. “It has taught me how to release anger in a healthy way through lifting weights, and how to give my brain a break from trauma. When I am working out I am not thinking of anything other than the mind-muscle connection. This gives my brain something positive to focus on, that has nothing to do with the outside world.”
The outside world has been challenging. She went through her own divorce, and her parents divorce simultanesouly. In 2010, she was deployed to Afghanistan for a six-month tour that lasted 11 months. “Over there I experienced multiple traumatic events that led me to where I am today. It was a lot to take in.”
The seeds of PTSD were planted. Soon after coming home, a close friend of the family was brutally murdered. “My world came crashing down,” says Bell. Friends and family started to make comments that she might need help, that she had changed, and she eventually took a stress leave from work. “The last thing I wanted was a diagnosis of PTSD from the Canadian Forces. There is strong stigma attached and I didn’t want to be perceived as ‘weak’. I thought I could cope but was having flashbacks, nightmares and panic attacks. I thought my life was in control. It wasn’t.”
At the same time, she had reconnected with a childhood love: hockey. “I discovered all my stresses melted away the moment my skates hit the ice. I was able to turn that pent up anger into something positive and get it out through physical exercise.”
Bell returned to her job in Kingston, ON after her stress release was over, but all was not right. Anger was a day-to-day emotion. She was sent to the firing range for an annual rifle qualification, the day after having a big blow up with her supervisor. “I was given my rifle and ammunition. My hands started to tremble and I felt like my head was in the clouds. It wasn’t almost like I wasn’t there. I pictured myself loading my rifle and turning it on my supervisor. I knew something wasn’t right with me. I put the gun down, walked out, got in my Jeep and drove straight to Mental Health. While I was in the waiting area I had a massive panic attack. I was given a diagnosis of PTSD.” She went on medical leave, and took early retirement in 2016.
Bell has worked intensely through therapy, and in 2016 attended the Project Trauma Support cohort in Perth, Ontario with a dozen other military, EMS and police personnel. Project Trauma Support offers intensive five-day retreats to treat the ‘moral injury’ of the soldier – through group therapy, meditation, exercise and more.
Tina Bell was able to find her tribe. “This was the first time I allowed myself to feel my pain, to be okay with it. I never allowed myself to cry until that point because I felt it was my duty to stay angry, or numb. Being sad felt like I was giving in. But among a tribe of women who knew what I was going through, because they were going through it too, I was able to cry it out.” She also learned to meditate, a practice she continues today. “It helps with my anxiety, and keeps me present.”
In February 2019 Bell lost her dad to cancer and began to emotional eat. She gained 20 pounds over six months, which has given her more conviction to return to the gym; she is now training for a bodybuilding competition. “Fitness is a part of my day. If I skip it, I feel it emotionally off. It brings me comfort,” says Bell.
Out of darkness come light; out of struggle comes strength. Out of challenge, change.
What is PTSD (From Veterans.ca):
PTSD is a psychological response to the experience of intense traumatic events, particularly those that threaten life. It can affect people of any age, culture or gender. The condition has been known to exist since the times of ancient Greece and has been called by many different names. In the American Civil War, it was referred to as “soldier’s heart;” in the First World War, it was called “shell shock” and in the Second World War, it was known as “war neurosis.” Many soldiers were labelled as having “combat fatigue” when experiencing symptoms associated with PTSD during combat. In the Vietnam War, this became known as a “combat stress reaction.” Some of these people continued on to develop what became known, in 1980, as post-traumatic stress disorder.
In 2018, 21,604 Canadian veterans were receiving disability a PTSD diagnosis. Rates of PTSD have doubled over the last fifteen years.