Reefing Saved My Life!

Note: This article about PTSD and reefing is largely based on my own personal experience. I'm not a qualified physician nor do I have all the answers in combating this mental illness. Any of the "tips" I give in this article should be read as coaching rather than medical advice. If you are feeling depressed, suicidal, or considering self-harm you should contact your nearest medical facility for help as they have the tools and professionals to provide you with the necessary treatment.

I spent 21 years in the United States Army and deployed to Afghanistan many times. In my time there, I witnessed and was a part of many unimaginable acts. Witnessing these things has left me scarred for the rest of my life and many of these things cause an eternal guilt that I feel because I was a part of it. There are other traumatic events, to include vehicular accidents that aid in my diagnosis of Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I have spent 8 years in therapy and have tried everything they have in their arsenal. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Group Therapy, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), as well as Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), to name a few. None worked very well until I found a therapist that listened to me and did not follow an agenda for their organization.
My wife (also a therapist) and therapist understood how my mind worked and how I processed thoughts. They knew that I was an “always on the go” type of person and that I got bored with things easily. My therapist discussed finding a hobby to help me cope with PTSD, so that I could train my mind that is always active, to concentrate on other activities. She just understood that my mind raced with negative thoughts and that I needed something else to focus on. My focus turned into an obsessive fascination, which allowed me to focus on things that brought me joy (Reefing), instead of things brought me pain and suffering.
Finding Peace
I have always been fascinated when walking into places that had reef tanks. Just being able to observe all the little creatures in the tank that helped create an eco-system. When I brought this up to my wife, she agreed and we started on our first reefing experience. There was a lot of failure involved, but the failure is what helped me. As we all know, there is never a perfect tank. You will NEVER reach that place where you think “my tank is exactly how I want it to be and I can do nothing else to improve it”! Even if this was ever spoken by anyone, the following month could be an algae outbreak, aptasia, or many of the other know-unknowns that we constantly deal with.
I was in a place of detachment and isolation back then. I liked being alone and away from people and coming home was a trigger for me. For reasons that I never want explain, crying children is a trigger for my combat trauma. Once I had the tank running and had coral, fish, and other critters in there, I would use this to distract me when I was spiraling out of control with negative thoughts. I would immediately go to my tank as soon as I got home to check on things. This helped me redirect my thought process from negative to positive when negative thoughts were taking over. I was starting to use my new hobby as a positive coping mechanism for anxiety attacks, flashbacks, and depression.
My Coping
I suffer from repetitive and intrusive thoughts daily. Some days are worse than others and I go to my tank to calm me down. I have conditioned myself to immediately go to the tank and start some maintenance, or change something around. At one point, I got rid of a perfectly good algae scrubber and made my own cheaper DIY version just to keep me busy and distracted from negative thoughts. The tank maintenance and my mental health maintenance become one when this happens. I do manual and automated testing (daily). At least I always know what my levels are. Why do I do both manual and automated testing? Well, I suffer from intrusive thoughts when I am not around my tank. For that reason, I have a GHL Profilux and GHL Director. If I am at work and something triggers me, I log onto MyGHL APP and immerse myself into my tank. I know, it is not the same experience, but I have reprogrammed myself to disassociate from negative and redirect energy to positive when I am with my tank.
I was asked if losing a fish or coral due to some tank related issue harms my coping in any way. The answer is, no. You see, problems just help me focus more on the tank while I am trying to figure things out and fix the problem. Don’t get me wrong, I try to create the best possible environment for my animals to thrive, however, a catastrophic issue will just help me keep my mind from wondering down that negative rabbit hole. The longer something takes me, the longer it helps me stay positive and focused.
Departing Thoughts
You might ask yourself what the point of this article is; if it even qualifies as an article. The point is that there are many of us out there with similar issues that turn to reefing as a way to cope. The purpose of this is to let you know you are not isolated from everyone. You are not alone in what you are going through. Maybe this article will get people talking about what helps them cope and maybe, maybe, that will help someone else cope with their dark passenger. In the future, I will share how I have worked on finding a balance between my tank (therapy) and the people in my life. Losing yourself in your tank might be great for your mental health, however, what is that doing to the people around you that you also love?

About author
Spent 21 years in the Army and recently retired. Reefing is a way for me to detach from my anxiety and do some self care (therapy).

I started Reefing in 2013 but had to sell everything due to a military move. Now that I am finally retired from the service, I am starting back up again. I am always willing to help if I can, however, I still think I am a rookie.

I am always willing to accept constructive criticism.

Latest reviews

Pros: Honesty and Hope
Cons: The reality and poor treatment given to those who choose to serve and protect the rest.
A cliched but heartfelt response. Thanks for your article and your service.
  • Like
Reactions: Mical
Thank you. Hoping it helps others.
Pros: Comforting to know that i’m not alone looking to this hobby as a way to deal with my demons and triggers from my army career.
Cons: None
I’ve just bought a tank and the equipment with the hopes that this hobby can help me with my triggers as well. Setting everything up has been hard so far because my brain damage from too many concussions fuel my ptsd. I just fear that i’ll set it up badly and cause more harm then calmness and relief
  • Like
Reactions: HunterW

Feel free to reach out at any time for help with your tank. Once we have it running right, use it as a distraction for unwelcome thoughts.

I hope I can help you when you need help.

Pros: True story and a harsh reality.
Cons: None that I can see...
Everyone that is in the hobby can relate to this. We all have problems and some are more difficult than others, but everyone of us loves to sit in front of the tank and enjoy. Even if just for a moment it is very relaxing and helps relieve the stress and "forget" the problems. Of course they don´t disappear, we can only hope they go away...
  • Like
Reactions: Bruce17 and Dorinda
Better than yoga!
Pros: Honesty, and glad this was written.
Cons: None
There are many modalities to coping with PTSD, reefing is a fantastic way to get "out of one's head'. Thank tou for writing this article. It helped me as well.
Pros: A personal story from a true American hero is always welcome.
Cons: The article didn’t say where to buy the t-shirt. If it was a one off, I would suggest offering it for sale with proceeds going to support the vets..
Thank you for sharing and keeping reefing personal. IMO that’s what keeps it going.
I agree completely. I also have a deeper friendship with those in the hobby. So much to relate to.

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