The Amazon

Having had the go ahead from the surgeon to undertake the trip to the Amazon, I now needed to plan it.

I decided to go with Randall Adventure Training for my trip to the the Amazon. They’re an American company and are globally recognised as being one of the best jungle survival training companies in the world.

I called my friend Guy, who I met on the Arctic survival course and asked if he fancied a trip to the Amazon, “Yes!” he replied, so we booked our places and went for it.

Here’s a link to their latest course:

2017 Jungle Course

Mike and Jeff who run the company are hugely experienced and have travelled and explored much of South America.

This really was a survival course, we took no food, no water, no spare clothes or shelter. We had a fantastic time; it was a real challenge and I couldn’t believe I was there! In the Amazon! Only 2 years ago I could hardly walk and now I was chopping my way through the jungle.

At the end of the 10 day course, I had literally hundreds of bites, in fact, the instructors had never seen anyone bitten so much and my back appeared in an American survival magazine! What fame! I put it down to having British blood, so much more appealing than American.

Making a jungle bed

There were many highlights, seeing and holding a boa and a sloth, building jungle beds, firelighting in the torrential rain, learning to use a machete, drinking from a water vine, seeing a myriad of insects, “simply” experiencing the jungle and while floating down the Amazon, on our personal homemade rafts, having fresh water dolphins come up and swim along side us.

But, what I truly learnt from this course, is to say “yes” to things that come your way, and…not to simply wait for those things to happen, but to make them happen! I could have put so many barriers and reasons for not going; my mental health, my abuse, my spinal injury, money, time away from work and family. I took a huge leap of faith and had a wonderful and life changing experience.

I am blessed with having a really supportive wife, family and colleagues, who rather than put obstacles in the way, encouraged me to go (but, maybe they really just needed a break from me! 🙂 ).

People ask me what is the thing I find most scary and frightening on expeditions; the answer is simple; the flying. I simply hate flying.

I am delighted that through my work, I have been able to go on to use these experiences and talk to community groups and schools and show that you do not need to be super human to undertake these types of challenges and hopefully inspire other people to follow their dreams.

 

 

 

Post Op Challenge? How about the Amazon Jungle?

The surgery on my back was more complex than first planned and the operation took over 8 hours.

It was a bit of a roller coaster for the next few days; pain control medication was chopped and changed and I was fitted for a corset which I wore daily for the next 3 months. The OT’s had me walking the day after the operation and going up and down stairs the day after.

The operation was a success. I needed to do daily exercises and keep to a sensible amount of exercise, but in less than 6 months I was virtually pain free and was sledging in the snow with my 2 boys.

There has been irreparable nerve damage; I have a degree of numbness in my left leg and occasional pain in my hip, but I cannot thank Mr Blackman enough for such a phenomenal success; it was far beyond what I could have ever imagined or hoped for.

It seems strange now, that just after having such a positive result with the operation that I went into a deep depression about what I had not achieved during my life. This lasted several months, but I was not going to let this new opportunity go; I needed to do something that I had always wanted to do and started thinking about all the places I wanted to visit or the things I wanted to achieve.

I was very aware that I needed to let my back heal properly and that the convalescent period was 2 years. On my last appointment with my surgeon, I asked him if he felt it was okay for me to go to the Amazon jungle to undertake a survival course.

“Yes”, was his answer.

(Sorry for the lateness in updating the blog, had an illness in the family).

“Did you know you’ve broken your back?”

Greenpath Ventures was doing tremendously well, referrals were coming in, we had built up a really good solid relationship with our funders, I remember one in particular, who said we were “inspirational and one of the best projects they had ever funded”. We had even found a permanent home for our bushcraft courses!

We had been so lucky to find Ivy Farm on Mersea Island, 50 beautiful acres at the mouth of the Colne Estuary and Ralph the owner couldn’t have been more supportive and encouraging. After a couple of months of seeing what we did he even decided to join us as a trustee!

I had a history of back trouble and noticed it was becoming increasingly difficult to walk any distance. Following the trip to the Arctic, I knew I was in serious trouble.

I was now always in pain and finding it more and more problematic to walk even short distances, just 30 meters would seem to take forever. Any bending was agony, I couldn’t carry or lift anything, I had pins and needles and constant sciatica down my left leg.

The first doctor dismissed it as a pulled muscle and examined the wrong side. I changed my doctor. There was a dramatic difference. My new GP, took me seriously and immediately started to investigate the cause of the pain.

I had X-rays, MRI scans (the first of which was lost), several lots of physio. The physio didn’t help so I was referred to the pain clinic. I was now given spinal injections, more physio, a T.E.N.s machine and my pain medication was increased; I was now on morphine patches, Subutex as well as codeine, paracetamol, ibuprofen and heat packs, all with no avail. I was totally exhausted from the medication and being in pain.

Finally, I was referred to a spinal surgeon, Mr Blackman at Colchester General Hospital.

“Did you know you’ve broken your back?”, my consultant asked and then continued. “You really have 2 options; stay on the medication to manage your pain, but which will have to increase in time or to have surgery to fuse your lower spine”.

“If I don’t have the surgery what will be the prognosis?”, I asked.

“To be honest, you’ll most probably end up in a wheelchair and be on pain medication for the rest of your life”.

That came as a thunderbolt, “Okay, if I have surgery, I expect that will be a fairly small operation and most likely be key hole won’t it?” I asked hopefully.

“No, it’s a major operation, we’ll open you right up. First we’ll go through  your stomach and pin your spine from the inside, then flip you over, open your back up and do the same again. You’ll also be given a bone graft. It will take about 5 hours and it will take about 2 years to recuperate fully.”

spinal-fusion
Spinal cage
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Bit like mine, but I’ve got screws front and back.

“Right”, I squeaked in reply.

“I have to tell you about the possible side effects” the consultant continued, “although they are rare, they could include; death, incontinence, impotence, paraplegia, a permanent limp, drop foot and nerve damage”.

I didn’t really have a choice I thought, I could hardly walk now, running GV was becoming impossible. I decided to go for the surgery.

Greenpath Ventures; “Inspirational” and “Visionary”

The cost of mental health problems to the economy in England is estimated to be £105 billion a year.

Centre for Mental Health (2011), The Economic and Social Costs of Mental Health Problems in 2009/10.

Greenpath Ventures

Greenpath Ventures (GV) works with many professionals and organisations, who simply “get it!”; being outside and involved with nature is good for both your mental and physical health. Here’s some further information to confirm it! MIND Ecotherapy.

However, it’s also very sad to say, the idea of offering people with mental health issues the opportunity to undertake bushcraft is not meet with enthusiasm on all sides! When we first started out and people asked what the individuals would be doing on our bushcraft days, and I explained; “firelighting, foraging, learning to use cutting tools, archery and maybe even shooting”, quite a few professionals were very skeptical and sometimes even hostile.

Here’s an example of some of the things that were said to me:

  • “The activities are too dangerous for them; you can’t let mental patients use knives and fire”
  • “They have a history of arson, so don’t show them how to start fires”
  • “We (as in the clinical staff) are responsible for them, they can’t come, they may have an accident”
  • “We (as in the clinical staff) have to look after them and ensure they are safe”
  • “They self harm, so shouldn’t be shown how to use knives or axes”
  • “They have mental health problems, what would happen if people heard they had been shooting airguns?”

Now, I do understand some of the concerns and the reasoning behind some of these statements; I tried to explain that everything we did was under supervision and that we carried out risk assessments for every session, but sadly in the minds of some professionals, clients with  mental health issues could not be trusted enough to attend our courses.

This smacks to me of sheer blatant discrimination against adults who actually have “mental capacity”!

The MCA says:

  • Everyone has the right to make his or her own decisions. Health and care professionals should always assume an individual has the capacity to make a decision themselves, unless it is proved otherwise through a capacity assessment.
  • Individuals must be given help to make a decision themselves. This might include, for example, providing the person with information in a format that is easier for them to understand. 
  •  Just because someone makes what those caring for them consider to be an “unwise” decision, they should not be treated as lacking the capacity to make that decision. Everyone has the right to make their own life choices, where they have the capacity to do so.

The clients wanted to come, we were having fantastic feedback and the outcomes were exactly what clinicians would want. People were saying they felt responsible and trusted, it was improving their confidence & self-esteem and their mental health was improving. Regularly, people were saying our courses should be offered by the NHS as they were helping so much. How awful, that regardless of all these positives, people were often being denied the opportunity to attend because of the preconceived ideas of some health care professionals. So much for all the hyperbole of “client led services”.

This also smacks, to me, of encouraging “learnt helplessness”; when clients were on our courses professionals would continue to treat them as incapable of looking after themselves, telling them to put their jackets on because it was raining. How was this approach helping people learn to become more responsible for themselves? People were often being treated as helpless and this is itself disempowering. Very simply; we treated people like adults and they responded as adults.

Nevertheless, GV was on a role! Including going into schools we were working with over 1,000 people per year, everything was going well. We had been members of ATTEND, from our very beginning and we were invited to be a showcase project at their AGM at Westminster Palace, London.

Funders and partners were describing our charity as “visionary” and “inspirational”.

Unfortunately, I was about to get some bad news which would dramatically affect GV.

Please take a look at our website and “like” us on Facebook: www.facebook.com/greenpathventures/

Moving On

In 2012/13 there were 23,663 recorded sexual offences against children across the whole of the UK.

In 2006, HEAL was awarded the Queens Award for Voluntary Service and several of us were invited to Buckingham Palace for tea with the Queen.

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Awarded to HEAL, 2006

Our service was saving the statutory services a fortune and the irony, that while the NHS, including Psychiatrists & Psychologists and Social Services were regularly making referrals to us, we were receiving no funding from them and were struggling financially. The cost of our entire service would be similar to the salary of one senior nurse.

The ever increasing demand and growing waiting list and being a parent was beginning to tell on my mental health.

Professionals often state that between 3-5 years is the maximum you should work solidly without a break in the survivor field. I had now been at HEAL for 9 years and my entire workload was abuse. I knew it was time to find something new, I was beginning to feel burnt out.

It was tremendously difficult to tell the members of my decision to leave. I gave plenty of notice and we worked on loss and abandonment a great deal.

I feel huge pride in the work the members, volunteers, trustees and myself did at HEAL. The courage shown by our members was awe inspiring and I felt highly privileged in working with those survivors and in the programme we developed together.

I was totally speechless and crumpled when it was announced that they had clubbed together to have a star named after me. I felt so humbled that these heroic people would think that much of me, to do something so special.

My Star, John Wills: Taurus 5h25m01s =24degrees57'36"
My Star, John Wills: Taurus 5h25m01s =24degrees57’36”

I had been thinking for some time what I could do if I was to move away from Survivor work. I had always loved nature and the outdoors. In my childhood and youth, I had used nature to escape from the abuse and regularly visited Hackney and Walthamstow Marshes. I would often see Kingfishers, Herons, Foxes and (the non-native and irresponsibly released) Red-eared Terrapins on my journeys.

I began to think, if I had used nature to help in my healing, then maybe others could also benefit. This was confirmed to me one day at a HEAL session. People were really low and we began to discuss things we had achieved or always wanted to do, many of the ideas revolved around experiencing nature and before long peoples moods changed dramatically. Just talking about nature was helping!

The idea for Greenpath Ventures began to develop.

I discussed the idea about starting a new charity offering bushcraft and other outdoor activities to adults with mental health issues with a few colleagues and friends, and to my utter disbelief, people thought it was a great idea!

I embarked on Bushcraft Insturctor Training at Plumpton College in East Sussex, passed the course and we formed Greenpath Ventures. I also wanted to further my experience of the outdoors and undertook Arctic Survival training in Sweden.

Me in the Arctic
Me in the Arctic

We formally launched Greenpath Ventures as a registered charity at Essex County Hall in May 2008.

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Hello world! I’m a Survivor!

Me as a child
Me as a child

I’ve resisted for a long time to go really public about my own experiences of surviving child sexual abuse. Not because of shame, guilt or unresolved issues, but more because I wanted to protect my nearest and dearest from these issues and how other people would react. It is very sad, that even today, being a VICTIM of abuse does make a difference on how people relate and react to you.

Well my kids are now more grown up and my wife, Yvonne knows all about the abuse and has been through my recovery with me. I discussed with my two teenage sons about going public and if they felt comfortable with me doing it. Independently of each other they both said; “If it can help other people you should do it”. I was so proud of them.

I do not want this blog to be me writing about how damaged I am or about how bad my abuse was. What I want to do is give people hope….and there is always hope, that with the right support and help, you can recover from the trauma of child abuse.

So the £64,000 question (or $64,000 for any Americans out there!); what is recovery? When I use that term, I do not mean forgetting or necessarily forgiving, I do not mean never feeling sad or unhappy again. For me, recovery is reclaiming my life and taking back control and making the very best of what I have and accepting life “warts and all” (Oliver Cromwell).

Another reason for this blog is that there are simply not enough resources, stories or coverage on male abuse; I just hope I can help a little in addressing this issue. So for those who are interested, my next post will be the beginning of my story.

If this blog can help just one person, then it would have fulfilled it’s purpose.