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Fishing for SIMs

By Timothy Cocks Science and the world 25 Jun 2015

Inspiring story of Chad Brown who found therapy and a new lease on life in a surprising way, from Outside magazine.

The PTSD River Cure

“He’s a U.S. Navy veteran who participated in Desert Storm and Desert Shield, served at Guantánamo Bay, and saw combat during Operation Restore Hope, in Somalia, during the infamous Black Hawk Down era. That he came back with post-traumatic stress disorder is no news in this era—but he’s also an artist, designer, and educator who believes, he told me at breakfast, “in finding a way to radiate your pain outward to help others.”

From Mogadishu to Portland

“Oregon’s slower pace gave him time to think, and remember, and to sink into a downward spiral. He started drinking, lost his contract job, and fell into depression, too ashamed to ask his parents for help. 

I was deteriorating every month I was away from my family,” he says. “No one to turn to. I was in a dark place.” He became “borderline homeless,” he says, routinely selling his blood for gas money. He felt broken in a way that couldn’t be fixed, and in the summer of 2009, he went to the Clackamas River, took out a gun, and prepared to shoot himself. Something, probably the river itself, with its steady pull of gentle power, held him back. He called his mother, who called the Veterans Affairs suicide hotline. He was placed in a padded room in a VA psychiatric ward. 

At the VA, Chad was known by the last four digits of his social-security number. Every morning he was handed a paper cup full of two or three different medications. After four days he was let out of the psych ward, but he remained in a VA clinic, learning more about post-traumatic stress. A suite of ugly realities are swept up in the cozy abbreviation PTSD: tricks of memory, sleepless nights, emotional instability, substance abuse, depression, anxiety, thoughts of suicide, and flattening doses of pharmaceuticals. That all sounded about accurate to Chad, a description of who he had become. 

The first fish

The turning point came months later, when a VA attendant took him bass fishing. This was at Clackamette Park, a suburban oasis in Portland where the Clackamas and Willamette Rivers meet. On his first try, Chad accidentally hooked a jack salmon. He lost the fish, but “I was whooping and hollering,” he recalls. “It made me feel alive. I hadn’t smiled for so long.” 

Helping others

“I’m medicated,” Chad told me once, referring to rivers. “That was my healing. Fishing evolved me to a place where I was ready to get back in society and kick ass.” On the Sandy one day in 2011, he says, “I was standing in the water waist deep, and I thought, This river has basically saved my life. I’ve got to do something for others. It became about more than just me, and that’s when my design side started to kick in.” (emphasis added)

We like to say that SIMs* can hide in hard to find places – even at the end of a fishing rod.


– Tim Cocks


*By my count, every category of SIM is covered in this wonderful story of recovery.


  1. Very interesting Tim. I did a talk on Ted Hughes poem River for a meeting at the Bristish Pain Society.(allegories of change ) Its a beautiful poem based on a shamanic journey and celtic mythology of renewal which this story retells . If you are interested I can send it on to you .

  2. Good one Tim.

    It is extremely important to make the SIM specific to the individual. The VA attendant did a great job here. He had enough insight to recognize the patient’s need for control and power.

    This quote: “get back in society and KICK ASS” tells us that Chad’s ego health depends on ‘conquering and defeating’. No doubt a a hangover from his military days. So it makes sense that hunting would do the job in reigniting his sense of being ‘ok’. Shooting wild animals would also have been a very powerful way to bolster his self-image. The bigger and more ferocious the animal, the more he would be able to re-connect with that sense of personal power and control. Expedient no doubt, but effective.

    To use fishing as therapy is very well directed and powerful. There was no need to delve into the patient’s feelings of powerlessness, his childhood, his relationship with his father or what atrocities he saw in action. No doubt Chad had a psychologist and shrink trying to untangle all that shit. But it takes enormous skill and talent to do this properly, and sometimes there are short cuts. Milton Erickson was a master at short cutting therapy, sometimes leaving untouched quite major psychopathologies. I’d encourage all Physios to have a look at his work.


  3. Speaking of short cuts, this is about as good as it gets. It cuts through the garbage like nothing else. It’s from Carl Rogers (who else?).

    “I have however come to believe that in spite of his bewildering horizontal multiplicity, and the layer upon layer of vertical complexity, there is perhaps only one problem…. Below the level of the problem situation about which the individual is complaining—behind the trouble with studies, or wife, or employer, or with his own uncontrollable and bizarre behavior, or with his frightening feelings, lies one central search. It seems to me that at bottom each person is asking, Who am I, really ? How can I get in touch with this real self, underlying all my surface behavior? How can I become myself?””.

    ‘Who am I?’ is unanswerable in words. But in the process of trying to answer it, one is directed to look at one’s emotions. Instead of looking away from pain, one looks directly at it.

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