HARRISBURG, PA. >> At his darkest point, Bryan Fant was addicted to vicodin, benzodiazepine, prozac, Xanax and various other powerful medications. All had been prescribed by the Veterans Administration to treat his debilitating pain, anxiety, depression and insomnia.
Multiple deployments to Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Kuwait had ravaged him physically. War had ravaged him emotionally.
Fant lived with chronic pain. He underwent no less than seven surgeries to the neck, back and shoulders. He had spent thousands of hours in military helicopters wearing heavy gear. The jarring and jumping had taken a toll on his spine.
At his lowest, his existence played out in a continuous reel of waking up in the morning, dragging himself to the mailbox to collect the new shipment of medications sent by the VA and then crawling to the couch in a drug-induced stupor.
“I was miserable,” Fant said. “I wasn’t a functioning human being. I wasn’t contributing to society in any way……..I was an a———…straight up not fit to be around. I was like a wounded animal that was in a corner so everyone that approached me in that corner, I wanted to strike out at them, which made me feel worse. Deep down I wanted that love and I wanted that affection and I wanted to heal but I was so wounded that I couldn’t let that in. I just didn’t understand.”
His grandfather had lived to 92, but at 41 Fant was certain he did not have 50 more years to live.
“There was no way,” he said. “I could see the writings on the wall.”
He woke up one day on the bedroom floor, his son and paramedics standing over him. Fant had had a seizure. He was rushed to the hospital where doctors determined that he was over-medicated, chronically stressed, fatigued and malnourished. He weighed 240 pounds, and had high blood pressure and acid reflux.
The VA’s answer: change the medicine.
That’s when things began to change.
“I was like ‘What are you doing to me? This was the VA…these people were trying to kill me,” Fant recalls.
Fant took control of his life.
He had been experimenting with cannabis to treat the chronic pain, but the VA informed him that he would have to start having periodic urine analysis, and that if cannabis was detected, he would be expelled from the pain management program.
Fant had lost everything – his wife, his son, his will to live. He realized he didn’t have much left to lose. He walked out of the outpatient clinic and never went back.
“I had made up my mind that the meds were not the answer,” Fant said. “I knew there had to be something different.”
He turned to yoga and meditation, immersing himself in a journey of self-exploration through breath work and the physical and spiritual practice of yoga.
“I just remember the first class being very nervous and not knowing what to expect but the contrast from the beginning to when I left was so great,” Fant said. “There was something there that I needed more of.”
He had only a vague understanding of the ancient practice. Fant began to educate himself about yoga, absorbing as much information from books, DVDs and teachers.
In the beginning, he had a hard time sitting still for meditation; he was in so much pain. But in time, Fant discovered the proper balance between strength and flexibility. He began to move with more ease. He kept up with classes and was usually the only man in class.
Yoga began to alleviate the physical symptoms. He found a new sense of equanimity and contentment.
“Beyond the yoga was the atmosphere,” Fant said. “The space where I could breathe and just be open and vulnerable and not hold on to my shield and hold on to my armor. I could actually let my guard down. You can’t work on anything unless you are able to do that. If you always have your shield up and are on the defensive, you don’t get time to relax…to breathe.”
He replaced the powerful medications with medical marijuana, and before long, relied solely on cannabis for pain management.
It has been five years since Fant became a serious yogi. His physical transformation is startling. The weight loss has happened organically; he has done no fad diets, but has become a more sensible eater. He avoids processed foods and shuns alcohol. Fant has lost 70 pounds; hours of yoga have sculpted him into a lean 170-pound physique.
These days, Fant, 47, has no trouble sleeping; the emotional issues that once crippled him no longer torment him.
He has discovered the empowerment that comes with yoga inversions and arm balances, such as handstands.
“Yoga is about so much more than handstands but to me the handstand is a turbo-charged meditation,” said Fant, who has progressed to one-arm handstands. “However many seconds, nothing else can be going on in your life in that time period. If you don’t have 100 percent focus, anything else comes into your mind in that time period, you are going to lose it.”
Fant says he has relearned to move and bend, and has reconnected with his core strength. He now realizes that the dysfunction in his back — much of it stemming from hernia surgeries and even such benign things as ill-fitting uniforms and boots — had much to do with a weak core.
“Reconnecting with my core strength and learning how to move my spine as a unit was maybe the greatest thing I got from yoga,” Fant said.
These days he has much to reflect on but most of it begins and ends with yoga.
“What yoga let me do was rediscover my place in the world and rediscover the things I had to offer,” said Fant, who lives in Camp Hill.
“I think I had run out of things to offer. When I left the military all the roles I had over the years were gone. I was a soldier, a leader, and father and husband and all these things got taken away at once. I was wandering, trying to figure out my role…Yoga gave me that back.”
Fant echoes a widely held truism about the military: The Army is good at preparing people to go to war but not so good at returning them to civilian life.
He stresses that veterans need to be their own advocates, particularly those for whom pharmaceutical medications no longer alleviate maladies and their symptoms. He acknowledges the difficulty in working with the VA.
“They are very much stuck in this western medicine model, which is treating the symptom,” Fant said. “So if I have high blood pressure, we are going to give you a pill. If you have chronic pain, we are going to give you a pill. Maybe your high blood pressure might be related to the pain. If we just solve the pain maybe we wouldn’t have to give you pills for the high blood pressure but the VA does not see that way. There’s a pill for everything.”
Fant was 18 and had just graduated from high school in June of 1990 when he enlisted in the Army. By December that year, he was deployed to Saudi Arabia to fight in Desert Storm.
He says that — just as his life has been transformed since he left the Army in 2011 — the Army has also changed.
“Instead of the gym they have the Army wellness center. There is yoga, nutrition, body composition and life coaching,” Fant said.” While they were doing that I was getting yoga training. Now I’m ready to come back and they are ready for me to be there.”
In recent years, a slew of studies have found that a consistent yoga practice has particularly positive effects for veterans, including improving symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression. Studies have shown similar positive results with meditation.
Fant has received yoga teacher training certification and teaches yoga classes across the Harrisburg region. He is set to begin teaching to veterans and their spouses at the Carlisle Barracks.
Beyond the strength and flexibility, Fant said, yoga has taught him to become comfortable in the discomfort; that no matter how uncomfortable a pose might be, he can, through awareness, consciously release the tension and use his breath to calm down.
“There’s not one thing about yoga,” Fant said. “It’s such a tool box. It really is a toolbox. It’s a refuge. To me my mat is just a marker. It just represents a space that I can come into and shut the outside world out and be focused on one thing for this time period.”
Fant populates his Instagram and Facebook accounts with photos of him deep in yoga poses and inversions, and while they make for dramatic shots, he says it’s the commitment to a daily practice that has the power to transform.
“I tell everyone that it’s way better to do five or 10 minutes of yoga a day than to do one two-hour class per week,” he said. “The five or 10 minutes you spend at home on your mat is way more valuable. The class gives you framework but the actual work takes place someplace else.”
He urges people in the military to take care of themselves. Sooner or later, the body will force you to care for it, he said.
He urges veterans dealing with post-deployment health and emotional issues to be patient, to keep moving forward and to reach out to others.
“We don’t always know how to ask for help,” he said. “Even when we want help, we don’t know how to take help even when it’s offered. It doesn’t mean we don’t want it. Be patient and know deep inside there’s always something to save inside everybody.”