“He asked me on a date everyday for six months and I said ‘No.'” Victoria Long finally agreed to a date with Mykle Shaulis. “Our first date he showed up with tiger lilies and box of shot gun shells. And I was like, alright, this is probably the one.” I met the couple last week at their home in Watertown. I love their smiles here. Mykle is an Army veteran, who was at Fort Drum, and saw some of the toughest combat years while he was active. I’m working on their story now of how they cope with his return, and what has been made possible by their relationship.
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Mykle Shaulis and Tori Long began a relationship that forced them to deal with Shaulis’ trauma as an Army veteran, and Long’s battles with anxiety. It all happened at the gym.
Mykle Shaulis and Tori Long first fell in love with weights, and then with each other. They met at the gym. Mykle asked Tori on a date every day for six months, and she finally gave in. “On our first date he showed up with a box of tiger lilies and a box of shot gun shells, and I was like ‘OK, this is probably the one,'” Tori said.
Mykle looks like a weightlifter, because he is one. His muscles buldge out of his t-shirt. He has tattoos down his forearm. He looks like he could easily pick up a healthy adult over this head. Tori is shorter, wearing a tank top, with hints of her favorite color, neon coral, in her outfit. The tattoo on her arm is a pretty accurate description of her. It is a drawing of a girl looking in a mirror, and says, “Though she be but little, she is fierce.”
Tori and Mykle live close to the river in Watertown. Mykle’s two boys and two service dogs live with them. The gym is sort of another character in their relationship, a daily constant. Mykle, a 10th Mountain Division veteran, started working out when he was stationed in Baghdad. He was depressed. “Being depressed in-country is the worst thing, especially when you’re still partrolling,” Michael recalled.
Mykle’s depression continued when he got home. He got in trouble with a DUI. He was supposed to deploy again, but he didn’t. He wasn’t weightlifting anymore, and he started drinking. “Essentially I was drinking because I couldn’t sleep,” Mykle said. “I was having too many nightmares and I was just all over the place.”
Mykle has PTS. “That’s without the D,” he says. Without the “Disorder” part. Mykle and Tori don’t consider it a disorder; to them it’s a natural reaction to something traumatic. “I’ve done three tours at like the high points,” Mykle said, as he listed the many deployments and the major events he’d seen in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mykle came home from his last deployment feeling lost. Tori helped him in a lot of ways that the Army didn’t. “I think the funniest thing about the military, too, is they spend so much money and so much effort on training these young men how to go to war, but nobody trains them on how to come back home,” Tori said.
“There’d be times at like three in the morning I couldn’t sleep,” Michael said, “so I’d text her and magically she’d be awake and she’d be like, ‘Why don’t you just come over?’”
“There are moments when light snow goes across the ground and it looks like sand to him,” Tori recalled. Mykle described several times where he was transported back to his deployments. “One night, just for absolutely no reason I guess—the moon was right and the stars were aligned—but the building actually across the street looked exactly like the barracks I was living in when I was in Baghdad,” he said.
Tori sits with him through these moments, talks with him and brings him out of them.
The gym was there through it all, too. “We were going to the gym and it was just one of those fun things,” Tori said. “We want to go to the gym because we want to look good.” It helped them focus, they quit drinking and things began to click. Now, Tori says, “I’m going to the gym because it’s strengthening me mentally. It makes me a better person. It makes me more apt to handle any situation that’s thrown my way.”
Tori has her own struggles. She has panic attacks sometimes now, actually at the gym. “For the first couple weeks that I was having the problem I would just drive to the gym and sit in the parking lot and cry, because I couldn’t even go inside, because I just had so much anxiety about being around all those people.”
Instead of trying to push her anxiety away, she talked about it publicly on social media. She wrote poems, and recorded her anxiety attacks at the gym. “I wanted people to see that you’re not always going to have the good days, ” she said. “It’s about getting up and going when you don’t want to. And I wanted people to see me for who I really was, that I’m not just some sparking fitness personality. That I struggle with things just like everybody else.”
For Mykle and Tori, it’s all about supporting each other through moments like this. Others notice it, too. Soldiers approach Mykle all the time at the gym. asking for advice. “You feel better at the end of it, “Mykle said., “and you just continue to use that as a positive, no matter how bad the day is throughout work. Just continue to think, I can’t wait to go to the gym; it’s going to make me feel better.”
People come up to Tori too. Recently three women stopped Tori during a workout to ask for advice. Her advice back: “I do it for me. And I think that’s the biggest thing is doing things because it makes you happy, not because of the outcome that you want from it. It’s just in this moment, this makes me happy. This is what I have to do.”