Mental health awareness and my story

  • Published
  • By A U.S. Air Force Major
  • 144th Fighter Wing

While we take pause to discuss mental health topics each May because it is Mental Health Awareness Month, we know the importance of the topic is not bound by days on a calendar. Our mental health should always be considered a critical part of our overall health.

Before I continue, I want to emphasize, no matter where you are with your mental health, it’s important to remember that diet, exercise, sleep, and interaction with others are key factors that contribute to positive mental health. If you or someone you know is experiencing feelings of hopelessness or acting impulsively, seek help immediately!

We know that mental health issues are sometimes seen as a weakness. This is a stigma that we may have based on our upbringing or our environment. In the military, I certainly have felt that way, but I think the stigma has changed significantly. Today the importance of mental health and treatment for mental illness is taken more seriously. Mental illness, like any physical injury, can be healed. Sometimes it can heal on its own like a cut or a bruise, but oftentimes, because of its severity, it takes medical intervention to treat it, like a broken bone.

This stigma can make it scary to admit when we need help, and seeking help can seem like the hardest thing to do. Yet, we know that when something is difficult or scary and we do it anyway, we are demonstrating courage. That demonstration of courage is important because it encourages others to seek help when they need it. It also helps us prove to ourselves how courageous we can be.

To help others overcome the stigma, I am sharing my personal story.

Throughout my life, I had thought of suicide as a coward’s way out. I thought the topic of mental health was laughable and talking to someone about my emotions was something I simply did not need. I felt mentally tough, capable, and bulletproof. However, inside I was extremely vulnerable to others’ words, opinions and criticisms.

When I felt discomfort, I overcompensated by acting tough, yet I still felt fear and doubt. I purposefully built a mental armor around my inner self. Why did I do this? Because I did not feel I was worthy to be vulnerable and flawed—to acknowledge and feel my emotions—to be true to myself.

As a man and a guardsman, every situation I was thrust into was a situation to help others, to fix problems, and to excel by looking impervious to physical and mental pain. But in each of those events, when I denied my true feelings and fears, I denied myself, and I felt lost. Ironically, when I put on my facade, others benefited from the jobs I did well, but I felt that I was sacrificing myself for what I thought I had to be.

When I broke, I broke hard. It did not just simply come on like a light switch. My dysfunction was a gradual increase of negative experiences and negative self talk. Over many years, I became less and less happy with myself as I denied the emotions and needs that I had.

About five years ago, a series of events began and I reached my lowest point. After excruciating and debilitating pain, I underwent spinal surgery, but it left my left arm partially limp due to nerve damage. The realization that I was disabled filled me with even more thoughts of self doubt. I wondered: How do I serve? Will I be able to stay in the military? and How do I protect others or even myself?

Then, two years years later, after another surgery, I got an infection that almost claimed my life. After surviving the infection, I was physically weak and frail. My recovery took two years. Meanwhile, my marriage deteriorated, and I was faced with mounting medical bills and debt. I was struggling. I also continued to live with crushing neck and spinal pain.

I then got orders to deploy to Ukraine. Feeling overwhelmed, I sucked it up and put my armor back on. It was the strategy I knew and it usually worked. With my armor back on, most people were unable to detect what I was enduring or thinking.

Then I was faced with the tragic and unexpected death of an Airman in my unit. I tried to remain armored and looking strong. However, the chink in my armor was on full display. I stopped eating, and I continued to perseverate on my problems. I isolated myself. I went through the motions of my job, but I had given up on myself.

It was then that I started thinking that my absence from life would benefit others.

I was still deployed, but luckily for me, a few fellow Airmen took notice. They began to support me and ensured I did not isolate. They found ways to force me out of my room to partake in meals. They became mentors that I didn’t know I needed. They showed me strength in myself when I thought I had none. They do not know it, but they averted multiple moments when I was contemplating suicide.

Upon my return from Ukraine, my situation again deteriorated. I no longer had my support network in place. Suicide seemed to become more and more of an option for me. I began planning how to do it. I researched morbid facts to assure myself of the lethality of my planning. I thought about how I would be successful at accomplishing my plan without anyone getting in my way. I was committed to not letting others know what I was going to do.

The darkness I experienced made suicide seem like the only solution to end the pain, suffering, and negative thoughts. If you are experiencing a similar type of darkness, I urge you to not give up. Suicide is never the solution. Keep searching for the light that takes you away from the negative thoughts.

Out of nowhere, someone said the right thing to me! It was a simple compliment. A coworker said I was intelligent. I wasn’t often told that, and I didn’t believe it before, but this time it was different. It was so sincere that it stopped me in my tracks. Then I heard it again from another person, and again from another. It was after those interactions that I decided to try to reach out for help. Maybe I wasn't worthless.

It started with a begrudging cry for help. I called the Veterans Center. I was asked to come in the next day, which gave me a glimmer of hope. With great doubt and weighted feet, I went to the Veterans Center. I sat down in a classroom expecting to be part of a newcomers brief when out of the blue, a member of the staff asked me to follow him. This was an intervention. I discussed what was happening, and he showed me kindness and empathy. He acknowledged my thoughts, assessed me, and gave me resources. The assessment carried with it four letters that stemmed back to my combat experience: PTSD.

I finally began to eat again, to sleep, to exercise, and participate in some activities that I felt were safe. I talked to the wing's Director of Psychological Health and also a close friend. I began to heal and address my feelings of worthlessness, self doubt, and helplessness. I learned how to survive my recurring negative thoughts and to finally move past them. I was experiencing a deep state of depression complicated with PTSD, and now I had a plan—a treatment plan to get better.

I learned valuable lessons from my experience, which I continue to understand more and more every day.

First, no one should ever judge suicide or those who are struggling with ideation. It is a monster, a demon, a genie in the bottle that makes you feel like there is no other solution. When someone gets lost in the darkness of their mind, it is extremely hard to find a footing or feel like you will ever be okay again. Yet before someone completes a suicide, they should remember that their demons, monsters, and pain are spread to those who cared about them. It is not a solution for them.

Second, I learned that I am worthy of being honest about myself. I am worthy of being loved for me. Read that again. We are all worthy of being loved. We are worth it. This does not mean, “me first at the cost of others.” It means having boundaries and assertiveness.

Third, IT IS OKAY TO LEAN ON OTHERS when you need it. Excellence in all we do is not just a personal thing; it is a team dynamic too. We should all strive to care for, to support, and to be willing to lean on our team members.

Fourth, there is ALWAYS another option! Get rid of your lethal means. Simply remove yourself from the situation. Be open and honest with yourself and find things you feel will protect you from pursuing suicide. Put a picture of someone or something meaningful on your phone. Reach out to a person you trust. Go to church, go hiking, or go to the gym. If you find you no longer like doing things, which is called anhedonia, go for a brisk 30-minute walk. If you find you are doing things impulsively or engaging in unusually risky behavior like drunk driving, drugs, risky sex, speeding, or thrill seeking, take a moment and be honest with yourself. Address your red flags.

Fifth, seek help! Text 741741, call the Veterans Suicide Hotline, or go to the emergency room. Do not be afraid to seek help.

Sixth, help others. You can find catharsis and answers in seeing things through others’ eyes.

The list of learning goes on and on. So, I want to leave you with this. We all subscribe to the Air Force Core Values at some level. The first value is Integrity First. This core value extends beyond the Air Force or the Department of Defense. It applies to each of us personally. When we are honest with ourselves, we are more willing to get help when we are struggling.

When we admit early on that we we need help, while our distress is more manageable, our struggles will be easier to overcome. When we admit to ourselves our true feelings, our true fears, and our true doubts, we get closer to accepting our real situation. We get closer to accepting our own imperfect worthiness. By having integrity with ourselves, we become healthier versions of our true selves. In truth, we will endure—endure through our most difficult times, and find our own worthiness.