Almost exactly two weeks ago, I found myself in the fetal position at the foot of my bed crying my eyes out. It was culmination of many stressors that threw me over the edge and caused to seriously think about taking my own life. Thankfully, I had great friends I could turn to. I sent an email to one friend as sort of a last ditch cry for help, thinking in my mind it was futile due to the late hour. As fate (or God) would have it, I got an almost instant response to call someone quick. I did just that.
Looking back, it’s easy to see where I went wrong, but it doesn’t make the result less frightening. One of my Soldiers lost his entire family and I took that hard. Both my grandparents died within a week of each other at the same time. There was a lot of self-induced work stress trying to get up to speed on a new job. Writing. Radio Show. Family. Lack of sleep. Pain. Nightmares. Trying to get the house rented or sold. Lawsuit against the school. Household goods delivery. Getting the new house ready. And the straw that broke my spirit – I ran out of my medications.
I work on West Fort Hood and we only have a small – but great – clinic over there. When I first was about to run out of my anti-depressants, I went to the clinic to get a refill. Unfortunately, they can’t do transfers at the West Fort Hood (Apache) Clinic from other duty stations and I was referred to the hospital on main post. It’s such an inconvenience to go to main post. I either have to miss work or spend my entire lunch fighting lines and traffic getting over there. One day turned into the next and before I knew it a week had gone by without taking my medications – along with everything else happening. An argument with the love of my life threw me into an out of control tailspin. I’ve never been so deep and desperate. For the first time in my life, I thought seriously about ending it.
My saving grace was my very strong belief that suicide is pointless, weak, and stupid. I’ve said it numerous times that there is nothing in this life we can’t handle; Nothing worth taking our life over, and I believe that. And while I personally don’t find a lot of worth in myself, I know that there are people out there who do find me a worthy person. People rely on me, love me, and want to help me. The same goes for every one of you. There are people that rely on you, love and want to help you, regardless of what you think. It’s difficult to describe exactly where my head was that night. Looking back, I’m honestly baffled at how I got there. It doesn’t seem like me.
This past week, I had the privilege to sit in on a bloggers roundtable on “Signs, Symptoms, and Treatments of Psychological Health Concerns”. On that roundtable, was a Soldier named SSG Meg Krause. She is a combat medic with the United States Army Reserves, did five years of active duty from 2002 to 2006 and returned from Iraq, in 2006, thinking that she was going to be just fine.
Like most Soldiers, she just figured that a few nightmares or flashbacks here or there were normal, and did her best “to cope and avoid triggers I knew bothered me such as movies or crowds and things like that”.
It’s a common problem what we need to address, but the problem is that there are still people in the military that don’t quite understand what they’re dealing with. Big Army gets it. Most leaders understand that PTSD is real. What many leaders get wrong is dealing with it.
When Soldiers are feeling suicidal and have the good sense to reach out for help, leaders have to understand that they may NOT be the ones they reach out to. Commands need to adjust their SOPs to account for this. Some leaders think that if a Soldier doesn’t call his squad leader or section leader at such a time of crisis first, the problem rests either with the Soldier or the leader. They will say that a good leader would have such a great and wonderful relationship with his troops that they would call them first when contemplating suicide or any other personal problem. It just doesn’t work that way.
When I found myself balled up on the floor of my room wondering if this was my last night on earth, the last person I was thinking about was someone in my chain of command. It’s not because I don’t trust them or get along with them. It’s just the way it is. I have a GREAT relationship with my supervisor, my Sergeant Major, and my battle buddy, a fellow Master Sergeant. But, the first people that came to my mind when I needed it the most was my wife, my mother, and Wendy. Those are the people I reached out to and I didn’t inform my chain of command until the next day.
The problem lies, I think, in the “serious incident report” (SIR) timelines. In most cases, the timeline kicks in with the event. So, technically, my command was hours behind because they didn’t find out about the event until nearly 6 hours later. If your SIR reporting procedures call for a report submission of incident plus one or two hours, you’re already behind and people get more stressed and frustrated when they are questioned about the lateness of the report. This doesn’t make sense in my case or many others. It’s understood that chains of command need to be informed, but to that Soldier the most important thing in his/her mind is survival – not an SIR reporting timeline.
By the time I had finished talking with those three people, I was so exhausted, I just wanted sleep. My wife wouldn’t let me hang up that phone until she was absolutely confident I was going to make it through the night. I definitely wasn’t in the mood to answer a bunch of questions so that a formal report could be filed. The success is in the fact that my training worked and I called someone – anyone – when I needed it. THAT is what is important – not an SIR. And because I have good leaders, they were the first people I told when I got to work the next day and went to my Chaplain.
Depression and PTSD are debilitating issues. I never in my wildest imagination thought that I was even capable of having those thoughts. It still confuses me how I got there. I look back to two weeks ago and I still can’t comprehend the depths of my despair that night. But, I know what I felt that night and I never want to go there again.
I’ve already said how thankful I was to the people that were there for me that quite literally potentially saved my life that night. It was the first time I’d ever felt like that and I hope the last. But, I know that if it does come back, I have people I can turn to. I learned the hard way that when dealing with depression, it’s ok to be prescribed anti-depressants. We tend to have this attitude that being on anti-depressants is embarrassing or weak, but it’s no different than heart attack victims that need blood thinner or diabetes patients that need insulin for the rest of their lives. There’s no shame in that and leaders that think there is need to be replaced immediately.
If you are a servicemember and you’re contemplating suicide, you also have someone you can turn to. And as SSG Krause said in the conference call the other day, you need to understand “that seeking help for post-traumatic stress disorder is so important to not only your psychological health, but your overall lifestyle; and that there is no shame in admitting it” to anyone, including your friends, family, and chain of command.
It then becomes the chain of command’s responsibility not to immediately jump to any conclusions. I learned something about myself today in helping one of my Soldiers who was where I was a few weeks ago just last night. I learned that even I have some biases to overcome and I’ve been dealing with this for nearly 7 years. I should have recognized the signs a little better and I didn’t. I jumped to incorrect conclusions that this Soldier was a poor performer who couldn’t be relied upon. What I didn’t do was look into the WHY of his performance or his history. I would have seen that he used to be a stellar performer and outstanding Soldier. I jumped to inaccurate conclusions and falsely labeled him. I’m a little ashamed of that, because I got so angry last year when I was losing my mind that no one understood what I was going through. They made things worse instead of better and my family is the only thing that kept me going. I was officially labeled a “trouble maker”, a “disgrace to the NCO Corps”, and a “poor leader”. While they can kiss my ass three ways to Sunday, it still added stresses on top of my already-challenged emotional instability at the time.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying to allow Soldiers with PTSD to get away with anything by any means. If a Soldier commits a crime, he should be punished for it while weighing his mental state into the conviction and/or sentencing process. PTSD isn’t an excuse, but it could be a factor. We, as a society, need to understand that. We can’t coddle our suffering vets, but we can’t throw the book at them either.
As is customary when I’m in this type of mood, I have a song to go along with what I’m about to say. It’s from a band I learned about just a few weeks ago – not long after my episode – called 7 Years Today. The lead singer, Mylon, got out of the Army after a tour in Iraq a little more than a year ago and wrote this song as his coping mechanism. We will be interviewing Mylon and the rest of 7 Years Today on June 3rd. Keep in mind that I just threw this together real quick.
The point is that if you find yourself someplace that may result in a fatal decision, do something. Call a friend. Write another song. Wright another blog post. Take up a hobby. Confront your pain, don’t run away from it. Write another chapter in your life instead of forcing someone else to write the epilogue.
One day, I’ll spend a little more time on it and make it a bit more in synch.