I wake as though I have been sleeping underwater; struggling for breath and soaked in sweat. My heart pounds and my lungs burn. My vision is cloudy, as are my thoughts. Slowly I begin to realize where I am. I reach out with a shaking hand searching for my glasses on the table next to me. I am lying on my back in a queen-sized bed in a house in central Florida. In the moment just before waking I was in the back of an overturned dump truck next to a canal in Iraq trying to keep a soon-to-be-dead woman alive as she is bleeding from her mouth, nose, eyes, and ears as we take direct fire. At least this particular morning I did not require anyone to violently shake me from my sleep nor did my screams wake anyone else. I sit up, put on my glasses, and ask my dog Piper if he is ready to go for a walk.
Anyone who has followed me on Twitter for more than a day has more than likely seen me retweet the Suicide Prevention Lifeline account as well as Real Warriors and other mental health resources. I try to remember to do this at least once a day. It is usually nighttime in my corner of the globe when I do this. The nights seem to be far worse for me. I assume they are for many others as well. Sometimes people ask me if I am okay after I post something related to mental health. I usually tell them I am fine and that I do this regularly. On a certain level this is the truth. In a different light this could be seen as dishonest.
When someone asks me if I am okay there is a series of translations and qualifications which take place in my brain before I respond. The vast majority of the time the thought process has me taking inventory. So far no one has tried to kill me today. I will go to sleep in my own bed tonight. As far as I know none of my friends have died recently. With these thoughts in mind I do not hesitate to respond;
“Yes, thank you. I am peachy. How are you?”
I do my level best to present myself as openly and honestly as I can at all times. There are, however, parts of me that I do not share with anyone. My main motivation for this is a desire to not contaminate anyone else. I feel like my nightmares and flashbacks can be spread and infect others by a verbal transfer of ideas. I understand on a conscious level that this is irrational and to carry on like this does me and others a disservice. I know this. I acknowledge this. Yet I continue to fall into the same patterns of denial and evasion over and over again. If I play the role well enough I can pass for a normally-functioning human being for limited periods of time. String enough of these episodes together and I begin to fall for the illusion myself.
I know that in sharing this part of me I run the risk of losing every single person who is listening to me. I also know I may have the opportunity to chase the demons out of the shadows inside the minds of so many of us and expose them to the light. If there is any chance whatsoever in being successful in this endeavor I simply must try.
I am in eastern Afghanistan seeing my first rocket-propelled grenades fired in my direction under the cover of night. I see them again every time someone fires bottle rockets. The Sergeant First Class behind me yells a word I’ve heard my entire life but can never be innocuous again;
The single greatest failure of my military career is something no one but me knew about at the time. Airman Leadership School (ALS) is a training program for junior enlisted members of the Air Force who have been promoted to Staff Sergeant. It is intended to bridge the transition into the ranks of non-commissioned officers and fine tune the leadership skills of the new NCOs. During the course of the training I never held back on any subject except when it came to a discussion on mental health. I had no problem standing before my flight and representing my side in a series of debates on topics ranging from capital punishment to abortion, gays in the military, and women in combat. It was around a table during some down time that the words caught in my throat. The instructor in charge of my flight was talking about dealing with personnel under her in command who were struggling with depression and expressed suicidal ideation. The consensus of the flight and the instructor was that anyone sharing these thoughts and feelings should shut up and kill themselves. I sat amongst my friends and people for whom I held great respect as they unknowingly told me I would be better off dead than to tell them the truth about who I was and what I was carrying alone. I kept the secret that I was severely depressed and suicidal throughout the entire course. I was also a cutter at this time. I made sure to inflict the wounds on places that would not be noticeable while in uniform. My deception was successful, as was my time in ALS. I excelled and graduated as a distinguished graduate and received the William Pitsenbarger Leadership Award.
On March 15, 2007, after months of continuous thought, preparation, and rehearsal conducted in secret and in deep denial even to myself, I made the decision that this would be my last day alive. I ended my shift that morning and made a trip home with the idea to proceed with my plan after one last time seeing my wife, our two dogs, and our cat. I walked in the door and was greeted by the dogs. I climbed the stairs feeling hollow in my core and somewhat lightheaded. I found my wife still asleep in our bed with a few random rays from the morning sun touching her face through spaces between the closed blinds. This is when I realized that she would wake this day as a widow. It was our fifth wedding anniversary. I got back in my car and drove myself to the hospital. For a long time I credited my (now ex-) wife for saving my life that day. The truth is that I decided to live. I took the steps to save my own life and I need to credit myself for doing so.
At first there wasn’t much of a change in any aspect of my life. The psychologist I began to see regularly was comfortable keeping my problems between us so long as I kept up my side of the bargain and participated in a therapy regimen. The peaceful coexistence of the two sides of my personality lasted only a short while until my station captain caught me dressing an obviously self-inflicted wound. It was time to start telling the truth.
Admitting to others that I was suicidal felt like opening a window to try to breathe while standing knee-deep in gasoline. As the fresh air mingled with the combustible fumes the only thing that was certain was that something needed to be done. This was no safe place to be. Things had to change. I was going to die. Once I admitted that I needed help I might as well have been standing in actual gasoline for real. No one aside from my doctors wanted anything to do with me. Overnight I went from being a leader of men to a phantom wearing a uniform. My weapons and clearances were taken away. Eventually my freedom to make my own choices was taken from me altogether . My First Sergeant came to my house and confiscated what he thought to be all the blades I owned. This included my USAF survival knife which survived my tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. I will never see it again. To this day I wish I could have that memento back. Even after this I did not stop cutting. I felt like I needed to cut in order to release the pain I was carrying, but I also felt like it was the only control I had in my life at all. No matter what anyone did to me I could still hurt myself.
I am on the floor of my bathroom with my father gripping my wrist. Tears fall from my lips behind the words hanging in the air;
“I can’t stop the bleeding.”
The thoughts come uninvited throughout the day. Sometimes there is a noticeable cause; some catalyst to initiate the downward spiral or sheer drop into a miasma of uninvited thoughts. Other times I simply find myself in another place. People who know me will struggle to focus my attention. It is not unusual for them to ask where I am. I am clearly no longer there.
Most of the veterans with whom I speak have adjusted to life outside combat in similar ways to one another. For many, guns are the friends who never judge and never fail. It is not uncommon for a loaded firearm to be the sleeping companion for a combat veteran. It took a long time for me to get used to being unarmed when out in public. I would feel a momentary wave of panic as my hands searched my chest, hip, and leg for weapons and felt nothing. A conscious decision was made on my part following the end of my military career to never again raise a weapon in anger. This was a small promise I made to myself in an attempt to close that chapter of my life in as positive a manner as possible. In coming to terms with the realities and limitations of living with severe major depression and PTSD I realize that this is has saved my life countless times. This is a large part of why I have a Rottweiler. Piper is my companion, my friend, my protector, and my security blanket. A dog never needs reloading and a gun will never love you back. All it would take for me would be one bad night and having a loaded gun in the house would put an end to all the nightmares.
This is a lesson I learned in a hard and cruel way following my retirement from the military. The dying did not stop when I no longer wore the uniform of the United States Armed Forces. I made an attempt at pretending to be just another civilian returning to college a few years later in adulthood than the average undergrad. School was to be my safe place to relearn how to live in a world where tragedy was not the norm like it was in the Middle East. I enrolled full-time at Northern Illinois University. A few weeks into my first semester on February 14, 2008 a gunman entered Cole Hall with a shotgun and several handguns. He shot twenty-five people, killing five before killing himself. I was there. When it was over I called my (then) wife as I navigated my way through screaming students and onrushing first responders. I told her I would be a little late getting home because some guy was shooting up my school. By all measures I was calm and collected. I felt absolutely nothing. I was not surprised in the least. I knew exactly what was happening seemingly before anyone else did. But my reaction was complete indifference. Looking back I realize that this was my mind protecting itself from the very real trauma I had experienced. I had simply reached the point where nothing else would be able to shock me. I was no longer trying to make sense of anything. Nothing was good. Nothing was bad. Everything simply was.
Around this time I joined the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. Following the war my friends and I were scattered to the wind. Many wanted to disappear and forget anything had ever happened. Through this community I was able to connect with other veterans and met new people with similar stories to mine. There was a sense of belonging. There was a sense of accountability. I was expected. People wondered where I was if I disappeared and seemed to genuinely care about what I was thinking and feeling. I was able to say the things that were running in my head like a broken record and they knew what I was talking about in ways no one else ever will. I felt sane when I had been treated as a lunatic by people who just could not put their minds into the places mine could seemingly never leave. I felt like it was we veterans together as an island in an unforgiving and uncaring sea of red, white, and blue. That is when the dying started again. There would be a message in my inbox or a voicemail on my phone telling me that a friend I had been speaking to the night before had committed suicide. Over a period of twenty months this happened six times. My mind came to what felt like a rational conclusion. The only way for me to stop losing friends was to stop having friends. So I did.
I am in Iraq when a call comes over my radio. Another gunshot. I am on scene with a member of the 3rd Forward Support Battalion at my feet lying parallel to his M-4 which had been in his mouth just minutes before. I never knew what caused this person to take his own life having survived an extended tour of duty in Bush’s pre-surge Iraq. His death was no more or less meaningless than the three friends over whose boots I read eulogies earlier in the tour. His suicide was no more or less senseless than the six friends I would lose in similar fashion shortly thereafter. It was just the cruel period marking the end of the fragment of a sentence with no opportunity for revision.
I think about suicide at some point every day. Some days it is simply a cloud passing just long enough to give me a noticeable chill until the warmth returns on its own. Other times I must fight to stop the repetition of thoughts. Still other days I don’t just think about the end. I want it. I rehearse it in my mind, futilely attempting to imagine what it will feel like when everything goes black.
Recently, legislators have begun discussions over a proposed amendment to the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act which would allow secular humanists to serve in the chaplain corps of the United States military. The way some theists imagine atheists to view mortality is laid bare in the bigoted and nearly incoherent words of congressmen opposed to the measure, namely Mike Conaway of Texas and John Fleming of Louisiana. Both are members of the Republican Party. Said Congressman Conaway, “They (atheists and secular humanists) don’t believe anything,” and “I can’t imagine an atheist accompanying a notification team as they go into some family’s home to let them have the worst news of their life and this guy says, ‘You know, that’s it — your son’s just worms, I mean, worm food.’” Congressman Fleming voiced his concern stating that in addition to atheists making a “mockery of the chaplaincy” he also thought that, “The last thing in the world we would want to see was a young soldier who may be dying and they’re at a field hospital and the chaplain is standing over that person saying to them, ‘If you die here, there is no hope for you in the future.’” As unintentionally humorous as these statements may be, these direct quotes serve to illuminate the blatant ignorance and bigotry on display and entered into public record and legislation by members of Congress who know nothing of their own constituents and are moreover proud of this fact.
My atheism actually plays a large part in my persistence in the face of sorrow. I have found hope where others see hopelessness. I know death is the default position to which we all return. It is waiting just beyond a misfire in my nervous system. I don’t fear it. I don’t spend the majority of my time looking forward to it, either. If I die in my 90s like the majority of family I will be just as dead for just as long as anyone who has ever died in all time. This much is as certain as anything can be in life; someday I will die and I will be dead forever. This is where the beauty of reality outshines the broken promises of professional liars simply retelling the dreams of Bronze Age shepherds. The matter and energy which makes up the only physical representation of who I am will return to the universe. Married to my love for astronomy I carry an ache with the knowledge that I will never get to travel to see with my own eyes the wonders that captivate my thoughts. Where I find inspiration is in knowing that I am as much a part of all those visions dotting the endless night as I am part of myself. I close each day with an image from a time and place that will be be forever divorced from my presence, yet is within me and I within it. After I am gone the parts of the universe that came together to express themselves as me for only a breath of time will be reclaimed. With the continued passage of time comes renewed possibilities for the crude matter which carries my name and appearance. I need no shallow promises born of vanity to comfort me in oblivion. Reality holds wonders beyond comprehension.
I am in my car late at night. Nearing panic, I have pulled into a parking lot. I am on the phone with a woman who wants to care about me but will never get an opportunity to understand me as I rant about my dead friends and the countless other lives I have seen erased. I am trying to rationalize why they are gone and I am still here when the scream escapes my lungs;
“I can’t waste this.”
Silence perpetuates, proliferates and punctuates the stigma of mental health disorders the world over. Silence also serves as a reminder of those we have already lost and their potential which was never achieved. Theirs may have been the kind words to get another person through a difficult day. The songs they never sang will never comfort another wounded human being. Their discoveries and contributions to our understanding of reality were forever erased. They are now as permanent as anything in all of existence. Suicide is not the only means by which silence has an echoing reverberation throughout society. The self-doubt that shackles countless potential contributors to our human experience makes it as though many of us are living our lives as nothing more than breathing corpses. We are silent when we should speak. We sit when we should be taking a stand. The loss is incalculable. It amounts to the creative miscarriage of the next generation of innovation and enlightenment still germinating in the womb of our minds.
I am on the couch with my wife. She tells me she is having an affair. In a similar talk not long before she told me she no longer loved me. She lied to me when I asked if there was anyone else. Now she is clearing her conscience. She is laughing. Words in my voice form a lie to everyone with ears to hear this exchange;
I have a full sleeve of tattoos covering my right arm from wrist to shoulder. I am roughly two-thirds the way through completing a full sleeve on my left arm. There is no doubt that I like the look of quality artwork beneath the skin. I feel more and more myself after each section heals and becomes a permanent part of me. I had a fair amount of (shitty) ink before my divorce, but things worked out nicely as I stumbled upon the right artist at the right time and I now have ink therapy with him every three weeks. The process of healing a tattoo is an art form in its own right which has taught me about processing pain and discomfort, thinking outside of instant gratification, and being patient. There are no tricks. There are no shortcuts. Nothing will speed up the process, but there is a lot a person can do to slow it down. It hurts and it is going to hurt no matter what you negotiate in wishful thinking. It is the same with the less visible wounds we all carry. Initially I had the idea of covering up poorly done ink which included the name of my ex wife. It struck me that the time was not right. I was too eager to undo damage which had been done previously rather than focusing on what I wanted and needed. I made a decision that this was the time to reclaim my life. This was the time for me to set my priorities. This was the time to be who I wanted to be and not concern myself with what anyone else thought. I then commissioned my artist to do a portrait which I had wanted since I first started being interested in tattoos. It was Boris Karloff as The Monster in Frankenstein. The lower half of my sleeve is now the best Bride of Frankenstein scene I have ever seen applied to skin. The symbolism of this particular story should by now be rather obvious.
Hidden in the woods in the middle of a very small town a few miles from my house is a natural spring feeding a leg of what is eventually the St. Johns River. It’s become a ritual for me to visit every single day at some point and dive into the waters just above the boil. It is a shock to my system no matter the temperature outside. Sound disappears. Darkness surrounds me. I cannot breathe. For only a brief moment each day I die. My back arches. My face turns upwards. I chase the rays of sunlight dancing above. I break the surface of the water and I awake again on my own terms.
Finishing this post I really have no clue what I want anyone to take away from it. I suppose I needed to get this out and this is the result. The best I can hope for is that someone may read this and realize they are not as alone as they might feel. If this is you know that you are not crazy. Know that that you are not broken. Know that your story is not yet written. You are not in need of saviors or shepherds. You are your own hero.
And you are mine.