WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. --
As a young child, I routinely dealt with chronic depression. Due to my own ignorance and grave fear of what my family would think, I kept silent on the issue.
I carried this with me years after joining the Air Force in 2014. Three years into my service, the internal pain I experienced from bottling everything up finally became unbearable. I broke. It brought more strain on my body than any other sickness before.
The psychological turns physical
My neck muscles became stiff and sore from the constant tension of mentally holding everything together. I became an insomniac. Breathing became difficult. I cried every other night. I couldn’t think long enough to be productive at work. My mind felt cancerous to my own well-being.
One night after an exhausting and defeating work week, I arrived to my empty, quiet home. I did not have an ounce of energy to feed myself or even journal while listening to music—a comforting practice I turned to when I felt overwhelmed.
I crept into bed, laid on my back and felt tears welling in my eyes. I tried a “get up and get over it” self-motivation talk, which shortly backfired.
My mind hit an extreme low and I lost all control. Every muscle felt like it was squeezing the life out of me. I couldn’t stand and I screamed until I lost my voice. It was my worst panic-attack ever and a terrifying experience, one I unfortunately lived week after week.
Eventually, numbness came over me like a wave.
I felt paralyzed and sat silently in my car after wrapping up a day-long photo shoot (ironically for a wing-wide resiliency event). A car door slammed and brought me back to reality. I forced myself to walk. Once again an agonizing pain began to run through my body. It felt like an inevitable train wreck until a simple, “Hey! How are you?!” provided a way of escape.
One of the wing chaplain’s oldest daughters simply wanted to say hi to me. She smiled and genuinely looked me in the eye. It felt like weight literally lifted off my body. In that instant, I knew I needed to change because I saw vibrancy and life in her and I knew I could be there someday. I took a leap of faith and dared to believe in a four-letter word--hope.
Finding hope: Equipping my sword and shield
I told myself, “There is hope for me. There is hope this state of being isn’t forever. There is hope that I am not alone. There is hope this pain doesn’t control my life.” It was a reverberating gong of positivity, and soon, the first light of dawn outlining my bleak perspective.
Hope illuminated a path within me to make healthy changes. I believe these suggestions are worth sharing with others who may encounter the same mental obstacles.
First, I recognized my mind as a battlefield. Changing words like “I’m worthless or a horrid human being”, to “I’m useful and I’m okay; I just made a mistake,” helped override my negative thought patterns. Although I still have to practice and be cognizant on positive speaking, it gets easier and easier the more I do it.
Words can hold the power of life and death, like a sword: you choose to use it to defend or destroy. Just as your words contributed to tearing you down, it’s true for the opposite. Speak positivity out loud to yourself and build yourself up.
With my positivity sword in hand, I also learned to enjoy who I am as a person. Each individual has unique qualities that I believe equip them with a shield of inner peace when we feel life trying to knock us down.
Like arrows flying toward you, it can feel as if the whole world plots against you. This is what your shield of confidence is for. Over time, I gained an understanding that being alone wasn’t a bad thing and there wasn’t actually anything wrong with me at all. I had no control over how other people perceived me. Their words or actions were the flying arrows and my confidence and surety of who I am protected me.
Uniqueness: Your missing puzzle piece
We have to start looking at our interests and physical appearances as puzzle pieces. I’ve seen too many people trying to change everything about themselves to be relatable to what’s trendy in society—to force themselves to be a different puzzle piece than they were.
There’s nothing wrong with each individual piece. They are uniquely made to connect with the right surroundings. And that’s what life is—finding the place we fit in. For the ones thinking, “There just isn’t a place I fit in,” there is! Remember to have hope for yourself!
Finally, and most importantly, I built my full-body armor by learning to love myself to the best of my ability. Each year, I committed to getaway trips and spent more of my time creating memories and less on physical possessions.
Going on those independent trips allowed the negative ideals I had about myself to be replaced with recollections of laughter, excitement and long-lasting joy.
Before I began my journey, I avoided base social opportunities because I felt they just were not for me. However, one day I saw a flyer for a board game group and I decided to go by myself. Once I arrived, I found myself actually enjoying my time and the joyful interaction with new acquaintances. I experienced firsthand the positive impact of base morale events. They really do help out a lot.
If there is one key take away from my message, it is: Get the right help. Even when we don’t think we need it.
Not getting help because “I’m feeling better, so I should be good,” is a pitfall I’ve unfortunately experienced many times over. It finally occurred to me—after one of my friends shared her counseling experience with me—the perfect time to get help is when we feel great. It’s easier to climb out of a hole with excess energy versus being completely out.
I’ve utilized many routes of help including chaplains, mental health, the behavior and health optimization program, and Military One Source—which authorizes 12 free counseling sessions with any off-base agency who is a Military One Source participant. They are all great and contributed to my healing process. Ultimately, I found strength by facing my fears and sharing my pain after seeking help. However, those resources can’t assist you if you don’t reach out to them.
To all my brothers and sisters out there: It gets so much better. I truly believe we do not exist on this planet to get through life alone, and you don’t have to. It’s not a sign of weakness to get help. You are a priceless human being who deserves to be happy and healthy, so all I ask is that you please give yourself a chance, and hang on to that four-letter word: Hope.
If you or someone you know may be contemplating suicide: Please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or through the USAF Connect app’s “Emergency” tab.