Thank you for your service

 

I just got back from a Veterans Day assembly at my kids’ elementary school. The gym was decorated with flags and cute artwork and the program was full of patriotic songs and poems. I was one of approximately 50 veterans representing a total of 360 years of service. The kids were of course adorable and squirmy and they used words like bravery and heroism and strength. Sitting there, watching them recognize the hard work and sacrifice, I couldn’t help but feel pain for a silent war being waged by soldiers, past and present: a war of self-destruction where thousands are dying every year.

I realize that it’s not a popular thing to bring up veteran suicide on a day meant to honor them, but I think the best way to really do that is to be honest about reality for many veterans. If you feel that it is inappropriate, then I ask you to just scroll on past or maybe come back another time. I can only speak from my own experience and don’t claim to represent all veterans. Some of them may disagree with me for bringing this up, and that’s ok.

I recognize that many people don’t know what to say on days like this one, where the spotlight is on veterans.  I get so many quick “thank you for your service” comments. I realize that people may be uncomfortable delving deeper into why so many of us who are veterans dislike that phrase.  It holds the truth at a comfortable arms-length and means we don’t talk about moral injury or invisible wounds or anything else real. It stops the conversation before it even begins.

The latest report statistics for veterans suicide conducted by the VA came out the end of September . The numbers were reported as dropping from 22 a day to 17 per day. If you just read the headlines, that looks still not great but possibly encouraging.  But the fact is that the numbers haven’t decreased, only the way they are calculating them has changed, leaving out active duty, National Guard and reservists from the numbers. This is just a different way of presenting the fact that America is losing veterans at an alarming rate.  From 2007 to 2017, the rate of suicide among veterans jumped almost 50 percent. The numbers have increased steadily over the last four years.

I wasn’t going to write this post, but I feel compelled to bring this up because yesterday  I found out that one of my best friends took his life on Friday. He was one month away from his 20th year of service and the end of his contract. He was a fellow Army medic and he was one of the best.  He was smart and compassionate and he had 8 combat tours. He also fought long and hard against PTSD.  He saved countless lives. A few years ago he got out and worked as a civilian paramedic for a while. But he was lost, and didn’t adjust well to civilian life. We had a lot of long conversations while chugging coffee; about tribe and feeling displaced and restless and what it all meant– the work that we do in emergency medicine, tricks of the trade, and where we put all the stuff we can’t get out of our heads and how we cling to compassion as the last vestige of it being worthwhile. We had shared language and could always be real and honest and yes, at times a little dark in our humor. I can’t believe I will never see him again.

He rarely slept, and he was always in motion. He had nightmares and held it all very close. He ran and biked and rode his motorcycle and tried meds and quitting drinking and  yoga and all the rest but he couldn’t find his way through. He avoided the VA, always saying that was for people with worse issues than him. He didn’t want to take resources from soldiers he thought were “more deserving”. He ended up re-enlisting three years ago and spent most of the last two years in Syria training Kurdish medics. I just talked to him two weeks ago. He sounded tired but not hopeless. We always joked how we were trauma bonded. He was one of the few people I would answer the phone for.  He was there for a lot of the toughest moments of my medical career–many times his eyes were the ones looking into mine across a patient we were trying to save. He was the co-bearer of those experiences and knowing he is gone leaves me untethered and feeling a sadness that is impossible to describe. He was a ginger too and ironically always called me “Red”. He was strong and smart and also broken and I didn’t see it coming. It doesn’t even feel real.

He’s one of those 17 a day now. But so much more than that.  All of these numbers are people. They are brothers and sisters and husbands and wives and mothers and fathers and no matter how the numbers are presented, its clear that whatever we are doing, it isn’t working. The de-briefs we received after deployments were basically a check the box exercise. The unspoken culture is still to stay strong, silent and not let on that we are suffering.  That culture is causing casualties long after the fact.

So on this Veterans Day, maybe check in with your veteran. Be willing to go deeper, beyond what makes you comfortable. Many of us have complex emotions surrounding our time served.  We remember when we were idealistic and service-oriented and struggle to say that while we are grateful for the experience, and feel honored to be among a small percentage of citizens who have served, many of us carry some degree of moral injury as a result of that service. We’ve lost friends and many of our lives have been irrevocably changed by traumatic brain injuries, wounds and PTSD.

Veterans are flawed people who are revered on days like this one, but deep down may feel they can’t live up to being seen as a super hero. It’s a tough burden and can make us feel even more disconnected when we are already struggling.

We live in a time of perpetual war. We have been sustaining a high operational tempo for almost twenty years.  In the early days, the increase in numbers of veteran and active duty suicides got the attention of the Pentagon and many of us were on the receiving end of countless awareness programs and de-briefings. But as time has passed, apart from many incredibly dedicated suicide-prevention organizations, the urgency has faded.  This new report with it’s lower numbers will be seen as an improvement. It’s not.

For some soldiers, the connection to others and the bond even in the worst of conditions is rarely experienced again once they leave the service. It’s a loss of purpose and identity that can be difficult to navigate. And we need to do better in how we support soldiers during times of transition, after deployments or in leaving the military, which is when many of these deaths occur. We need to re-focus on connecting with each other in real life, on a deeper level, not just on social media where it’s easy to put on a brave face. I’m going to continue to try to use my words where and when I can. Because I don’t want to lose any more us.

RIP, G. I will miss you always.

 

Connection

So yesterday was World Suicide awareness day and I sat down to jot some of my thoughts about it. It isn’t necessarily all recovery related though almost all of the lessons I’ve learned in sobriety relate directly to my mental health. My drinking was my attempt to self medicate, and I ended up addicted and with a multitude of problems that weren’t there to begin with.

A friend encouraged me to re-post it here in its entirety, in the hopes that maybe one person will read and feel they aren’t alone. So here it is. I would love to hear any of your thoughts and experiences.

If you know me well, then you know that I’m pretty open about my struggles with mental illness.

I really do try to find the humor in it, and do my best to be real about some of the struggles I have in living “in it” (not with it) Some of you also know that I am a suicide survivor. Today is World Suicide Awareness day. I’m seeing lots of great posts with advice, resources, critique of the mental health system etc., but also deep sadness, wanting to know how to make it stop. Obviously this is a very complex, serious issue that I can’t fully address in a brief FB post. I do know that almost everyone has been effected in some way by suicide. Your experiences and opinions may be different than mine and I would love to hear your thoughts. This isn’t going to be a “spot the signs” or a list of resources post because there are a lot of good ones on social media today, and people who are more familiar with statistics, trends etc. These are just some of the thoughts I have today.

I can only speak from my own experience, but need to say rather bluntly right at the top that when your brain wants you dead no amount of yoga, magnesium supplements, self help books, herbal remedies, prayer, meditation, alcohol, drugs, anti-inflammatory diets, essential oils, breathing exercises or whatever you throw at it is necessarily going to make a difference. That may sound harsh, but I know this because I tried it all.

You can have all the tools in the world and “know“ the right things to do, know about the hotlines and VA crisis services and text support and try to find meds that work and still find yourself in a place of utter despair. You could be a counselor, a nurse, a doctor, a psychologist, a trauma-Informed therapist, a seemingly super successful person, whatever. It doesn’t discriminate.

When you are in that head space you can’t see what the consequences might be to those around you because your perspective and your ability to look at things has been skewed by your faulty thought processes. You truly come to believe the voice in your head that tells you that your family, loved ones etc. would be better off without you. That you are doing the best thing by sparing everyone from your utter brokenness. It tells you that the amount of pain you’re in can only be solved by choosing to just step into that void of the unknown. It becomes seemingly the only alternative to sitting in your toxic brain another second.

When I was in that place there was no way I would’ve been ABLE to reach out to someone. Depression led to utter isolation and not letting on to anyone how I was really feeling. I looked functional and “fine” so that’s what I said I was. I saw the glazed over looks when people asked me how things were going or how uncomfortable they were if I mentioned I was having a bad time. They changed the subject or quickly gave me a “it will get better- think positive” verbal bandaid and that was it.

Those of us who struggle with mental illness and trauma in our backgrounds can get stuck in a loop at times. We need help to get out of it. Sometimes we need someone to sit with us and ask “is that true” and unflinchingly listen to what we say. Delving into that as someone trying to support a person experiencing suicidal thoughts means that you are in a place where you can be vulnerable and willing to accept your own mortality. Over time, people struggling with suicidal feelings or with managing their mental illness learn to spot who is or who isn’t that type of person. They are very rare. So, well-meaning statements like “you are wanted you are needed please reach out” don’t always translate to the person who is sitting on the edge of life and death.

So what can make a difference? Connection. You reaching out to another person and letting them know they are seen. Ask your loved ones how the are and really listen. Be willing to say “me too”, look into someone’s eyes and accept the darkness as just a piece of all that they are, don’t try to brush it away or tell them they are wrong to feel like they do. Remind

them they are safe. I fully understand that for many people who have lost someone, they HAVE been there, have been authentic and supportive and their loved one has decided to complete suicide in spite of them. I weep for you because it makes no sense. It is utterly unfair.

I do believe that shallow connections in this culture are engendering this epidemic of loneliness, isolation and depression. Our immediate tendency (which honestly, we are encouraged to do because our world is a scary mess lately) to numb out anything that is remotely “negative” with mindlessly scrolling, or video gaming or drinking that “mommy juice” every night, or self medicating with food, or preoccupation with changing our body shapes, or binging Netflix and YouTube videos, has led to a human race that has forgotten what it really means to be human. (Add in the relentless positivity messages that bombard you every day “ no bad vibes, think positive”—they oversimplify how hard it is to be a living, feeling human dealing with extremely painful things; losses that take your breath away, horrific violence etc all when you have a deep sense of being alone in a world out of control. Many of us have been told that our anger, our fear, our jealousy, our sadness, our indignation, our cries of loneliness are wrong. “Put that away, nobody wants to see that- good vibes only” So we stuff them down where they fester.

But those are all natural human emotions meant to be felt, just as valuable as joy, peace, gratitude, love, compassion, empathy. We are meant to be able to accept them, sit in them for a moment, acknowledge them, express them and sometimes, those painful feelings leave. We need the dark to contrast with the light. We are meant to live in connection with others who can help share our burdens, understand us in our deeply flawed but precious humanity.

You really want to help end stigma surrounding mental illness and suicide, then stop presenting a perfect facade to the outside world. I can tell you when I was in the grips of depression so severe that I tried to end my life, there was no way I was going to approach a person who looked like they had it all together. I felt utterly broken. What could they possibly understand about that? ( probably more than I thought but who could tell?)

So what did make a difference for me ? Other people being willing to tell the truth about what was really going on with them. My failures, the grief, the existential crisis du jour, the traumatic memories and feelings of hopelessness all became more manageable and lost some of their power because I could finally be seen and heard and speak about it. I found other people trying to live with a different sort of brain- there’s a lot more than you’d think (And ALSO therapy and medication and running all the miles, and setbacks and nutrition and prayer and nature and writing and meditation and yoga and support groups and coffee and lavender and all the other tools in my toolbox because those things are important). But the most important thing was connection.

There is still a huge stigma surrounding mental illness. I can’t tell you how many people have said to me “but you’re so strong and resilient and funny. I can’t imagine that.” As if strength has anything to do with it! Yes I’m strong, yes I’m funny (at times), and man, am I resilient. I’m also a complex collection of all the emotions and thoughts that make us human, just processed perhaps a little differently by my brain. For me at least, medication and therapy only works in tandem with staying deeply connected to people who “get me” and in my willingness to remain vulnerable and open to others. I still have some really bad days. It’s not always fun. But I’m still here.

I think the rise in the number of suicides in our world is a sign that our culture is sick— it’s a canary in the coal mine. The huge numbers of women whose lives are being destroyed by alcohol addiction is another. As is the opiate crisis and many other things that scream pain and disconnection that we see every day.

We are disconnected. From God, from nature, from each other.

People need to feel seen and heard and taught to sit in the “darker” parts of themselves and know they can come out the other side because they aren’t alone. To be told it’s ok that you’re not ok” and have that not be the end of the conversation.

#suicideawareness #; #connection #depression #bipolar #ptsd #recovery #soberlife