Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Erasing a Stigma

It seems that the tragic passing of Robin Williams has brought light to an epidemic many of us have been fighting in the shadows.  Why has it taken the death of someone famous for making millions of us laugh, to bring public awareness to a disease that we have been plagued with for hundreds of years?  Current data suggests that 22 Veterans take their lives... a day.  22 people who survived military duty (combat or not), whose demons eventually won out.  That statistic is thought to be wrong amongst recent veterans returning from the OIF/OEF conflict.  Many of those take their lives as a result of PTSD.  The public at large seems to think this is a new phenomena, but there are several items to take into consideration.  During WWI and WWII, and early battles, Soldiers had several weeks to decompress from the tragedies of war.  Spending weeks together with fellow brothers who had seen the atrocities of war, being able to vent their fears and anger to one another without fear of being judged.  They had time to come to terms with what our nation asked of them during these times.  Then the came home to their families never to speak of it again.  Now, when our time at war is done, we get on a plane, fly home, have a week of "reintegration" and are asked to get back to our daily lives.  Now, there is a stigma that if you seek help or treatment you are weak.  It can undermine a career by imparting the notion that you are not fit for command or a leadership role because you are unstable.  When we are separated from service, and our employers find out that we have PTSD, all the can think is that we are going to snap and go on a shooting rampage because we are unstable.  

These are the stigmas that make talking about mental health illnesses difficult.  It is easier to deny anything is wrong than to admit we have demons we are battling.  Depression is only one symptom of PTSD.  There are many more.  Irritability, anger, lashing out, becoming withdrawn, insomnia, flashbacks, sadness, anxiety, and so many more.  Suicidal thoughts come with the territory.  Those of us strong enough to ask for help, are often shot down.  "So many people have it worse than you.  You shouldn't be depressed".  "Just be happier".  "Remember you have a family, don't be selfish".   A lot of people just don't know how to talk to or respond to someone when they say they are depressed and may be contemplating suicide.  For people who have never been that far in despair, they just don't understand.  And that's OK.  But dismissing the other persons' feelings is not the way to help.  Let them know that you are always around to listen, that you care.  Just knowing you have people in your corner can be the life jacket that person is looking for.

When I was sent back stateside from Iraq, I was not medevac'd.  I was sent via space-a.  I had to wait around Kuwait for 2 weeks for a seat to become available and for my unit to fix the paperwork they screwed up on.  When I got back to Atlanta, no one from my Rear-D unit was there to pick me up.  No homecoming welcome.  I had to take a cab from the airport to Fort Benning, a nearly 2 hour trip.  I checked into my hotel, and was told to report to work 6 hours later.  They initially tried to chapter me out on a bad conduct mischarge...which is funny because I didn't have a single negative counseling statement....that I knew of.  Come to find out, 3 had been written while I was in limbo, and where I was supposed to sign, my squad leader had written in "Soldier Unavailable to Sign.". More on this at a later date...thankfully I had a few docs that stood up for me, and pushed me through the med board process; I was eventually medically retired out of the Army 13 months after returning home.  I was treated like shit, because everyone in my unit thought I was faking it, trying to get out of deployment.  I had been there for 7 months, and wanted to make the Army a career.  I had no support.  No friends.  No family (locally).  I was at my wit's end.  Thankfully, I had my family's support.  I would call my mom bawling my eyes out, because I just couldn't take it anymore.  I wanted to give up.  So a week after returning home, my parents and 2 youngest sisters drove from VA to GA to come see me.  Give me much needed hugs and emotional support.  They stayed for a week.  Without them, who knows what would have happened.  My mom reminded me how strong I was.  I'm a Mayo, damn it.  And that means something.  I had my son who needed his mother.  And I had something to prove.  That no matter how much you may beat me down, degrade me, make me feel like nothing; I'm not going anywhere.  I know in my heart what the truth was/is, and I'll be damned if some ignorant, judgmental, self-serving, assholes were going to take that away from me.  I haven't written a lot about my time in service, or what happened to me while deployed and upon returning home.  But over the next few months, I think I'm going to let ya'll in.  I think it's important for people to know and recognize that this shit does happen.  And if it's happening to you, you're not alone.  There are actions you can take, and recourse for those who think they are above it all.  

Tonight, I just wanted to open the door.  Let people know that if you're struggling with PTSD, depression, or any other issue, there ARE people who care.  If you need someone to talk to, I AM HERE to listen to you.  All you have to do is reach out.  You are stronger than you think you are.

If you or someone you know is struggling, there are options.  Sometimes the most difficult thing to do is to ask for help.  You don't want to burden loved ones with your issues.  I'm here to tell you, it's not a burden.

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