What follows is the first guest blog post in a series planned for the month of September — both National Recovery Month and National Suicide Prevention Month.
National Recovery Month, formerly known as National Alcohol and Drug Addiction Recovery Month, is a national observance aimed at informing people that addiction treatment and mental health services can enable those with a substance use or mental disorder to live a healthy and rewarding life.
According to the World Health Organization, nearly 3,000 people commit suicide every day, about one million per year. National Suicide Prevention Month is designed to raise awareness that suicide is preventable, improve education and spread information about suicide, and decrease the stigma of suicide.
In light of these co-occurring observances, the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard Steve Cantrell is trying to break the stigma of asking for help. No matter what issue you may be facing — substance use/abuse, finances, depression, anxiety, fear, guilt — there are so many programs available for help, both in and out of the Coast Guard. Don’t suffer in silence. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. As the Commandant already put it: “Don’t go it alone.”
Written by AETCS Stacy Dasher, command senior chief, Coast Guard Air Station Los Angeles
I learned a long time ago – from mentors and shipmates – not to feel, let anyone see me struggle or come across as weak in any way. My serious struggles started after the 6535 crashed in Mobile and all of a sudden I began having anxiety, issues in re-experiencing all my most difficult flights and SAR cases, nightmares, hypersensitivity, avoidance, depression, and fear took over my world. I saw the worst-case scenario in everything, from driving down the road, to flying, doing my job and being a spouse and parent. The stress of holding in all these things and not allowing anyone to see it was unbearable, it built up so much, physical signs started to manifest, uncontrollable tremors, tension headaches, general illness, and every now and then an angry outburst for no apparent reason. I avoided lengthy contact with even my closest relationships because I didn’t want them to see my emotions for fear of judgment; I also had the fear that others could see the failure I was feeling. I kept everything internalized. The belief that I was going to let anyone and everyone down kept me silent even though I knew something was terribly wrong.
The breaking point that forced my hand to receive help happened one day in June 2013. After a day of training, one of my co-workers called me out on “feeling sorry for myself.” She was angry with me and could not have known what damage this would cause. In the prior two weeks, I had convinced myself that I was worthless and failing at everything, but to have this shipmate and very close friend call me out, raise her voice at me, and tell me to suck it up was too much, it broke the last strand of hope I had been hanging onto. I had failed and others could see it, so in my mind I had become an utter disappointment and completely worthless. The physical and mental pain was absolute, and the only way to end this nightmare was to end my life. All I wanted was for the pain to stop. My plan was to overdose on my medication. I had several that would do the job. I even looked up how much would cause an overdose and death. I would just go to sleep, stopping all the thoughts, stopping the pain, and ending the burden that I had become to everyone else. Pills in hand, I knew I would not be able to protect myself anymore. One split-second logical thought took me to my husband. Stunned, he quickly reacted, and the road to help began.
Emotionally driven, I maintained the belief that my only way out was suicide. I was admitted to an inpatient PTSD treatment program and spent the next two months working on all the things that I had never allowed myself to process. I had stuffed every experience into a neat little box, but it had broken open, and now I had to deal with everything at once. Through daily counseling, group, art and animal therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, cognitive process therapy, research and studying, I was taught coping skills. I could disclose every element of every experience without being judged, and I found that I even had support. I didn’t need to fear the people and the mental and emotional work I was beginning. I started to see myself as a human being, and realized I didn’t need to strive for perfection or seek approval from everyone. I recreated myself from the ground floor, one step at a time. After the PTSD program, I returned home and continued with an outpatient program for two more months and therapy at least twice weekly. I learned to feel things as they came instead of hiding from them. I learned who I could trust and where to turn in crisis, who to lean on and that they could be extremely understanding and compassionate. I didn’t just “get over” the suicidal ideations, they stuck around for over a year, but not as strong, I had to work through many more times where I felt worthless and hopeless – but, those times, I knew where to turn.
Recovering from a place of giving up completely on life and such self-loathing is extremely difficult. It has been mentally exhausting and tough not to just throw in the towel on occasion. I have seen psychologists, psychiatrists, and chaplains. I have called up the suicide hotline just to get through the night, and I lean on several good friends when needed. I have done research and studied PTSD, depression and anxiety, and I hope to find the best way for me to deal with the struggles that come with these mental challenges. I no longer feel I have to handle everything on my own, and I know where to turn when I need to. I am doing so much better mentally and emotionally because I have created a much stronger, healthier individual than I could have ever known possible. I actually have self-esteem and don’t need to rely on what I do to make my life worthwhile.
My career has continued to move forward even with these struggles, but it hasn’t been without the help from my commands, a few extremely close friends and my spouse. After my suicide attempt and during my care, the command supported me in every way possible. A med-board was not automatically started, and I wasn’t handed off as a problem for someone else to take care of. They had expectations for me but never pushed harder than I could handle. They never removed my power of choice and allowed me to have a lot of say in how things would be handled. I was given opportunities to regain my position and responsibilities but at my pace, not under pressure. My name remained on the advancement list, and I maintained my recommendation allowing me to advance to E-8 a little more than a year after my attempt. My shipmates stood by on the difficult days when I was re-qualifying as an instructor and never hesitated to step in and help when I would have a panic attack. Never once did anyone gripe that I wasn’t pulling my weight, which had been a major concern of mine.
Beating down the stigma of mental health has been difficult, but the more it is seen and discussed the easier it gets. For anyone who may be ignoring or stuffing their feelings, emotions, or possible traumatic events, I highly suggest seeking out help early and often even if it doesn’t seem like an event has affected you. Talk about your challenges and struggles with a trusted friend or family member, and if you still struggle, speak to the chaplain or find a good therapist to help you through. There is never a reason to go through these things alone. None of us are robots, we are all human beings, meant to feel a wide range of emotions, and we deserve the respect and freedom to deal with all our feelings without judgment or fear. We each have more supporters than haters in our lives, and no one should have to go through the tough stuff alone. Dismiss your pride, listen to what your body and mind are telling you and find help in a healthy way. Allow yourself to be vulnerable for a moment and remember we all have good and bad days. Try not to judge your feelings and do not judge others, because no one knows the whole story.
To hear more about AETCS Dasher’s road to recovery, click the below thumbnail to be directed to a video. And, stay tuned for more guest blog posts during the month of September.