What follows is the fifth 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.
Written by LT Todd Taylor, PSU program manager, Coast Guard Headquarters
As an active-duty member in recovery, I’m proud that the Coast Guard is not only participating in, but also celebrating, National Recovery month. Speaking from my own experience, I think it’s a correct assessment that the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard has linked addiction amongst members with the common problem of a Coastie not asking for help. I can only assume that this is primarily because of the stigma of addiction. As I write this today with clear eyes and in a strong recovery program, I intend to highlight some of my experiences of being an alcoholic in the Coast Guard, with the hope that this may reach even one Coast Guard member suffering silently. I am also hopeful that not only could my story help a Coastie who is struggling with addiction, but that this may spread the message that asking for help, for ANY reason, is okay, and it’s simply the right thing to do.
Drinking was, and always had been, a part of my life. It played a role in my childhood and followed me from adolescence all the way into college. It was a good time. From the time I enlisted in the Coast Guard, until receiving my commission, drinking was an accepted part of the military culture I knew and loved. When I joined the Coast Guard, alcohol was always present and perhaps encouraged at morale events, holiday parties and liberty ports, even during time spent TDY to training centers, “A” or “C” schools. Those individuals who consumed too much alcohol seldom received lasting punishments or discharges, but rather received warnings instead. Alcohol incidences (or at the time we also had what was called “alcohol-related situations”) were occasionally administered, but typically for only the most severe offenses.
I have always considered myself to be a heavy drinker, but now I know that I was actually an alcohol abuser. To be considered an alcohol abuser (according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism), one must be drinking five or more drinks on the same occasion more than five times within 30 days. I’m not stating that fact to label anyone, or suggest to any member that he/she has a problem, but rather as simply something to consider. Typically, I drank heavy on the weekends and sometimes throughout the week. I never considered it a problem, because I performed well at work, was never late, was still a good father and husband, and never was in trouble with the law.
As my drinking habits increased throughout the years, surprisingly so did my excellent performance. But eventually, I became a drinker who lived two sides of a coin. One side was the performer who people trusted and praised, but on the other side there was a person suffering from depression, anxiety, and alcohol dependency. Inevitably, my drinking, and then my life, became unmanageable. I started to develop health problems and began to suffer from anxiety attacks while speaking at all hands or being in public. I met with medical officers to stop my panic attacks. I wanted the panic attacks to stop so that I would not bring attention to myself, and I could continue to drink the way I wanted to. In retrospect, this is because for an alcoholic, one drink is too many and 100 are not enough.
I was eventually prescribed anti depressants but with no success, in the meantime I became completely powerless over alcohol. The year prior to asking for help was a complete nightmare. I was living a secret life that I had no control over. I was the executive officer of a large unit, and felt that my situation was my problem, and my secret, and I needed to keep it from everyone. During my entire career, I had rarely heard my supervisors, peers, or subordinates discuss recovery, or had I been engaged in conversations about addiction in the Coast Guard. Of course, I had read all the literature provided, as well as completed all the necessary training regarding addiction, but only because it was required. I was manipulating everything in my life to satisfy my physical and mental needs for alcohol. When I felt someone was suspicious of my behavior at work, or at home, I would work that much harder to ensure my charade wasn’t exposed. My behavior got to a point where I didn’t know how I was going to orchestrate my next day of drinking. I had a supportive crew and loving family, but I still chose to make my life very small. My disease wanted me alone, and it wanted me dead. I wasn’t suicidal but I knew that if I didn’t stop, I eventually would die an alcoholic death. Yet I was too proud, too scared, too paralyzed by alcohol to ask for help. My type-A personality had never been defeated by anything before. I considered someone who either quit drinking, or asked for help as a weak individual. I thought that the choice to stop drinking was a personal decision, so if you wanted to stop you would simply stop. Now after looking back at my experience, I realize how incredibly wrong I was.
Finally, I self-referred for alcohol use. I didn’t do this because I actually thought I had a problem, but rather to give myself a relief of the pressures from work and family. However, thankfully, through an inpatient treatment facility and follow-up counseling, I was able to receive the gift of valuable knowledge about both the disease and myself, which mercifully changed the course of my life. Today I have the ability to understand what happened, what stopped it, and what I need to do today in order to continue living a healthy and fulfilling life. These days, I can handle overwhelming situations with patience and integrity. Having the willingness to receive the education and learn about the medical science behind my disease has been crucial in understanding how my mind works. There are no guarantees that my outcome would have been different if I had asked for help sooner, but I sometimes wonder if I would have been able to spare myself and those that love me the devastation of that year.
Stigma is one of the meanest and most difficult aspects of addiction, because it explains why people like me hide the disease. My message to that fellow Coastie who is out there struggling, or to the member who wonders whether their shipmate has a problem, just take that first step. The overwhelming feeling of concern and support that I have had from my Coast Guard family has been quite an unexpected surprise. I do not carry the burden of feeling that I’ve let my shipmates down. Quite opposite, I actually feel the respect of my fellow Coast Guardsmen who have taken the opportunity to get to know my story, and who are thankful that I survived and am here to share my thoughts. Overall, I have truly felt supported by the Coast Guard, and my appreciation for this is endless. My current recovery program enables me to speak at large events and tell my story to hundreds of strangers and also to thankfully maintain a sober life while working with others that suffer from addiction. I am ecstatic that now the Coast Guard is asking me to share my thoughts as well.
Initially, I thought about keeping this blog entry anonymous, simply because of the stigma that addiction indicates a character flaw or weakness. I no longer support that stigma, therefore I am not writing this as an anonymous blog post. If you are struggling, find someone who has struggled with addiction, talk to a therapist, talk to a medical officer, or talk to your spouse or another loved one. I guarantee it’s the start of a new life. Hopefully more Coasties will share their stories, and we can start applying their experiences to that of others.
Addiction is real, and it’s something that destroys careers, relationships and lives. The statistics are indisputable in terms of alcohol consumption and drug addiction, and its correlation to suicide. If any part of my story or experience resonates with you, I simply ask that you honor yourself, your family, and this service by taking action, any action. I would never wish for a better past, but reflecting on it today, it’s incredibly clear that real help was always there for me, I was just too afraid to ask for it.
Think about it.