"Mind" category intro.
Note that the original version of this post appeared on the GORUCK blog here.
I thought I would start this category of blog posts with a little background. How did I get here, and what it can mean to you. It’s my story, but the intent is to make it somehow helpful to others. So please approach everything I say with that perspective. Also note that I’m not a doctor and I have no intention of being one. Anything I talk about isn’t prescriptive. I simply want to give people some things to think about based upon my experience.
As stated on my About page, I’m someone who has suffered from an anxiety disorder, general mental health issues, and chronic illness for years. For the longest time I kept these problems to myself. Part of me was terrified to say anything. And another part was confident that I could “figure it out” on my own, per my personal mantra. And yet another part felt like as a former SEAL, I shouldn’t say anything. It’s part of our ethos to not speak publicly about our work. Plus I had a professional reputation to uphold and didn’t want to come off as a pity case.
Then I started researching the landscape of mental health in this country, especially among veterans. The starkest numbers come from suicide rates. Since 9/11, over 108,000 American service members (current and former) have killed themselves, which is more than the combat deaths of Vietnam, World War I, Iraq, and Afghanistan combined. Statistically, an American serving in the military in the last 20 years has been nearly 20 times more likely to die by their own hand, than while fighting in an actual war. Tragically, I knew some of the people who make up these numbers.
But it’s not just a problem in the military. Among the civilian population in this country, suicide rates have been on the rise for the last 30 years (approaching 50,000 annually) which is nearly double what it was in the early 80’s. That’s the same rough number as opioid overdoses in 2019, and we call that an “epidemic.”
Clearly something needs to be done to change this trajectory. Luckily at the time of this writing, I work as the Communications Director for the Navy SEAL Foundation, and our organization is heavily invested in various mental health programs for service members and veterans. In 2020 through our partnership with GORUCK, we established “Veterans Day Chad” as an event designed to “change the number” when it came to suicide. It’s named in honor of Chad Wilkinson, a Navy SEAL who took his own life in late 2018 after 21 years in the military. And what made the project special was that it was done in collaboration with Chad’s widow, Sara. Her involvement humanized this issue. It made it personal, raw, and authentic. You can read more about it here.
The response to “Chad” was incredible. But personally, it gave me courage. To speak. I realized that we always hear these tragedy tales when it’s too late. From families and friends after a loved one has taken their own life. But there are so many people dealing with similar problems right now. So many living sufferers. These people need to say something. Those who, I can only assume, have been too afraid to do so, just like me. It’s not just about veterans or suicide. It’s about the space between everyone’s ears where they experience their entire lives. How much taking care of that space matters. How low things can get if you don’t. And how we stop ourselves from getting there.
For me that low was about three years after coming down with some kind of chronic illness triggered by mold exposure. After seeing countless doctors, running endless tests, and trying nearly every treatment I could find, I had gotten to the point where I thought I simply would never get better. My cognitive function was so poor, and I was in so much pain. I was so afraid, so depressed, so hopeless. One day I broke down and started sobbing. I was curled in a ball on the kitchen floor in the arms of my wife, begging for her to let me kill myself through streams of tears. To some degree, every day was like this. I faked my way through things, pretending to be fine when I felt awful. Eventually I just thought, "how much longer can I do this?"
The good news is that I was able to do it a little longer. And figured out that much of what I was dealing with really did tie back ultimately to my mental health in various ways. By focusing my energy, I started to get a little better. Then a little better still. There are a lot of details to unpack regarding exactly what I did, and I will get to them in later posts. But for now, I’ll just say that I’m now nearly back to normal. I still have bad moments and even days. And I wouldn’t say I’m “cured” but I don’t think that term really applies anyway. It would be like saying you’re “cured” of being out of shape. Mental fitness is no different than physical fitness in the sense that it’s a constant struggle. If you want to stay fit, you must work out consistently, for your whole life. Training your mind and your mindset should be approached the same way. You aren’t just “fixed” one day. It’s a daily, lifelong commitment to just keep training.
What I also eventually realized is that talking about my experiences as a veteran is not the same thing as talking about my experiences as a SEAL. Quite the opposite. Because my story as a veteran isn’t about being courageous, or strong, or heroic. It’s about being fearful, weak, and vulnerable. And none of this makes me a pity case. It makes me relatable to a lot of people who have never been in the military. If sharing what I’ve been through helps others (both veterans and non-veterans alike) and maybe even stops one person from ending their own life, it’s worth doing.
Like I said, this isn’t prescriptive. You always hear “lead by example” and that’s simply what I’m trying to do. Whether you follow that example, do nothing, or become one yourself, is up to you.