Tag Archives: depression

Lessons in compassion

By Staff Sgt. Jake Barreiro
51st Fighter Wing Public Affairs

“Without mercy, man is like a beast. Even if you are hard on yourself, be merciful to others.” – Quote from Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1954 film, Sansho the Bailiff

On Aug. 20, 2012, I woke up at 2:30 a.m. My bed, usually crowded with my wife, Cece, and two cats, Miki and Lulu, was empty. Down the hallway of the one-floor, three-bedroom house we rented in Cabot, Arkansas, I heard noise from the kitchen. When I went to see what the noise was, I found my 23-year-old wife on the floor and erratically painting on a canvas.

The painting was of an Airman Battle Uniform next to a bottle of prescribed depression medication. Streaks and spots of deep red paint blotched the canvas, which also had gashes and holes littered in it because Cece had been stabbing it with a kitchen knife.

“What the (obscenity) are you doing?” I asked.

She looked up at me, her body shaking, our two cats flanking her sides. I saw a hurt face and fear-riddled eyes, scorched red from sleep deprivation and sobbing. With our little family together in the kitchen that morning, “I’m sorry,” was all she could say.

Lessons in Compassion

Months earlier, Cece was sent to stay for a week at the Bridgeway, a mental health hospital in Little Rock, Arkansas. Three weeks later, she went back for another week for what eventually became a diagnosis of severe anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

An Airman herself, recent military-related stress of deployments, family separation and being over worked, coupled with the loss of her uncle and past personal traumas, led to my wife’s sleeping problems. She lived in a constant state of fear. Unable to sleep at night, she’d only shake helplessly in the bed next to me. These mounting pressures for my wife led to a serious conflict in our relationship for the first time since we met in 2007. I was seeing a different landscape of what had always been a very happy woman.

Strife at work, a splintered relationship at home, being put on depression medication and sleeping pills, being taken from her home twice for treatment, being whispered about by co-workers, being unambiguously accused of faking her condition by her first sergeant and awaiting the upcoming staff sergeant promotion results sent Cece into a severe panic that morning.

After my wife apologized, I talked her into getting up. We picked up the canvas and painting supplies, but I kept thinking about the red streaks of paint all over the floor and that I’d have to clean it up later. I then made Cece lay in bed until it was time for her to get dressed for her 4 a.m. shift.

The rest of that day reverberates in my conscience. The memories echo in my mind like the lingering twang of a released guitar string.

I received a call from my wife’s co-worker at 6 a.m., telling me to get to their workplace immediately. I found Cece pale-faced, shaking and not wearing boots or belt. I remember taking her to mental health and being unable to sit in on the confidential session. Cece was discharged from mental health and sent back to work. Then, we found out she made staff sergeant, but we didn’t feel like celebrating like we did when I made it two years earlier. I remember a silent car ride home.

As soon as we got to the house, I tried to help Cece sleep, but I couldn’t quell her anxiety. We lay in bed, me holding her and telling her to go to sleep while she shook and whimpered in pain. I silently scorned her condition, constantly thinking about how much effort I had to make for her and how her problems were affecting my behavior. It was a sweet relief when Cece finally stopped shaking and slept. When I finally went to sleep that night, I was glad such an emotionally taxing day was over.

Afterward, things didn’t become easier for us. We kept having arguments, and I became increasingly agitated with my wife, who was still suffering, physically and emotionally. Our problems escalated until one night, after getting off a 4 a.m. – 1 p.m. shift, Cece hadn’t come home by 6:30 p.m., and we argued via text message. At one point I threatened to leave her and told her I couldn’t handle her condition anymore.

After she got home, Cece told me she was thinking about killing herself, and that she thought about intentionally crashing her car into a tree on one of Arkansas’ back roads. Talking to a person so heartlessly while they suffered still shames me. We once again lay on the bed, her unable to sleep or relax and me holding her. I remember vividly what she said to me, “I just need you to help me right now. You know I’ll help you when you need it.”

She was right. During our five years together there were times when I was, at best, difficult to get along with and at worst insufferable.

I’ve always had a confrontational and contentious nature. This makes it hard for me to connect with people, and in my early 20s I often felt lonely and alienated, which led to an unhappiness that I often projected onto other people. Yet, even in my worst moods, I remember my wife holding onto me, joking with me, making me smile or laugh. She may have never known, but her signature smile, a beaming, full teeth-baring grin, often elevated me from the depths of negativity. So when she pleaded with me so bluntly, I couldn’t feel anything but shame and compassion.

This proved a turning point for us, and after that night I tried to act with mercy or compassion toward her struggle. For all of us, life has summits and cellars. No one is exempt from adversity and at times we all need kindness. After that day, I was committed to being supportive before critical and being helpful before skeptical. Things started to improve for both of us.

That’s not to imply everything changed right away. Mental conditions don’t evaporate or disappear because of good intentions. It takes commitment and patience to persevere the brutalities of depression, anxiety and PTSD. My wife still has hard days and difficult moments like everyone else. Traumatic memories still haunt her, but our efforts to keep an open, honest, nonjudgmental and supportive dialogue about ourselves helps. Just a year later, I was confident enough in her recovery to volunteer for an unaccompanied tour to South Korea. Cece is now out of the Air Force and going to school full time, and we’re both happily pursuing our goals and supporting each other as much as we ever have.

So why should anyone care about this highly personal story? Because there are many people like my wife and many people like me. There are people suffering, scarred, afflicted, overburdened and unfairly judged — unsure if something is wrong with them or if they can even ask for help. There are also people in a position to help, but unsure of what to do.

For the last 65 years, May has been designated as Mental Health Awareness Month. For a lot of us these monthly observances, of which there are plenty, are easy to dismiss or blithely endorse. It usually takes a personal stake in the issue to really care about it. Not just my wife, but personal experiences with my family have left me an advocate for the accepting treatment of suffering people. That means not only encouraging those who need it to seek help, but also encouraging others to treat the suffering with patience and kindness, even if they can’t understand them.

I’ve seen the consequences when people don’t get support, and while there’s no catchall method to stop someone from hurting him or herself, treating all people with dignity and compassion is the right place to start. Sometimes we don’t understand the influence we cast on others, how a kind action or showing genuine concern can seriously alter somebody’s day for good and how meanness, cruelty or indifference can do the opposite. It’s possible that kindness is all it can take to convince somebody they can ask for help, or that they’re valuable enough to be cared about.

Cece tells me the hardest thing about asking for help is the inevitable stigma that comes with it. She used to be afraid to talk about her feelings and problems because it was embarrassing and perceived as weakness. Also, personal cases of depression are hard for others to understand.

Much effort has been made to promote the truth that asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness, but this gives little comfort to people when they’re being ostracized at work or being treated different by friends and family. This is why all of us have a responsibility to value and care for the people around us. It’s important to treat those seeking help kindly, because despite progressive efforts, negative attitudes still exist.

However, I’m not writing this to ask you to change your mind about mental health. If you truly believe someone is faking a condition or if you think they’re too sensitive or weak for asking for help, chances are I’m not going to convince you otherwise.

Instead, compassion is my gospel. Treat those who are suffering, even if you’re skeptical, with mercy.

There’s no simple solution to the ailments of mental health. No acronyms, pills, PowerPoint slides, books, slogans or training can cure anxiety, depression or PTSD. There is, however, a universally good starting point, which is being respectful and compassionate to everyone, but especially to those who share their struggles and seek help.

If we do this, the worst thing we can do is be excessively nice. The best we can do may be to bring someone back from the abyss. Kindness, mercy and compassion are traits I value in people above all else. Her abundance of these is one of the reasons I fell in love with Cece when we were dating in 2008, and her enduring and helpful nature has inspired me and helped me be a better person ever since.

Celebrated poet John Donne poignantly wrote: “Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind.”

As human beings, Americans, service members and Airmen, we should not take the suffering of our own lightly or callously, but as a detriment to our family. Every single loss diminishes the whole, and every single person in the world is important.

In our living room, centered above our couch, we proudly display the painting Cece attacked with a knife. Its presence reminds me that we all have flaws and need support in our weakest moments. As individual human beings, the mistakes we make and scars we give and take can’t be undone any more than knife punctures can be erased from a canvas. We can never take back what we say and do. The wounds we endure never completely heal. However, as someone’s fellow human being, we have the chance to help by supporting each other. The most important thing in life isn’t what you did or what you’ll do, but what you’re willing to do now. There’s no nobler impulse in mankind than mercy, and there’s an abundance of people in the world who need it. Help them.

PHOTO: Staff Sgt. Jake Barreiro and Cece Guadalupe Ortiz days before their wedding Jan. 3, 2011, in Dover, Del. They first met in December 2007, began dating June 1, 2008, and got married Jan. 8, 2011. (Courtesy photo by Cynthia Ticas)

Asking for help is courageous

Airmen demonstrate ACE: ask, care, and escort.
by Command Chief Master Sgt. Thomas Mazzone
6th Air Mobility Wing

In the 1990s, it was not uncommon for an Airman to hear the phrase: “Suck it up!” It was also rare to find the supervisor who would encourage Airmen to seek help to work through mental health concerns. It seemed the senior noncommissioned officers were worried more about maintaining the appearance of a strong and ready force. Unbeknownst to them, they were raising Airmen who would be exactly what they wanted: hard core NCOs who were afraid to show emotion, and even worse, afraid to get help. We have the opportunity to break the cycle. Are you up for the challenge?

In 2004, a technical sergeant found himself sitting in a corner of a darkened room in the back of his house, sobbing. He was alone, and his life had just fallen out from under his feet. For over 30 hours he sat there, cried there and slept there. He didn’t eat and he didn’t drink. He simply stared at the emptiness in front of him, wondering how this had happened. How had his life gone from seemingly normal to quiet chaos in less than a day? He didn’t know how to ask for help.

He was in no condition to dissect his situation, as he lacked rational thought and had just sustained fresh, deep emotional wounds. Sitting in that corner, he challenged his faith, asking how his God could allow something so wicked to occur. He challenged himself, wondering if he didn’t do enough to keep this from happening. The phone rang as he sat there. He thought about unplugging it, but it was too far away. He wondered about “making the pain go away,” but instead he rolled over to fall asleep yet again. This time he awoke to the sound of his name being yelled in his own house. He never cried out “I’m back here; please help me!”

When they found him, he was a wreck. His legs were weak and he didn’t want to move. He just wanted his life back … he wanted his family back. He wanted things to be the way they were before, even though he knew that was not possible. One person walked him to the living room couch. Another got him some water. They sat there in silence with him, waiting patiently, hoping he would say something. He was ashamed and didn’t speak. He couldn’t stomach the thought of people knowing about this, even if they were his friends. He felt they wouldn’t be able to do anything for him, and he never asked them to find someone who could help.

One of them contacted the first sergeant, who arrived soon after. Together, they started doing things for him … simple things. They turned on the shower, they got him clean clothes, they made him a bowl of cereal and they drove him to see his commander. He sat in the office, his commander making the time to listen to nothing being said, only the sobs of a broken man. Finally, he was asked if he would like to see a chaplain or someone from Mental Health.

I said “no,” because I was scared, and because that’s the way I was raised in the Air Force. I was taught that seeking help was a sign of weakness, that it hurt careers, and it could negatively impact the mission. My commander didn’t force me. Instead he made a deal with me. He made me promise to answer the door no matter what time there was a knock, and to answer the phone at any hour. He pulled me from the flight schedule to ensure my personal safety and the safety of my fellow crewmates. He knew my passion for history and instructed me to begin a research project for the unit. All the while, he reminded me constantly of my options to speak with someone, and that it was a path back to wellness. After weeks of not smiling and busy work meant to keep my mind occupied, I finally told someone I was ready to talk.

There was no pause. I was immediately driven the 15 miles to our supporting hospital, and met with someone who wanted only to learn about what happened to make me go through the pain I felt. She gained my trust, assuring me that these steps to heal myself were courageous. It took time, but I worked through it. It took friends who legitimately cared about me and did whatever was needed. It took a command team to let me know it was okay to expose my wounds, since that was the only way to heal them. It took more time, but I was finally back in the air, doing what I loved, safely. It took a lot of people doing a lot of things at just the right time to make sure I was cared for. They never let me feel as though I was on my own. It also took a patient and loving God to wait for me to come back, and to show me there is a purpose for everything.

Since then, I’ve tried hard to crush the stigma associated with seeking help for mental health issues by being an example of a compassionate leader. But it wasn’t until recently that I decided the best example I could use was my own. I intend to continue spreading the message that it’s okay to ask for help. After mustering the courage to seek the assistance others wanted for me, I took to the path. It led me on a journey of self-discovery and helped to rebuild my confidence. In the aftermath, I continued to earn positions of responsibility and maintained my high-level security clearance. I was screened and designated to work for a special mission unit, promoted to chief master sergeant and eventually selected to be a command chief.

The previous paragraph is not boastful pride. It’s meant to encourage those who may be sitting in a similar dark corner, with what appears to be no place to go. I promise you there is a safe place, and I challenge you to ask for help. If I can crawl from my own hell with the help of others, I know you can, too. I also have a message for the “dinosaurs” that remain entrenched in the belief that asking for help is weak: You’re keeping your Airmen from reaching their full potential. That is exactly the opposite of what good leaders do. We should be inspiring our Airmen and conditioning them to seek whatever help they need in order to succeed personally and professionally. Healthy Airmen accomplish the mission efficiently, and with pride.

There are so many men and women with whom we serve who have made a leap of faith and found fulfillment on the other side. All it takes is the courage to ask for help.

Photo:Airmen at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., demonstrate the first step of Air Force suicide prevention, known as ACE. If you feel as though someone is considering hurting themselves, you should: Ask–engage them in conversation about their situation. Ask them directly if they are thinking of suicide. Care—calmly control the situation. Use active listening to show support to your wingman. Escort—don’t leave your wingman alone. Accompany them to their chain of command or the nearest medical facility. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Alessandra N. Hurley)

Looking out for your wingman during the holidays

By Staff Sgt. Jarrod Chavana
Air Force Public Affairs Agency

111208-F-SM817-001Editor’s Note: This is the first entry in a blog series on dealing with holiday stress, strengthening resiliency and linking Airmen to support networks and resources. Airmen are encouraged to seek help and know that they have an Air Force family ready to listen and provide support in times of need.

The holidays are meant to be cheerful, but for some Airmen it can be the most stressful time of the year. As it is most often a time spent with friends and family, this season can be a magnifier for those individuals with existing emotional or psychological issues.

Although we signed the dotted line and chose this life, it’s never easy to be away from loved ones. In 2009, I spent Christmas deployed to Iraq, while my pregnant wife and family were on the other side of the world. Even though I was able to watch my daughters open presents over the Internet, it wasn’t quite the same. For many Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors and Marines, this has become a common place, but for others this can be the last straw.

There are countless reasons why someone may be feeling down. Some common causes could be: this is the first time he or she has been away from home on the holidays, financial problems or relationship issues.

Even though you may converse with your co-workers, do you really know what’s happening to them outside of work? We should be looking after our own throughout the year, especially during the holiday season. Each and every day we should look for warning signs, trying to find out the causes of why someone has become withdrawn or why someone is lashing out. 

Once you recognize that an Airman has a true problem, what next? You should try to talk to him or her, but more importantly – listen. If an Airman does not want to share his or her issues, provide reassurance and information on the various programs available to Airmen and dependents for private mental and spiritual care.

Each base provides mental health counselors. Chaplains and Military One Source are also good options. Base chaplains have a 100 percent confidentiality clause, while Military One Source provides up to 12 off-base counseling sessions per issue at no charge.

Other programs include the Suicide Prevention Line, which has a toll free number 1-800-273-Talk (8255). The Defense Centers of Excellence, available 24/7, is staffed by health resource consultants who provide information, resources and referrals for service members, veterans and their families. They can be reached at 1-866-966-1020 or resources@dcoeoutreach.com.

The holiday season is meant to be a joyous time in our lives, and if you’re feeling overwhelmed and powerless, please remember there is always a military support system.    

PHOTO:: Though Tech Sgt. Sonja Williams, 94th Airlift Wing Airman and Family Readiness specialist, simulates a depressed Airman, holiday depression is real. During this time of the year, people may experience heightened stress, fatigue, financial constraints and loneliness triggered by the holiday season. (U.S. Air Force photo illustration/Senior Airman Chelsea Smith)

Attacking Symptoms, Aug. 30, 2012

 

Pencil illustration attempting to visualize PTSD

By Capt. Scott Taylor
Air Force Legal Operations Agency

“I started to get really depressed and lacked the desire to do anything but sit around and play online to ‘escape’ the real world,” he said. “I was having dreams of planes crashing, the smell of burnt flesh and rotting bodies. I still tried to push through this even as my sleep started to dwindle down to a couple hours a night as I would wake up in cold sweats screaming. I decided something was wrong.”

These were some of the symptoms Staff Sgt. Collin Moore, a former air transportation craftsman, was experiencing shortly after he made a permanent change of station to Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska.

“I would watch a commercial and start crying, then laugh, then get [upset] and then become enraged,” Moore said. “I went to the mental health clinic on base to get some advice. After a couple of sessions my counselor introduced the notion that I may be suffering from PTSD.”

Post-traumatic stress disorder is an anxiety disorder, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. It can be triggered by exposure to a traumatic experience such as an interpersonal event like physical or sexual assault, exposure to disaster or accidents, combat or witnessing a traumatic incident.

The diagnosis did not sit well with Moore. He said he felt he had no reason to be experiencing symptoms of PTSD. Although he had deployed seven times in eight years, he still thought that only military who had been on the front lines or sweeping the streets of Iraq or Afghanistan would experience stress and trauma. For him this didn’t make sense.

“I had never considered myself a weak-minded person,” Moore said. “I accomplished everything I put my mind to, and to me, something like this could not be possible. Boy, was I ever wrong. I started to go to mental health two times a week to try and work it out and started a healthy dose of medication, however this did not work for me.”

There are many treatments for PTSD, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Center for PTSD, but at this time there are two types of treatments that appear to be the most effective, medicines and cognitive-behavioral therapy counseling. Different treatment options are often tried to see what will work most effectively for the individual.

Shortly after Moore’s diagnosis he rapidly got worse and his weight ballooned to 260 pounds. His desire to do anything began to dwindle. His marriage began to fall apart. The breaking point came one night when he and his wife were arguing and he wondered what the point of living was.

“After a few venomous words were spit out by both parties I went to the closet and grabbed a friend’s .45-caliber handgun, loaded one in the chamber and had my finger on a hair trigger ready to be done with all the pain,” Moore said. “I stood there shaking while my wife was crying and at that point I realized this could not be me.”

Moore was sent to University Behavioral Health in Texas for 30 days, but it took time before he realized the cause of his PTSD and how to cope with it.

“The problem was that I still did not understand why I was counting windows in buildings, freaking out in the car as a passenger and still scared to death as the driver,” Moore said. “I hated doors behind me and large crowds. I would go from what to me seemed calm, to total rage in the blink of an eye.”

While Moore was undergoing care, he went to group and individual counseling sessions where he learned that having PTSD is not a weakness, but instead a natural defense mechanism that everyone has. Unfortunately, those who suffer from PTSD cannot turn off that defense mechanism.

“Simply put, PTSD is a state of hyper-vigilance and anxiety all mixed into one,” said Moore. “There is no ‘easy-button’ for it, no magic pill to cure it or, honestly, any way to get rid of it.”

Treatment can help an individual who has PTSD feel more in control of emotions and result in fewer symptoms, according to the VA National Center for PTSD. But, even with treatment some symptoms may still be prevalent.

Post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms are generally grouped into three types: intrusive memories, avoidance and numbing, as well as increased anxiety or emotional arousal, according to the Mayo Clinic website. Intrusive memories may include flashbacks or upsetting dreams. Symptoms of avoidance and emotional numbing can include feeling emotionally numb, avoiding enjoyable activities, memory problems, trouble concentrating and difficulty maintaining close relationships. Some of the symptoms of anxiety and increased emotional arousal include irritability, anger, guilt, shame, trouble sleeping or self-destructive behavior.

Moore said that his mind still feels like it’s in a hostile environment, which creates a problem. Although there is no real danger, anyone who causes an uneasy feeling or added stress becomes the enemy.

“The way I see it, I have been given a toolbox and in it are different ways to cope with different situations,” Moore said. “While I am a disabled veteran, I know I will never be the person I once was, but I also feel that I could not have become the person I am now. I am down to 170 pounds, and I am working on my vocational rehabilitation to become an environmental engineer.”

The VA found that nearly 400,000 veterans across the nation, and in all branches of the military, were affected by PTSD in 2009 alone, ranking the disorder as the fourth most frequent disability connected with military service.

Psychological intervention is available in multiple venues, including medical options through primary care and mental health clinics. All VA medical centers provide PTSD care, as well as many VA clinics. There are non medical options as well, such as Military OneSource, chaplain’s office and military and family life consultants.

Early diagnosis, prompt treatment and strong social support can all increase the chance of a good outcome for those who have PTSD.

Photo: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This pencil illustration attempts to visualize PTSD. Those that suffer from this disorder are constantly trying to regain some sense of the normalcy they had before events that caused pieces of themselves to go missing. (U.S. Air Force illustration by Master Sgt. William Vance)

Left behind

By Senior Airman Alexandria Mosness
20th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

A 4-year old girl with shoulder-length, light-brown hair and big brown eyes sat on the edge of the countertop with her legs dangling over the side, swinging back and forth. A strong man three times her size with hardworking hands touched her gently, and looked at her with tears streaming down his weathered face. “Mommy is not coming back. Mommy is in heaven with Grandpa,” he told her as his voice cracked. The brave little girl reached her tiny hand up to his sad face and wiped away his tears, as she said, “Don’t worry Daddy, it will be okay.”

But it was not okay; her mother, my aunt, had committed suicide only days earlier.Suicide prevention

Everyone has heard about suicide, but many people may not think it will affect them. But I guarantee if you ask around, it hits closer to home than you might think.

Yet, we still believe it won’t be someone we love. I didn’t think I would ever hear the news that my aunt Maria, who was only in her mid-30s, would take her own life.

I was a freshman in high school when I turned around at lunch one day with a smile still fresh on my face from a joke I overhead, when I saw my father’s pain-stricken face. I knew right then something was very wrong.

From then on the moments are a blur. When I look back, all I sense is a heavy dread and pain, a pain that tears deeply each time I look at my little cousin Olivia. Although Maria committed suicide about 8 years ago, it still breaks my heart to think about the life she missed out on.

She, like many people who commit suicide, dealt with depression. The one thing I wish I could have shown her was her funeral and all the people who sat in the pews crying. I wish she would have been able to see her 4-year-old daughter walk down the aisle of the big church, side-by-side with the coffin, and lay a rose on top of her mother’s lifeless body. I wish she would have felt the love of those who cared for her dearly, and those that might have been able to pull her off of that edge.

But my wishes are just that… wishes.

What I don’t want is for you to be the one wishing. Once a loved one takes his or her life, we have no control. We are the survivors, and we are the ones who must keep going.

From the time I began high school and throughout my military career, I have been inundated with computer-based training modules, classes and countless Airmen days on the topic of suicide.

But even with all of this knowledge and available resources, the Air Force battles this issue. Some might not think it can happen to them or someone they know,

So, what can we do to help those in need?

Many may think it is cliché, but I always smile at everyone. I always think especially since I am a survivor, what if that one act brings them back. Maybe it is not that simple, but kindness does go a long way.

We are always told to be good wingmen. This goes hand-in-hand with improving our resiliency. When you see your co-worker down or acting different, pull him or her aside. See what is wrong. A lot of times, all people need is someone to talk to.

If someone comes and tells you of a plan to hurt him or herself, don’t laugh it off. The person is reaching out to you. Listen and then help find the assistance he or she may need.

Social media is huge these days. We may take what our friends say online as a joke or not take them seriously, but if you start noticing a trend or something that makes you raise your eyebrows, do something about it. Heck, it might not be anything, but how would you feel if you found out later that person had harmed him or herselves? You truly can save lives.

There will always be challenges in this world, but if we all take that extra step and treat people like valued human-beings, maybe we can stop losing our Air Force family to this dreadful thing.

I know that if we had seen the warning signs, my little cousin would not be walking around on Easter grasping a picture of her mother because she missed her, but instead holding her hand and celebrating the joyous moments in life.

Photo: (U.S. Air Force photo illustration by Airman 1st Class Corey Hook)