When the helper asks for help
KUNSAN AIR BASE , Republic of Korea — Over the last 10 years, I have seen a lot of different reactions when it comes to the topic of mental health. While the attitude toward mental health has changed for the better, I continue to hear some of the same concerns I heard years ago. The one that comes up most frequently is that talking to mental health providers will somehow damage one’s career. The negative behavior that prompted a visit to the clinic may trigger professional consequences, but simply seeking help will not. The vast majority of those who come to the Mental Health Clinic experience positive changes in their professional and personal lives. I can’t tell you about all of our success stories without breaking confidentiality, but there is one I can share: my story.
In 2008, I was working at the Combat Stress Clinic in Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. The deployment was nothing like anyone had described to me before I deployed. Several of the mental health technicians with whom I worked before deploying all told me that Bagram was a cake deployment because it didn’t get attacked like some of the forward operating bases. How wrong they were. I was placed in harm’s way numerous times; during one incident in particular, I was lucky to have walked away with my life.
Another particularly stressful time was on Christmas Eve. My ER got slammed with multiple trauma patients. As soon as they finished treating one group, another wave arrived. I was running back and forth between helping in the ER and the Combat Stress Clinic when I heard one of our Combat Stress Team members was injured in an attack. He probably wouldn’t have survived if he wasn’t a few feet away from a combat medic when the shrapnel severed his brachial artery. The next day I was tasked to go to his forward operating base to collect his belongings and bring them back. On the surface, I knew I was scared for my life, but I was oblivious to how many different emotions were going through my head. It would be a number of months before I actually started to process them, though.
Three months later, I returned to California. Words cannot express the joy I felt seeing my wife at the airport. I was still in the clouds even after my rest and recovery ended. It wasn’t until a few months later that the reality of what I experienced started to catch up with me. My wife was the first to notice some of the changes. I had always been a very calm, patient person, but I would get furious when I heard people complain about petty things. A stranger complaining about a long line at a store was all it took for me to lose my cool. All I could think of was how this “problem” was nothing compared to the struggles many of the soldiers I had worked with encountered on a daily basis. This stranger had no clue just how fortunate we all are.
I started to display more symptoms. I thought I could manage on my own because I had briefed thousands of deployers about it. When I got back to work, there were things that would remind me of what I saw during my deployment. I knew from my briefings that I shouldn’t avoid thinking about my deployment experiences and that talking to people would help. It was difficult to have those conversations, but I did.
The last straw for me was when I went to the airport to pick up a new Airman. It didn’t take long before I felt the “fight or flight” urge and started feeling overwhelmed. Before I knew it, I had gone from walking through the baggage claim looking for an Airman to hiding by the vending machines in the corner. It was not a very good first impression when the Airman approached me. I was embarrassed I was experiencing what I had trained others to overcome. At that point, I decided to seek help. My pride had held me back from getting help for too long.
Making an appointment at the Mental Health Clinic was the easy part. Talking during the appointment was harder than I thought it would be. We discussed what I had experienced and what my current concerns were. I shared how exhausted I felt being on edge all the time and how the “fight or flight” urges made it hard to get work done. With that information, we formed a plan. We met weekly to help me process what I had experienced. Although I had previously talked with many people about the events, I learned that I was only telling a part of the story. It was a play-by-play of what happened, but it lacked an important aspect: what I felt.
With time, patience, and a lot of practice, I was able to get to a point where I no longer needed treatment. I do not meet criteria for a diagnosis. Although I am not the same person I was before I deployed, I don’t consider that to be a bad thing. I have grown as a person.
Even someone with all the tools to help him/herself might be in need of help when going through rough times. We all struggle. It does not mean we are weak. It means we are humans, and reaching out for help is a normal human response. Family, friends, coworkers: the people around you are here for you. But if you feel you can’t connect or start the conversation, come to the Mental Health Clinic. We’re here for you, too. Don’t be afraid to share your success story or ask for help in making yours.