By CJ Grisham
For those that listen to our You Served Radio Show each Thursday evening, you probably missed an announcement I made at the end. Our interview with General Chiarelli went long so those listening live probably didn't catch it unless they went back and listened to the archives.
I've been noticeably missing the past week or so for a number of reasons. Not the least of which is Army business, but I can't blame it all on work. At the end of the show, I publicly admitted that I'm having issues dealing with life. Not in the sense of ending it, but just coping and interpersonal issues. I consider admitting that I have a problem phase I of my new recovery.
Last week, my company completed Phase II of the Army's Suicide Prevention program. We watched the video, "Shoulder To Shoulder: No Soldier Stands Alone" (I'll have it uploaded later) and then discussed some scenarios afterwords. When the training was complete, I sat down with my Soldiers to talk them face to face about what we had just trained on. I explained to them that NOTHING in this life – nothing in this Army – is worth taking your own life for. Life sucks…a LOT. But, it's never so bad that you should end your life.
I explained that in my experience there is a common thread to people who want to commit suicide. Almost without fail, the inner thought of suicidal people is that "life [for others] would be better without me." Or, "I'm inconsequential." A common goal of suicide is to easy the burden of one's life on other people. What they don't realize is that suicide only compounds the burden's on other people. The only thing it ends is that individual's problems while placing those problems in the hands of someone else. I looked my Soldiers in the eye and told them from the heart that I and the commander are there for them if they EVER feel like life is too burdensome to continue. We will not chastise them, mock them, make light of their situation, or try to convince them that their problems aren't real. We will do everything within our power to help them overcome whatever in their life is causing them pain and anguish.
I then explained that seeking that help, either from us or real professionals, is not a sign of weakness. I talked about my conversation with General Chiarelli and the Army's commitment to ending the stigma that has historically been attached to seeking mental health counseling. To lend credibility to what I had just told them, I entered phase II of my recovery – telling my Soldiers that I am seeking counseling. For far too long since returning from Iraq, people both inside and outside of the military have sort of hinted to me that I should seek help. My lovely wife has mentioned it a few times, sometimes joking for fear of offending me. Even my Command Sergeant Major suggested I seek professional help when he spoke to me about my IG complaint. I met each suggestion with either humor, disinterest, ambivalence, or anger depending on whom was telling me. There's nothing wrong with me. I'm fine. You're crazy for even suggesting such a thing. Haha, that's funny.
As most of you know, I started this blog as self-medication. It worked for a few years, but I'm not sure what's happened in recent months and years. Perhaps it's the physical pain I've been in for more than six years now. Maybe it's the accumulated lack of sleep that is catching up to me. Maybe there really is nothing wrong and I'm just really tired! Whatever it is, my behavior has changed and it sort of scares me.
I am always tired. No matter how long I "sleep," I NEVER wake up rested. I toss and turn throughout the night. I lie awake for hours enjoying the company of the beautiful woman beside, soundly sleeping. Sometimes, I get up and walk around the house or surf the internet. I'm not willing to get specific about the things keeping me awake at night publicly, but it's a combination of bad dreams, everyday stresses, and physical discomfort. I have a prescription to Vicodin for nights that I can't sleep through the pain that I rarely take. I'm afraid to get addicted to the pills if I take them every time I need them. A bottle typically lasts me about six to eight months. But, when I take them I keep Emily awake. Sometimes, they even keep me awake. I'm not in pain, but they make me itch.
I'm not comfortable being around people. I'm not the social butterfly I pretend to be anymore. This year's Milblog Conference was the most uncomfortable I've been in years. I used to love being the center of attention of making an ass out of myself. I don't like doing anything anymore. I hate leaving the house and when I do, I make sure I'm always armed. There's a sense of impending doom just walking out my front door. To at least get me out and about, I've turned to geocaching. It's something I can alone or with my family. It keeps me moving, but I don't have pay for anything or worry about large crowds. Even when I went to the Tea Parties, I tried to keep mostly to myself and not draw attention.
That is what is so great about the internet. I can have all these friends and be in the company of hundreds of people and I feel perfectly fine. The problem is that I've made a lot of GREAT friends online that I truly love, respect and admire. Yet, I dread the eventuality of being social except with certain people. That tends to push people away or cause them to think that they've somehow done something wrong or that they aren't important to me which is completely untrue. I don't even like hanging out with my own family! My sister just finished a visit and I felt so distant the whole time.
One of the things that keeps me up at night is the fact that I expend a LOT of energy trying to keep my life in order. For many years I've had memory issues and it's gotten much worse lately. I have to write EVERYTHING down or I forget it. I'm not talking about complicated things or detailed things, I'm talking about virtually everything. I forget meetings, appointments, names, faces, promises made, places I've been, things I've done or not done, etc. The list literally goes on and on. It's frustrating because I used to be a virtual encyclopedia of information. Now I have to strain to remember anything.
There's nothing more frustrating than when my commander asks me a question about a Soldier's issue that I know about, but need to check my notes to brief. Hell, I even forget which Soldiers are at which field offices and I've been doing this for nearly two years!! Every day I come into my office, I open up my "go book" that I recently created and read through the list of offices and the troops located there so I don't forget. I used to be able to spout out with ease when someone was ETSing, in their promotion window, having a birthday, etc. I knew their family members' names and had them committed to memory. Now I'm lucky if I can get my own nieces and nephews' names right. I don't know if this is a result of stress or all the wonderful, cool explosions I had the pleasure of sitting through, but it's the one thing that I probably spend the most time trying to combat!
There is a bright side to all this. In my quest to deflect the attention I receive, I work hard to draw attention to other, more worthy, individuals. Instead of worrying about myself, I can put all my energy into worrying about my troops and making sure that their achievements are recognized. I try to focus on those injured or killed in combat. They deserve to be recognized for what they've sacrificed for their country.
Why am I writing all of this? Well, for the same reason I started this blog – to get it off my chest. To "tell someone without having to tell anyone." It makes me feel better – a little. The last thing I want/need is sympathy or people feeling sorry for me. I'm no victim here! I don't want special attention, help, or pawing. I don't need pats on the back and I don't want to be a poster child. I don't want money, congressional testimony, or the support of VoteVets or IVAW who want to politicize these issues. I want other Soldiers to realize that the Army is serious about removing the stigma. I have a problem! And I'm still "Army Strong" in spite of it! Don't believe me? Screw up and I'll still nail your arse to the wall and start shooting darts. I'll still put you in the front leaning rest for a decade or "until I get tired." I can still pass my PT test, qualify expert on my weapon, and meet my daily suspenses (thanks to Outlook's "tasks" function).
There's nothing weak about me because I'm having these issues. I can still lead by example, accomplish the mission, and take care of my Soldiers. And if my Soldiers feel like they can't trust me or serve under me, tough! Suck it up until your ETS or call your branch manager and get the hell out of here. Thankfully, I have good Soldiers who embody the Warrior Ethos and Army Values. They see that I'm still very much in control as "Top."
The stigma is hereby dead. I challenge all leaders to understand this and apply it where they can. Our troops need to understand that there is nothing weak about seeking help. I know because it has been much harder to acknowledge these issues than to hide them. It's been a lot harder knowing I may very well be ending my career by admitting that I'm not all there mentally. Talking about this now after 15+ years – and prior to being eligible for retirement benefits – is probably the hardest thing I've ever done. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't worried. I am, but I trust the Army on its word and I'm challenging that mentality. And as I do so, I will be documenting most of my progress here. There are still a great many issues I will probably never feel comfortable talking about, but I owe to others out there that may be trying to hide their problems for fear of losing their jobs or risking their reputation. I need to lead by example. And if I can do it, so can you!
Now, I'm gonna go get some sleep and enjoy the rest of my vacation. I'll be leaving my cell phone in the room tomorrow so I can really relax!