Gotta’ Deal With the Demons Before They Deal With You

I’ll be honest with you. There are days I really doubt this wandering thing. Sold my possessions to fund the whole thing and now I’m here, surrounded by beauty.

This isn’t something I would normally share, considering travel is considered a luxury by many people– especially to New Zealand.

The saying goes “where ever you go, there you are” and as much of a cliche as it has become, I think it’s quite fitting. The current count is 35. 35 countries travelled, wandered, explored, dined, fucked, smoked, drank, and slept in.

No matter how far I go, there is still an unhappiness that follows. A discontent with what I have, even though, logically I understand how fortunate I am.  But, I wont get into the dichotomy of logic vs. emotion. Just know, I’ve been studying psychology as an amateur hobby since I was 17 in an effort to understand what the fuck was going on in my head. Now as an adult, I have been working towards an  under-grad degree in psychology to further my knowledge.

There is another layer to sort out though. Education makes your head smart, but it doesn’t do anything to transform the core of who you are and how you interact with the world, unless you consciously put forth the effort. This leads into the theory of addiction to unhappiness.

Can you really practice sulking and ruminating on past indiscretions to such a point that you become addicted? The law of perception speaks of the way we view the world is directly correlated to the way we believe it is. (insert source)

So what the fuck am I getting at?

I spend a lot of time thinking about the world, emotion, feelings, past relationships, etc.. No, it’s not to make myself feel worse about ‘what could have been’ or ‘the one who got away’ but rather in an effort to improve myself.

Some how along the way, I forget that Major Depressive Disorder, Anxiety, and PTSD are part of who I am. At the moment, I’m not seeking counseling. I’m not taking my medication every day as directed. Something drove me to come to NZ to escape the reality of separating from the military and returning to ‘Gen-Pop.’

On the days where I didn’t sleep well the night before, wake up dehydrated, or just can’t handle the world, the veil of “nice” vanishes. I rather like these days because I feel a bit more in control of my life. Instead of enduring the polite conversations with people I could give a shit less about, I ignore them. The old people (50-60s) who populate many of the Department of Conservation (DOC) campsites that I visit are good people, but they’re old. They stare at you and are curious about what your home looks like. They possess such a proper (and in my opinion stifled) way of discourse that I want to go over and shake them awake. No, I don’t give a shit about where you’re from. No, I don’t want to tell you where I am from. Yes, you do speak poor English and yes, I can understand you.

Recognizing that I am very fortunate to have the life I do (logic), yet wanting to be away from people, yet lonely (feeling) I somehow continue on with my life.

As many of my close friends know, I have dealt with suicidal ideations. I’ve even pushed it further than thoughts and half-assed tried. The days when I am vibrant and energetic, I am also optimistic about building a better life. When the days of irritability, loneliness, isolation, and darkness arrive, I feel that it’s so fucking hopeless, I might as well push the “reset button.”

For those out there who deal with PTSD, Depression, Anxiety, Bi-Polar, or any other sort of mental health issue, I’m sure you can identify with this post.

What do I intend the reader to have gained from this? Maybe a bit more insight into mental health disorders. Maybe that even if life seems grand on social media, there too can be issues.

Really, I just wanted to write a post that was raw and authentic. A post that challenges the thought  that I need to write something that doesn’t offend, in the same way unoffensive music is played at a grocery store.

A desire to be deeply connected to someone, yet completely fearful of being let down. I’ve always been quite sensitive and am now, at almost 30, learning to accept that. At age 18, I saw combat for the first time in Afghanistan.

At 2a.m. in June of 2006, during my 2200-0600 radio watch, the first three RPGs hit. During the summer, we would leave the doors open through the Joint Provincial Coordination Center (JPCC), as air conditioning and even fans, were non-existent. Usually the wind tunnel created would slam the doors shut, often in succession. The boom from those first three RPGs careening into the Provincial Police Chief’s Prado, a weapons connex box, and the Police Chief’s residence, sounded just like the doors slamming. But what threw me into my Interceptor Body Armor (IBA) was the immediate book end of AK-47, RPK, and PKM gun fire. It was pretty evident that we were under attack. Even though I was in the Navy for less than a year, and in Afghanistan for 2 months, training kicked in.

Immediately I grabbed my M-16 and ran to wake up the interpreters, who were sleeping in the back bunk room. I don’t remember being scared. From what I do remember, I was excited as this was the reason I joined. Finally, we were in the shit and my wish came true. During the attack, I was responsible for manning the High Frequency (HF) radio to our main Forward Operating Base (FOB) just 5 KM up the road, as well as a Motorola hand-held to my immediate Chain of Command (CoC) on the other side of the compound. Unfortunately, during the attack, it was not possible for anyone from my CoC to come support me as the friendly fire from the Afghan Security Forces was too intense to move safely. So I, the only english speaker in the building, along with my two Afghan interpreters, were responsible for not only coordinating between the Afghan National Police, Afghan Border Police, and Afghan National Army, but also the main FOB in Sharana, and the Army Embedded Training Team (ETT) at our small base.

Needless to say, it was a cluster fuck. But through it all, I remember having a smile. I had just quit smoking and was amazed at how I didn’t even crave one. Thankfully I had an excellent Army Captain in charge of our team at the time who could have been reprimanded my, let’s say, lack of tact and professionalism. Within what I believe was 30 minutes, the attack was over.

Unfortunately we could not coordinate forces during the attack to fight back and due to the responsibility of my position, I wasn’t authorized to return fire. To this day, I hold a bit of contempt that I wasn’t allowed to climb the roof and release the 210x 5.56mm and 3x 40mm HE rounds at the enemy, who we later found out was directly across from me. In the end, we were ALL fortunate. A battle damage assessment of our compound revealed a very strategic pattern of RPG and mortar impact. For instance, the Prado I mentioned, was roughly 50 feet from my building. An example of the awesomeness of ordinance, the Prado was hit by an RPG that went through the perimeter wall, 75 feet across the compound, into the engine block, between the front two seats, through the rear seat, out the tailgate, and into a connex box full of ammunition. From there, all the fire seemed to shift left in a beautiful arc, hitting new construction buildings,  our gym, and other perimeter walls.

Writing this now, 11 years later, I cant help but think of how bad of a morning our team would have had if the fire shifted right.

How did I make it through this without all systems shutting down? I shut down emotion. True, I was excited, but I recognized that I couldn’t cower in the corner as lives depended on my position. Truth be told, I saw the whole thing from a child’s point of view. This was the action I had read about in war books; that I had fantasized about when joining the military. I had family back home, but really, I wasn’t afraid to die in that attack. So where did the PTSD come from?

It wasn’t until later on in the year-long deployment that the possibility of being kidnapped and beheaded became real. Each night as I walked to watch, I was hyper-vigilant of being grabbed. Though my team would probably tell me I was being paranoid, seeing how lax the security provided by the ANSF was and how porous the entrance gate was allowed to be, I became genuinely paranoid about being the next star in a poorly recorded home video.

To keep my sanity, I shoved all that shit down. I found the emotional box for “fear” and clicked “unsubscribe.” Or so I thought. As I learned years later, you cannot just numb one emotion. Of course the recorder was on the whole time during the remaining months of that deployment. The subsequent attacks, suicide bombings, IEDs, nightly dog shooting, and propaganda videos recovered, all had an impact. Even the muscle memory of the weight, feel, and responsibility of a M9 Barretta 92FS with two 15 round magazines straped into a drop holster around my left leg and a M203 (M16A4 with M203) with Aimpoint red-dot Close Quarters Battle (CQB) and Night Optical Device (NODs) optics with a 3-point sling across my chest, persisted even after being turned in to the armory in Fort Bragg, up-to 6 months later.

Upon return, I dove into binge drinking and chain smoking with my friends, who also deployed to different parts of the country and came back with their own personal experiences. I started to see a counsellor to help sort out some of what was going on in my head, but as thankful for Military Onesource’s support, the free counsellors aren’t the best. At age 19 it was quite difficult to relate to my friends back home. The command we all left from was a prestigious military university which trained US and Foreign upper-level leadership in strategy. Support staff were all old dogs who were riding out their time. Many of them had not been in a combat zone and did their best to identify with us, but reacclimatizing to the US after living in Japan for 3 years hardly can compare to Afghanistan, right? My friends from Sharana went back to their commands and their friends from back home. It became pretty evident that even though I had friends from my command who deployed as well, no one was opening up. Not sure if it was immaturity, lack of a mental toolbox, or just the stigma on feelings, but we acted as if nothing happened. It became quickly clear to me that I was on my own.

Full disclosure, I wasn’t anything special. I was part of a small detachment from the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) assigned to train the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in simple military operations (e.g.map reading and radio operations) as well man our own radios, all while living in a small compound on the outskirts of Sharana.  The I was a member of one of the first six Navy PRTs which was meant to augment the Army in their campaign to win hearts and minds. We weren’t offensive forces. I didn’t shoot anyone. In fact, the only time I fired my weapons in Afghanistan, was towards the end of deployment during a range day. I wanted to be more involved. I wanted to be part of search and kill operations, on the front line, playing with the big boys. No matter how I try to portray myself, I wasn’t anything special. Having these experiences in some ways justifies my mental health illness, to a lesser degree than actually being the cause.

Over the past few years, I’ve told the above story to girlfriends, counsellors, and family. What were they meant to do with that information? Many showed the expected empathy, but I could see through the thin veil that they had no idea how to process what I was telling them. So I held on to it. It wasn’t until February of 2016 that the weight of holding on became so heavy that I was the closest to ending my life. On that Thursday (last day of the week) if I hadn’t made a snap decision to go to medical, I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this post.

The coping mechanism that I used (repression) to move forward in my military career and life, was so destructive, I couldn’t contain the pain any longer. Each day, I would confront new issues in my role as a Facilities Manager, putting every ounce of energy I had towards fixing other people’s issues. Between meeting customer’s expectations, limited ability to say “no”, responsibility to the guys who worked for me, and the approval of both my supervisors, peers, and those men I lead, I lost the plot.

Along the way, I had a few friends run into their own demons. Spending time with them during the day, trying to be a sounding board for what they were experiencing, ultimately made things worse. What was a amazing was while I genuinely listened to them unpack their baggage, they had no idea how close I was to the killing myself. I persevered. They needed someone to talk to, just as much as I did. After months of this, I grew resentful as I put in effort to check on these guys, get them to open up and offload, yet no one was looking out for me.

I chose not to open up and therefore people thought my serious, stern face was just a sign of determination and focus. As one friend said, “Cellini, you always look so serious and pissed off.” To which I defended “This is the face of determination and focus. I don’t have time to fuck around.” She thought it was an endearing quality in a man, but didn’t understand that endearing quality at work does not translate to friends outside of work.

Over the course of 20 months, I had, what I believe to have been 3 nervous breakdowns in secret. These breakdowns externalized themselves as silent screaming and convulsing episodes at my  desk when the office was empty, complete isolation after work, hypertension, irritability, weekends and late hours spent at work were the start. Eventually–just before I was medically evacuated from Bahrain–psychosis set in.

During those periods of isolation in my apartment, usually while studying or watching TV, I’d see dark objects out of the corner of my eye; I’d feel something pulling on the back of my shirt; and I’d hear voices that were not really there. At work, every person I came into contact with wanted something from me. Anytime I’d hear my name, I’d cringe and could feel my stomach tighten. Needless to say, it was a toxic environment.

This was a pivotal time in my career. I was ranked #3 of 47 peers in my command, had received Sailor of the Month and Quarter awards for efforts and was highly regarded.  My evaluations were stellar and if I had taken the advancement exam seriously, I have no doubt that I would have  advanced to Chief Petty-Officer. But none of that mattered anymore. I became so obsessive compulsive about meeting everyone else’s expectations of who I was supposed to be and making sure that I “was set-up for success” that I became a drone. A few peers resonated with my stance on the Navy’s competitive advancement structure, but for the most part, the majority were focused on promotion.

Two days before I left Bahrain that I had a sit-down with my Chief. He had just reported to our office a month earlier, was super motivated and willing to learn from me so he could get up-to-speed. In an earnest effort, he wanted me to stay in the Navy and advance, no matter what. During the sit-down, I told him where I was at mentally, that I was suicidal, and didn’t think I would be able to make it another month. I looked him in the eyes, almost at tears, and told him, “now do you understand what I mean when I say that no one knows the true cost of success, but you?” It finally clicked for him. If he wasn’t the man he is, I don’t think I would be here today. He was assigned to be my escort back to Virginia, found a way to stick around for several weeks, visited me everyday in the psych ward and treated me like a genuine friend. For that, I am eternally grateful.

For 12 years I placed the Navy’s goals of who I was meant to be, above my own. I didn’t resonate with their plans and policies and would teeter the line between who I was suppose to be and who I thought I was. My barometer of how I was doing was based on my supervisor’s opinion of me and how they interacted with me. If it was a positive reaction, I could feel the endorphins spike and I would be filled with a sense of pride. If it was a negative reaction? I’d immediately slump so low, I’d be reminded by every indiscretion I ever committed and resolve that I am completely useless.

I’ve been living wrong this whole time. Between relationships that were completely wrong for me, friendships that were based on lies, and a personal approval rating based on societies’ opinion. The connection we have with people can be so healing, if we allow it to be. Lately I’ve told people not to be ashamed to cry or be vulnerable with me, as it’s a strength. However, I have had immense issues with opening up, myself. I’m embarrassed to show emotion. I don’t like being vulnerable. I don’t trust. The information I share, has been pre-vetted and determined not to cause harm if transmitted in private, yet shared. I’m an enigma. I don’t want people to come in because the last time I opened that door, I was judged harshly by someone who has been closer to me than anyone. EVER.

For a while, I had been convinced that I was addicted to negativity. As I write this meditative blog post, it becomes more clear that I haven’t fully released this negative energy. See, if I am too afraid to open up to someone, how can I fully release what is weighing me down? I’ve been working on this in the van. Meditation during those days (like this one) in which a lot of negative energy begins to surface. Instead of pushing it down, tightening my neck and throat to stop the tears, I focus on the emotion and talk myself through the release.

So that’s the way forward. That’s why I am here. Why I concluded the life I had in Virginia, travelled west and didn’t resettle back home. There is still hope out there. Each day I wake up, it’s a crapshoot. For a few days my mind is clear and optimistic, then I wake up and hate everything. What I have learned is that it will pass. I’m doing my best not to think the house is 0n fire when my mind decides to play with matches. It’s tough, but if I don’t take the time to confront these demons, I will most likely let me thoughts consume me. That’s depression. No amount of beautiful scenery, fresh air, solitude, alcohol, nicotine, driving, or running with absolve me of this weight.

Thank you for reading and allowing me to be raw about why this blog is so important.

 

 

 

5 thoughts on “Gotta’ Deal With the Demons Before They Deal With You

  1. Hi Andy. Read every word. Come home. Minnesota is your place to be. Be around caring loving people, family and friends. We all miss you. We all want to see and be around you. We all want to be a part of your life. Everyone who met you says you are a wonderful guy. Being out there alone trying to move on isn’t the way.
    Love Dad

    Like

  2. I read every single word too. I’m glad you opened up like this in a public forum. That takes guts and strength. You, truly, are one of the strongest people I know and I’m glad you’re acknowledging the past (because that’s what it is) and moving forward. Keep listening to your quiet voice and doing what’s right for you all the while keeping in mind that what’s right for you will change and evolve over time. We love you. So very much.

    Xo,
    T

    Like

  3. Takes real courage to tell your story, open up and be vulnerable. Most guys I know have never done that, so I respect you for it. It’s also the way to true friendship. We support you as your old neighbors! Encouraging you to continue your journey. God put you here for a purpose, and you are on the right path.

    Like

  4. Hey Broski,
    Powerful post. Although no two individuals are packing the exact same demons, those who are also wraslin’ mind-gremlins can find solace and camaraderie in hearing familiar thoughts and experiences articulated by a strong character like yourself. Good on ya bruv. Hopefully this comment will actually post. Damn blog gremlins. B

    Like

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