VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. — As my office has just completed a resiliency stand-down day, I am struck by the increasing numbers of suicides in the Air Force every year. There are more agencies and programs than I can count to assist anyone thinking of hurting themselves, and we receive regular training on how to engage in positive behaviors. So why is this still a problem?
From my personal perspective, as long as people see asking for help as a weakness, positive change cannot occur. As long as there is a stigma attached to getting help, people will continue to shoulder their burdens alone and continue on this path. I learned this lesson the hard way.
My personal experience
When I was younger, my father was very sick. He had a malignant brain tumor that should have killed him. Instead, he had a stroke in the exact spot where the tumor was, which saved his life, but it paralyzed him and put him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
I spent all of my time at the hospital. I wallowed in self-pity and watched my father suddenly unable to take care of himself. I learned how to take care of my father at a very young age and, along with my mother, committed myself to his care. I withdrew from all of my friends at school, who frankly did not know what to talk to me about. I was depressed and withdrew from the normal aspects of growing up. The situation eventually escalated to my former friends making fun of my father, calling him a vegetable, which resulted in my getting into fights in school.
All of the warning signs were there. My behavior changed. I was isolated. I was quick to fight and I simply was not myself. I thought seriously every day for a long time about ending my life.
The only thing that stopped me personally was what it would do to my father, whom I was extremely close to. I was very close to ending things on several occasions. Several relatives, teachers and counselors saw what was going on and tried to stop what was happening, but their efforts were futile.
I chose not to act because of my father. I chose not to act because of the devastating consequences my actions would have on him. I knew if I hurt myself, it would kill him.
Years later, as I reflect back on that dark time in my life, it frightens me to know how close I was to ending my life. As I grew older, I developed a wonderful support structure in place amongst my network of friends. My father passed away 11 years after his stroke while I was in college. Two years later, at the end of my first year of law school, very unexpectedly, my mother was diagnosed with cancer and passed away within a month. Once again, I was forced to deal with personal trauma.
This time around, my friends refused to cast me aside or to allow me to wallow in loneliness and depression. I credit them with getting me through law school. I tried to quit several times, and fortunately every attempt was thwarted by the registrar being out of the office or a friend noticing and physically removing me from the building. They were true wingmen for me and I can never repay them for being there for me during some of the darkest days of my life.
Although these were tough times, I never seriously considered committing suicide in law school.
I struggled, but I got through and graduated law school on time. I succeeded in law school because my support structure gave me the resiliency I needed to survive. It is what kept me sane. It is what kept me going. I have been an attorney for six years now and pride myself on being the kind of lawyer to go out of my way to help people in my job. This is because others did the same for me.
Examining these two difficult times in my life, I was seriously contemplating suicide in one, and never considered it during law school. Why did I react differently in these two situations, even though both represented difficult times?
I believe the answer is because I knew what I was going through the second time around was too big for me to do alone. The difference was I did not believe that it made me a weak person to ask for or accept help, which is significant because I have a stubborn streak a mile wide. I learned a valuable lesson from my earlier dark days: It really is OK to accept help.
As I reflect back on the first experience, pride is what almost killed me more than anything else.
When my father was sick, I felt it was me against the world. I would overhear my mother talking with friends and family about what a rough time I was having in school and dealing with my father’s illness. That only stiffened my resolve that I was tough, that I could hack it alone, and that I was OK. I refused to acknowledge or admit that I needed help from anyone. To ask for help was to admit that I was too weak to deal with the problem on my own.
As someone who has made a career of helping clients in need, I can testify there are a lot of people out there with huge hearts who want nothing more than to help those around them. For me personally, when I help someone out of a hopeless situation, I repay a little bit of the kindness that has been shown to me.
It is something I will gladly do for the rest of my life. There are people in all of our lives who will bend over backward for us if only we will let them know we need help and be willing to accept it.
It doesn’t make you weak
One thing I have learned through my experiences is that no two people go through trauma the same way. There is no correct way to feel after experiencing grief, separation, anxiety, trouble at work, stress from a deployment or whatever problem you are going through.
Needing help to get through law school after I lost my parents did not make me a weak person. Needing help made me a normal person.
One of the reasons that pride stopped me from accepting help when I was younger is that I would see patients in worse shape than my father at the hospital. I would see kids my age seemingly deal with it in stride. I would hear about kids in worse situations than me overcoming adversity and rising above it all. My pride wouldn’t let me ask for help if they could do it with no problems.
What I have learned is that the people who seem to be in the same or worse situation than me are in just as much pain, but they are just hiding it. However, it all comes out eventually. My advice to anyone thinking of hurting themselves is to swallow your pride, and don’t try to shoulder that burden alone. Whatever you are going through, someone else has gone through before and needed help as well.
You are not alone
In the past, whenever I have told friends and colleagues my experience with thoughts of suicide, a large percentage have immediately responded by telling me they have had a similar experience at some point in their life.
I suspect my experience is in no way unique. I know that I am not alone. I know plenty of people had to go through this before I did. There will still be people dealing with these issues long after I write this.
In all the years of dealing with the loss of my parents and in dealing with my father’s illness, I have tried every remedy I could to find a happy life. I consulted school counselors and mental health professionals at my family’s urging to deal with my loss. Nothing worked until I was ready to swallow my pride and admit that I could not go it alone. Once I was willing to accept help from everyone around me, I learned how to be truly happy.
In a perfect world, no one will ever need to read this article. But, this isn’t a perfect world and there are people around us who need our help, whether they realize it or not.
We as wingmen have to be able to not take no for an answer. We have to overcome that pride when our friend or colleague wants to go it alone. And if you are in need of help, please don’t allow your pride to swat away the hand extended to you. No one does it all alone.