I recently made a new friend online and had the pleasure of meeting her in person. She is a leader in her community, is a seasoned military spouse, and lots of people look up to her for counsel and advice about this crazy life. Over the course of a two-hour lunch date, we discussed many military spouse topics, and at some point the issue of mental health came up. As we talked about the struggles many spouses face, about the stigma attached to getting help . . . she shared with me a personal mental health story that I have to admit really surprised me. She had personally been through some mental health challenges and has now made it to the other side. She admitted that it took a long time for her to share her experience with other spouses, but that when she did, it made a huge impact on those who heard her story. She is looked up to as a leader in this community, and by speaking up she was making more of a difference than any self-help video or article about mental health and suicide prevention.
I knew that I was drawn to this woman for a reason. She is remarkable. She is courageous. And she is willing to share of herself to help others.
At that moment, I was a bit ashamed of myself.
I have been a military spouse for almost 14 years. I was named the Marine Corps Spouse of the Year in 2010, have been immersed in the military spouse community for years, and am often asked for advice and counsel about this crazy life. I pride myself on being honest in my writing and advice and try to provide a unique perspective. But there is one topic I have not really shared with many people at all.
I have battled severe depression and anxiety for most of my adult life, and in the past year it has been the worst it has ever been. I was really struggling, and those closest to me could tell… I needed help. But I was too busy. I was too strong. I could handle things on my own.
All of that was one big lie I kept telling myself. Things were getting worse. It was taking over my life.
Then a couple of months ago my PCM (Primary Care Manager) put in a referral for me to see a new doctor on post. I trust my doctor and have had so much going on in the health department that I didn’t even question why he wanted me to go or what it was for. I assumed it had to do with my Rheumatoid Arthritis. It did not.
On the day of the appointment, I was called back and I walked into what I knew was a counselor’s office. I had been to a counselor before, but always because I had decided to go. But the past few years had left me with a stubborn streak. My first thought was, “Oh, hell no! I do not have time for this.” I decided I would just answer the questions asked and get out of there as fast as I could. Back to work. Back to my responsibilities that couldn’t wait. Back to my deep depression and paralyzing anxiety.
But when I sat down and the counselor started talking, something changed. I can’t tell you exactly what it was that she said, but I can tell you at that moment, I knew I could not live like I had been living for one second longer. I could not do it to myself anymore. I could not do it to my family. Right then and there, I decided that the pain of staying the same was far less than the pain of doing the hard work to change.
And so I started talking. I was surprised to learn how much I had been holding onto. I knew that things were not right, but there is something about just letting go to a total stranger (under a veil of confidentiality and no judgment.)
I won’t sit here and tell you that letting it all out solved the problem. That would be a lie. In fact, it got a whole lot worse in my head for a while. I knew it would. But, my counselor reminded me that if I would just do this work, get through the pain, fear and hurt . . . that the other side is much better. I decided that I was going to trust this counselor and grab the bull by the horns.
The conversation has begun about mental health in our community . . . but it has been a slow start. And there are absolutely a million reasons that as spouses, we do not want to focus on mental health for OURSELVES. We are supposed to be strong, right? We don’t want people to see us as broken. We do not want to worry our service members. And of course the biggest of all:
How can WE be having mental issues? WE are not the ones who have seen war.
You will never, ever hear me say that my job as a spouse is harder than the one my husband does. Joining the military was not something that ever crossed my mind because honestly, I could not do it. I have the utmost respect for my husband and his service to this country. My job is a piece of cake compared to what he does.
That does not, however, mean that living a life as the wife of a Marine for 14 years during 10 years of war has not affected me. It is okay to admit that it has. It is okay to admit that it has left me bruised and sometimes battered. It does not take anything away from the fact that it has been ten times harder on him.
No, military life has not been the cause of all my problems. Just like so many others, I have experienced tragedy, grief, personal demons, stress, and disappointment over the past 14 years. If I had married a plumber, those things would not have been that different. It’s called life and everyone is given a unique lot in it . . . my lot just happens to also include the extra stressors we sometimes face.
I am very good at listening to others and offering advice about military life. I am very good at encouraging others to use the resources we have to seek out help. I was not very good at taking my own advice. In my head I thought that I would be viewed as weak for reaching out for help with a lifestyle that I pride myself in being so familiar with, so well versed in. Somehow I thought that I would be less of a leader . . . that admitting I was in trouble meant admitting I was a fraud.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
I still have a ton of work to do before I am “healed.” I might have times where I get worse before I get better. But, I am continuing the counseling and am fully committed to facing things head on. And I am starting to see a difference. I know that when it is all said and done it is going to make me a better mom, wife, friend and yes . . .leader.
I have to say thank you to my new friend. She has already helped many people with her courage to talk about her past . . . but I doubt she knew that she would be helping me. Even though I had already started on my mental health journey, her example made me realize that if we can all be more open about our struggles . . . perhaps we can encourage others to seek out the help they need. And we will certainly be a better community for it.
Because after so many years of war it is absolutely okay to admit that we are bruised.
It does NOT mean that we are broken.
To access behavioral health services, see your PCM, visit the Tricare Website or call Military One Source at 1-800-342-9647.