For 33 years, since I married my husband, it has been a privilege to work with, support, advocate for, mentor, and encourage Soldiers and their families. Because of my love and concern for our Army families, over the past decade I have developed a real concern about behavioral health challenges in our Army families.
What we’ve been doing with regard to deployments to combat zones and now with the uncertainties in the world and in our Army, it’s all been and is often difficult for us all. With regard to war, the separations from loved ones and the world we know and are comfortable in, is stressful. The loss of life & limbs of our comrades in arms, sometimes good friends, and within the units in which we serve compound the stress. For family members, Spouses in particular, but children too, we have often been engaged in the most unnatural exercise in the world: “Run toward the fire, Honey! Go toward the danger.” And then we all behave as if we feel normal and that everything is “fine”. And I think you’d agree that that’s abnormal.
So, if during tough times, or afterwards if we have trouble de-stressing or we have anxieties and worries we can’t control, we should consider talking to a professional – a behavioral health counselor, or a trusted Chaplain. It’s certainly understandable and it really can help.
I’ll take you from a somber beginning through some thoughts to consider that will hopefully encourage you. In the spring of 2004 I was diagnosed with depression by an adolescent psychiatrist. If you do the math, that’s only 10 years ago and I obviously was not a teenager back then! My primary care provider was a nurse practitioner who happened to be married to the adolescent psychiatrist at the hospital in Heidelberg, Germany where we were stationed. I would go up to the floor where the ‘psych’ ward was located and visit with him.
After our first session, I felt incredibly better – lighter, happier, less sad anyway. He prescribed a very low dose of anti-depressant. But it was mainly the talking it out that helped. Keeping it inside, denying I was suffering from any sort of issue, that I was unhappy for reasons that escaped me, was making things so much worse. When I talked about how I was feeling out loud to another person who was trained to assist with depression, I started to see daylight whereas before I had been in a very dark tunnel.
I bought the lie some had been peddling that if you’re an Army wife, you’re strong, and you don’t need or ask for help. You help others. I bought the American culture line that you must be crazy if you seek behavioral health assistance.
I was one of those judgmental jerks who looked down on anyone who was brave enough to share the fact that they were seeing a counselor, or on medication like anti-depressants. I would never SAY anything, though I would fleetingly think it before brushing the judgmental thought away. But as I had gotten good at denial, I could do that. I denied there was anything wrong with me when I went from an energetic, productive, positive, joyful woman into a person who sat on the couch 6-8 hours a day watching TV while my family were all at work. I guess this is just the “new me” I convinced myself. I had been talkative and loved to laugh. Now I was quiet and rarely even smiled.
I fooled my family for a time, sort of. My husband became very aware that something was wrong, but he was in such a stressful, time consuming, energy sucking job, (he was the G3 for V Corps) he wasn’t home enough to really get a feel for what the problem was. As least not as soon as he might have.
But he eventually asked me about what was going on with me. We came home from a unit hail and farewell and he asked me why I looked so completely miserable. I was surprised. I thought I had been pulling it off: the act that all was well. But after he asked that question, and I described how I was feeling, he said the description of my feelings “alarmed” him. That’s the word he used.
And he encouraged me to talk to someone. So I told my primary care health provider and that’s how I found myself in the office of an adolescent psychiatrist. I felt 90% better after simply admitting to someone that I was feeling terrible and not happy. That I was “faking” my life by denying there was something wrong!
Denial, of course, is a bad thing. It keeps you from moving on, from becoming the person you are meant to be. We must as a culture overcome the lie that only weak people or disturbed people need behavioral health help. I talk about this episode in my life because I don’t want anyone who’s married to a Soldier or who is a Soldier to think that I have ‘sailed along’ for the last 33 years and 8 deployments without any reactions to the stresses in my life. And more importantly I want to encourage others to seek assistance when life gets too tough to handle on your own. I didn’t have to endure what I experienced. And I don’t think most of us do.
Some things I ‘ve learned from my own experience is that it’s important when going through stressful times to periodically do a self assessment. Are you getting “cranky”? Another word for short tempered, angry for vague reasons, bitter, hard to get along with? And not just with peers or subordinates, but with your family? Your neighbors? Your friends? If you know you are not yourself and can’t stop it on your own, that’s a time to find someone to talk to.
As I said most of my depression was alleviated by admitting out loud to someone else that I was miserable! A behavioral health professional can help by teaching skills that enable people to cope with things, they can help in discovering problem areas and help in setting goals to overcome them.
After my experience, I had a new lease on life, a new, fresh perspective that went beyond the person I had been prior to my episode with depression. I did develop a new attitude toward life. I would like to share some of what I’ve learned with you all.
Some simple but crucial advice I give because it was given to me and it works: Eat healthy! (Keep hydrated.)
Exercise regularly and frequently. Get enough sleep! I was not getting enough sleep when my husband was deployed with his Brigade to Iraq in 2006. It didn’t matter if I went to bed at 10 at night or 2 in the morning, I would wake up at 4 a.m. I was exhausted and had trouble being patient and concentrating. He was supposed to be gone for a year (it ended up being about 14 months); I knew I couldn’t sustain that and be worth anything to anyone. Including my kids and the families in our brigade. So I talked to one of our behavioral health professionals about it and she recommended a relaxation CD I never believed that would work. But it did! Don’t be afraid to try new things. You might be delightfully surprised.
Another piece of advice I have is to tell the people you love that you love them and are proud of them. How many of you have recently told the person or people who matter most to you that you love them or that you are proud of them? It matters. Tell them; they need to know. They need to know that you – yes, you – are proud of the job they are doing, proud of their selflessness, and you should tell them often.
In life in general we should try to use what I call ‘life giving’ words. We should endeavor never to use words as a weapon to hurt someone else – especially those we love, of course. Words can kill.
They can kill self-esteem, they can kill a person’s enthusiasm, they can kill someone’s willingness to help, they can kill joy, they can kill trust.
Words are powerful so use life giving words that build up instead of tear down. A positive encouraging comment can lift us up, it can make someone – a spouse, a child, a subordinate, a friend, feel 10 feet tall. It can make someone’s day – or break their spirit if you never say anything positive, but only criticize or complain.
Being positive and cheerful usually evokes a positive response from those you’re dealing with in any situation, family, work, in any social situation. I try hard to be cheerful, but not FAKE!
I will acknowledge when a situation stinks, but always try to ask ‘what are the blessings?’ There are always blessings. In Resiliency Training that’s referred to as ‘hunting the good stuff’. But for me, as a person of faith, I prefer to be thankful for the gifts I’ve been given.
Another bit of advice I have to share is to don’t be shy about reaching out to others. Life is tough for many of us; there are daily struggles that people are not necessarily sharing with you. But there is strength in our relationships with others, our friendships with those with whom we live, work, and play.
The relationships should be positive, where all parties are giving equally, for the most part. We all have valleys where we might need some extra help, or we might be on a mountain top and we should help others who aren’t there yet, to reach it. But overall, in our relationships with those we love and care about, the effort should be equal. And, by the way, that’s not 50-50 but 100% from both parties. If we are all giving our all, we will all be in constructive, healthy relationships that bear fruit for each of us and those around us, too. That’s when constructive things come out of relationships. Trash talking a neighbor, a friend, someone in your unit, office, your family, someone in a leadership position, your kids, your Spouse, that’s never a good thing. Negativity breeds more negative feelings, thoughts, actions.
If you have a problem with someone – tell them! But don’t forget to use those life giving words! Open, honest communication is always best. If you’re truly angry with someone – figure out why. Often it’s because you have been hurt – to talk to them about it – if the two of you can’t resolve it, bring in a neutral party. If it’s a problem with your Spouse, maybe it’s a chaplain or counselor. Sometimes it only takes a couple of session with a professional to figure out how to communicate with one another effectively.
Your willingness to work with others in a constructive way – with a positive outlook and by productive means – makes all the difference. And what we’re really talking about is attitude.
I used to tell my kids and sometimes, even though they are young adults, I remind them still, that “attitude is everything”. You can decide to be happy or sad, anxious or expectant, (change your anxiety into anticipation: I wonder what happens next!), you can choose to see obstacles and difficulties as a thorn in your side, but it is also an opportunity for growth!
As an Army wife with those 8 deployments, years really of separation from my Soldier, I could have wallowed in misery. Or become bitter. But I didn’t want to choose to live that way. This poem was written after I’d been treated for depression. With my new perspective on life, choosing to seek the good and the blessings, it goes like this:
Loving a Soldier?
To know of the Sacrifice there
That he makes for us and our country,
Makes it simple, so easy to care.
Loving a Soldier?
A blessed thing;
We’re close even when we’re apart.
The love that exists, the commitment,
Unite us – we’re one ‘ “heart to heart”.
Loving a Soldier?
Time and distance don’t matter now.
Our union binds us so strongly,
Since we, before God, made a vow.
Loving a Soldier?
It’s my joy!
If I had it to do all again,
I’d choose that same Soldier, that same boy –
So selfless, so rare among men.
How are we looking at things? Is it in a positive light? Do we see the possibilities within? How can we make it a productive experience? Look at a current challenge and ask yourself, IS it a challenge? Or is it an opportunity? No time is wasted if you learn from it. No part of your life is, no matter how hopeless it seems, it’s not a loss if you gain wisdom. In fact, we learn much more from the not so fun experiences than the good times. Ask yourself, what could I do differently next time? How did my reaction or behavior affect the negativity of the situation? How can I change that next time? Your positive response most probably will change the response of the other party involved. Maybe one way you change next time is, you say something encouraging instead of criticize, or you listen instead of talking. Maybe you ask for help!
Don’t ever feel too proud to do that. That’s why I’m here. It’s humbling but I’m grateful for my experience. I’m more compassionate, more empathetic, and less judgmental. If I had to go through a bad spell to get to be like this, it was worth it and I’m grateful to God for the blessing.
So to sum up, count your blessings, and thank God for them; speak life giving words to all with whom you interact; eat right, exercise, get some rest; seek help when you can’t figure out how to fix something yourself. Seek it from the right person – a Chaplain/minister or behavioral health professional – if it’s really a concern to you or your loved one. We are social beings; we are wired that way. We should be able to depend on others as they can depend on us. And, in matters big and small, we can always seek help from our God who loves us and is always there for us, even if it seems everyone else has walked out on us, or that no one understands us. He does; He knows our hearts, and He knows our needs. So, seek His wisdom, His strength, His love. I do and I have never been disappointed.