I am writing this on August 6, and on this day six years ago, I returned to America from my almost year long deployment with my fellow brothers and sisters in arms. Sometimes it seems another lifetime ago, and other times, it seems just yesterday. War is not something most people should experience, but because of it, my companions and I were forever shaped differently. It has affected us all in our own ways. There is a high statistic regarding veteran suicide, twenty-two a day, and since being home, my army unit lost a good soldier to this battle, and I have friends who have also lost their friends since their return as well.
Since my return, I have had a long battle with anxiety and depression. When I first came home, through dealing with reintegration into normal society and a failed long-term relationship, I dove into a deep depression. I tried going to school and using my GI Bill but I quickly dropped out. I felt like my purpose was gone. When I was overseas, there was constant danger, but also, life was simpler. I knew what the mission was. I always had a routine and even amidst the hazards, it felt safer than the world back home full of uncertainty and lacking any reason.
It was during this transitional period when I experienced my first panic attack. A panic attack is one of the worst feelings I have ever experienced. When experiencing one, I feel stuck, as if in mud and I cannot move my body. My blood feels like its boiling, my heart is racing and my stomach thrusts upward making me feel sick, until I eventually puke. If I say anything at all, I usually repeat the same words.
These were a pretty regular occurrence for a long time. I eventually went to the VA to be treated after a major one caused me to end up in the hospital overnight. It wasn’t the only time I would stay at the hospital overnight because of my mental health. My exposure to the VA was slow and the I did not feel much of a shift from the medications I tried at first. They recommended the Vet Center to me for talk therapy, as the mental health clinic at the VA was primarily for prescription services. I started going to a therapist at the Vet Center but my attendance was sporadic at best.
I wasn’t utilizing the options available to me to their potential, instead, I coped with my poor mental state by trying to ignore it, hanging out with lots of friends all the time at bars and drinking to suppress these feelings. I told myself I was doing all the right things because I casually showed up to therapy and I was enrolled in the VA program, but I if I was honest about it, I hadn’t made any growth because I continued to have a victim mindset and had not explored any way of thinking different than my own, currently destructive one. This elongated period of dealing with my anxiety and depression in this manner just increased it, as the negativity I lived in gave it power.
After exploring a few different career options in my search for purpose, including getting an EMT certification, taking a CHIP test and some law enforcement classes, I used my position in the army as a motor transport operator to obtain a class A commercial driver’s license and get a job as an over-the-road truck driver. I was team-driving with another employee up and down the northeast region. Employment here didn’t last long though, after only five to six months I was driving at night on a cliffside road in Pennsylvania when I had another massive panic attack. While I was driving, I had traumatic feelings rendered from memory of my deployment and those feelings combined with life current stressors initiated my mind and body to go into a full-blown panic. “I NEED TO GET OUT!” I yelled to the other driver who was in the bunk in the back at the time. He was alarmed and confused at my behavior. I kept repeating this and pulled over. I got my bag and left the vehicle. After one more attempt to ask if I was okay, he switched into the driver’s seat and took off as I walked down the road with no cell phone service. Eventually another truck pulled up and asked if I was okay. I told him I have had better days and he asked if he could give me a ride. I got in and after talking, I found out he lived right near me in Middletown, CT. He was headed a different direction but dropped me off near a train station. I took a train up to New York City, where my cousin lived while she was going to school, and she drove her and I back home for Thanksgiving, which was the next day. After that day, I knew I needed to do something about my mental health.
It wasn’t an immediate change, but the panic attack shifted my sense of purpose. I knew a few things now: My poor mental health had consumed my life and affected how it manifested physically. I needed a deeper meaning attached to what I decided to do on the daily, this would be healing for me. And I wanted to work for myself, so I could focus my energy on my wellness. Art had always been something I had gotten lost in, creating my own comic book universes and hundreds of characters and stories when I was younger, but I had since detached from that part of me. I started to do art again and found it very therapeutic. When I was creating, my mind was free from anxious thoughts and my focus was on the art.
The transition here in placing artwork on sellable clothing was a no-brainer. I was able to create opportunity for myself through selling my art, and in creation of Resilience, impact a cause that not only directly benefitted me, but others that felt the same way as I did. The clothing became more than just clothing, but a community. Through selling at trade shows I would talk to others about mental health and we would share stories and I found that sharing with others that you have created a common bond with could be so healing. I was not alone. This feeling propelled me to create an online forum, Resilience Family: The Safehouse Online, and from here, the community bloomed even further.
Now, Resilience has monthly community get-togethers which are just such a great experience for me. Everyone gets together and just has a good time and we swap stories and we get into good discussions about practicing positive mental health and self-care and staying present. With all the available reach, Resilience is bringing more and more people together in these ways and it is doing good for the community, but it is also the most important piece of my healing process as an individual. In growing this community, I have met so many wonderful individuals that have guided me on my journey and I have changed my thought patterns, developed healthy coping mechanisms, transformed my behaviors and given myself a true purpose.
I still battle with anxiety and depression. That has not changed. But my perspective has adjusted to allow me to react differently when faced with such hurdles. It has been a long road in the six years that have passed, and there is a long road ahead for Resilience, but I am grateful for every step of the way that has led me to this very moment writing this blog. Thank you for joining me on this journey and being an essential part of this important community.