When the light at the end of the tunnel goes out

BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. --

When you see a service member at a gas station or stopping at the grocery store on their way home from work, you might see the uniform with all its stereotypes that live within the fabric. We’re supposed to be invincible; we’re supposed to be in top physical shape, and we’re supposed to be able to pack our bags and leave the country at a moment’s notice.

Whatever the reason we choose to put on the uniform, military life has its challenges. In the midst of pressure, stress and the excitement that comes with being an Airman, comes a responsibility to pay close attention to our mental health. Just as breaking a bone can send us to the hospital, neglecting our mental well-being can do the same…a different kind of hospital.

I learned this the hard way.

I knew on the drive to the facility that I, most likely, would not be leaving that day or even the next day. A friend from my unit came with me for emotional support and to make sure I didn’t feel alone. Upon my arrival, I was greeted by a social worker whose job was to determine whether I was a danger to myself by asking a series of questions. After speaking with this stranger for approximately 45 minutes and crying harder than I have in a long time, she came to a decision that I should be admitted.

Almost instantly, I felt my body’s basal temperature peak as sweat gathered in my palms and at the base of my hairline. I kept thinking, “This couldn’t be happening to me. How did I get here? Why did I have to tell someone I was afraid of my suicidal thoughts?”

Although my pride was telling me not to let them admit me to the psych unit, the rest of me was terrified that if I didn’t stay, I would go home and attempt to end my life.

Reluctantly agreeing to the admittance, I signed the intake paperwork with an unsteady hand. My freshly made hospital bracelet dragged across each form. With each signature my breath became shallower.

This was it; this was the low point.

I decided at that moment that I wasn’t too strong or too proud for this. It turned out that I was just a person seeking help because at the core of my being, I did not want to die.

My evaluator let me hug my friend goodbye before escorting me to the unit where I was introduced to a nurse who gave me more paperwork to fill out. After succumbing to my emotions, I almost forgot that I had come from work. The patients who were occupying the floor were trying to figure me out. Dazed expressions on a group of ghostly faces read, “What is this girl in a uniform doing here?”

Shortly after completing another stack of paperwork, I was taken into a room where staff members took my vitals and gave me a set of paper scrubs to wear. I surrendered my uniform, my jewelry, my cell phone and anything else I had and traded those items for safe necessities provided by the hospital. I came out of the room feeling defeated and vulnerable.

One of the nurses called my name to let me know I already had a phone call. Tears filled my eyes as I heard my best friend’s voice on the other end of the phone. I wandered around the unit as I talked. Although the unit was small, there were a few windows that provided a view of the world going on with its business outside. As my best friend talked about how glad she was that I was safe on the other end of the phone, I stared out the window and watched the world. It felt as though it was foreign to me now, as if I was just born. I was overwhelmingly lost.

There were room checks every ten minutes, and it wasn’t an option to fully close the door to use the restroom or to take a shower. I was given a sleeping pill my first night to subside the anxiety I was feeling while trying to adjust to my temporary place of residence.

Very similar to the fashion in which trainees are woken up in Basic Military Training, I was told very sternly to get out of bed at 6 a.m. the next day for lab tests and a session with a doctor for further evaluation. For the first time in my life, I was waving a white flag and accepting a prescription for anti-depressants at the mercy of feeling better. I could no longer imagine using all my strength, day after day, just to exist.

Although I was only in the hospital for two full days, the environment I was submerged in shook me. I was surrounded by patients who felt as lost as I did, by people who heard voices and by people recovering from severe addiction. My mind still wanders back to the images of them pacing in front of the medication room waiting for the nurse to open the door. It seemed their main goal was to be as drugged as they could, so they didn’t have to think about where they were. I still find myself wondering if I looked like I belonged with them.

These scenes were necessary for me to see. A new perspective of what different mental illnesses look like and an appreciation for the strength mustered—even at the lowest point in my life—gave me a new sense of the future. Before my visit to the hospital, I didn’t see a future.

There is something terrifying about the tunnel darkening and losing sight of your life looking ahead. However, even when the light begins to come back on, it is still a process of recovery. This journey is long and treacherous, but once you start to see the future again, it starts to become worth it to get out of bed again.

If there is anything I can be thankful for on the start of this journey and for the experience I’ve had so far, it’s that there are always answers. Suicide is not one of them. Finding something to live for and focusing on long-term goals are essential tools in the kit.

As an Air Force reservist, I am so blessed to have been put on active-duty orders. I was placed with the public affairs unit at Buckley Air Force Base where they accepted me as part of their family and took care of me. I will never know how to thank them for what they have done for me. Without their support, I am not sure if I would still be here.

So, when you see that service member at the gas station or the grocery store, remember they are not required to be a force all on their own. They are going to smile when you ask them how they are or thank them for their service. They have incredible fortitude, but they also have a family behind them contributing to their strength.

Someone is always there, even when it doesn’t seem like it.

 Resources are always available for anyone struggling with their mental health. Seek help from friends, co-workers, a chaplain, a supervisor or other members of chain of command. The following resources are available:

Buckley Care Line: 847-CARE

Chapel 24-hour on-call: 847-4600

Buckley Chapel: 847-GOD1

 Military Crisis Line is 1-800-273-8255