We hear it so many times now that it’s cliché.
“It’s okay not to be okay.”
You know what we don’t hear enough of?
“It’s okay not to stay.”
In the wake of the recent suicides on the USS George Bush we’ve had an uptick in the discussion of mental health in the military. Meme pages, podcasts, major news networks…
I hope it’s not just a fad. I hope that these tragic events become a catalyst for normalizing this discussion.
If you’re here looking for answers on whether or not seeking help will fuck up your career, I’m not here to give it to you.
~I can tell you that my friend’s psychiatrist estimates around 80% of his patients are still onboard ships.
~I can tell you that I first started seeing the Mental Health clinic three years ago and stayed in.
~I can tell you that I’ve seen people go LIMDU for mental health reasons then go right back to a ship, fit for full duty six months later.
~I can tell you that I’ve also seen shipboard Medical deny Sailors’ orders to come to a ship for mental health reasons.
You can draw your own conclusions from that.
What I’d like to talk about here is what your options are when you actually have a CHOICE.
The year is 2018.
My was anxiety wound up so tight that whenever I left my car in the parking lot in the mornings and started walking toward the pier, I immediately had a hard time breathing.
I crossed the brow and I was immediately exhausted.
Nearly every step I made on those steel deckplates were accompanied by thoughts of how badly I wished a freak shipboard accident would happen to me that would either take my life or at the very least send me to shore duty.
I wasn’t “actively suicidal” so I didn’t feel like it warranted a trip to the Emergency Room.
By that time I probably had two expired referrals to schedule an appointment with mental health through Tricare because “I just don’t do phone calls.”
All these things were normal to me and I didn’t even attribute them to being anxiety symptoms.
The only thing I thought was out of the ordinary was that I was waking up 3-4 times a night instead of the normal 1-2 times.
I went to medical to ask for a sleep study. Maybe I had sleep apnea or something.
They gave me a referral for a sleep study and told me to get my blood drawn because I have a family history of diabetes but also, I was lucky enough to have an HMC that knew me well enough to say “I think this is your anxiety.”
He told me about the new MHOOD clinic that just opened up next to Fleet and Family Support.
More information that I simply categorized as “Interesting. But I don’t have time.” and promptly ignored for another few months.
When I finally started seeing my therapist it was because I was board-eligible for Chief for the first time and my body started doing this thing that I can only describe as “making the Windows shutdown noise and powering off”.
Basically, I was getting so stressed out that I was falling asleep involuntarily. One of my former Firemen has a video of me working on SKED/OMMS while talking to him, and in the middle I fell asleep for a few seconds then just picked up where I left off, not realizing anything had even happened.
It was funny. And honestly, it still is. But it also should have served as a huge red flag for me not to stay.
But I HAD to stay.
I HAD to put on anchors.
I HAD to stay for 20.
I HAD to support my family with this career that (at the time) I’d already worked the past eight years of my life for.
See, not only had I drunk the Kool-Aid, I was snorting it still in powder form.
I didn’t want to leave my division, my department, my crew, so close to deployment.
It’s all so silly to look back at it now.
I needed help but I didn’t want it.
I’d seen so many junior Sailors get off that ship for mental health reasons, I didn’t want to be another statistic.
Some of them I had taken to the ER or Fleet Mental Health myself.
I was too busy drowning while helping others get to shore.
I just need to make it.
Day by day. Week by week.
One more underway. One more major inspection. One more deployment.
Eventually, my therapist got tired of my shit.
I was only seeing her once a month and it wasn’t helping.
We got to a point where she said she was close to no longer giving me a choice, she was going to make me LIMDU whether I wanted it or not.
So we made the decision, together, that I had to leave.
She said “If it makes you feel better, just tell everyone your mean ol’ therapist made you leave and didn’t give you a choice.”
So that’s what I told everyone. But a year later I am taking OWNERSHIP of that decision.
It was ME.
The ship still floats without me.
Maybe this sounds familiar somewhere in your life.
I know it’s hard. But you have to take care of yourself.
But please understand that you’re no good to the Navy if you’re broken or dead.
I still love the Navy but it was a toxic relationship.
It’s a different kind of love than when I was active duty.
I’m perfectly satisfied reading Proceedings magazine on my lunch break at my civilian job at a cool new start-up and cheering on my buddies who make rank while I sit at home wrapped in my DD-214 blanket.
(For those wondering: I did not make Chief, but I absolutely do have sleep apnea.)
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