An Air Force Colonel’s Mental Health Journey
May 21, 2019 | 4-minute read
After Dave returned from his first deployment, his wife suggested that he seek some mental health support. But even then, he wasn’t really convinced there was an issue.
“When I actually got help the first time, I really thought this was her issue,” he says, “and that she was having trouble dealing with me because I had been deployed.”
Instead, the moment when it all began to click for him came later, as his kids got a little older and began to notice his anxiety themselves.
“It wasn’t until many years later, when my children really started to have an issue in dealing with me, when I was feeling a lot of anxiety,” Dave remembers. “That translated into me being short-tempered with them — unreasonably so. I started to say, ‘Wait a second, it can’t be my children’s fault. It’s got to be my fault.’ And that’s when I decided: My wife was right. I need to go and get more help.”
As a colonel and astronomical engineer in the U.S. Air Force, Dave worked on satellites and rockets. But after two deployments, he experienced generalized anxiety disorder. In particular, he became very sensitive to loud noises — crowded, bustling places like shopping malls and sporting events were difficult.
“Basically, I start to get tight,” Dave says. “And all of a sudden — [in contrast to] my relatively easygoing personality — I’m not a very pleasant person to deal with. Now, I really don’t notice this myself. It takes people who know me well around me to have the courage to say to me: ‘Hey, I think we need to step out’; ‘Hey, I think it’s probably time to go.’”
Dave’s wife has become quite good at recognizing such moments. She’ll make “graceful excuses why it’s time for us to go,” he says.
Looking back, Dave also recognizes that, after coming home from Iraq, he began to spend more and more time outside — biking, running, hiking, and camping.
“I was doing 24-hour races as a soloist, doing long bike rides and hikes, camping out by myself,” he says. “It was during those times where I just felt like I could control the environment. It was quiet and peaceful, and it really gave me time to reflect and recognize that all the problems I’m facing day to day — with the children, with my wife, with work — really aren’t that big of a deal when you just step back and realize: You’re healthy. It’s a big, beautiful world out there.”
[Support is] going to make your life better.Dave
Dave also used prescription drug treatments. Within a couple of months, those around him saw a change. He remembers his wife saying, “Honey, I’ve noticed such a difference.”
“Again, it happened so slow, and I just think I haven't changed,” Dave says. “But it’s the people around you — the people who are most affected by my mental health were noticing the differences.”
Now, he hopes that his story inspires other to seek support. He wants them to see that reaching out won’t hurt your career and that there are people who can help.
“You get to sit down with someone who’s an expert in this, and all of a sudden you recognize: All they want to do is help,” Dave says. “They want to listen to what’s going on in your life. They want to tell you, ‘This is not exceptional. This happens to a lot of people. You’re not abnormal.’ And they want to offer you solutions to help. So, my biggest recommendation is to get past those initial barriers. … [Support is] going to make your life better.”