Hiding Pain in Plain Sight
July 24, 2020 | 2-minute read
After graduating from West Point in 1987, Fred seemed unstoppable. He was commissioned as an aviator and then served in the U.S. Army for more than a decade, which included flying scout helicopter missions during Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
“Unfortunately, I was one of the few guys that lost some of my men,” Fred recalls. “It had a huge impact on me. It was challenging. It was a mission I was supposed to fly, and they went instead of me.”
Despite the trauma and guilt, Fred’s commitment to service never wavered. When he returned to the U.S., he worked at the Third Army headquarters in Georgia, joined the Army Reserve, and ran for elective office. His unit was called up on Sept. 11 and he served for several years before retiring a second time. Fred went on to launch a communications firm and lead several local Veterans Service Organizations.
From the outside, Fred was a tremendous, if busy, success. But his then-wife noticed he was starting to unravel.
“She saw it all, and she knew,” Fred says. “She was sort of a lifeguard when I was struggling. She was the one who stepped in and said, ‘You need to go see a doctor.’ I was suicidal. So I did — I went and saw a therapist.”
Fred thought that maybe he was depressed and he acted out when he was struggling emotionally. But his therapist at VA understood exactly what was going on. He had seen it in other Veterans: Fred was pouring everything he had into his activities and career, and building barriers to keep other people at bay.
“When you think so lowly of yourself, you tend to try to overachieve,” Fred explains. “All these things I was doing to achieve — CEO, award-winner, speaker, this, that — all this narcissism that went into that was really all just trying to make myself feel better about who I was as a person, because I let these men die.”
“It was really powerful to have a therapist who understood not just trauma and PTSD, but also the nuance of the overachievers who try to hide it,” Fred says. “And he’s the one that got me turned on to what I needed to do as far as unpacking the things I had done to cover up my trauma.”
While everyone has a unique mental health journey, Fred found relief through eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), a therapy designed to allow the brain to recall traumatic events, but without signaling for a trauma response. Fred says shedding the trauma uncovered what he had been missing for decades.
“The biggest gift I got from taking the risk and seeking treatment is joy. I get to have joy in my life again,” Fred says. “Take the risk, do the hard work, get help.”