JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va. --
Although “wingmanship” is something I live every day now as an Airman, the concept is something I have been familiar with my entire life.
I specifically remember a moment this came into play when I was a 16-year-old assistant Cub Scout leader.
We were in the woods, and I had sent my pack of eight-year-old Cub Scouts on a mission to find branches to whittle into slingshots.
“Remember to look for strong, mendable tree branches,” I shouted to them.
Once each of them came back with a branch, I grabbed my own and stood in the center of the group. I started to peel the tree bark with a knife, unveiling its underside and how to bend the branches without snapping them. The scouts stared up at me; their mouths hanging open.
As I continued to whittle the branch, all the boys suddenly popped up from their seats and began panicking around me.
“I need a buddy,” one of them shouted. I watched as the scouts paired up, taking off and yelling, “Help, Ms. Kaylee is bleeding. Help.”
I looked down and realized what all the fuss was about -- I had given myself a small cut on my finger. Looking back at this now, I can’t help but chuckle a bit at the support those Cub Scouts gave me over a small wound that only needed a Band-Aid.
I wish I had those tiny wingmen these past nine months.
A STORM BREWING
Last fall, I felt like I was losing my foundation. Within a short time frame, my best friend got a new assignment to California, and my supervisor, who had become my biggest mentor, left for a deployment.
Soon after, I found myself significantly struggling to find my place as a new Airman, and perform at the same level as my peers.
In the blink of an eye, I felt the structure of my life crumble underneath me. I felt as if there was a big storm brewing in my head. I suddenly developed this constant overwhelming feeling like I was spiraling down into a deep pit and couldn’t find a grip to hold.
I felt like I was never going to be able to pull myself out of that hole. I felt like I was never going to feel happy again. All I wanted was to hit rock bottom, so maybe, just maybe, I could start over again.
I kept begging, “Please just make it stop.”
What did I want to stop? My life? No, not my life. My thoughts; the pain; the sadness.
“You’re never good enough. People don’t even like you. You’re constantly a bother. You’re awful at everything,” I would say to myself.
These constantly-racing thoughts taunted me.
I was exhausted. I felt alone. My mind was in chaos -- it had imprisoned me in some kind of self-loathing bubble I just couldn’t seem to pop.
These self-destructive feelings began to fill me with rage. I started to snap at others -- friends, family and even coworkers. The smallest comments would trigger me. I felt trapped inside my own mind like I was watching an imposter take possession of my ordinarily warm and friendly disposition.
This imposter was slowly whittling away who I was -- Kaylee, the person I had spent the last 24 years shaping.
It’s been nearly a year since this all started, and although this chapter of my life is now turning around for the better, my journey wasn’t easy. It wasn’t a story of clouds parting in the sky, where I suddenly was full of sunshine and happiness.
That’s not at all what happened.
In reality, I spent seven months undergoing various treatments to learn how to manage my depression and anxiety.
Manage, not cure.
THE CLOUDS ROLL IN
Before my supervisor left for his deployment, we talked about his personal stresses and how he had struggled trying to find his place as an Airman. He had told me that going to the 633rd Medical Group Mental Health clinic had improved his mental health.
With this in mind, I decided to start my journey toward recovery by speaking with a therapist at the clinic. After just that first appointment, I left with a better understanding of what I was suffering from; that it was treatable and common among military members.
At that moment, I felt less alone. But, I was still lost -- pieces of me were still chipping away.
If I thought things couldn’t get any worse in my life at that point, my father was also diagnosed with a myelofibrosis, which the doctors first believed to be bone-marrow cancer. I was encompassed in a fear of losing him to this disorder -- losing him too soon.
After receiving this news, my new supervisor suggested I visit a chaplain. To be honest, I had reservations about this -- I am far from religious and wasn’t sure what to expect. Speaking with a chaplain was certainly not my first choice as a resource. Nevertheless, I decided it couldn’t hurt to give it a shot.
After telling him I was not religious, he was glad to just speak with me about what I was going through. I left his office feeling better about my dad’s situation and hopeful for his recovery.
During my own recovery, there were still times when I would feel completely numb to the world around me, or I would be so annoyed I would lash out at coworkers over the minutest details. I tried to stick with my recovery plan, whether that was speaking with my therapist or a resiliency counselor from the Army Community Service facility at Fort Eustis.
Even though I was seeking help from several different support services, I still never felt like I was doing any better -- in reality, I didn’t want to get better. Although I knew I needed the help and had reached out for it, there was this part of me that couldn’t accept it.
Looking back now, I think I had just become comfortable with the sadness. It was a blanket I used to hide myself from the outside world. I surrounded myself with this cloud of despair, thinking it would be enough to suffocate the additional problems I had created through this episode in my life. I just couldn’t find the energy to care about anything.
On one specific day this past January as I dealt with the storm brewing inside my mind, an actual storm swirled around the Hampton Roads area. The base was on mission-essential reporting for several days due to snow, and instead of enjoying the “time off,” I stayed sheltered in my apartment for four days, limiting my interactions with the outside world.
I never felt more alone than during those four days. I could not find the energy to leave the comfort of my couch. I barely ate or showered or groomed in any shape or form. I sat staring blankly at my television screen, not taking much in.
After that weekend, I discussed the events with my therapist and we agreed I needed a strong treatment program. That day, I willingly admitted myself into Naval Medical Center Portsmouth’s Crisis Stabilization Program.
In that one-week program, we spoke about self-care, communication, fears and expectations, and being mindful. We also practiced these concepts through art therapy, yoga, meditations and group therapy exercises.
The program deliberately forced me to look at all events from my past and present that may have contributed to my anxiety and depression. Facing those things for an entire week was emotionally exhausting, but it also refreshed my sense of being. I felt as if it mended my self-worth and life expectations.
In no way was I “cured” from my depression and anxiety, but for the first time I felt like I could tackle it.
When I left the hospital on the last day of the program, I felt like I was slowly starting to resemble who I once was.
During my journey to recovery, I learned how to become more proactive in my own happiness -- that I could combat my illness with self-care, acknowledgement and asking for help. I needed to rely on my wingmen, communicate with them and help them understand what I was going through.
A few days after I was back to work, I was talking with one of my friends about how I had felt so alone during those past months. He surprised me when he said that he had been there trying to help me the entire time -- I guess I just never took the time to notice. Having him by my side nowadays has been incredibly helpful in my recovery process. He has kept me afloat in casting away the stubborn, destructive thoughts that were previously drowning me.
Although I have made it to this point in my recovery, every single day is still a struggle. I have to retrain my thoughts, take medication every day and visit the Mental Health Clinic regularly.
While I still sometimes have bouts of depressive episodes, I now rely on the techniques I learned to help me recover. I often find myself seeking out avenues that force me outside to be alongside nature, such as taking a friend’s pet to the park or reading a book in my hammock.
Lately, I have been able to talk candidly about my experiences which have helped me connect with others and accept this part of my life. Being so open about everything, I now feel part of the team, part of a family.
I guess I had just been so encased in my despair to notice that when I was reaching out for help, hands were in fact there, reaching back to help me. Now that I have a better grip on life, every day I get further away from my version of rock bottom, catching a glimpse of light shining from the top.
That is where I now want to be.
What I have learned most about this experience is that tackling mental illness takes time. It’s just an obstacle in the journey of life, but you must stay alive to see where that journey takes you. All journeys are worth exploring, even the ones that may be a bit bumpy at first -- things will always get better.
I’m definitely not the person I used to be, but I’m moving toward her. Thinking back to those days with my Cub Scout troop and their concern for my well-being, I now appreciate they were there to help even when I didn’t really need it.
Just as when I was standing in the center of the group of scouts, I now find myself in the center of a group of people who noticed my suffering and made it their responsibility to help me find my way back to who I want to be -- even as I fought back against their support.
They never gave up on me; they put the pieces of me back together, slowly shaping me back into Kaylee.