Suicide Intervention

It was during my first deployment that I had my first real-life introduction to suicide intervention. I was deployed as a Chaplain Assistant with my unit to Camp Bucca, Iraq (08-09). At that time I had only the minimal training in suicide intervention. I did not understand why someone would want to take their own life and, I am ashamed to say, I sometimes wondered if the person was faking it. It was an easy way to get to leave the desert early for people who didn’t want to be there. I had yet to experience a point that low in my life and I just didn’t understand when someone said they wanted to kill themselves.

During that deployment I took control of three weapons of Service Member’s that showed signs of suicidal ideations. Two of them were preventative measures before they went to the chaplain for counseling. But one was considerably more serious than that. It was real. I still thought in the back of my mind this guy was just trying to get out of work. But I knew him, we had become good friends. And I knew he wasn’t ‘right’, that something was going on. He was changing and I didn’t understand why. I took it seriously, but his logic that he would be better off dead escaped me.

I talked him into turning in his weapon to the base arms room for a little while. I walked with him and his commander in silence. He and I had made a deal that he himself would be the one to give up his weapon, that no one would take it from him. It was important to him that he felt in control of relinquishing his assigned firearm. His commander signed some papers and my friend forfeited his gun. My friend walked away without saying a word to me. I spoke to his commander for a few minutes, assuring him that I would keep an eye on him.

The next day my friend had his weapon. I asked him about it. The paperwork had apparently been filled out wrong and since he was the one that turned it in, he was allowed to get the weapon back himself. I asked if he had felt better about life. He said that he did not. I told him to give me his weapon to which he replied, “You’ll have to take it from me.” I took two steps towards him in the office to come face to face with him and placed my hand on his weapon. He did not resist and I took it from him. I escorted him back to the arms room and turned it in properly. That would insure that he could not get his firearm back without his commander’s approval. I went back to my office alone, closed the door, and shed a few tears. The reality of these things that I could not understand were overwhelming.

My friend didn’t speak to me much the rest of the deployment. I felt like I had traded our friendship to possibly save his life. That is a fair trade. I don’t know for sure if he would have gone through with killing himself, but I also knew, even in my limited experience, that it had to be taken seriously. I hated that he felt like I took something from him that he considered important, that helped define him as a warrior, his weapon. And he hated me for it for a while, too, I guess. On a side note, for those of you in the military that think a chaplain assistant has a cushy job, there’s a lot more to it than you think. It can be an emotionally draing job which many people do not see the whole spectrum of what we do.

Since that time I have received specialized training in suicide intervention. I have taken part in more than a few interventions. I have also experienced that darkness first hand in my own mind. I fully understand now what my friend was going through. I may not relate to his particular circumstances, whatever those were at the time, but for the hopeless feelings that comes with wanting to die, I completely relate. I wish I didn’t. But I think it makes me better at helping people when needed.

I understand that each of us respond differently to various situations. What destroys me might be normal to you. I understand that in many cases the ‘reason’ for wanting to die is simply the straw that broke the camel’s back. I understand that no matter what I think, suicidal ideations must be treated as a real threat. I understand that there is no quick fix. I hate that part the most. I just want to be better again. But I know I will never be the person I was before I attempted suicide, it will just never happen. Maybe that’s the part I hate the most because I know I sure do miss the old me.

It was at least a year after returning from Iraq that I got a Facebook message from my friend saying thanks for what I did to help him. We still keep in touch from time to time. It turns out that I didn’t have to trade his friendship for taking his weapon. And now I understand why he reacted the way he did. Because I also lived it, and still do. Different circumstances, different setting, and different consequences. But I completely understand the feelings he experienced, during the deployment and the period that followed. I understand about pushing people away or shutting them out, I do it, too. I’m working on that, trying to do better. Or at least I want to do better.

For those that have been following the horrible life-rut I’ve been in lately, I can’t say that it’s getting any better right now. But I can say that I’ve stopped going in reverse with my thoughts and am ready to start moving forward again when it’s time. I had at least four conversations going the other evening on text or messaging when I was feeling pretty crappy about life, a low point. I don’t know if I were in danger of myself, but I do know my thoughts were not good. I don’t know how many of the people I was talking with had real suicide training, but I know the conversations helped. Point is, you don’t have to be a specialist in suicide prevention to help someone that is having those feelings. Just be there. That’s the first and most important step in an intervention.

Thanks for reading this week. I hope you get something from this. Good day, God bless.

Dave

A few pictures from Camp Bucca, Iraq, 2008-2009.

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Recovery, It’s Not That Easy.

I received a lot of feedback from last week’s post. A lot of it came in private messaging and email asking how I was doing. Last week was rough and I openly shared about how bad it was for me and of the things going on in my mind at the time. It was not pretty. But I’m ok. I promise. I think I will have those kinds of thoughts once in a while, from time to time, perhaps for the rest of my life.

Let’s see if this analogy makes sense. I think I will battle suicidal thoughts the same way a recovering alcoholic battles his demons. This friend of mine that I’ve known for half my life now is a recovering alcoholic. I asked him one day how long it took for his urge to drink to go away. He had already been sober for 10 years at the time of that conversation. He said, “Never.” He told me that every day he thought about and missed drinking, but most days the thoughts were just in passing and barely noticeable. But every once in a while, he said, it was hard.

I think I’m in that boat with my mental illnesses and suicidal ideations. Honestly, most days are pretty good. But I will always know in the back of my mind that I tried to kill myself. I will forever know what it felt like to be that low and the possibilities of what could happen if I get that low again. I will always be at risk. I know that. I accept that and I do what I can to make sure I protect myself.

Most days are normal, whatever ‘normal’ is. Most days I look at my past in a way that I cheated death, a battle in which I won. Well, I haven’t really won yet, it’s an ongoing fight. Because every once in a while life becomes so completely overwhelming that I slip into the dangerous darkness of my mind. Even though the thoughts of a couple weeks ago were horrible, I ended up not doing anything to harm myself. I just needed some time for the process to run its course in my head.

One question that stands out from some of the responses last week is, “How are you able to share things so personal and put it out there for the world?” That’s a good question. It wasn’t easy at first to be able to put all the words together in a way that would make sense to more than just myself. Even in my own mind I had great difficulty trying to figure out what the hell I was saying and thinking. But once it started flowing I became very comfortable with it. I decided that I would write about my life because it is great therapy for me and I would share to the world in case it helps someone else.

I fully understand that not everyone can do that. I get it. There are a million things going on in my life that I don’t share here. There are some things I will never share here. But some of it I need to, I have to. I have to get it out and try to make sense of it. When I post to my blog every Saturday it helps me, whether people read it or not. I get considerable satisfaction in being able to put my thoughts in order to be able to share stories of my PTSD, attempted suicide, the occasional dangerous mindset, highs and lows, depression and anxiety, the good, the bad, and the ugly. All the things that are The Story of My Life. Many things that others can relate to, but can’t share themselves.

Two very stressful weeks are behind me, but I wouldn’t say that life is all that great right now. And to be honest, I don’t see it getting any better any time soon. As a matter of fact, I can guarantee that it will get worse before it does gets better. You think I would be used to it all by now, but I’m not. I hate it. I hate the situations that I’m in. I hate that I’m not capable of doing the things I used to do. I hate that I have little motivation, low energy, and almost no desire to interact with the outside world. I don’t even want to write much anymore.

Even though I know it can’t happen again, I miss being deployed. I miss being in Afghanistan. For many of us, that is a normal feeling after coming home from war. We miss the camaraderie. We miss the feeling of knowing that someone always has our back. I know for me, I miss the chaos, the danger, and the excitement of being there. There is a weird high from being surrounded by the unknown that each day offered over there. Maybe I’m crazy, but I miss it. And I know that I’m not alone. I keep up with many of my friends I deployed with and many of them feel the same way. There was a strange level of comfort that I just don’t have anymore.

I’m sure all of that contributes to what is going on in my brain right now, this feeling like I don’t belong here, that I can’t adapt, that I can’t find a normal that I’m at ease with. I know my past experiences do not cause the bad or uncomfortable things in my life today, but I certainly do not deal with said things like I used to be able to. Not coping well is simply compounding everything. One thing after another, each making life worse than the one before. Or at least the feeling of life being worse. And I hate it. At some point it has to get better.

Until then, I’ll keep doing what I’m doing. Thanks for reading this week. Hopefully, next week’s post will be more positive. But no promises. Good day, God bless.

Dave

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Breathe in. Breathe out. If you can.

At some point before I left Afghanistan in 2014 I started feeling like I was having breathing issues. I wasn’t concerned about it at the time, but it was noticeable. My bigger concerns were of other physical problems that I developed over there. And I wasn’t even slightly concerned with my mental health because I had been deployed before. I knew what to expect. But obviously, every deployment is different. And not everything about coming home is the same each time.

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My breathing continued to get worse after returning home. Sometimes it was accompanied by chest pains and lightheadedness. It had become difficult to do even moderately physical work. I wasn’t able to do the things that I used to do with ease and it didn’t seem to be getting better. I was driving to class one day a few months after getting home and the breathing was so bad I felt like I might pass out at the wheel. And my chest hurt. Instead of going to class I went to the emergency room at the local Navy hospital.

They hooked me up to all kinds of equipment, ran tests, did x-rays, and asked me a million questions. In the end, the doctor told me it was most likely anxiety and that I should seek mental health treatment. But before I even got home from there, he had called me and ask if I could come back for more tests and x-rays. They found something on my right lung and wanted to get more images from different angles. So I went back for them to poke and prod at me some more. The doctor confirmed a nodule in my right lung. He told me to follow up with my doctor and have further tests done. He wouldn’t speculate if it was serious or not, that a specialist would have to do that.

I waited a year before having it looked at again. I was in a downward spiral in my life at that time and didn’t really care about my health, physical or mental. That part of my life is documented in other previous blog posts. After my failed suicide attempt I decided that if I was going to live, I might as well have my lungs looked at. The doctor at the VA was a complete moron and should in no way be a doctor for veterans. He finally agreed to order tests for me after he realized that I already had some findings from the Navy hospital. During the phone consultation following the first test he informed me that the nodule was small and probably nothing to worry about, that there would be a follow up test in six months. He didn’t know that I already had a copy of the report. So I asked about the second finding in the report, COPD. And he asked, “Oh, are you having breathing problems?” I went off on him, I lost my temper right there. I reminded him that was the whole reason for my appointment before the tests. I couldn’t breathe. Moron!!

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He ordered more tests. Somehow those tests didn’t show any COPD. I guess my breathing problems are all in my head. However, I have documents showing how bad the air quality was in Kabul, where I was at for the majority of my time in Afghanistan. One document from 2009 states, “Kabul air has reached toxic levels….three to 7.5 times higher than WHO (World Health Organization) guidelines for acceptable level of exposure.” In a 2012 letter from Senator Ron Wyden to the Secretary of Defense he points out that “Kabul ranks near the top of worldwide rankings of hazardous airborne contaminants.” But maybe my breathing issues are in my head since the VA can’t find what’s there.

For those of you who have ever dealt with the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA), you know it’s a broken system. Often times dealing with them is like getting slapped in the face, especially when the doctor I have is an ass and should not be dealing with veterans. Another slap in the face was when I recently filled out the paperwork for release of information from providers outside the VA to go along with my updated claim. I got a letter from them saying that even though I filled out the paperwork, it’s my responsibility to make sure they get the requested documents. Is that an ongoing problem? Do hospitals and doctors say no to the VA when requesting information? But I don’t have enough to worry about, so I’m glad the VA told me they aren’t responsible for receiving the documents I requested. Really, I was running out of shit to worry about. Morons.

This is a frustrating system to be drowning in. The bureaucracy involved is ludicrous. The lack of accountability is appalling. The number of veterans that die while waiting for care is growing. I vented to my psychologist about this and he asked me why I’m focused on fixing the VA instead of just getting done what I need to get done. He admits that the VA cannot be fixed. I don’t know about the other branches of the military, but in the Army we never leave a fallen comrade. I’ll get what’s due to me eventually. And I will continue to use my voice to help others lost in a broken system of ineptitude so as not leave someone else behind. But I can only make so much noise by myself.

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If you served in Kabul or Bagram and want a copy of the documents I have, let me know. If you have something helpful to share about this, let us all know.

This is frustrating to me. Why won’t they help? Why won’t they listen? Why won’t they look at the evidence that’s out there? It’s dealing with this kind of bullshit that doesn’t help my PTSD, anxiety, anger management, or hopefulness that I will get the treatment I need. This is where many veterans lose the will to fight the system. We can’t win, so what’s the use in spending time and energy on a losing cause? But I’d still go do it all again if asked. Even knowing what I know now.

Thanks for reading my rant. Good day, God bless.

Dave

The Cage With Prison Bars

I’ve met them all and put them in their respective places. I know each of them by name. We’ve come to agreements that, quite frankly, don’t benefit anyone involved, but there had to be agreements, whether they mean anything or not. I can’t make them leave, they are part of me and who I am now. I can get along with every one of them very nicely. Except one, except the one that wants to kill me. I keep him locked in a cage with prison bars. They are all my demons and I have them under control.

I entertain them occasionally, just to make sure they know I’m in charge, if I am in charge. Except the one that wants me dead. I won’t let that one out of the cage. But all the others come around once in a while, and if I feel like it I will pet them and send them on their way. They are free to roam because they have learned the rules and boundaries. Except Suicide. That one stays locked up. Behind prison bars. That one cannot be tamed like the others. That one does not play by the rules. That one scares me, even from behind the bars.

When all my demons ran wild and controlled me, it was chaos. I locked myself in that cage with prison bars to stay safe. But that didn’t work. They poked and jabbed through the bars. They laughed and made fun of me and threw things at me. And Suicide was the worst of them. That one won’t stop until you do. And I believed them for a while, every word. And they were right, they convinced me anyway. Except that they were wrong, I learned that later, after it was almost too late. It was hard, but I put them in their places, even the one that tried to murder me. Especially the one that tried to murder me. That bastard is behind bars now. But that one still scares me. That’s the only one I’m truly afraid of.

I look over my shoulder occasionally from time to time to make sure my demons are staying in their places, where they belong. They are for the most part, even the killer that is locked in a cage with prison bars. When I look over my shoulder at that one, it smiles calmly, not bothered at all about being locked up. That one knows that even from the cage it can get me if it wanted to, if I let it. I have all my demons under control except that one, which is befuddling to me since that’s the only one locked up. In a cage. With prison bars. No freedom to roam. Suicide stays quiet in the cage making plans for a reunion. I have no intention of showing up to that party.

But if you have demons of your own, maybe we can get them together for a play date party.