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“I’m not gonna let this thing control my life.”

“The only way through is to just push forward and try.”

Joe served in Iraq as a medical support to Marines in high intensity situations – a stressful and precarious job. When you’re deployed, you bury any fear and keep it together, staying focused on the people and the mission. So that’s what Joe did.

10 years later, that buried fear and anxiety and pressure came exploding back, striking Joe with debilitating panic attacks following two minor car accidents.

I just started zoning out. I was hyper aware of what was going on around me. All the senses, all the noises, things in my periphery. I felt like I was in a Rocket Propelled Grenade attack.

The feelings of panic worsened. Joe went from feeling calm and comfortable to feeling like his otherwise safe and controlled world was closing in, and dangers awaited him everywhere. He found himself feeling hyper aware – afraid to walk down the street, imagining all the catastrophic ways things might go wrong. He couldn’t control his emotions and started breaking down and crying at work.

The war over there

In Iraq, this hyper-awareness was appropriate. Joe never felt there was space to let any vulnerability surface. In fact, his duties forbid it. As a medical support who earned the coveted nickname Doc, he needed to be a pillar of strength the Marines could trust. If he showed any sign of weakness, the hard-earned trust would be broken. He lived in private fear of that happening – feeling like he could be exposed – and quickly learned to shut down any emotions and instead act rationally, calmly, and tough.

As a corpsman you’re always seen as somebody who has to stay strong. You’re working in the medical field, you can’t have weakness. You often neglect your own health because you’re too worried about helping other people.

Without that emotional outlet – during a time when terror and fear were very real – Joe felt he never had a chance to get help. So, he could see how he suffered from anxiety, depression and PTSD once he was home and safe.

The war inside

Joe’s anxiety and panic began to take a toll. He stayed home more and felt exhausted by all of his anxieties. He couldn’t do things he used to do anymore and that ate away at his self esteem. He got stuck in his low mood and started sleeping more. Joe realized his anxiety had created a self sustaining negative cycle, growing and extending into depression.

He remembers feeling like the things that used to make him energized – going out in nature, spending time with friends – felt suddenly numb. With that came shame.

There’s this sadness that I can’t do things that I normally would want, that make me happy. I get upset that I should be able to feel emotions to the people I care about. But I can’t. And then a lot of my feelings are centered around feeling ashamed or embarrassed.

Joe’s feeling of failure cascaded because he soon wasn’t able to work or be productive. His awareness that he could be out there working – but didn’t feel able to – made him feel like a huge failure.

Plan of attack

Joe tries to remind himself that these feelings of failure, shame, and embarrassment are part of his depression.

I know I’m depressed. I know that that’s part of this process. It’s hard for me to get myself out of that thinking, like when I’m in it, I’m in it. I could always take my mind out of my body and look at myself and say, what you’re experiencing is just the experience of depression. You can get over it. But when I’m living in my mind, that’s all I have. I focus in on all these negative things. And it’s easy from like a retrospective perspective to say, you can get over these things. But when you’re in it, you’re just fixated on it.

It all felt too heavy, and he knew that he couldn’t live like this. When he realized that this was something he couldn’t overcome alone, Joe sought help at the VA hospital.

The first step was connecting with a psychiatrist who prescribed medication to calm him down and help him get his balance back.

Next, Joe connected with a therapist and practiced Cognitive Therapy to help reshape his thoughts. Although the process of looking directly at these thoughts and feelings is hard for him, he recognizes this is part of the process in order for him to heal. In trying to pinpoint the negative things that he tells himself, he can look at it from a different perspective once it’s happening.

The medications help me to some degree, they took off the edge. Therapy’s really helpful because I feel like I have somebody I can talk to and confide in when I’m having my moments. And just having that positive person, that helps you look just to the right or to the left of where you’re looking is a helpful experience for those struggling with this.

Joe now understands that this problem isn’t unique to his experience in Iraq. He’s a part of a veteran social network with over one million members sharing and requesting resources for mental health issues.

He decided to create a post about what he was going through in one of the groups. He spoke authentically, shared resources, and was open about his experience.

I had so many of my other military colleagues messaging me and telling me that they have gone through this experience. People that I never would have guessed could relate.

In connecting with these other veterans, Joe felt comforted that he isn’t the only one going through the mental war in his own mind and body.

Joe also relies on close relationships to provide consistency and support. A good friend that spends a lot of time with Joe is able to recognize when Joe is getting triggered, allowing him to help distract him or calm him down. Joe knows that instructors and colleagues care about him and want the best for him, so he does his best to overcome feelings of embarrassment and shame and accept their support.

Having instructors who support me and understand that if I need to leave early or I’m not feeling very well, then they’re not gonna force me to do things that I feel like I can’t do. Same thing at work, when I was working. I was a hot mess coming into work, crying. And I should feel ashamed about those things. And sometimes I do. But I know that from my experience with those people that I work with, they’re really supportive of me, and want me to get better.

A new mission

Joe understands that while he can’t help how he feels, talking about it helps him connect with those around him and can make him feel better.

I know that talking is the thing that helps me cope with my situation. And it’s the thing that helps me understand that I can move forward.

Joe values his own resilience and determination to support himself in getting better, too.

The only way through is to just push forward and try. You know it could be tough, you may be going through therapy, and it might not make you feel very nice afterwards, but it’s part of the process. And you just power through it so that you can get to the other side.

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