I would like to start this article by defining a few key terms. The American Heritage Dictionary defines the word taboo as a ban or inhibition resulting from social custom or emotional aversion. The American Heritage Dictionary defines the word aversion as the avoidance of a thing, situation or behavior because it is being associated with an unpleasant or painful stimulus. I hope by the end of this article you will be more willing to shine a light on mental health stigmas, specifically surrounding suicide awareness and prevention. The more people who have the courage and strength to speak out about their personal experiences, the more likely we are to save someone’s life, including our own.
Talking about death, whether concerning family, friends, strangers or one’s self can be an unpleasant, painful conversation. Most of the time you could cut the tension with a proverbial knife. However, in my personal experience, most people will have a quick and awkward conversation about a death in the family or one’s own mortality when gently nudged. When I have attempted (even in an “appropriate” setting) talking about someone committing suicide, suicidal ideation, awareness and prevention, it is met with faces of fear, judgmental presumptions or extreme ways of aversion. Until 2016 I also had a strong aversion to the taboo topic of suicide and anything surrounding it.
After returning from a 12 month tour from Baghdad, Iraq at Camp Cropper High Value Detainee Site with Task Force 134 from Jan 2005 until December 2005, I thought that if I spoke about suicidal thoughts it would mean something was seriously wrong with me. People would think I’m crazy and they would try to commit me to a psychiatric ward, saying I was weak, broken and unfixable. I was ashamed. Ashamed of myself and my actions in Iraq. Ashamed of what I witnessed in Iraq. Ashamed of my government, military and chain of command from President Bush to my Company Commander. Sadly, at the time, ashamed to be known as a veteran.
My return from Baghdad in 2006 until 2011 I halfheartedly attempted to reach out to the Veterans Affairs (VA) for Post Traumatic Stress (PTS) and moral injury but I wasn’t ready to be honest with myself. I wasn’t ready to face my experience in Iraq, and truly accept my own thoughts and emotions, or that the past can’t be changed.
Today is different, thankfully I know that now. The future is unpredictable and the only idea that I have any self-control over is now. My self acceptance started slowly in 2011 with the help of the PTSD Clinical Team at the Wade Park VA in Cleveland, Ohio. From 2011 until 2016, I slowly started the process of self acceptance, learning to dig deep and be honest with myself with my team of doctors. In 2016, things shifted internally. Ten years after returning from war, I truly started being completely open and honest with myself for the first time. I found my mental health “trinity” that I practice and apply to all aspects of life: self-acceptance, self-awareness, and self control.
I really made progress with a trusted psychologist doing “Prolonged Exposure” therapy. A Vietnam veteran who is active in the PTS Veterans groups at Wade Park VA in Cleveland read Viktor Frankl’s book “Man’s Search for Meaning” which is the foundation for logotherapy which means “reason or purpose” based therapy. Out of the kindness of his heart, he purchased the book for every veteran in PTS inpatient therapy. I found yoga, meditation, and mindfulness to help. I have not taken pharmaceuticals since 2011, after taking multiple combinations from 2006 until 2011. I’m now only using medicinal marijuana. Being a stay at home dad also is one of my main sources of purpose and hope.
I’ve found my own spirituality again, which was once lost. I began speaking out more openly and have been recently involved with activism in mental health, suicide awareness and prevention, anti-war and anti-militarism organizing, and social justice work. I began to openly talk about my own struggle with suicidal ideation and mental health stigmas.
For me, I found an organization called About Face: Veterans Against the War, formerly Iraq Veterans Against the War, who is helping me continue my healing and provided a national network of like-minded veterans and allies. Looking back at my journey, since serving in Iraq, I have made progress and growth. The more I talked about it openly, the more honest I felt. The pressure of the unspoken slowly faded. I felt less ashamed. The “prolonged exposure” therapy helped me accept my moral injuries from Iraq while confiding in my psychologist. Prolonged Exposure is a therapy based on desensitizing traumatic experiences. I would sit with my psychologist with an audio recorder weekly and talk about my traumas into the recording device. Then we would listen to the recording and talk through the event. Every time that I would listen to myself talking about the traumas it would take the “edge” off and reduce my anxiety and apprehensions. The more I told my story and listened to it, my heavy heart became a bit lighter. Talking and writing about it gets easier with time. Now, I am self practicing “prolonged exposure” publicly and privately, finding ways to speak about my own struggles, both with my traumas but specifically moral injury and suicide ideation.
I have had numerous fellow veterans in the PTS programs at the VA in Cleveland contact me with hopelessness, usually drunk and with a gun. There is a difference between suicidal ideation and having a plan or intent to commit suicide. That is another obstacle in dealing with the stigmas of suicide. No one wants to be committed. Sometimes it is needed to save a life. Other times, it is not.
I have been to the psychiatric ward for evaluation twice. One of those times I received a call from a friend and fellow Iraq veteran with PTS. He was holed up in a hotel room extremely intoxicated and chambering through rounds in his magazine with me on the phone with his pistol. He refused to tell me his location. After contacting another veteran, we choose to call the Veterans Crisis Line to report the situation. They located him at a hotel in New York with alcohol poisoning and a fully loaded glock. They took him to a local VA psychiatric ward for evaluation and to stabilize him.
At a later time, after being released in early 2017, he contacted me to thanked me saying we saved his life. But something was different. I could feel his shame through the phone from NY to Ohio. This shame was all too familiar with me and was a turning point in my decision to speak out about suicide awareness. I am no longer afraid. Today, I constantly fight against becoming a part of an ever growing statistic of veteran suicides. He has never contacted me again after becoming close friends through the VA. I may have lost a friend that day, but at least we saved a life. If I ever hear from him again I will be sure to let him know he doesn’t have to be ashamed, that I’m proud of him and how strong he is as a fellow warrior. Will there be a next time? I hope so…
If someone wants to speak about suicide ideation, I encourage you to have an open mind, an open heart, and remove judgment. Please support and encourage us without hesitation. Please let us know there is no shame in reaching out.
If you are a family or friend of someone who struggles with suicidal thoughts or has committed suicide, please do not be ashamed. Do not hide the realities of mental health, the repercussions of war, and perpetuate the perfect storm of circumstances to allow another suicide that could have been prevented. If only they knew it would be okay. Please don’t be afraid, don’t be ashamed. It is courageous to speak out. Have self acceptance and self awareness of your own thoughts. There is nothing wrong with a thought. Actions are irreversible. Speak up. Speak out. Save a life.
Ohio Army National Guard from 2002-2008, Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran with Post Traumatic Growth and moral injury, stay at home dad, member of About Face: Veterans Against the War, formerly Iraq Veterans Against the War and contributor to The Peace Report.