I'm going to take a moment to write about something that's a little raw for me - depression and suicide as a "seasoned' military spouse. I debated sharing this because I don't want anyone to think I'm simply writing to market. But, as you know from earlier writings, I have traded the brave charade (name of my last blog) and for life of raw authenticity. So here it is.
Veteran suicide is at a suffocating high in our country, but did you know that death by suicide is on the rise among military dependents? This isn't news to me, but its just now gaining the attention of the media. In the last three years, I've had three military dependent acquaintances die by suicide (one spouse and two young adult children).
This is a difficult and seemingly unending lifestyle. Its difficult in ways that the general public will never know or understand. No matter how many times you watch Top Gun or Dear John you can't wrap your head around the day-to-day pressures of this lifestyle and most of us don't want to talk about it.
I wonder if dependent depression and suicide is more prevalent among Special Operations Forces dependents.
I bet it is.
In military circles, we call spouses who've been around for a while "seasoned spouses." I've always liked that word - seasoned - cause let me tell you, I have been marinating in this lifestyle for years. It's an unspoken expectation that Special Operations Forces (SOF) spouses are seasoned spouses. This-ain't-our-first-rodeo type of thing. By the time a service member reaches the experience necessary to be part of a task force or special forces, typically they have several deployments and years of service under their belts. Statistically - if they are married (many are not) - they've been married for a while. SOF spouses understand what is expected in a military marriage. They have been through multiple deployments, undoubtedly spent years away from their spouse, and live thousands of miles away from their families with no support system. SOF spouses see a faster deployment cycle. Many are highly educated but can't or won't have a career because of the cadence of the mission. SOF spouses are so used to deployments that we don't wave goodbye from the tarmac anymore - we just say see you later. SOF spouses don't make signs when our service member returns home - we just make dinner. SOF spouses don't announce a countdown - we just make it through another day.
Now take the above experiences of military life - deployment, having a loved one in danger, isolation from family and culture - and add in the life curve balls everyone experiences. Sick kids. Job loss. Ailing parents. Financial issues. Career disappointments.
But SOF spouses just keep going.
SOF spouses triumph over adversity.
SOF spouses count the victories more than failures.
SOF spouses know the demands and we can handle them.
Until we can't.
Can military spouses (Special operations forces or not. Seasoned or not.) have permission to turn a little salty? Jaded? Tired? Irresolute? Frightened?
Maybe not. Being an expert at something doesn't mean its easy. Understanding a lifestyle doesn't make you unbreakable. I choked on my own spit the other day. That just proves that doing something six million times doesn't mean it will be easy every time.
No matter how strong we are most of the time - we have to be able to admit when easy suddenly becomes suffocating.
A couple years ago, I was having a tough time. One night my husband said, "I don't understand why you're falling apart - you've always been so resilient. When are you going to snap out of this?"
I'll be real honest with y'all - I kind of lost it. We were standing in our kitchen and I just crumpled. I was so mad at him. Mad at this state. Mad at the bugs. Mad at the stupid stove top (why can't NC have gas stoves?). Weeping and scrubbing the glass stove, I said, "Are you here? Can you see I have no snap left? I can't bounce back anymore! I've been bouncing back for too long. There's nothing left. I have nothing left to give. If you've got to keep being a hero then do it. But leave me out of it." I threw the brush in the sink and went to my bedroom. It was not my finest moment.
Can we all just take a moment to PRAISE GOD FOR MY MAN?
Where some husbands would shrug and walk away, my husband did the only thing he knew to do. He marched upstairs and bought plane tickets (not in the budget) to go to our hometown for two weeks.
You guys, I did NOT want to go. When he told me we were going I was livid! Since when is going to the desert in July a good idea? Never! I couldn't just leave work (turned out he'd already texted my boss) Also, I didn't want to show my friends and family what our last move had done to me. I was fatter than ever. My graying hair was falling out. I was exhausted and had none of the energy needed to fake being happy. I had become a shadow of the person I had been the last time we were home. I was ashamed of my weakness and I didn't want anyone to know.
A few days after we got there he said, "I know I used my grandparents as an excuse to get you here, but you needed to be around people who know you. Know your heart. Know where you came from. What you've been through. You needed to be seen. You'll be okay."
He was absolutely right! This man had arranged for some of my closest friends to drive in from all over the state. None of them knew that I was in such a fragile state, but they knew the moment they saw me. For the most part, my friends and family scooped me up and pieced me back together. They were exactly what I needed to pull myself out of my pit and move forward with life.
My best friend - the wife of a firefighter - held my hand over margaritas and said, "We didn't fall in love with simple men, Alyssa. We fell in love with heroes. We knew this going in - maybe not how hard it would be - but we agreed to do it anyway. Lets go do it well."
That trip wasn't all unicorns and rainbows. There were friends and family who we expected to be supportive and excited to see us, but instead they added to the strain on my already broken heart. They were self-centered and rude. They didn't make time for us. When they did manage to squeeze us in, they took advantage of us. They talked over us or didn't listen at all. In the end, they didn't look at us long enough to even see what was really going on.
Now, imagine the spouse who has no one?
Or has people but they are all like the latter?
Or has no means to get home in the first place?
Maybe she has special needs children who can't travel?
Maybe she has no family at all?
Maybe she's poured her life into her spouse and now he's gone 70% of the time?
There is family legend about our old dog, Mac. He was a naughty dog until his later years, when he turned into a very good boy. We joke that he "got saved" after a near death experience.
Last night, my kids asked me about Mac's near death experience. My oldest - 13 years old now - was only seven at the time. He was trying to remember what had happened that day and couldn't remember. I said, "Well, you were just a little kid. I had to hustle to hide it from you."
My other son said that he wanted to hear the whole story. After dinner, we sat around the table and I told my family about how Mac "got saved"
It was Mother's Day weekend, we lived on an isolated Marine Corps base in the middle of the Mojave desert. Mac, our ten-year-old Australian Shepherd, was displaying some weirdly aggressive behavior. On Saturday night, I locked him in the laundry room so that he wouldn't do anything Cujo-crazy to the kids and our other dog overnight. I planned to take him to the vet on Monday morning.
The next morning, I walked out of my bedroom and was hit with the metallic scent of blood and infection. My kids were still asleep. My husband was out of state for training, my closest friend had just moved away, and my other friend was visiting family. I was on my own.
I ran to the bathroom, rubbed smell-good oils under my nose, and ran downstairs. I locked our other dog outside and went cautiously to the laundry room. Overnight, a wound on Mac's neck had ruptured and he had nearly bled to death. Blood and other fluids coated the bottom three feet of the room and the floor. My white dog was soaked in blood and laid limp in a puddle in the center of the tiny room.
I thought he was dead. He had to be. There was so much blood. Then, he moaned.
Tiptoeing closer, I reassured him softly. To my horror, the poor guy tried to lift his head and half of his face slid off, exposing flesh from his ear to his beard. I backed out of the room slowly - trying not to alarm him - and quietly clicked the door shut. After waiting a moment to make sure he wasn't struggling to follow me, I sprinted upstairs, and threw on my rain boots. Just as I started back downstairs, my kids sleepily started waking up. They were 7, 6, and 2 at the time. I remember my oldest laughing at me. What was mommy doing in her pajamas and rain boots at 7 am? I ushered them into their rooms told them we were going on a special trip for Mothers Day. They needed to get ready really fast and quietly.
Leaving Mac and the kids inside, I ran outside and backed my minivan up to my garage. I set up both rows seats and had my kids get in the center row. Quickly, with a big smile, I turned on a special movie, buckled them all in to their car seats, and had them put on their headphones. I told them to watch the movie and when the movie was over we would go somewhere special. I raised the headrests on the row of empty seats between my kids and the back cargo area, blocking their view. My hope was that they would be so distracted by the movie that I could save them from the horror of seeing our Freddy Kruger dog.
It worked! They were entranced by Frozen.
I ran back inside, found a large comforter, ran back outside, and spread it on my garage floor. Gently opening the door into the laundry room, I grabbed another sheet and laid it over Mac. He wasn't a huge dog, but he wasn't small. He definitely wasn't used to being picked up and I was afraid he would struggle against me and do more damage. Thankfully, he was too weak to fight. His breathing was shallow as I gently swaddled him like a baby in the sheet, lifted him onto the comforter, then shamued* him into the back of my van.
I drove into the nearest town calling through all the vets on google - desperate for help. The only emergency vet was over an hour away and everything was closed for Mother's Day! Finally, a local vet answered his emergency number. He didn't speak any English and told me he was closed because he didn't have a translator. I begged in broken Spanish, frantically explaining through sobs that my dog was very hurt and I needed help. (Thank you to Profe Rey for teaching me "Ayuda help?") He told me in broken English it would be okay and how to get to his clinic. I pulled on the street just in time to see this gorgeous Mexican man sprinting down the street from his house to the clinic. He pulled his white lab coat over a t-shirt and pajama pants as he ran down the road towards me. He looked nothing short of heroic.
Mac was barely hanging on when I opened the hatch. I carefully lifted him out of the trunk. My curious children began whipping off their headphones, straining to see what was going on. Panicked, I screamed at them to sit back down and watch their movie. They obeyed.
The doctor patted my back and took Mac from me. His face was strained, but he looked at me and said, "I do my best. I call you later."
I drove to the car wash, made sure my kids were still watching the movie, walked to cargo area of my van, and wept under the sound of the vacuum.
I told this story last night and my husband and kids grew very quiet. I told them how we went out for breakfast. How they played in the sprinklers outside, while I scrubbed the laundry room with bleach. How I went begging prayers for my dog and waves of nausea. I never did get all the blood out of the linoleum. The vet called me that night and in broken English he said, "He's not handsome guy. But he lives."
We laughed at that last statement for a while and spent some time remembering Mac and his lopsided face.
Here's my point - this is not an abnormal story for military spouses. I am not exceptionally brave or adventurous. This is just life. You do what you have to do. Mac lived for six more wonderful years. But even his passing was typical of military spouse life.
Of course it was the middle of the night.
Of course my husband was thousands of miles away.
Of course it was on my son's birthday.
My saving grace was that my parents just happened to be in town so my mom could stay with my kids and my dad went to the vet with me.
I am a stable woman with a resolute foundation of faith.
I have an outgoing personality and a great support system near and far.
I have incredibly good kids with no medical issues.
I have a faithful husband and our relationship is void of major issues.
I do not have a mental health diagnosis.
I am financially stable and neither of us have any concerning addictions or medical problems.
And yet there have been moments over the years when heaven still sounded like relief.
So, if I - with all of the above favor - can experience the sweeping cloud of hopelessness - of course this is an epidemic.
What can we do about it?
I'm not anyone special, but I know that I can do something. I can say to all of the seasoned spouses (and not-so-seasoned) out there - YOU ARE NOT ALONE!
No matter how "Used to this" you think you should be, its okay to lose your resolve. Its okay to grow thin and weary!
DON'T GO ALONE.
You are never alone.
I get it.
Over the last two years, I have made a massive shift from waiting to be reached out to, towards being the one reaching out. Maybe some of you are totally fine - that's great! Go find the one who's not fine. Even if you don't have it all figured out - reach out! This has not been an easy season for me. Even now I'm dealing with rejection and setbacks. But I won't stop going forward.
Like that vet said - I might not be a handsome guy right now, but I live.
I refuse to shrug and say "this is our burden to bear" or "this is just the way it is" or "life is lonely at the top."
That's such a crock of crap.
There's room at my table for you.
There's room at your table for me.
As the pastor said at church yesterday, "I see you. You matter."
Suggested listening as you pray for our military dependents far and wide:
The Military and Veterans Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for veterans, service members and their families who need help. Call 800-273-8255 and press 1, text 838255, or visit www.veteranscrisisline.net.