A Dark Place
I didn’t wake up one day and want to kill myself. It’s been a journey, like so many I’ve been on. I don’t know when, how, or why it began. I don’t know where it’s going or how it will end. My goal in life wasn’t to be depressed and suicidal. I didn’t set out to want to drink myself to death every time I picked up a drink. But somehow I ended up there. There were signposts along the way, but I missed them.
When I was younger I didn’t understand how someone could kill themselves. I under- stand now. There was a shift in my being but I don’t know when it happened. I don’t know if I was predisposed to the shift? But there was a shift, and I knew at some point I could take my own life. And scarier, I was okay with that.
I was away from home 300 days most years with my part-time job. I was a flight engi- neer on the C-130 and later the C-5 in the USAF Reserves. I’ve deployed 12 times in support of some conflict somewhere. Sometimes living in a glorified cardboard box held together with black mold. One year I deployed three times, twice to places I’ve never heard of. Places I’d have trouble finding on a map.
It was after deployment number five that I started to drink again. My mom died while I was in Afghanistan and I went back to the bottle, hard. I had a lot of catching up to do. I had been sober for almost thirty years. I went to my first AA meeting at 16. I knew then that I was powerless over alcohol and my life was unmanageable.
It was an easy road back to heavy drinking, downhill all the way. Almost everyone on flying status drinks. Some drink more than others. The saying goes if you don’t know who that one is, it’s probably you. I always knew I was that one.
Even when I wasn’t deployed I was away from home and it felt like being deployed. The stateside missions were the worst in many ways. Medivacs or Human Remains mis- sions that start out at Andrews AFB. A C-17 would bring the bodies to Andrews from the Middle East via Ramstein AFB. Bodies in pieces, literally and figuratively.
The HR missions were tough. I lost count of how many I’ve been on. Taxi the plane into position. Shut down everything. Silence. No power cart. Nothing. The Honor Guard walks up the ramp in the back of the plane. They pick up the American flag draped cas- ket and walk slowly off the plane to a waiting hearse. The quiet is broken as Taps fills the tarmac. The flag is folded and presented to the spouse or parent. We might spend the night, or just continue on to our next destination. The plane always had more than one passenger, most were still breathing. Fly a few more hours, drop an injured troop off for specialized care. It was depressing.
Medivac missions were a mixed bag for me. The good part was that we traveled with a medical team for two weeks at a time. Usually made of attractive females. The down- side was that I was looking at some pretty banged up bodies. Missing limbs and ban- daged faces as if from a horror movie from the 1950’s.
I got to reflect on how banged up and bruised I was. On the inside I was getting worse every time I walked out to the airplane to start my preflight.
After the engines were shut down for the day and the plane was put to bed we broke out “Little Buddy.” A red and white Coleman cooler that contained a temporary cure for many. For some of us it was a beer, for others whiskey. Me, it was Cruzan Rum. I dis- covered Cruzan on the island of St. Croix. They have a drink called the Cruzan Confes- sion, about five shots of different rums and pineapple juice. I’d get two. My personal paradise, both the island and the rum.
After a few years of very dark times, accelerated by daily drinking, I crashed hard. The first six months back on the bottle were fun. I hadn’t drank for a long time and I had some catching up to do. It took three years of rock-star, aircrew lifestyle to get caught up. Without realizing it I was back to the bottom of the drinking game.
Towards the end I just wanted to get so drunk and high that I wouldn’t wake. I was mix- ing Tylenol #3’s and rum to help me get there. Most of the time I just passed out. Some- times I’d wake up in vomit. I got to this place and hadn’t even realized it.
No one knew what was really going on with me. Much of the time I would just stay in my hotel room and drink alone. I wanted to keep flying, so each morning I’d put on my hap- py face. If they really knew would things have turned out any different?
Most mornings I woke with guilt, remorse, and shame. But mainly I woke up angry. An- gry that I woke up. A flight engineer buddy of mine drank too much one night and never woke up. At one point I thought he had it all. Great civilian flying job, hot wife, and a nice house. I envied him when we first met. Then I envied him towards the end for not wak- ing up. I thought he was one of the lucky ones. I know today that I’m one of the lucky ones.
I was out of control. I was acting out in all areas of my life, screaming for help. But no one heard. Many of the guys around me were screaming too. Aircrew, in general, are a balls to the wall group when it comes to drinking. We are away from family even when we’re not deployed. The life isn’t for everyone.
I didn’t have a logical reason for feeling this way. I didn’t see or do anything different than my peers. I certainly didn’t want my life to be like this.
I’ve been a running for many years. Literally and metaphorically. I did my first half marathon while smoking a pack of Camel straights a day. I am a runner in many other ways too. Looking back, I avoided emotional pain any way I could. I moved from place to place. Relationships would only last a few years at most. Then I’d pick up and run.
I never could keep a civilian job. The boss would piss me off and I’d run. The military was the only thing I did long term.
So, I run. I try to escape. It finally got to the point where I could no longer run from my- self. I couldn’t get away from my thoughts or emotions any longer. I had hit bottom and just wanted it to end. I had to get off the ride. I got busted for acting inappropriately while in a blackout.
I used this event to get off the roller-coaster. I went to the VA to get into an alcohol rehab program. The VA diagnosed me with anxiety, chemical dependency, depression, PTSD, and suicidal tendencies. I didn’t ask for the diagnoses. My commanders thought I was just trying to get out of trouble. They wanted to make an example of me. They could kick me out, send me to jail. I didn’t care which way it went. I saw it as a way out. I didn’t have to run any longer. I didn’t want to run any longer. I didn’t care how it would affect my military career. I just wanted to get off the elevator before it hit the bottom floor, ex- ploding with me and who knows who else I’d take with me.
I quit drinking and sought help. After about a year of treatment and recovery not only was I able to stay in the military I was able to fly again. I eventually got kicked out for my VA diagnosis, but it took a few years. For a while I was able to keep my shit in check and still perform. There came a time when I just couldn’t any longer. I didn’t go back to alcohol. The anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts slowly crept back in. I had to get back on medication and a more intensive treatment plan.
The other side to the medical issues was that every time I had to fly I was fearful and anxious. Most flyers, especially those just starting out, are cocky and arrogant. Not me, I
was scared shitless towards the end of my flying career. I was spending too much time thinking of the what if’s instead of enjoying the moments of the job.
I was kicked out of the USAF Reserves for medically not being qualified to do my job. Unlike the active duty, in the reserves or air national guard there is no medical dis- charge in this situation. I was over 20 so I would get a retirement, just not as large as I was hoping for. I was counting on this job for a few more years. It was a relief on some level when I found out I was disqualified from flying. I had a new fear though, what was I going to do for a J-O-B.
My life was turned upside down. I had a VA disability rating already. I got in touch with VA’s Vocational Rehab. They thought it might be a good idea to go back to school. I took an aptitude test and scored high in web development. Little did they know that I have a Master of Fine Arts degree and taught web development and graphics classes 15 years prior. I found a two-year school with a great program. After twenty plus years of trying to get my associates from the Community College of the Air Force unsuccessfully I finally got an associate’s degree.
I’ve been out of the military for about five years now. I have the paperwork in hand to prove I served my country. Signed by a president I served under. I got an associate of applied Science in digital technology courtesy of the VA. After a two-year period of be- ing an unemployed student, I got a job. I work for a state university as an entry level web developer. The pay is a bit low, but the environment more then makes up for it.
Many days I have trouble getting both my mind and body to show up together. My man- ager is very flexible with my issues and willing to work with me. I doubt I’d find that elsewhere.
There are still some dark days. Nothing like they were. There are still road signs. For the most part not nearly as ominous. The signs are getting easier to read. I still have suici- dal thoughts. I’m depressed many days. I have anxiety at the oddest of times. But I’m not living in that lonely, dark place today.
Jim, I am so sad to read this, but hopeful too that you are in a place right now that is not as dark. I am sorry that friends like me have not known what you have gone through over the years. Please know that there are so many people who love you and who would like to lend support in any way we are able. Please reach out to your friends when things are rough. There are too many people who care about you to be alone.