I need your help. Please. I don’t want to lose any more friends to suicide.
If you know any veterans, I am pleading with you to send this article to just one of them. They will know someone in trouble, almost certainly. I don’t want any money, I don’t want any publicity, I just really want you to pass this along. You never know who needs your help, so now I act as if everyone needs it. Thank you so much, Dave
DOGFIGHTING DEPRESSION, CHAPTER ONE
wtf happened bro?
you used to be so happy & cheerful…so full of life…?
I used to have an intense joy for living, an unrivaled enthusiasm, and a never-ending laugh.
But I returned home from my second combat cruise stuck in darkness. My body came home, but the rest of me was somewhere lost at sea.
I was the lone wolf. Hungry.
The wild card. Never satisfied unless the danger factor was maxed out.
Way too cool for your boring civilian life. No thanks.
“What do you mean Officer!? 100mph is still about 60 knots slower than my actual takeoff speed…duh…”
I had spit-with-disgust scorn for the slow-to-change, lazy, incompetent clueless people that surrounded me on all sides.
“I didn’t risk my life every day to come back and fill your stupid form out five different times! Get it together already!”
They didn’t have to do anything close to what we did. And why were they yelling at each other about petty nonsense all the time.
“Who is Kim Kardashian again, and tell me why she hates Taylor Swift?”
I couldn’t slow my mind down. Hyperaware of every little noise and motion, I’d call out tallies in the car “Rage 14, tally two, right two o’clock high” as I’d switch the air-conditioning to air-to-air combat mode.
Repressed rage bubbled lava-hot just below my pretend smiling exterior. I didn’t know what was happening to me, but I happily discovered that fiery anger trumped all other emotions. So what. Don’t judge me. It felt like a warm blanket, comforting and familiar. With rage on my side, and my rumbling machine speeding me past it all, I was invulnerable. Slowing down meant extreme pain, and certain death.
So I looked for any and everything to keep the airspeed up and the throttles mashed past the detent. Civilian afterburners baby.
I’d go all in on any poker hand, with or without the winning cards. I didn’t care. No one could match my raw aggression.“I’m tougher and braver than all of you combined. I see you blinking; now I own you.”
I’d start fights on the basketball court. “You call that a foul?! You’re a total #$$@!”
I’d drive like the wind everywhere I went; sometimes nitro-fueled with JP5 whiskey-propellant, outracing the darkness, invincible once again.
Windows full down, volume 11 up, screaming snarlingly violent lyrics at a stagnant, apathetic, purposeless world.
Every day blended into one another, I started talking to myself in the shower and washing my hands constantly as I raced to outfly the memories incessantly chasing me.
Anything to stop the noise, anything and everything.
Driving fast was my favorite instant remedy. I unleashed fury on hapless motorists with NASCAR worthy ‘rubbin’-is-racin’ close passes woven into tight traffic; with heavy black-carbon-gloved palm heels honking “get-the-f-outta-my-way-dummy;” with double-barreled middle-fingers flashing pure malice.
“Can’t we just have a left lane for awesome people, please? Where you need to take a test to qualify, or if you’re a fighter pilot you automatically get one in the mail, along with a sticker that says “I’m amazing, and you + your minivan suck.”
My special-order Virginia license plate translated to ‘I hate you and I’m better than you.’
If we were friends, squadron-mates, or if you IMMEDIATELY vacated the left lane for me to pass… I was the best wingman you could ask for.
BUT if I didn’t know you or immediately respect you, my scorn and poisonous disdain radiated outward viciously; kinda like the 9-inch-fingernail-daggers that scary lady throws at everyone in Thor: Ragnarok. Boy was she upset about something. Anyway, where was I. Oh yeah.
No time for antics.
Just the mission.
But there was no mission.
I fell into the trap of believing I could fill the echoing emptiness with things; with more adventure, more danger, more chaos, more competition, and more fighting.
And I judged you. Harshly. As I judged myself. And hated myself. Intensely.
The flat spin became flatter and faster.
You needed to earn my love and respect, just as we had to earn our place in the military.
I was out of the military, but not.
My mind obsessed about every little mistake I had made on my last cruise. But there was no next cruise to continue to refine, improve, perfect. I was stuck on an endless infinity===loop.
WTF is happening to me.
The obsession to be the best of the best, to constantly thrive in danger and chaos, to compete with everyone mercilessly until I was the last man standing; my favorite characteristics that had made me victorious in a fighter squadron were now paralyzing me, crushing me in this incredibly mind-numbingly boring civilian world. But if one is good, aren’t two better? I doubled down on the intensity.
I was destroying myself from within.
My second combat deployment was the exact opposite of the rewarding and heroic first: long, dreary, and soul-sucking. Our new chest-constricting Rules of Engagement had tightened so chokingly that all we could do was drill random holes in the sky, and make a lot of ‘scary’ jet-noises in the futile attempt to keep our guys & gals on deck safe.
The bulkhead-banging frustration of not being able to help our troops in constant danger accumulated with the fatigue of long 7-hour night missions.
My oldest son had just been born before our ship went out to sea, and I was pissed.
Holding him in my arms as the bucolic sun set behind the trees in our backyard was beautiful; it was the first time I had ever felt the elusive ‘inner peace’ I had been searching for my entire life.
I stared at his cute, smart, little-guy face taped to the ceiling above my top bunk every night like mister-I’ve-lost-the-edge-Cougar, painfully counting the days until I could be with him again. I didn’t lose the edge; it was more than that. I had lost my will and desire and NEED to fight; obviously made worse by the crippling circumstances making us unnecessary high-priced assets, now turned liabilities.
Without naming names, we had some leadership and corruption issues on the boat; this compounded the situation even more. I had joined to be a hero; to save lives; to use my strength and wits to win, no matter what. To be with like-minded heroes who you could count on to fight until victory was earned. I didn’t join to play House of Cards: The Stupid Political Navy Edition.
When I got vertigo for the first time in the cloudy night skies of Iraq, I almost cockpit-face-planted our Tomcat into the fat Air Force tanker’s nose. Even worse, I felt afraid for the first time, and the shame and guilt of wanting to return to the boat stayed with me for 14 years before I had the courage to even speak of it.
But this nuclear-powered cocktail isn’t quite finished yet. Let’s sprinkle in some unresolved childhood issues: sexual + verbal abuse by older women that left me determined to never feel emotions again.
The correct emotions, and the acceptable emotions available to a hot-shot fighter pilot were: ecstasy, rage and boredom.
And I had those dialed in air-tight, 4 point-oh-sailor supreme. Who’s the good little midshipman. I lived and breathed what I did, because in order to be good at anything you need to go all-in.
As for all the rest of ‘the feels,’ as the kids say these days… well let’s say that outrun, outfly, outwit is a good summary of my overall emotional gameplan.
I believe that NOW we have the stage properly set for complete disaster.
You still with me?
Oh, I did forget one thing: I had internalized & adopted my New York City high school motto of “if you ain’t the best, you ain’t sh!t.”
Loosely translated from caveman, I didn’t think I was worthy of being loved or even being on the planet if I wasn’t number one.
This made arguing or contradicting me hell for my opponent. My only mission was to win, and while my quick comebacks were funny for some, they didn’t really endear me to most. Ah, now we are really ready for the final showdown; a righteous reckoning, I reckon.
Confidence feels great.
Cockiness feels even better.
But I selected the extended-stay, max-suffering option in downtown Cockyville and lost everything.
How? Why? It is the sneaky slow decay of discipline that’s required to continuously learn, to constantly debrief all of your actions, to aggressively learn from your mistakes; this slow decay eventually catches up to you, and when you need it the most, the muscle has atrophied. In order to adapt and thrive in chaos we MUST be dedicated to lifelong learning, to innovation, to flexibility, and to empathy.
With the decay of these principles came it’s stubborn cousin REPRESSION, and a powerful reluctance to turn and fight at the merge of unpleasant emotions and memories.
And so that’s exactly what happened. I sped away from my stinging past, 100% believing my new ‘just-trust-me’ winking tour-guide: blinding rage against the weak, touchy-feely-side-of-my-brain machine.
I chased the adrenaline, excitement, and danger train all the way until Divorce St. When I lost my relationship with my four beloved children, well, I wasn’t exactly about to get off the train then. I wasn’t aware of any other ways to solve the pain riddle; rage had been working so perfectly.
So I stormed up to the caboose or wherever the f the driver sits, and I sped that thing up even more. “This locomotive is now making only express stops,” I called out over the 1MC to no one in particular, and rode the lonely addiction monorail until the very. last. stop. You have to admire my determination, at least. Stick to it-iveness!
But what’s waiting for you at the last stop, you might wonder? Well, you’re about to find out. It isn’t pretty. But I’m determined to keep you from arriving. And if you’ve already disembarked onto shell-shock block, here’s a bit of good news: I’m your wingman that’s flying you outta here. Let’s rock.