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How I Managed My Mental Illness as a Career Military Officer




 I don’t think I slept at all during the final months of my 25-year career as a Coast Guard Officer. Of course, I did sleep — here and there — but as anyone who has suffered from insomnia will attest, it sure felt like I didn’t sleep at all.


Insomnia was the icing on the cake. My final 5 years of service, with increased responsibility, a culture that demanded 24/7 communication and frowned on rest as a weakness (fortunately, operators such as aviators and boat crew had to adhere to fatigue standards) had abetted a personal spiral into extreme anxiety and a 2-month bout of absolutely black depression.


Always somewhat anxious, my anxiety hit new heights as cell phones (first) and smartphones enabled around the clock accessibility and deepened the toxicity of the military officer corps’ zero-defect culture.


Zero Defect? Really? Really.


There was a time when a military officer could take a breath — the occasional period when you were away from a phone, on leave, or otherwise legitimately inaccessible.


Even during those “simpler” days, we operated in a world where a professional mistake — even a relatively small one — could derail a career. Having those brief periods of inaccessibility provided at least some opportunity to breathe, to rest and to power up for the next bout of perfection.


Smartphones have largely eliminated these opportunities for respite. I knew one fellow officer who would fly commercially every chance he got because while on a flight he could be legitimately inaccessible for a couple of hours — it was the only rest he got.


Even going on leave (vacation) wasn’t restful — in many cases I felt compelled to monitor what was happening at my unit to ensure no “balls were dropped” in my department — otherwise I might be held to account.


For me, the inevitable result was that my ordinary anxiety became extraordinary anxiety. Insomnia sunk its talons into me. Depression climbed onto my back.


My performance on the job? Pretty good — anxiety drives us to perform well in our professions. We hate uncertainty so we become hypervigilant and responsive. Bosses love this.


My performance at home? Dismal. I ignored my personal relationships. My marriage failed.


Hidden in Plain Sight


The Coast Guard to its credit does offer the opportunity for anonymous mental health therapy — but it is rather limited and does not include medication.


Moreover, in recent years, all of the services have acknowledged that mental health, like physical health is a real issue that need not — in many cases (not all) — end a career.


Treatments have improved, as has accessibility to these treatments.


However, admitting to having a mental illness is still, culturally, verboten. Few officers I know are willing to do this. Officially, there are many fields in the military where being diagnosed with a mental illness is not career ending. Unofficially, this may not be the case.


I speak from my perspective as a retired military officer; however, the same culture exists and shockingly persists in many vocations. I can’t imagine a medical professional, other first responders, government officials of all stripes, pilots, drivers…etc. etc. easily admitting to suffering from mental illness and subsequently seeking treatment without risking their careers, their livelihood and ironically, their medical benefits.


This despite the fact that there are many effective treatments for a variety of mental illnesses — just as there are for physical illnesses. Treatments that many of us refuse to take advantage of (assuming we are lucky enough to have access) for fear of being “outed”.


All because we have a cultural bias against mental illness. It’s still perceived as a weakness. As a failure of character. As a lack of capacity. As something that makes one less human.


It remains stigmatized.


This is wrong, dangerous and detrimental to individuals, to families, and to society.


Yet so it goes — many of us, perhaps most of us — go untreated and perhaps undiagnosed, ironically in some cases endangering themselves and the people they care for or, in the case of many professionals, people for whom they are responsible for keeping safe.


Why? 


For fear of losing their job, their practice, the career they have invested so much time and effort into cultivating.


For fear of being perceived as weak or lacking resilience.


For fear of humiliation.


While, stripped of the cultural baggage and stigma we’ve layered onto mental illness, none of these fears should be warranted. The reality is that the fears are justified. Jobs and careers can end and do end when one acknowledges mental illness.


Moreover, in some cases — for years I was in this category — mental illness is such a mystery that I had no idea that many of my feelings and behaviors were a result of my anxiety.


It was the inexorable progression of my disorders that drove my self-realization. Like a cancer that is initially asymptomatic, progresses and causes mild symptoms that are ignored and finally shows itself for what it is — a malignancy that in some cases can be severe enough to kill its host.


Stigmas Can Be Overcome and Diminished


I can come out of the closet now because there is no personal risk. My career is behind me — the stakes are about as low as they can be.


Nonetheless, the stigma persists — despite the fact that many who have the power to begin de-stigmatizing mental illness are themselves, sufferers.


Those who have risen to leadership in their organizations — large and small — can — through their actions — chip away at the stigma.


I could have done more in my later years in the Coast Guard — I did not. I still harbored the notion that by publicly acknowledging my anxiety and occasional, but intense depression, would have been perceived as a sign that I lacked the capacity to lead, when in reality, publicly acknowledging my mental illness would have made it just a little easier for my subordinates to acknowledge theirs.


Here I failed — so at the risk of being called a hypocrite, I recommend:


1. That leaders everywhere show their followers that it is not just ok, but vitally important to acknowledge and seek treatment for mental illness. Just as we’d never ignore cancer, we should never ignore mental illness.


2. That leaders everywhere set an example and openly acknowledge their own mental illnesses — nothing is more powerful in stripping away the stigma than seeing people with power acknowledge that they are sufferers too.


3. That people in positions responsible for the safety and security of others, if at all possible, acknowledge and seek treatment for their mental illnesses. This is a difficult ask, because in some cases it may indeed mean losing a position — and most of us cannot afford the loss of a job. But if you can, please take care of yourself.


4. That everyone who reads this, whether a sufferer or not, support those who do come out and seek help. Acknowledge their courage.


5. That the insurance industry ‘normalizes’ mental health care and covers it as “illness”. Drop the distinction between mental and physical illness. It is just illness.


In the end, it would have been better for me to acknowledge and reckon with my anxiety far earlier than I did. Regardless of the impact it would have had on my career — now past — the quality of my life would have been far better. The people who care about me, far more content with my behavior.


Mental illness can be just as debilitating and deadly as physical illness.


Don’t hide it.

Don’t ignore it.


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