07 April 2016

I think there was a frog in my throat

Here's the thing about my past few years...there were moments (more like weeks and months, if we're being honest) when I wasn't sure the storm was going to pass. It did, but mostly because I took more than my fair share of calculated risks to change the weather pattern. Okay, maybe they weren't always so calculated, but no matter what decision I made, I was all in. Probably more like ALL IN, if we've met.

Let's catch you up quickly so that we're all on the same page. In April of 2011, my number was called in the "You're Headed to Afghanistan" lottery. Really, my boss's number was called. She sat on it for about three weeks, then decided at the last minute she wasn't willing to go, so she sent me on a six month deployment with a three month pre-deployment training requirement with the U.S. Army with three days to prepare. I might sound jaded. I was peeved at the time, but in all honesty, the only way to pack up your life and leave for nine months to a place from which you may not return is to just go all in. I had never been deployed in my then nine year Air Force career, and I have to admit that a combat deployment is on most service members' bucket lists. Crazy but true. Of course, a combat deployment with an outside-the-wire mission leading convoys for the U.S. Army was far from my desk officer comfort zone, but all in is all in.

Off to Fort Polk, Louisiana I went, and into Combat Skills Training something like 10 - 12 hours a day, usually six days a week, led by Infantry kids (yes, they were kids...most of them were old enough to drink) and in a group of 35 men. And me. I'm a little girly, again, to set the record straight. But I also have very little fear. And I'm fairly athletic (more then than now), so I was just fine at the "grin and bear it," run several miles each morning at 4.30am, then be on your feet with 60 pounds of gear in the summer heat kinds of games we played. We captured and killed Osama Bin Laden while I was in Louisiana. We watched from the TVs in the chow hall, or whatever the Army calls it. But we were all in, so we still got on airplanes in late June and we headed to Afghanistan. I think it took us something like 60 hours to get there. Not my favorite travel memory.

I remember little things, like the C-17 pilot calling over the intercom the moment we crossed into the combat zone. Yeah, little things. I remember landing at the Kabul International Airport at maybe 7pm. It was dark. I had so much stuff and two guns. And absolutely no idea what I was getting into. That was probably for the best.

I lived in half of a filthy shipping container, in a two-story "neighborhood" of 60 or so shipping containers, mixed genders (though less than 5% of us were women), with a 50 meter or so commute to the bathrooms. You do the math to decide whether or not that sounds safe. The first month was the hardest. There was one particularly terrible morning...or maybe it was an evening...when my nerves got the best of me and a Canadian medic peeled me off of the floor of that filthy bathroom and hauled me to the clinic. That was probably my first panic attack. I will never forget the desperate, puking-my-guts-out feeling that I may not even make it out of that bathroom, much less through the deployment.

Four or five times a week we made the 45 minute each way commute to the Afghan base where we worked, driving down roads that still make my hair stand on end. A nine or ten hour day doesn't seem like a big deal until you're driving through a warzone for about two hours a day, and the other hours you're a sitting duck (and one of the only women) on an Afghan National Army base...trusting the Afghans to keep you safe. But I was all in, so I did it, in a headscarf (because again, all in also meant sticking out a tiny bit less and showing my respect for the culture by covering my head).

Weird stuff happened out there, which at the time felt totally normal. By the way, there is nothing normal about being a woman in a warzone in a misogynistic culture and country. It's not that women can't handle combat. We certainly can. But in 2011, that being able to "handle" combat came at a huge cost for me, and one that took a solid four years to truly unpack. I guess the best way to explain it is that feeling your kids might have when they're waiting for a fire drill at school...or the startle response at the first buzz. Or as a runner, those pre-race butterflies. Constantly. For six months. 

But then I was home in very safe, hardly have to lock your doors, small town Germany, and the butterflies were gone. And in their place, a cartoon-sized massive bowling ball. Or something like that. Something that made me numb and jumpy and tired and wide awake all at once. And I basically lived with that same mixed-up-emotions feeling in varying degrees of intensity from December of 2011 until early in 2016...so just over four years. For those four years, I was all in to find my way out of this mess.

During that dark time, the military medicated me within an inch of my life (which I had no idea of at the time, because trusting medics was a skill I honed in Afghanistan and hadn't yet shaken). I checked myself into an outpatient Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) clinic for eight weeks, then I checked myself into an inpatient psych ward in Salt Lake City for another eight weeks, I lost my job in the Air Force because I was no longer "fit for duty," then moved from Germany back to the US...more specifically to Florida to be with John. A counselor at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Florida told me that I should file for permanent unemployability because I would never recover. Yes, that's a word. She told me that I should start collecting social security. I told her to fly a kite.

I drove to Alabama and convinced another counselor for the VA that my "disability" was forcing me to learn about American business culture in order to find a future job. He had a son about my age, and he quickly agreed to get the VA's Vocational Rehabilitation Program pay the full tuition for me to go to Georgetown to earn an MBA (I didn't mention the astronomical tuition until I had the approval letter...it's all about strategy...) So I worked on my MBA for 20 months, because, you know, I was never, ever, ever going to recover (I guess that kite was still flying). Then I started what has so far been a successful career in Management Consulting for a big name consulting firm. Here's a hint..."unemployable" veterans are damn good employees. Spread the word. 

Don't get me wrong, this was not just a personal quest...it was a total team effort. And by team, I mean professional team, because what I was dealing with was well beyond anything I was willing to lay on my husband, my family, my friends, or pretty much anyone without some type of medical degree. I saw every doctor under the sun once a week for four years, rarely skipping even one week. I destroyed plenty of valuable, long-term friendships, and prevented lots more from ever starting in the first place. I was relentless in my pursuit of mental health. And finally some combination of upending and reassembling every single element of my life resulted in a brighter reality. All freaking in.

Now that I'm on the other side (this month at least...though anyone who has been there knows that the demons continue to lurk...), I keep talking about bringing back my blog. To talk about what it really took to navigate the long and winding road that brought me here. To replay some of those Afghanistan memories and to unpack some of the events that still give me the willies. To describe some of those events in a whole lot more detail and to bring people along on the sensory journey. And to describe how it feels to be a modern military veteran who left the service on someone else's terms.

It's been almost two years since I last posted on this blog. And those last few entries...man...so dark. Such struggles. But here's the good part. Some dig deep grit, a bunch of tenacity and a whole lot of hustle and anything, and I do mean anything, can be possible for our Nation's veteran. I didn't believe that four years ago, three years ago, two years ago, or even at this time last year. A bad day is just another day. And on the journey to building a better future for myself and for my family, I am all in, one day at a time.

16 May 2013

A Compelling Case for an MBA

It's transition time. I keep meaning to write, but then life gets in the way. Transition gets in the way. Or my excuses get in the way. One day I was an Air Force officer struggling to find the support I thought I needed to help me work through PTSD. A few days after my last post, I received orders to retire from the Air Force, and a warning that I had three weeks to get my belongings packed and my life in order. By the middle of March, with those three weeks of warning, I was expected to know "what I want to do when I grow up."

What I wanted to do was go remodel a home (it looks gorgeous), sleep a lot (and then some more), and completely fall off the grid for about eight weeks. Last week, I plugged back in, ready to give true consideration to what it means to pick a new career.

I reached out for advice from my Personal Board of Directors, and they delivered...as always. When I did a little research on my own, I also delivered. Turns out the new Post 9/11 G.I. Bill gives me 4 years of educational benefits in an educational endeavor of my choosing, and I choose a Georgetown MBA. I like to aim high.

As a part of the application process, I'm required to submit a personal statement answering the specific question of what unique abilities you would bring to the Georgetown Executive MBA Program and how obtaining this degree will contribute to the attainment of your personal and professional goals. (maximum 2 pages). So it's written, and it's here, and I value your very frank and honest feedback. You can post it here, or email it directly to me at eabarber at gmail.com.

Read on:

I am a Major in the United States Air Force, a Human Resources Professional with over ten years of leadership experience, and a passionate believer in the value of creating change through micro-investments paid either in person-to-person interaction or in small sums of local currency.  With a Bachelor of Arts in English and a Masters of Public Administration, I aspire to continue my professional education by strengthening my ability to monetize human resources accomplishments and to foster a culture of passion in order to build stronger leadership networks within organizations.  With my particular focus on achieving results by investing in high potential employees, I believe the Executive Masters in Business Administration program at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University will provide me an opportunity to expand my existing professional skills.  In this unique learning environment, I also strive to continue to build my awareness of the global business dynamics while preparing myself to achieve continued success as I transition from the military into a leadership role in a service-oriented organization.

Growing up in a Navy family, I unknowingly embraced the closeness of the military community, and upon my arrival at Syracuse University for my undergraduate studies, I quickly felt a loss of that camaraderie.  Entering college with no aspiration to be the third generation in our family to serve our country, I was naturally drawn to military service.  The Air Force immediately recognized my potential for success, and granted me a three year scholarship to study English at a time when only engineering and scientific degrees received military funding.  Glowing with patriotism and naturally driven to lead and inspire others, I quickly earned recognition as one of the top cadets in our organization.  The personal interest my supervisor paid me as I applied to what everyone else assumed was an impossible scholarship opportunity was my first professional experience of a micro-investment in a high potential employee.  I remember our conversations of 16 years ago like they were yesterday. 

I excelled academically, and gravitated toward Women’s Studies courses in conjunction with my English degree.  Because of military rules, I was required to wear my Air Force uniform to these classes without exception.  The experience of being asked to speak on behalf of all military women when I considered myself a mere student studying to become a commissioned officer opened my eyes to society’s lack of understanding of our nation’s men and women in uniform.  At first hesitant to share my thoughts about the plight of transgendered populations or the history of the American feminist movement in class, I quickly found common ground with my fellow students.  I helped them humanize the military, and they helped me appreciate diversity of opinion.  The women in my Women’s Studies classes ultimately reinforced my belief that as a leader, a significant portion of my responsibility was to leverage my voice to help key decision makers hear the diverse voices of their many often unheard followers.  Moreover, my role was to make micro-investments in causes and in people who I believed possessed both the capacity and willingness to facilitate meaningful change.  I graduated in three years, eager for the next opportunity.

Determined to best prepare myself for a career in public service, I proceeded directly to George Washington University to earn a Masters of Public Administration.  One year into the program, Al Qaeda challenged my belief that the America for whom I proudly wore a uniform was almighty and all powerful.  I watched smoke pour out of the Pentagon during my walk to work at the Office of Personnel Management on the morning of September 11th, 2001.   My father, at the time a senior Navy officer, worked somewhere in the Pentagon, as did the fathers of a majority of my childhood friends.  Living in Crystal City in an apartment facing the west side of the burning building, the smell of jet fuel and steady stream of smoke spewing from the crash site was a constant reminder to me that my service would be distinctly different than that of my grandfather or even my own father.

My grandfather served in England during World War II as a Logistics Officer in the Army Air Corps, where he prepared the troops and their aircraft to engage the enemy from the air.  His war stories, which he dutifully recounted over and over at my request, inspired my own service while I was deployed as an American Airman leading convoys through the streets of Kabul, Afghanistan almost 70 years later.  Over the course of six months, I led my team of nine on more than 120 convoys, traveling 7 miles each direction to our “office,” across unsecured roads in Afghanistan’s capital city, outside “the wire” of the safety of our own military compound, terminating at the headquarters of the Afghan National Army’s Logistics Command.  We each carried two loaded weapons, wore 50 pounds or more of protective gear, and pretended, as had my grandfather’s generation, to be fearless. 

Together we were so passionate in our desire for Afghans to experience the true American spirit that we organized and led more than a dozen humanitarian and military outreach events, micro-investments, where we donated food, clothing, school supplies from our families back home.  We fostered mentorship and incredible memories at local homes, schools and military outposts across the Kabul Region, and we left Afghanistan prouder than ever to be Americans.  Achieving success in Afghanistan from my leadership perspective meant building lasting personal relationships between Afghans and Americans, and encouraging other Americans to do the same, and as a team, we outperformed everyone in our unit, achieving what I still consider the highest level of success. 

The United States sent me to Afghanistan with orders to focus on gender integration issues in the Afghan National Army.  Of the 4,500 soldiers at our location, a mere 38 were female, most of whom did not come to work on a regular basis, none of whom wore a military uniform, and many of whom were themselves war widows after decades of ongoing conflict in their country.  Working in close harmony with my interpreter Sonia, then a 22 year old woman who had been married, delivered a baby and was later abandoned by her husband by age 16, I slowly learned the personal stories of each of the women at our location.  I visited women’s work sites, spoke with their supervisors, and broke American military tradition by wearing a head scarf during each of my more than 300 strategic meetings with the Afghan women, their male military leaders, and senior NATO officials in the region.  Through this gesture simple gesture of cultural appreciation, I earned the trust and respect of my Afghan colleagues.  Together, we advocated for and later started construction of the first on-site childcare facility at our location.  As single parents, the women told me they were more likely to come to work if they knew their children were safe.  Sonia and I listened, partnered with the Afghan military women, championed the idea to Afghan male leadership, eventually leading the women to create a safe space for 50 children under the age of five.

Midway through my tour, and with no background in grass-roots fundraising, I sent an email to my friends and family asking them to make donations of $25 or $50 to help me buy a computer and make a down-payment on advanced English language education for Sonia.  She’d never owned a computer, had no routine access to the internet, and taught herself English through American music and television.  In addition to their small donations, I asked my friends and family to send a picture of their families, especially their daughters, and a letter telling Sonia about their dreams for her future with her daughter.  I raised over $400 in $25 donations within the first 24 hours of my effort, collecting letters, pictures and personal stories from around the world.  I achieved success in Afghanistan because I intuitively knew that micro-donations of support from people who were passionate about my work there were far more powerful than me writing a check for a computer and an education.  I grew a network of person-to-person relationships across cultural and even language barriers, and I know I made a lasting, positive impression on each Afghan person with whom I interacted.  Passionate leadership is compelling, regardless of the language, the culture or even the context.  In Afghanistan, and throughout my Air Force career, I have delivered passionate leadership and inspired teams of professionals to do the same.     

My unique contributions to the diversity of the Executive MBA program are a devotion to international service, a dedication to mentoring and developing the next generation of leaders, and more than 10 years of professional experience as a recognized human resources leader in roles based in the United States, South Korea, Germany and Afghanistan.  Through my military service and extensive domestic and international travel, I have built a tremendous support network, upon whom I have relied heavily through my career transition.  My professional desire is to leverage my more than 30 years of dedicated to service to the United States as a military child, U.S. Air Force officer and Afghanistan war veteran into future opportunities in non-profit organizations advocating for leadership opportunities for women and children.  

Through participation in the Executive Masters of Business Administration at the McDonough School of Business, I desire to continue to grow my business acumen and expand my horizons outside of the human resources space, therefore opening the door of opportunity for future growth roles.  Most importantly, I look forward to the opportunity to share my passion for leadership and my experience of success in international micro-investments with like-minded peers and classmates in the program.

17 February 2013

My Pope

If this past week is any indication, and I think indeed it was, then perhaps I'm beginning to understand why it took me three months (but really a year) to come back to writing. Parsing through my thoughts to find a starting point took effort. And because I had withdrawn so far away from the rest of the world, finding inspiration to write based on the events of every day life no longer felt like an option.

But then there was this week. I managed to write, albeit beginning at a travel-weary 3am, but I did it. And the responses I received from people who followed Wanderlust through the hills and valleys of Afghanistan, and even those who have only known the morose, whispering version of the former me, were overwhelming. Just as I experienced in Afghanistan, where I pretended to be the even-keeled news reporter, when I am willing to talk about the real stuff, people are willing to listen...and this week, they reached out like never before. Reality, the fact that people who matter will care whether my life is sealed up in a pretty crystal box or is pouring out of the corners of a water-logged cardboard container, started to set in.

And then the Pope resigned. I'm a very non-practicing Catholic, but the mere idea that the leader of the Catholic Church would have the moral strength to admit that at age 85 he was no longer up to the task of leading his flock through modern day disorder felt like a personal victory. Suddenly, in my mind, the mantra switched from "I'm a quitter because I can't stay in the Air Force," (there's that word again) to "if the Pope can admit he's not strong enough, who do I think I am judging myself for leaving?" It really was that simple. Sort of.

My relationship with the Pope resembles my relationship with most men in both its complexity and duration. We met in the fall of 2007, when I attended a Papal Audience at the Vatican with a person I thought at the time would be an important part of my life forever. Though I have meticulously trained myself to ignore them, I have good instincts. I picked our perch amongst thousands of other followers from across the globe, huddled into St. Peter's Square on a crisp November morning. As it turned out, the Papal Go-Cart passed within three feet of us, and I captured Pope Benedict XVI's wave (no telephoto lens required) as the entourage drove by. This photograph instantly became, and to this day remains, one of my most treasured images.   

You need not be Catholic to appreciate the beauty of a Papal Audience. We were surrounded on all sides by others who longed for a shared, faith-filled experience. In most cases, we shared neither a language nor a culture, and perhaps not even a religion. On the Cool Meter, meeting the Pope, leader of 1.2 billion, ranked (in my book) above meeting any American President, Beatle, or superhero. He didn't wave to me personally. I didn't receive a special blessing (though in retrospect, that may have been a good idea). But I shared a space, a moment, with Pope Benedict XVI. It didn't change my life, though the experiential high took a few weeks to dull. Until this week, I hadn't really given my Papal Experience a second thought.

The Pope resigned on Tuesday, effective at the end of this month. The Pope gave his two week's notice. On that same day, the Air Force gave me my notice. They told me I was "disabled," attached a percentage, and sealed the deal with a phrase indicating my injuries were "incurred in a combat zone, though not combat related." It felt like a knife to the heart. I had officially lost control of the career that sent my Type A personality into overdrive. There went the career I've loved to hate for a decade and a half of my life. One that's taught me to ignore my good instincts, to stay in control consequences be damned, and to work twice as hard as the Good Ole Boys just to get by. (Yes, indeed, it's a bittersweet parting of ways.)

The Pope resigned on Tuesday. Speculate as you will, but I think it takes a lifetime's worth of courage to look into the eyes of an admiring flock to admit "You know, I'm just not up to it any longer, and it's time for me to step aside." I didn't have that kind of courage on Tuesday. Or Wednesday. Nor in the eight or so years before, or the several days since. I was too busy hating myself for failing and quitting and doubting and (insert strings of other horrible words here...)

One day, I hope to find the courage to admit that the Air Force's square box "no one can ever leave or we'll call you a quitter" mentality was never the right fit for me. I hope I can find the courage to say (regardless of this piece of paper I've allowed to become my career epitaph) that it was (well past) time to walk away, and to allow someone with the tenacity, energy and enthusiasm the Air Force so direly needs to walk into my shoes. Into shoes that, if my career has made one ounce of difference, can and will be filled by someone else, because I've spent my career preparing the "someone else." 

Today I'm maybe three small steps outside of the eye of the storm. Maybe next week I'll be a yard, then a mile. And I hope with time will come the moral courage to say (and believe) "career number one didn't work out, but that doesn't mean career number two is doomed to fail."

Thanks, Pope Benedict XVI, for a humbling reminder that at the end of the day, we are all human, and for the inspiration to want to wake up tomorrow to embrace a world of opportunities instead of wallowing in my fears.

11 February 2013

I'm a writer. So I should write.

It's been 107 days since I last opened this blog, and even then, it was just to post something "safe" I'd written while I was in the PTSD version of rehab. I had to look that number up. I actually had to look up today's date, which of course is a bit more confusing when it's well past 3am, and my circadian rhythm is lost somewhere between Texas, Virginia, New Jersey, New York and Germany. All places I've been in the past 12 days. If I counted from the beginning of this year alone, I could add Georgia, Florida, and England. If I project my count through the end of the second month of 2013, I could add France and who knows where else. I have 17 days left and, well, if the past almost two years have taught me anything, the lesson left is that anything is possible.

There's a lot I don't say in a public blog that's visible to the universe. There's a lot I won't say for a while longer. There's a lot I won't say ever. Maybe even to those who know me best. And before this one, there are 96 very factual posts, wherein I've been very careful not to allow feelings or emotions to seep in to muck everything up. And there are hundreds of other times where I skipped writing all together because it was easier than talking about what was truly happening around me. And how it felt to live in that moment.

But there are two things people have said to me during the past few weeks that made me want to write more than I've wanted to write since I was hunkered down in my shipping container in Afghanistan, feeling like a war reporter documenting the most precious seconds of the world's most exciting battle. Feeling important. And wanted. And significant.

I was standing on the East Orange platform, waiting for New Jersey Transit to whisk me away into Manhattan. I'd spent the evening before with a dear friend, perhaps one of my closest. The one who helped me accept the brutal fact that my Air Force career would have a Plan B ending vice the one I may have imagined 15 or so years ago when I started this journey. She and I reminisced over Indian food, sharing maybe 60 way-too-short minutes together, coming some three and a half years after our last in-person visit. I've learned not to think of time in that way. Calendars don't matter. But even in life experience, three and a half years (or perhaps three and a half hours) are a remarkably long measure of time for me. Though in that moment, or in those 360-odd moments, the world had somehow stood still, and I was the 23 year old girl who wanted to take on the world. It's amazing to have friends on whom such magical moments are not lost.

My friend's husband and their 5-year old son took me to the station in the morning to catch the 9:07. I was dragging an unreasonably shaped and sized piece of luggage...plum purple and as close to 70 pounds as the airlines would allow. Traveling terrifies me now, but there I was, standing on the platform with my trademark latte in one hand and this unruly disaster in the other. He could sense I was mortified by the idea of going into Manhattan. And he asked, innocently, "Are you writing? I loved reading your blog."

I can't remember how I responded. I can't remember if I managed to hold back the tears until I disappeared into the train car soon to become one of 1.6 million Manhattanites, if only for a few hours. But I do remember responding. "No, I just can't yet. It's still..." and then letting my voice fade off.

Just look at that one paragraph. Two sentences. Both of them say "I can't." That's the easy answer. I can't. But the hard answer, the true answer, is that I won't. Because I am fully armed with every damn excuse in the book on why I deserve a break, and then another break, and then even one more after that. PTSD has become my excuse to stop being, instead giving me permission to rely on how content I am to just slide by. To survive. I let it, this stupid "illness" and the corresponding medications, consume me. And on the other end, I'm no better than any alcoholic or addict, waiting for my next fix. Counting the 12 hours until the next set of pills, and blaming my self-destruction, though relatively harmless all things considered (unless we're talking about the fat, medium and skinny sized jean collection I've now amassed), on "side effects." And I have found a "side effect" for damn near anything.

Closer to 10 days ago, I was in an elevator in San Antonio wearing my Wounded Warrior jacket. I was in Texas to take care of some final business with the Air Force...to look at my official personnel record and talk with a few experts about the future (or quite honestly, the end) of my career. San Antonio is the epicenter of my profession, and also home to the Air Force's largest hospital, with tremendous programs to support our Airmen who come home from Afghanistan suffering the physical wounds of war. The girl in the elevator was maybe eight or nine years old. She looked at me, looked at my jacket, and asked, innocently, "Why are you a Wounded Warrior?"

Simple enough question. But what it felt like she was asking was "How long are you going to hide behind the logo on your jacket and the diagnosis in your record?" And I guess then, in due course, my answer should have been "Until a nine year old calls me out on it."

Which happened approximately 10 days ago, and I suppose is truly sinking in now that I've spent at least 60 of the past 72 hours asleep in bed, overwhelmed by self-induced exhaustion. Exhaustion that came as a result of running like hell to pretend like the last two years never happened. That if "the doctors" would just find the right combination of pills, or "the Air Force" would just figure out how to take better care of me, or "my friends" would stop disappearing. It was always "them." "They" needed to fix this because "they" made it happen. I didn't take any blame because, well, there was none there for me to claim. In my mind, that is.

This morning feels like the beginning of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. "My name is Lisa and I have PTSD." Then people respond with "Hi, Lisa" and we all move on. Somewhere in Utah, a therapist named Amy just heard me say that, and I heard her squeal with excitement from several thousand miles away.

No, I'm not going to walk around making that proclamation to everyone I meet. I said it here. That's enough. It's an illness. Not an excuse. So this game of chicken I'm playing with the blog. Enough. Writers write. And I'm a writer. So I should write. Runners run. I'm a runner so I should run. And humans, we make mistakes. I've made plenty. Not the least of which is neglecting one of the things that held me together through all of this madness...my words. Time to move on.

So there. I have a voice. And I found it. Again. Writers write. And I'm a writer. So I should write.

27 October 2012

Thank you, Mr. Ebert

Written 4 October 2012 while in treatment in Salt Lake City. Some names have been adjusted (or omitted) to respect the privacy of those with whom I have spent my life, my deployment, or my time in treatment

Paging my Inner Critic. Maybe that's all I've done (or even all I've known) for ages. Ages sounds vague. It's all I've known for the past 25 years, give or take. It was originally some type of covenant I entered into with myself..."good enough", "smart enough", skinny enough." None of them had definite solutions to solve the equation...and perhaps that was on purpose. It was never "all 'As' plus valedictorian of my high school equals smart enough." It, I, was all about leaving enough room to deem myself a complete failure due to lack of proper goal-setting (without knowing that was in fact what I was doing). My definite "valedictorian" thought would fit too nicely into a box where it was possible to either succeed or fail. Black or white. But quickly I discovered I would fail repeatedly if I agreed to live in the grey...where there were no feelings of failure or inadequacy...just a tiny bit of sadness for not being "perfect." Tiny. That even looks funny. I was (and maybe partially still am) too strong to have emotions. And I still live in the grey, judging myself in the black and white...my own personal prison.

That's the critic. If I show emotions, I'm a failure. It's my fault if people get annoyed with me, and I'll take it personally every single time. The critic is also the person who points out the problems (the obvious problems) in ugly situations...and then points them out again and again until I think someone is getting the message. They (the "people") never seem to get "it," whatever "it" is. Then I become critical of myself for not communicating "it" properly. "Is it just me who thinks 14 mental health patients wandering a zoo full of people and animals under the supervision of one, single (inexperienced) therapist is unsafe?"

The answer is no, it's not just me. That is actually unsafe. Stupidly unsafe and scary, when I was one of those patients, prone to an anxiety attack at any time with no access to either a therapist or proper medication. And when I have a thought like that ("This is irresponsible"), I won't let it go (whatever the thought is) go unless someone else (who I trust...which leaves the list unbearably short) validates it. I am my own worst critic. I made decisions in Afghanistan for which I still punish myself. Every day. Even though I know the decisions were made with honest intentions and led to positive outcomes that were impossible through any other means (or anyone else's decision making). I thought I would die in combat. Some days I wished for that. So I figured doing what felt like the right thing was worth the risk 100% of the time. I see now that was a bit extreme, though quite suiting.

That Inner Critic is a strong, willful son-of-a-bitch. And taming that thing will take...is taking...significant effort (and will also, perhaps, require some type of miracle).

Only 1% of the United States population has served in our nation's Armed Forces. Of those, far fewer have ever seen combat up-close-and-personal (on the ground, looking into the eyes of family members whose families and friends have been killed by NATO bombs dropping from fighter aircraft in the sky). Not many people, particularly those of a female persuasion, have been outside-the-wire regularly, hanging out around landmines and human bombs. Of those significantly limiting factors, so many fewer are in the United States Air Force. Now that we're down to a tiny, almost impossible to capture under any circumstances, kind of number, it's time for me to admit that not a single anyone lived in my exact same circumstances in either training or Afghanistan itself, had an identical past and could possibly understand why I chose to make (m)any of the decisions I did while I was there. Forming the closest team on the camp. Running humanitarian missions on our days off. Hosting Hell's Kitchen nights. Creating team dinners. Working with Julia, my interpreter (and her family). Meeting with local families, especially the widowed women managing households of up to 30 young children where running water, electricity and even furniture didn't exist.

I'm the only (or perhaps my worst) critic over the implosion of my (second) marriage. Those who know and love me best understand (somewhat) how I got to this place (admittedly not entirely through "good" and "traditional" decisions) and understand that I'm here because that's what I needed to do for myself...not because I wanted to hurt someone who cared for me deeply. There are some people (okay, many people) to whom I have not told the full story (and perhaps I never will), because I fear their criticism (or rejection) when in fact the truth is that if those people chose to leave me based on my decision (or my recent string of decisions) to make myself happy, they probably should not have been an intimate part of my life in the first place. And I need to be able to say that and mean it. With absolute certainty. Full confidence, as Julia called it. I'm not there yet. I'm hiding behind a protective veil of silence. And that may continue for some time.

It still feels like I always need to be the smartest. Like that's the only way I will "matter." Or maybe it's that I need to be the most clever...that's a bit more likely. I found the funniest book about a guy who tried to read the Encyclopedia Britannica page-to-page from volumes A - Z. While I commend him for making the choice to read the written, verified version (vice relying on Wikipedia) it was through that book I could recognize that being a "know it all" is a show without a star. I know a little bit about a lot of things. I wish I knew more about a few things. There are tons of people who are less intelligent than I...and likewise there are plenty of people whose intelligence I could never dream to match. I know that. My brain knows that. But when I find myself in a bad situation, feeling powerless and helpless, I suddenly define myself as the stupidest ("why don't I know what to do here?"), fattest ("I look terrible in this outfit and no one is saying anything because they don't want to hurt me") and meanest ("I bet her life is worse than mine.") I hate those natural reactions.

I have plenty of flaws, and it's easy for me to overlook the reality that other people have flaws (and are allowed and expected to have flaws), too. I criticize myself for my "imperfections" rather than embracing them. ("What's to embrace about imperfection?") I think any personal failure is marked with big red and white target so that everyone can see the ugly flaw just as clear as day. It's not like that for real (is it?) But to me, it's as real as real can be. I need to get over that. I want to get over that.

I also need (and want) my Inner Critic to learn how to see (and to embrace) the good things in other people and situations. Before I came to Salt Lake City, I could see the good in people for a fleeting moment. During my stay, I've learned to see the good for a few minutes at a time. In the future, I hope to be able to find the good before I find (and get stuck on) the bad. Or to hold on to the good for more than a fleeting moment.

So that's the Inner Critic. The one who sees the fleeting moment and lets it go. And what I want more than most things in the world is to turn the volume down on the Inner Critic and to embrace the positive, fleeting moments so that they're a little less fleeting. Okay, so they're a lot less fleeting.

I want to understand that it's okay to accept things (any kind of things) the way they are in the moment. To accept that my unrelenting standards need not apply to every (or really any) situation or person in my life. Actually, I should probably also stop applying then to myself. I really love a line I came across at some point during my treatment: "What if I accepted that the 80% solution provided me with more time to pursue the things I love?" It just never occurred to me that such imperfection was possible, acceptable, and (God forbid) productive.

It also never occurred to me that my truest, closest friends don't need to know every single detail about me or my life. Even if I think they're my closest friends in the universe. I don't need their affirmation that pursuing a second divorce was the right (albeit painful) decision to make for myself. I love him. I will always love him for his determination to give me the life he wanted to give me (and that I thought I wanted). A life full of beautiful things. Beautiful experiences and marvelous adventures. I love him for trying to figure out how to make me happy (when I refused to tell him what would truly make me happy because I didn't know how to express such "normal" feelings). How to buy me the happiness I couldn't seem to find on my own. I love him for trying as hard as he knew how to be a good companion. He's a good person who married and lived with a partner he could and would not ever be able to understand (in retrospect, because I wasn't able or willing to be understood by him). The critic in me wants to blame the whole collapse on him. But it's not just him. It might not be any bit his fault. It's not fair for me, the ultimate critic, to assign blame and fault here or ever.

The critic in me calls that a failed marriage. The critic in me assumes that everyone, any stranger on the street, will judge me for failing. And sure, maybe it was failure. But it's only failure if I let it be, and if I let the feeling of failure define me. The details will only be known (and potentially criticized) if I talk about them. And really, there's no reason to judge my past decisions unless I want to keep paying for them forever. Yes, I've made bad decisions. I'm human. And I don't want (or deserve) to keep paying for them. I say that now, after being  on the outside of reality for six weeks, isolated from the "regular" critical traps of Facebook, email, work, and separated from those critics in my life who tend to make me feel like my life is a movie written and produced for their enjoyment.

I have held onto the Inner (and outer) Critic since that dinner around age, maybe, seven. Then I felt powerless, hurt and weak. Feelings I didn't know how to explain at the time. Someone who was suppose to love me and take care of me didn't know how to show or feel emotion, and had no idea what a huge impact criticism had on me. I look like me father. I think like my father. And to my father, I was an invisible child. I feel hints of the same now. The Inner Critic developed to protect me from feeling even more hurt. To fill a void that no one would ever be able to fill because I would never allow such a thing to happen.

That critic constantly reminds me that I am not good enough. Encourages me to point out the gaps in my knowledge about the world. Reminds me of how, even though I have disliked Air Force culture since the first year I joined, I've still never worked hard enough. Never achieved enough. Scolds me for being 33, twice divorced and childless...all by choice. Punishes me for not knowing how to express emotion. Blocks out feelings of longing, sadness, frustration and disappointment for the things I haven't done as well as I should have. As I could have. As other people have done.

I've held onto the critic for 30 something conscious years to give myself an excuse to avoid pursuing my dreams. For giving up my dream of photographing the world. For giving up my dream of writing. For giving up my dream of practicing yoga regularly or going to cooking school. For surrendering my dream to empower women who live in situations I could never fathom...at least before Afghanistan. Hard to imagine that in about eight months, I may be able ("allowed") to do all those things...and more...in my post-Air Force life.

I've criticized myself for years. Decades. For trying to please other people. For giving up on my own hopes and dreams and relying instead on others...most of whom I've never met...to draw the road map to my future. For making my decisions. For monitoring me as I toe the line.

For years, I've handed my power over to whoever wanted to take it. To my parents. To my friends. Or "friends." To the Air Force. Sometimes to perfect strangers. Those aren't toasts...they're lamentations. When I didn't want to commit to making my own decisions, plenty of others were standing by ready to pounce like lions, roaring in my face (though maybe just in my head) about how every decision I made (or was making)  was "wrong"...and I let them be correct. I couldn't defend my decisions because I'd never consciously made them. So I took the criticism. And I gave it back to the world through anger.

I can't wait to leave here. To leave Salt Lake City. I can't wait to drive through the streets, up the mountains, sprinkling the ashes of the cremated inner critic and trying to learn how to live past that person. That negative energy. That overwhelming, heartbreakingly heavy sadness. And to abandon it here, so that I can hope to fill that empty, lonely space with the happiness and worthiness I had always imagined but could never really comprehend.

It won't appear tomorrow...that happiness. But not there's an empty space (available, even). A framework. Into which happiness has a place (and the permission) to grow.

I don't miss (or I should say I won't miss) the Inner Critic. I won't miss the feeling of my heart being ripped out of my chest over each "wrong" decision. Instead, I look forward to the warmth, the passion, the contentment I can feel when I make decisions that feel "right." At least right by me. And in the end, now that I'm 33 and finally ready, my own "right" decisions are what are most important to me.

12 October 2012

The Road to Somewhere

I'm really struggling to positively summarize the past six weeks of my life (spent in an inpatient treatment facility for PTSD in Salt Lake City) after gaining a reputation of being overly negative. I'm not so sure that's actually the problem. I'm far more confident that the reason I'm struggling for words is that I'm absolutely heartbroken that I used every chip in my power to come to a center that became (or that I allowed to become) a disappointment. Or maybe it wasn't. I'm hurting in ways I've never hurt before, I've excavated deep-seeded emotions I'd buried for years and years, and most significantly I fear I've let myself, my command and even Tricare down for costing them such a huge fortune (over $2,200 a day) for me to receive care over the past few weeks.

Unlike the girls whose final statements (their parting words before leaving the treatment program) I heard a week or two after I arrived here, mine is incredibly unsupportive and untrustworthy of "the process" of treatment (how me) and much more determined that the only way I survived in a flawed institution was to rely on my own internal strength and to allow myself push like crazy.

To force myself not to give up. In this all-female military unit, I dug into my reservoir of internal strength to ignore the "teenage drama queens," constantly passing notes during the 8 daily hours of classes. I wish I could have learned from them. Instead I learned that when military women are wounded early in their careers, they respond by acting out like children, and it breaks my heart to be an audience to such sadness.

I watched an over-tasked program director take the same feedback from us, her patients, for the past five weeks (the treadmill's broken, we can't call Germany, and how much is this "treatment" actually costing my government, plus about 20 more...) and not solve or follow-up on a single one of them. The person in whose care the Department of Defense has placed me in my most vulnerable state did not make any visible effort to show that she genuinely cared about what we, the girls who brought in almost $40,000 a day to her program, begged her to address. Another round of heartbreak.

That's a tough cookie to swallow for me, a girl wounded by war, sexual trauma, and finally willing to face some long-lingering abandonment issues. To feel forgotten in a hospital with absolutely no way to leave was scary and isolating to an extreme I'd never envisioned. Or felt. To be dumped by my best friend while I've been here (by email, of course, saying that our 18 year friendship interfered with his marriage) and to sign final divorce papers after a very tumultuous past few months. And to be willing to rip my heart open every day in class only to re-discover each day that the program didn't have (or want to have) the resources I so desperately wanted to put myself back together into anything resembling an organized fashion.

I can now recognize that good things have happened here, and I truly believe they happened as a result of the Cognitive Processing Therapy (the fancy name for teaching PTSD patients to change their thinking patterns) and because of Amy, my therapist's, unrelenting determination to push me past every limit I thought I had. How I never ran out of tears blows my mind. That goodness happened in spite of the broken system in which she works. It's all out on the table now. I know. I believe my trauma is no better (or worse) than any one else's. But it is mine. And I guess now it's wrapped in a package with a nicer bow.

I came here feeling like a failure, and there are certainly still hints of that. But just hints. Looking back, there are times in the past when I wish I would have been stronger. Or weaker. Or cried. Or just let it go. I started doing that here. There have been times (even here) when I've felt defective, like every patient (all 17 of them) was "getting it" (whatever "it" was, anyway) and I was stuck alone in a dark, empty place. Perhaps by choice.

There were times here when I slept for hours, somehow allowing the burden of the past 10 years or so slide through my toes and out from under my thin, white institutional bed sheets. Or when I've been in yoga, holding downward facing dog or shavasana, tears streaming down my face, knowing that it's not strength that's kept these feelings of hurt, betrayal, sadness and frustration buried so deep. It's been fear. Fear of not knowing how to deal with feelings in a constructive way. Fear of allowing...maybe even inviting...someone to love me unconditionally. Fear that when I admitted to signing divorce paperwork served to me by a man I may always love for his good intentions, I would be viewed as a failure (a two time failure) in everyone's eyes. Thinking. Always thinking that the opinions of other are more important than my own.

I've let that go. That stays in Salt Lake City, a place that after this Friday (today), I never plan to re-visit. I want my hurt and sadness to stay here. I'm done being chased by sadness.

I didn't come here to change my life. I came here to match the me I felt in Afghanistan, living simply and loving every second of my job, to the me I want to feel every day in the future. I'm leaving here confirming what I knew when  had my first post-Afghanistan panic attack...that going to Afghanistan was the best thing that ever happened to me...and also the scariest. ("It won't ever feel worse than this" Amy said to me over and over...and I hope she's right).

It is in this moment that I've reached (rather, allowed myself to reach) a turning point in my life. Learning to live with the scars, the emotions, the regrets and the fear I accumulated both pre-and post-Afghanistan. Making that connection was my goal in Salt Lake City. I wasn't here to make friends or help others. Because I feared if I took that approach, I'd stay here for years and never talk about myself. I came here to challenge the unhealthy beliefs I've clung to for months, years and even decades...I came here with a dream to live a healthier life. To put even a two inch gap in the door jam (therapy-speak for slowing down my immediate response to an outside stimulant). To at least take a brief mental pause when my brain tells me "I don't deserve to receive benefits from the military" merely because my war scars are internal and others had it far worse. If I can think to myself at least 1% of the time that "I deserve compensation for the unique and dangerous service I performed in Afghanistan and my resulting PTSD" than maybe six weeks of fighting my own guttural reaction was worth my time. No, it was surely worth it. I have to learn not to resent the system for trying to help me after it's failed me in so many ways.

If I can accept "Medication will help me through this rough patch and then my life has the potential to be so much happier" or "If I forgive myself for past mistakes, those who care about me are apt to do the same." If I believe those statements can ever be true (whereas when I arrived here, I believed they were always false), then I've made progress. And even an inch is progress.

I found my voice again. I never, ever thought it could be so cathartic to drag and actual pencil across an actual piece of paper, cut off from the internet for six weeks. I cry when I write, not out of fear of the description and circumstances of the situation, but because I've learned to attach emotion and feeling to  situations. On paper. The true test...the next step...is to give myself permission to speak the way I now allow myself to write.

Physically, I judge myself and think I've had an atrocious and infuriating stay here. With no access to physical activity, I've gained weight, I've eaten a lifetime's worth of fried institutional cafeteria food, and I've felt the wrath of condescending nurse technicians threaten me if I didn't behave in their directed way. I'll leave all that crap here. And hopefully I can leave most of these 10 new pounds here as well. Or somewhere.

But again physically, this institution, this tall building, locked doors, void of any aerobic exercise capacity, has taught me more about how to survive in the "real" world than perhaps I even learned in Afghanistan. I've literally lived like a snared wild animal learning to survive in captivity. Each night, I sat at my desk either reading or watching the sun set over the glorious Rocky Mountains. Trapped in a cage with up to 17 other overly-restless-pseudo-prisoners with little to no official programming from the time we returned from dinner at 5.45pm until we started to drift into a highly-medicated slumber around 9pm. There was no avoiding noise. Or crowds. Or stray hairs all over the floor. Shoes strewn across the living room. Class books tucked frantically into every nook and cranny on the ward.

Physically, there is no safe, quiet place for me here. There is no escape. I've felt trapped, overwhelmed and anxious to all new levels, generously reflected in the new medications I've been prescribed and the new symptoms I've developed in treatment. And the difference, the magical difference now, is my extremely well-honed ability to mentally slip out from the walls of hell to find myself performing the 12-count cleansing breaths that begin every Bikram Yoga practice in any language in any country in the world.

I'll spend the next three-and-a-half days driving through Salt Lake City, with 25 notecards listing my most troubling stuck points (again, therapy-speak for negative patterns of thinking that magnify my PTSD and depression) tucked into my purse. The big ones. The thoughts that haunt me the most and that have haunted me here. The ones that seem to force me to feel isolated, frustrated, ashamed, scared and confused. And I'll do my best to leave my evil stuck point cards all over the city. In coffee shops. Yoga studios. Restaurants, Hiking trails. National Parks. Churches. Temples. I won't litter them...I'll mindfully place them in locations best suited for such a purpose...garbage cans.

I'm giving myself time to do that, and I used many of my remaining chips to transition back to work in such a unique way. To continue healing myself now that I think the hospital itself has given me all it's capable of giving. And maybe I'm not sad about that after all. I'm sad that getting a mental institution to do the right thing (focus on patient care) felt like a huge struggle. It was an extra brick on my already overbearing load. But even that was a great lesson to me. I picked fewer battles than I usually do.

I've admitted before to expecting this hospital to "fix" me one delicious bite at a time. Such a thing...a dream...is completely unreasonable for any institution. But there were also a few people here (and at home) who cared so deeply that I now feel an overwhelming desire to make my best attempt to go live an amazing, happy life because I've been so inspired. Their joy was contagious. They know who they are.

Six weeks is not enough to alone change the trajectory of my future. But six weeks, ugliness and all, has been enough to awaken me from my self-loathing pity party and to get me marching in the direction of a happier future. And for the first time in as long as I can remember, I believe in the idea of a happier future. I have a backup plan. And a backup to the backup plan. And I guess in the end if I lose my compass, I'll just try to remember ow the old version of me would have responded, and I'll run like hell in the opposite direction.

** This is the first entry in a retrospective series of life in a mental health institution. A special thanks to Keith Hudson Photography for perfectly capturing my post-Afghanistan self.

25 April 2012

Silent Lucidity

I'm in the middle of week seven of an eight week treatment program, and while the progress I've made over the past few weeks in particular is tremendous, my brain continues to focus on my personal failures rather than my many successes. I guess the difference now is that I recognize this character flaw as it's happening, and my negative way of thinking is evolving. Slowly, sure, but evolving.

Every day here, I've walked into a classroom that feels like a minefield, and I've constantly feared the one misstep that would detonate the first in a series of daisy-chained bombs. Moreover, I was a thousand percent confident that my body wouldn't be able to withstand the blast. Except, well, those "bombs" are actually real-life events, and they're daisy-chained because the impact of one event radically distorted my response to the next similar event, which would unfold at some future unknown period time. I lived my life in fear of how my "body" might respond to the next traumatic impact, conveniently disregarding the fact that most impacts would be emotional (not physical) and that I actually had the power and ability to control my own reactions.

The greatest opportunity the Air Force has provided me is the chance to lead people in all kinds of situations. Once I discovered my fondness for leadership, I looked for other opportunities to lead. I found the perfect opportunity when in 2006 the local high school sent a base-wide email asking for a volunteer cross country coach. I'd been a runner for more than a dozen years, I love teaching, and I genuinely enjoyed sharing my passion for running with others. The head coach of the program was the most popular teacher in school, Mr. Turner, and though he had significant experience coaching basketball, he knew little to nothing about running. My experience and his personality were the perfect fit, and for an entire season, we watched a group of non-athletes develop into inspirational young runners.

In September of 2007, I returned to the high school to coach again with Mr. Turner. I'd spent the previous nine months studying coaching techniques, developing training plans to help our talented runners meet their potential, and testing ways to inspire our runners to become lifelong athletes. Mr. Turner had returned to school that year determined to change his own life, and asked me to also coach him into better physical condition. I was thrilled.

During our first practice of the season, Mr. Turner headed out on a run with the team for the very first time. He died of a heart attack about one mile into a three mile run. Two of our youngest runners heard him gasp "Oh God," grab his heart, and watched as he collapsed to the ground. He fell directly outside the school's perimeter fence, which was locked for security and angled with barbed wire at the top to prevent intruders. The only problem was that this time, the so-called intruders were the people running on the school's track who watched Mr. Turner fall and were unable to help him because of the fence, instead watching in aggravated horror.

We arrived at the track following our run, and I collected the kids in our gazebo, telling them that I didn't know what happened to Mr. Turner, but that as soon as I knew, I would tell them. By now, the school's administration was buzzing with activity, chasing the 150 or so students (football players, cheerleaders, runners) into the cafeteria because they couldn't figure out a way to shield them from the sight of their favorite teacher laying on the pavement 400 meters away. Mr. Turner, an American, had collapsed in downtown Germany, outside of the base, and it took the American and German authorities almost four hours to determine jurisdictional authority. In the meantime, Mr. Turner rested peacefully on the sidewalk, covered in a black sheet, his wife kneeling by his side.

The school principal walked into the cafeteria, nonchalantly declared "Mr. Turner is dead" into the microphone, and started to walk away. The cafeteria erupted into absolute chaos. My runners were in complete shock, as were each one of the students in that room. And every adult in the room.

I watched, in baffled silence, and took it all in. "This is my fault," I kept telling myself. "All last season, I teased Mr. Turner for not running with the team. And on his first day of running with us, he dropped dead."

The kids were all picked up by their families. I sat on the track in complete silence, tears streaming down my face, and watched for three hours, apologizing to Mr. Turner as his body remained in the exact position as it had been when he fell. By maybe 8:30pm his body was taken away, and I no longer felt obligated to stand watch. I walked to my car, hopeless and shaking while the clouds opened up and delivered a tremendous rainstorm. I got into the car and thought about the 45 minute drive home. I couldn't do it. So I called the Chaplain and begged for them to send someone to the chapel on this base to help me.

I never really talked about how I felt about what happened that day to anyone until this week. At the time, it was obvious to me that the kids needed a coach and leader, and I was proud to have such an incredible opportunity to help them transform adversity into strength. That season, I watched my runners, who named themselves Turner's Burners in honor of their fallen coach, take on the world. The girls were recognized as the fastest team in Europe. One of our boys finished in the top five fastest in Europe despite being weighed down by the flu on the day of the biggest race of his high school career. How could I possibly need help when the kids I was coaching were so talented and strong?

Turner's Burners were then and are now truly inspiring, and so many of them and their parents still touch base with me four years later. I've been thinking about them in particular this week as I've watched one of the senior girls from that season graduate from college, another senior boy (and his wife) have their first baby, two of the younger runners join the Air Force and Navy respectively, and my lone eighth grader from that year apply to and be accepted into college.

That ten week season was, until Afghanistan, both the most challenging and the most rewarding professional experience in my career...and it had nothing to do with the Air Force except a majority of my runners have Air Force parents. It leveraged everything I love about the Air Force into a series of some my very favorite memories.

And now I look back four years later, amazed at the strength those incredible kids demonstrated during such a challenging time, and draw from their strength as I continue reassemble my own life into some version of manageable. Each day of these eight weeks feels like a Saturday morning cross country race...I know I've trained properly, I know that my body is prepared for the task, but when the horn sounds the beginning of the race, my brain seems to respond in a shock-filled paralysis instead of with a graceful stride.

At the end of each race, regardless of my performance, I imagine my teammates commending me for making a solid effort, which then inspires me to train harder...which is exactly what I watched the kids do for each other instinctively that season. And at the end of the season, I hope that I, like Turner's Burners in 2007, will have the personal courage to set and achieve magnificent personal goals in the face of daunting adversity.