No Airman left behind--pursued by anxiety

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Erica Picariello
  • 50th Space Wing Public Affairs
A young man lifts weights in a crowded gym. All of a sudden, a lion appears in the doorway, locks eyes with the young man and bursts into full pursuit.

That surge of adrenaline and panic is what one Airman here felt while performing normal everyday tasks.

"I'm going through this feeling of a lion chasing me, so much adrenaline is rushing through my body, but it's all in my world," the Airman said. "It all starts in your head ... you think, 'I don't want to make a scene,' and then you start making a scene, because your heart starts racing and your body takes over ... it's a fight or flight mechanism, but there's nothing happening. It was all in my head."

These anxiety episodes escalated in 2005, only a few months after this Airman joined the Air Force, and became debilitating.

"It got to the point where I was going to the grocery store and just freaking out because there were too many people there," the Airman said. "I love movies, but I was getting to the point I couldn't sit in the middle of the theater, in case I needed to get out because there were too many people there. If there was somebody next to me, I'd freak out. I've left a few movies because of stuff like that."

Because of exhaustion and support from his then-girlfriend, now wife, he sought help through the appropriate military channels.

"I knew that I had this major issue, but I was apprehensive about getting help," he said. But after a year of feeling this way, I caved and went to life skills."

The life skills professionals taught him breathing exercises and relaxation techniques that made the anxiety manageable.

"I was feeling a lot of pressure from peers and leadership to get back to work, so I fixed myself just enough to get back on shift," the Airman said.

He returned to work and suppressed the crippling anxiety for almost three years by using the methods he learned. He appeared to have regained control of his life until a pending addition to his family reignited his anxiety and he began to spiral out of control again.

"All the anxiety came back once we got pregnant in 2008," the Airman said. "We went to a Bundles for Babies class and I was sitting in the Airman and Family Readiness Center, and one of the briefers made it sound to me like the worst thing ever to have a child. I was already nervous about having a kid, and when someone tells you, 'This is going to change your life forever,' it sounds so terrible. I started thinking, 'I'm stuck. I'm going to mess this kid up. I can't be a dad.' And I had to leave. I hadn't had a panic attack in three years and it all came rushing back."

The panic attacks led to sleep deprivation and the Airman turned to alcohol as a sedative.

"I was able to get through the birth, but I was a shift worker and that really messed up my sleep cycle," he said. "I got into a cycle of work, drink, sleep, work, drink, sleep ... it started out as fun and progressed into alcoholism. It became part of my routine and that's when I realized it was an issue."

Soon, his anxiety level escalated, and the Airman found a new release.

"Other than alcohol, I started punching walls and throwing things, ... which eventually led to me punching myself," the Airman said. "I knocked myself out one night, right around the same time the drinking started. I hit myself in the head at just the right angle and my head spun just enough to where I had a snap of black and was wobbly. I got my bell rung by myself. It's a coping mechanism and it worked. It was a release of adrenalin and I got the anger out at the same time, but it's not a healthy way to deal with it. The next day I noticed knuckle bruises on my own head."

During the day, this satellite operator suppressed the anxiety, knowing the duty day would end and he could hit himself or drink to feel better. Eventually, that wasn't enough.

"I didn't actually have ideas about how I was going to commit suicide," he confessed. "I didn't get that far. I would have thoughts of it, like, I could just jam a knife in my wrist right now and I'd be fine. I'd be cool with it. I started slowly thinking about it and it became an option. I felt like I couldn't deal with life. I was drinking too much. I come from a family of alcoholics and I knew I was going down that path."

Family members saved this Airman's life.

"Thinking about suicide, hitting myself, having anxiety ... I just knew I needed to get better if I was going to be a dad at all," the Airman said. "I gave in and realized that my life is more important than my career and went to mental health for the second time."

In accordance with Air Force Instruction 44-109, Mental Health, Confidentiality, and Military Law, communications between this Airman and his therapist were kept confidential and he remained at work.

"Early January is when I had my first appointment, and I knew that they wouldn't let me pull shift for a while," the Airman said. "They took me off shift, more for the medication than anything else, but I didn't lose my security clearance. I was lucky because my chain of command was already looking to transfer me to a new office when all this was going on, so it was a seamless transition into the new job."

This Airman has only dealt with his mental issues for a little more than a month, but he feels like he's made years of progress.

"2010 was a terrible year for me, but I grew up 10 years this year from being in therapy for this stuff," he said. "I think that there is the potential that I would have attempted suicide if I wouldn't have gone to mental health when I did."

Because he self-identified and sought help through Air Force helping agencies, this Airman no longer feels like prey to his anxiety.

"Once I started dealing with issues, I wasn't a spun-tight ball of fury, and I'm able to deal with life now," he said. "I can deal with my son's problems, wife's problems or family problems.

"I feel great," he smiled and continued. "Having been to mental health, taking the medication and talking to someone once a week ... I finally feel like an adult, capable of being a great father and handling life."